Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur
There are times when I suspect that the discussions and debates around foreign missionaries and local vocations began with the arrival of Saints Bartholomew and Thomas in India ! Bartholomew is supposed to have been a sailor and Thomas an architect. Did local sailors and architects wonder if these two had anything to teach them about their own trades much less about living happy healthier lives?
We will never know, of course, but there seems to be in the human condition a simultaneous ability to trust oneself and distrust oneself. Most often, I fear, we tend to think that the answers to our difficulties are to be found outside of ourselves, in others, and so we resort to the “experts”. An expert has been defined perhaps cynically as someone who lives at least one hundred miles away and to whom we pay great amounts of money to tell us what most of us already know but find hard to believe or act on.
You may be sitting here wondering what any of this has to do with vocation. Let me assure you it has a great deal to do with it. While we do not have much factual information on both Saints Bartholomew and Thomas, we do have lots of information about the early Church. We know, for example, from Bishop Stephen Neill, a missionary in India for many years and a superb Church historian that the apostles and disciples took the good news about the Jesus way of life to many communities which they subsequently left and which were managed by what we now call laity. We know that there were many women among these managers. Neill tells us that thousands of lay people whom we will never know made Christianity happen. It was much later that management of these communities was reserved to male overseers or bishops as we now call them, assisted by their helpers whom we now call priests. In all of this women and men continued to be appointed by the various communities to the role of what we now identify as deacon.
One of the great gifts of Vatican Council II is the reminder that all of us are called to be missionaries. It is our baptism that demands that we be God’s heart, hands, and head in our time and place even as Jesus was in his. What, then, of our priests and bishops, those called to what we now refer to at the ministerial priesthood? My role, and that of every priest and bishop, is to help you to be better and better at living compassionately and justly, in the image of our God. My role is to learn with you and from you about how to make that happen. My role is to know you in order to love you and to serve you. Any power I have is for you not over you. Any skills I acquire are to enhance your skills. Any knowledge I have must be shared with you and never hoarded for my own advantage. I must be willing to give my life, which is usually my time, for your greater honour and glory for in that is to be found the honour and glory of our God, you fully alive!
Let me tell you for just a minute part of my own story which has brought me to these convictions. I remember yet when I walked up the steps to Bishop Dubbelman’s room – I had been his mass server for many years – and told him I wanted to be a priest. His words to me were, “First you must go to university.” It was not what I had expected but off I went to St. Xavier’s in Calcutta where it became increasingly clear to me that blind obedience, refusing to use my mind, was not at the heart of being an authentic Christian.
While I was there I joined the Sodality and among other things worked with the “crazy woman in white”, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, assuming that my future work would be much like hers. I must also tell you that at the end of those studies I thought seriously that I ought to serve God in the lay state, as I saw clearly the opportunities to be on the front lines of a renewed, revitalized Christianity and what it could do for India and for the world. When I took this concern to my spiritual director he said that there were all too few priests who understood the potential of the laity. So many thought of them as second class citizens that the service I could provide in being a “peoples’ priest” was something I ought not to overlook. I chose to remain and was assigned to the seminary.
I went to Ranchi for philosophy, where Bishop Theophane and I first met. After that I went to Rome for theology. It was there that I lived and breathed the world church for the first time. It was in going there and coming from there that I experienced, unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, the discrimination against my brown face and being. There were parlours and dining rooms for the white fathers, and others for the rest of us. My heart was heavy with this discovery and I vowed to change that whenever and if ever the circumstances of my life permitted me to do so.
St. Francis Xavier had seen this same kind of problem when he arrived in Goa . He could not even convince the members of his own Society of Jesus that indigenous vocations needed to be as respected as were those of his Portuguese brethren. Much later, Archbishop Roberts, of happy memory, got onto a freighter and went incommunicado to force Rome to appoint Cardinal Gracias. As late as the beginning of my time as a bishop we Indians went to our ad limina visits without knowing when we would see the pope. We got to sit around twiddling our thumbs while the North Americans and Northern Europeans kept their pre-determined appointments. I am happy to say that is no longer the case and I had some part in marking sure that that did not continue to happen.
Let me share one more bit of history with you about this foreign versus indigenous situation. In the 1930’s our Protestant brothers and sisters from the United States undertook a massive study of their missions. They used lay men and women to make this study. (Catholics came much later to this kind of sociological study but have since caught up with much of this kind of work. Father Joseph Fichter is among the best of these researchers. )
The Protestants visited India , Burma , Ceylon , Japan , and China . It was funded by John D. Rockefeller. Their report constitutes volumes but the long and short of it is they concluded that all the churches had to be managed by locals and they had to become financially sustainable in their own right. Handouts from abroad would, in the long run, make for unhealthy dependence of the younger churches on the older churches. This was not just in terms of finances but also in terms of trusting their own insights and intuitions into making the good news of Jesus applicable to their own cultural and social situations.
The committee did recommend something else. They suggested a system of “ambassadors” where people from what we now call the First World or the North, would serve for a year in the South, and vice versa. They urged a cross-fertilization of ideas to the mutual benefit of those undertaking these experiences. But they would always be for a limited period of time. Eventually one had to return to one’s own home base and bring the Jesus way to life there, or the efforts were fruitless and probably useless.
There are some in our own communion today who are suggesting that just as we expect one man and one woman to be married to each other for life, we ought to require one bishop to be “married” to one diocese for life. Ought we to also perhaps expect one priest to be “married” to one parish for life? It might counter the careerism among too many of our clerics and religious.
Forgive me if my words sound too harsh on what is supposed to be an occasion for rejoicing. Our various jubilee celebrations cannot be simply a re-visiting of the glories of our pasts without looking at our futures and pondering if we are doing what the Jesus way of life calls us to. If there is anyone in our history concerned with grass roots community development it is Jesus! He went around telling even the most illiterate peasant, “No one can tell you what is right for you but you. You must do the choosing.” He did not want his people kow-towing to a religious establishment in collusion with violent secular powers. Of course he told them this against the background of the Torah, the guiding way of the Jesus people, and against the background of what we Christians refer to as the Ten Commandments.
If we priests and bishops in particular are to be faithful to Jesus, we must say the same to our people. We must give them the background of our tradition, the Ten Commandments AND the Beatitudes in all of their fullness. We must give our people the morality behind the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and all their implications especially for Mother India. We must believe that the answers are within our people and within ourselves. We priests and bishops in particular must not make decisions for our people but with them. We need to examine scrupulously every packaged plan and programme brought to us as the panacea for our needs and wants, no matter from whom it comes.
Then it will not matter whether our priests and religious are indigenous or expatriates serving permanently or temporarily in places that are not their homelands. We will be bringing forth the best in ourselves and in all whom we encounter. We will be blooming where we are planted. We will bring to an end the rivalries of so many sorts that are diminishing us and while rejoicing in our diversity, complement each other rather than compete with each other. The Jesus way of life, the compassion and justice of our God, will be alive and well among us.
Those closest to Jesus called him rabbi long before they called him lord. He taught his people that their God was as close to them as every breath they breathed. He taught them that their God and his wanted an end to their destitution, their grinding poverty of body, mind, and spirit. He taught them that their God and his wanted to do this with them and wanted them to do it for and with each other. It was a bloodless and non-violent revolution, a change of heart and mind that Jesus called for and he gave his life rather than back down on this conviction of God’s plan and God’s reliability.
Indigenous or expatriate, lay or cleric, male or female, this must be our message and our conviction as well. Not to do this is to betray those who have gone before us and to condemn those who will come after us. To live this way now may not be the ultimate in comfort but it will be true to the Jesus way of life. Amen.