My sheep listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me -John 10:27
Wherever there are divisive forces at work, we are slowly but surely distancing ourselves from God and the Good News He came to teach the world. If this is true, then we have much to be worried about when we watch the prolonged battle that has taken centre-stage in the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of the Catholic Syro-Malabar community in Kerala. As a loyal member of this Archdiocese, it has been painful to watch the unceasing expressions of hostility that have now become a regular feature on TV news channels and social media.
The Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala occupies a significant place among the Eastern Churches affiliated to Rome, and the Ernakulam-Angamaly Major Archeparchy is considered as the leader among the five metropolitan provinces into which the Church is divided. Today, there are priests and nuns from this community all over the world, and it is globally recognized as a stronghold of dedicated Catholics and a wellspring of true vocations, with a number of young people taking up religious life, even as the numbers dwindle worldwide.
For those who are not familiar with the details of the dispute, the issue surfaced initially when Pope Francis sought to introduce a uniform mode for the celebration of Holy Mass across churches under the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala. This was unacceptable to a few of the Archdioceses who were used to a different mode of offering Holy Mass. However, in course of time, all except the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese accepted the Pope’s request as well as the Synod’s decision ratifying the papal order.
What has ensued in the name of dissension and disagreement by priests and laity of the said Archdiocese has caused a great deal of distress and anguish to the entire Syro-Malabar community. Hunger strikes, physical confrontations, protest marches and effigy burning were all part and parcel of the mayhem. Separate groups on both sides of the issue continue to clash on the premises of the church, even as Christians all over the world usher in Holy Week waving palm leaves and singing Hosanna to the Lord.
What can we make out of this unruly mess that has erupted in this respected institution? Needless to say, it has projected Catholic priests and laypersons in very bad light in the public space. However, I do not wish to discuss the merits or demerits of both sides of the argument that has torn the community apart. I have neither the competence nor the inclination to do so. Rather, let us measure our actions against what we preach and what we believe.
In a few days from now, we will commemorate the Passion and Death of Jesus, followed by His glorious Resurrection. The events of the Holy Week begin with the Last Supper that Jesus shared with His apostles. The solemn ceremony of consecrating bread and wine into His own body and blood requires a deep spiritual preparation, and He emphasized its importance by carrying out this preparation personally. He bent to the ground and washed the feet of His disciples. The gesture was followed up by a detailed and unambiguous explanation- ”Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” John 13:14. Underlining the explanation, He added- “ I have set you an example that you should do as I have done to you.”- John 13:15
Subsequent to this, Jesus made two significant prophecies regarding His apostles Judas and Peter. Without revealing the identity of His betrayer, He announced that one among them would betray Him. Judas, whose heart was already poisoned with greed, received the consecrated bread and Satan entered him immediately.
The second prediction was in reply to Peter’s declaration that he would lay down his life for his Master. Jesus disagreed, telling him “…before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” Events turned out as predicted, as the frightened Peter denied his association with the Master, to those who confronted him. However, unlike Judas, he bitterly regretted his cowardice, and became deserving of God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness.
These incidents speak to us today, in the midst of the anarchy that the Church faces at many levels. Personally, it also teaches us, the members of this noble Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, some essential truths about humility, and its cardinal importance in the practice of Christianity. Our zeal could lead us completely astray by the Evil One as it happened with Judas. In this case, we face spiritual death and damnation without any hope of reprieve. On the other hand, we can, like Peter, return to the Lord in all humility , and receive His boundless grace and mercy.
May we always remember the “new commandment” that Jesus gave us during the Last Supper-“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are My disciples, if you love one another.”-John 13:34-35. Through this Holy Week, as we spend time in adoration of the Holy Eucharist, let us find the strength to leave the bread and wine we bring to the altar till we are completely reconciled to our brothers, so that we become truly worthy of the blood that Christ shed for us on the Cross.