July 2016 By Suma Varughese Pope Francis, the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church, has emerged with a stunning range of initiatives which are inclusive, compassionate, responsible and radical, worthy of Jesus Christ himself. In the process, is the Catholic Church finally ready to embrace a more holistic perspective, asks Suma Varughese My disenchantment with Christianity (the religion I was born into as a Syrian Christian from Kerala), began at age 14 when I was unable to reconcile Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution with the Biblical story of creation. I continue to have serious reservations about many of its standpoints, especially with the conviction that Christianity is the only true faith, and Christ the only Son of God. I also question its zeal for conversions, its conviction that man is master of the material world, its patriarchal approach, and above all, the institution of the Church, that massive powerful edifice that controls the minds of millions across the globe. Instead of liasing between man and God, the Church often comes between man and God. Spiritual freedom, the greatest of human freedoms, is not even considered to be a need. The Catholic Church, with its pomp and panoply, and the obligation of the faithful to obey the decree of the Pope in deeply personal matters such as divorce, abortion, and so on, embodies many of the shortfalls I deplore in Christianity. But a fresh breeze is blowing through this hoary institution, and the man who has opened its doors and windows is the present Pope. Pope Francis was elected as the 266th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church on March 13, 2013. Almost from the beginning, he adopted a humble, less formal, approach to the Papacy. He has chosen to reside in the Domus Sanctae Marthae guesthouse rather than in the papal apartments of the Apostolic Palace used by his predecessors. He prefers simple unadorned robes, and chose silver rather than gold for his piscatory ring. But what is even more remarkable is that under his stewardship, entrenched standpoints and practises are being challenged and changed, making way for a more inclusive, compassionate, and egalitarian approach. Many speak admiringly of the changes he has brought into the traditional practice of washing the feet of 12 men on Holy Thursday. Says Father Prashant Olelekar, head of the department of Inter-religious Studies at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, “This is the ritual enactment of the footwashing done by Jesus of his apostles at the Last Supper. Pope Francis stunned traditional Catholics when he broke this law soon after he was appointed Pope by washing the feet of 12 youth, including two women and two Muslims, at a juvenile detention centre. This year rather than break the law he officially changed it, and went to the jail and washed the feet of refugees including Muslims and Hindus. This is a significant act of reconciliation with powerful political overtones in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, and the huge migrant influx into Europe.” While abiding by the orthodox stand on abortion, divorce and homosexuality, he is said to have infused compassion even here. Father Errol D’Lima, a retired professor of Theology from the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune, says: “He has given the Church and even the world a new atmosphere to breathe in by doing away with guilt. He married 20 couples who were living together, telling them to leave the past behind and walk into the future. When asked by the media on his stand on homosexuality, he said that he was no one to judge. He symbolises great compassion, great hope, great Christlikeness.” Pope Francis has given the church fresh air to breathe in, says Father Errol D’Lima He adds, “There is a new sense of freedom. Today, no one can stop us if we want to act like Christ. We must push this further. One cannot love God without loving our neighbour.” At the same time, Pope Francis, like his master Jesus Christ, minces no words when criticising the clergy, castigating the Vatican bureaucracy for their “lust for power” and the “terrorism of gossip”. One of his most path-breaking initiatives has been his Encyclical (a papal statement) on the environment. Called Laudato Si, it was published on May 24th, 2015, and is a heartfelt cry to the world to protect the environment, and all its species. Repeatedly affirming the interconnectedness of life and its sacred origin (which itself is a departure from Church doctrine), the Pope decries the rampant consumerism and profit racketeering behind the widespread exploitation. Calling the Earth both sister and mother, he says, “This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” Roundly attributing the widespread pollution on the throwaway culture we have adopted that rapidly reduces things to “rubbish”, he rues that our industrial systems are unable to duplicate the self-sustaining cycles of Mother Nature. He says, “Plants synthesise nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants. But our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.” The Pope also condemns the call of the developed nations to reduce population among the developing nations, instead of reducing their own unsustainable consumerism. “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalised, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and “whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the table of the poor”. The document powerfully reflects his concern for the poor and the impact of the environment on them, grieving over their exposure to unsafe water because of its scarcity. Even though I have not fully read it, whatever I have vibrates with a determination to call a spade a spade, and to force the world to face the terrible damage we are daily wreaking on the environment. All this would be path-breaking enough, but a new initiative promises to make Pope Francis’s time even more laudable. This is a move to eliminate the concept of the just war, that seeks to justify certain types of war that appear to uphold or fight for justice. Over the last 1,700 years of its existence, the concept has enabled the Church to sanction various types of atrocities and violence including the Inquisition. Says Brinelle D’Souza, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, “Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has been directly or indirectly complicit in wars – crusades/colonisation, the World Wars, Vietnam, and more recently the invasion of Iraq.” However, this April, according to a report in the Huffington Post by John Dear, a peace activist, about 80 leading Catholic peace leaders from 20 different nations met at the Vatican to call for an end to the so-called just war theory, and for a recommitment to the nonviolence of Jesus. For those unfamiliar with the Gospels, the following verses are considered to be the very lynchpin of Christian philosophy: “But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.” (Luke 27 – 29) Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer and thinker, did Christianity the honour of taking it seriously and using these points as its central tenets, condemned the concept of the modern state with its army and courts, as being against the gospel of Christ. His book, The Kingdom of God is Within you, is a towering indictment of modern nations that are Christian only in name and form, and not in spirit. It is therefore something extraordinary that the Church, which has more or less abolished Christ, is welcoming him back into it. Writes John Dear, “Every one of us who participated in the conference left Rome feeling hopeful that Pope Francis will help lead the Catholic church and the world to a new breakthrough toward peace and nonviolence.” The official statement of the conference which was offered to Pope Francis, says: “In his own times, rife with structural violence, Jesus proclaimed a new, nonviolent order rooted in the unconditional love of God. Jesus called his disciples to love their enemies (Matthew 5: 44), which includes respecting the image of God in all persons; to offer no violent resistance to one who does evil (Matthew 5: 39); to become peacemakers; to forgive and repent; and to be abundantly merciful (Matthew 5-7). Jesus embodied nonviolence by actively resisting systemic dehumanisation, as when he defied the Sabbath laws to heal the man with the withered hand (Mark 3: 1-6); when he confronted the powerful at the Temple and purified it (John 2: 13-22); when he peacefully but determinedly challenged the men accusing a woman of adultery (John 8: 1-11); when on the nigh
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