The Pulpit and the Pew
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur
Some years ago I suggested to my brother bishops that on the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Bartholomew we ought to take up an India-wide collection for the theological and philosophical education of laity. We do it for clerics, and for vowed religious at home and abroad but what about our laity who make up 99.5% of the church universal. How many of them could afford to undertake these studies without the backing of a religious community or a diocese? The cost in many cases is astronomical.
I was not exactly laughed out of the room but the situation came close to that despite the fact that the Vatican II document on the laity expresses the need for such lay persons. This is to balance the clerical mind set which those of us who are ordained necessarily bring to our thinking and living. Furthermore, when we ponder the actual lived situation of our laity who rub shoulders day in and day out with a wide variety of atheists, agnostics, believers in a wide variety of religious and wisdom traditions, is it enough to think we have done well by them when our catechesis consists primarily of having them learn traditional prayers by heart, and memorize commandments and beatitudes which they rarely understand?
When we look at some of the packaged programmes coming to us for use among our laity, do they really take the lay vocation seriously, or are they, in fact, designed to shore up the institutions connected with the clerics and vowed religious who administer them? True enough, unlike the churches in North America and Northern Europe in particular, our convents and seminaries are full to bursting. The per capita situation in India in terms of our billion plus people is something else, of course, and we are not yet pinched for the “ecclesial laity” as Father William Bausch is wont to call them, engaged full time or part time, paid or unpaid, in work for the institution.
What I am trying to call to our attention is what is now being referred to as the “spirituality of the workplace”. What are we, priests and vowed religious, usually the official teachers in our community, giving to the bulk of our laity to take with them to the ordinary tasks of their living? How often do I hear from the brightest and the best of our priests and vowed religious, “The people aren’t ready for it.” Supposedly, the laity are not ready for what we now know about scripture which we did not know fifty years ago.
In most of our seminaries and convents, and certainly in places like Vidyajyoti and other centres of higher studies, we are learning how to keep the Christian commitment to love and care while presenting our tradition in ways that are fully in tune with modern knowledge. In many cases we are being invited to move from christocentric to theocentric to soteriocentric ways of living. We are learning that we exist in the church precisely for those who are not members of it. Are we sharing the richness of our theological training with those laity we are established precisely to serve? In many cases I fear I would have to say we are not.
In his book, The Dishonest Church, John Good argues primarily out of a Protestant experience, that the bulk of clergy do not use their important theological knowledge in their work but revert to their childlike pre-seminary training in their preaching in particular. Good suggests that this is disastrous for the church and absolutely disrespectful of its lay membership. Is our Roman tradition any different along this line?
True enough, most of us who engage formally in these studies experience great pain in the process. Often there has been, is, and continues to be a dismantling of some cherished understanding and the need for enormous reconstruction of our understanding and our language. Sometimes I think we want to spare others our own personal pain and ongoing questing but are we correct in assuming that our laity are unwilling or unable to survive a similar process? Father John MacKenzie of happy memory wrote in his article about Catholicism in the present Encyclopedia Britannica that the major difficulty in our church today is that we ask our lay people to leave their brain power at the door of the church!
Good suggests that our church leaders and the bulk of our religious professionals have four main fears in terms of the laity.
1) laity will react negatively if they are challenged to develop a more mature faith
2) clergy are afraid of letting laity think for themselves
3) exposing the human roots of religious tradition will mean it will lose its spiritual power
4) the bible will lose its power if it is exposed to criticism
Good and others suggest that this culture of fear is dishonest to start with and killing the reform needed to make Christianity a powerful force for good in the twenty-first century.
When I ponder Jesus, I see a man of his time and place, unafraid of challenging his peers, indeed, anyone who heard him, to a more mature faith, faith in a nurturing God, not a despot enforcer. Jesus was not put to death because he was a nice guy.
Jesus went around telling even the most illiterate peasants, no one can tell you what is right for you but you. You must do the choosing. He was surely not afraid of allowing people to think for themselves. Indeed he fought ideologically the religious establishment of his day who were in collusion with the political establishment precisely on this point of mind and thought control and other kinds of violence to the human spirit.
Jesus was a master at situating the heart of his Jewish tradition into the daily lives of his people because he had done it in his own life as well. He talked of oil and leaven and lost coins and found sheep and made the tradition live. He was indeed truly human, another thing the establishments of his day would not forgive him for.
Jesus criticized twists that were being put onto the Jewish scriptures which he understood were never intended in their origins. He stood in the tradition of the Rabbi Hillel whose approach to Jewish living and the scriptures on which it was based has been described as “elastic”. Jesus did not adopt the literal approach of the Rabbi Shammai which positions were tying people up in knots.
Of this we can be sure, Jesus did nothing to reinforce the status quo of his time. He was constantly among the rank and file of his people working to change their minds and hearts, to give them the true freedom that he believed his Abba wanted for them. Jesus died rather than back down on his belief that God’s nature is loving kindness and God’s purpose is a just and compassionate world, right here, right now, not “pie in the sky by and by”.If we ever do make it possible for Indian Catholic laity to come to a theological par with our clerics their road will not be an easy one. Many laity in North America who have undertaken such studies in the spirit of Vatican II as I described at the outset of this reflection, have not had an easy time of it and not just financially. Many of them are no longer welcome in “Catholic” universities and colleges and have moved into “catholic” ones, if they have been able to find work in their own field at all. In their efforts to be “bridges” between the pulpit and the pew many of them have been walked on, driven over, and blown up, job-wise and otherwise. But in their genuinely faith-filled vision of things, so was Jesus.