Cars No More Cachets

Not too long ago, Pope Francis put a Lamborghini he got as a gift from the Italian auto makers for auction. The dream luxury vehicle fetched nearly 1 million dollars which he dispensed completely for charity. When the 70 percent of its proceeds was shared to rebuild the Iraqi city of Nineveh, which had been occupied and raided by Islamic State in the mid-2010s, Pope Francis was showing a model that many of his colleagues could emulate.

Some great souls who share the spirit of Pope Francis indeed live up to his unsurpassable humanitarian concerns. Archbishop Joseph Kalathiparambil of the Verapoli Archdiocese in Kerala is one of them. He has given away his luxury car for auction in order to raise funds for rebuilding Kerala which is emerging from the horrendous floods.

When the flood water receded from the devastated Kerala State, the authorities realised that the damage and the cost of rebuilding Kerala is incredibly enormous, and unimaginable resources are required to renovate Kerala. Though national and international well-wishers have come up to help Kerala, the locals are realising that they also have to contribute immensely to it.

“I felt it to be unjust to travel in a luxury car, when flood survivors suffer tremendously in relief camps. I prayed over it, and decided to sell the car in auction. I believe that the money I give to rebuild Kerala should also have the share of my own sacrifice,” Archbishop Kalathiparambil explains the rationale of his decision. Through a pastoral letter, the archbishop also admonished his faithful to share maximum money to the relief funds by reducing extravaganzas in parish feasts. This has been appreciated very much by the people of Kerala.

Catholic Relief

It is a commonplace knowledge that the Catholic Church has always been an active social force in Kerala. Church is at the forefront to lead people in good times as well as in bad times. However, during the recent floods the Church’s involvement in relief activities was more direct and visible. All its members, from bishops to lay people, involved in the rescue and relief work.

Church institutions including churches, parish halls, schools, colleges, retreat centres, seminaries, abbeys and convents were immediately opened as relief centres to people irrespective of religious or caste affinities. Bishops requested the unaffected people to prepare food and other provisions for neighbouring communities, while many of the ecclesiastical kitchens ran overnight preparing food for relief camps or isolated families. Almost all hospitals of the Catholic Church organised free medical camps.

Apart from taking its own initiative to rebuild affected families the Church also contributed several crores of rupees to the State Relief Fund. Some churches broke the offertory chests while others even went to the extent of sharing holy ornaments (golden garland that adorns Mother Mary on special occasions) to the fund. Priests sacrificed their one month allowance. A few parishes as well as priests decided to share their land for people who lost their land and house.

Not anyone has doubts that the rescue operations became so much successful just because of the 3000 fishermen of Kerala whom the Chief Minister called as ‘Kerala’s Army’. The efforts of Catholic costal parishes and the daring fishermen who rescued 65000 people reduced the casualty to minimum. Later, Dr K. Vasuki, the District collector Thiruvananthapuram appreciated and thanked the priests and fishermen resembling them to “Noah who saved humanity from flood”.

According to a report by Fr. Michael Vettikkatt, Director of Kerala Social Service Forum almost 35 Catholic dioceses participated in the relief and about Rs. 40 crores were spent so far. Church ran 4094 relief camps with the support of the government and sheltered more than 11 lakhs people. 192 help desks were opened by various departments of these dioceses across Kerala. 2000 priests, 5000 nuns and 70,000 lay people directly participated in the flood relief. The dioceses of Trivandrum, Quilon and Alleppey coordinated 440 boats and 1500 fishermen for rescue operations. The effortless work of priests and nuns of the diocese of Changanachery helped almost everyone to evacuate to safer places it offered. The diocese of Mananthavadi was one among the first to respond to the relief work in the totally isolated Wayanad district.

Church: Victim of Media Attack

Church usually does not tom-tom various charity projects it has been undertaking. This is precisely because Christians want to live up to the spirit of Jesus their Lord and saviour who taught them, “when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mathew 6:3). On several occasions Jesus reminded his beneficiaries “not to tell anyone” of the favour they received (Mark 7:36). In the past as well as now the Church is absolutely disenchanted with the great works it does.

However, in the media age, Church is encountered with unprecedented public attacks. The mistakes of the church personnel are unduly magnified while greater services of the Church are undeservingly denigrated or ignored. It would be too unjust as well as unrealistic to augment the flaws of a few defaulters as the mistake of the Church and detract it from doing its humanitarian projects. Similarly Church is also under pressure to use communal terminology as the society is increasingly perceiving everything communally.

Modern world and media are very much tuned to the capitalistic tendencies and corporate models, which thrives primarily on advertisements. Media indeed try to fit the Church into the mould of the world, which is absolutely against the Christian principle (Romans 12:2). Media and people of vested interest would be doing a disservice not only to the Church but also to thousands of its beneficiaries who are not Christians alone if they take such a stance. They should realise that the Church does charity just because it is the nature of the Church as well as it recognises the dignity of people especially the marginalised, deprived and the exploited. On the other hand, Church needs to develop effective media strategies to inform people about what it is and what it does, without making an attempt to glorify its personnel.

Living Models or Dumb Mannequins

Hundreds of priests and nuns have dedicated their lives for humanitarian activities which include work for old and sick people, terminally ill patients, special children and adults, and empowering women. Thousands of Catholics have sacrificed their comforts to reduce people’s pain and despair during the great flood.

Nevertheless media has been relatively successful in cutting a cruel image of the church through its relentless attacks on Church during these years. In a context when the Church is disparaged for its delinquents, the leadership should responsibly take initiatives to renew the Church to its pristine quality and regain its credibility. It needs to amend the present ways of being the Church and restore itself with the Gospel values. And this change should happen from top to bottom, no other way around.

Though the church had been doing unchallenged charitable activities for several centuries, it has now fallen into such a state that each of its work should be convinced to people. Kerala flood was an opportunity for others to see Church’s tangible humanitarian services, though it was not documented and published adequately. However, the Church needs to continue the present social engagement permanently forever. Let the imitable models of great pastors be emulated endlessly. Let the Church be a popular rendezvous for noble people both in times of peace and problems.

(Published In Indian Currents on 10th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 37)