Balance sheet of a land deal: Moral integrity questioned, Clergy divided, Faithful alienated.

With its notorious land deal, the pastors of the Eranakulam-Angamali Archdiocese of the Syro Malabar church in Kerala served a sourly feast for its faithful during the bygone Christmas season. Providing convincing explanations to the faithful may be relatively less challenging than handling its subversive pastors who clamour for nothing less than the resignation of the Major Archbishop. As the subject under the lens of scrutiny is the topmost authority of the church itself, introspecting on church’s call and mission as well as the ways of its being and becoming after the ideals of Jesus is nonetheless not an unproductive exercise.

This article does not intend to delve on the details of the land deal whose lies and liabilities would be exposed sooner rather than later by the six-member commission appointed by the Major Archbishop, the supreme juridical body of the church. However, it investigates the ways a spiritual organization skidded from the popular aspirations for which I would resort to some comments that appeared in various social media sites.

Losing credibility

While on earth the most challenging question Jesus faced was about his credibility as the son of God. The Johannine account of Jesus’ story is a brilliant narrative of his believability evidenced by his words, deeds and signs. However, the credibility of Syro Malabar church that boasts of its apostolic heritage, unfortunately is on slippery slope. While the believers may waive the irregularities in the temporal management as inadvertent, church’s moral integrity is intensely doubted and challenged.

In one of the online discussion forums, a person commented, “the scam offered us an opportunity to learn that some pastors are hooligans while some others are morally eroded. There is a mafia of priests.” Another person perceives the aberration of spirituality being commodified: “They (priests) have made spirituality a lucrative product” in the religious marketplace, and have been “bluffing people with their empty spiritual promises.” These opinions reflect the desperate aspirations of people about an entity they trusted for spiritual and social emancipation. No wonder, more young people are distancing from the institutional church making themselves satisfied with the mere church attendance for the sacramental nourishment they yearn for. The ecclesial authorities not only need to sweat a lot but also be ready for a radical conversion from the paths they were treading in order to re-instill the real passion among the youth for ‘being the Church’ they want.

Church in Chaos

The reputation of the Kerala Catholic Church is increasingly being tarnished in the recent past by the erratic priests and compromising authorities. Despite the authorities been cautioned in this regard no much efforts are seen to prevent the tendencies and improve the pastoral quality.

The land scam is a clear indication that the internal discipline of the church is in jeopardy. People are surprised at the uproar of a few clergymen who was part of the presbyterium that granted consent for the land deal. They are dismayed by the members of the priest council, without whose knowledge the news was leaked to the public, breaching the confidentiality and trust of the priestly collegium. Some suspect the betrayal and breach of co-responsibility of the two auxiliary bishops assisting the Major Archbishop.

The faithful and other priests are alarmed at the intentions of the vociferous priests who brought the issue before the deal is not completed. The whistle blowers might have their latent motifs than rectifying financial and moral irregularities within the legitimate church forums through appropriate canonical procedures. We are oblivious about if they had made any effort to correct the mistakes in a confidential way before insisting on the resignation of the authorities in public. On the contrary, we are unaware if the concerned authorities have lent a sensitive ear to the protestor priests’ concerns and demonstrated willingness to rectify the mistakes if any. Often times, the plaintiffs feel that they are denied of common and personal justice by the authorities. The present scam proves the terrible indiscipline in the church which is unbecoming for any decent social association not to mention a religious organization.

Media Strategies

It was in social media that the first bits of news about the land scam broke out, as the mainstream media hesitated to discuss the scam initially. Instantly the news became viral and polarized opinions began to surface. While many were concerned about the marring money scam some others alleged it as a calculated plot against the Major Archbishop whom they consider having particular slant towards the liturgical renewal of the Syro Malabar church. The ordinary faithful availed the social media to voice their anguish, anger and anxieties about the church deviating from the path of Christ. It was quite surprising to me that an influential organization neither did have any coordinated media strategy nor any personality to persuade people to stay away from undue and unbridled discussion of the issue.

Worst of it, was the official media strategy. As usual the official body remained stunned and silent to respond on the issue, forgetting the fact that in a media era of viral news feeds every unused minute to provide a creative response would haunt themselves. Official ‘spokesperson’ is reduced to a ritual performer only during crisis; on other times and socially relevant issues the church has nothing to speak on! The ecclesial authorities need to learn from Jesus who instantly responded to human situations as well as pertinent questions except in one occasion when he discouraged a person who wished to follow him.

Opportunity for Conversion

Evolution of Christian way of life into a structured religion (keep aside the contentious question on Jesus’ intention to found one) can be traced to Jesus’ compelling response to the aspirations of people. When they were like a flock without a shepherd, he could become their best pastor, addressing to their hunger, poverty, infirmity, marginality, dignity, and integrity in ways that they could experience total liberation. The apostles could pick up this way of salvation and continued to cater to the people’s quest for meaning and space in a cultural and political milieu which often excluded them.

The novelty of Christianity remains in offering an altogether different narrative to the ways people celebrated their life and destiny. Although the indomitable desire for such a narrative is still prevalent among faithful today, the pastoral leadership of the predominantly institutional church pitiably fails to satiate this popular yearning, enraptured by their invincible hunger for power, promiscuity, and profligacy. The present issue though had confused many young people with questions of ethics and faith, increasing number of faithful demand for transparency and inclusion of lay people in temporal affairs of the church.

While many faithful opt to distance themselves from church disenchanted by the debauched priests, others find their own ways to enliven the Christian narrative in manifold ways of responding to the poor, working for social justice and doing other spiritual practices. The various questions and suggestions made in the social media by the lay people call for an unprecedented cleansing of the conscious from the part of the church. The church would have to pay a big price if it still ignores its loyalists who, thanks to the science and technology, have gained significant socio-cultural capital even to challenge its misconduct in public. Faithful expect that the pastors of a church that makes and venerates saints shall be free of blemishes. The mainstream church should not only run faster but should have the willingness to change the course if it has to chase the dream of Jesus and his ordinary flock.

But ‘conversion’ and ‘change’ are ideas that were vehemently challenged in the church domain. Pastors and faithful make lame arguments for resisting conversion. A very practicing Catholic lay person commented me that “conversion (of priests) is not possible.” Shockingly, many others including priests were persuading me about the human frailty of following an ideal. In effect, they encourage others to comply with the errors.

There is no dangerous idea than perpetuating evil and corruption excusing human frailty. It would be most irreligious if we do not desire for and make an effort to amend our transgressions. The very starting point and foundation of the Christian narrative is the call to conversion. Conversion is not an instantaneous dramatic event, but an ongoing process of continued renewal happening in a genuine spiritual journey. The authorities are to wake up to the awareness that religious leadership is not about multiplying structures and assets, but is about building and caring for a community that journeys to land of honey and milk.

Top officials and presbyterium are equally culpable for dragging the issue that could have been settled within the legitimate forums of the church to the public sphere. Their inability to settle the issue in most ethical ways proves them to be spiritually impoverished. The church in Kerala requires to come back to Jesus for a radical conversion experience. The row over the land deal offers the most opportune time for spiritual and moral repentance and reparations. Reluctance to repair would endanger the missionary pastoral enthusiasm of thousands of genuine priests, religious and laypeople. If the church misses this chance for amendments, it not only would be alienated from the authentic Christian narrative, but also would pauperize itself having no credible witness to offer the millions that aspire for Christ.