Updated: Feb 20
-Dr Rosemary Varghese
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? -1 Sam15:22
The season of Lent is upon us. The Syro-Malabar church begins its Lenten season in the 50-day preparation for Good Friday and Easter. My parish church St Mary’s Basilica remains locked and is unavailable for any of the services that mark this period of penitence, in commemoration of the Passion , Death and Resurrection of our Lord. Of course, these matters have paled into insignificance as the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese continues to fight for their liturgical rites.
Nevertheless, today I write with renewed hope and deep conviction that the Lord will scatter the darkness we have experienced in the past year, with the everlasting light of His Resurrection. And this comes in the wake of a Facebook message given by a very senior priest in the Ernakulam -Angamaly diocese, who has chosen to break away from the stranglehold of his priestly community, to pledge his commitment to the vow of obedience that is so fundamental to his vocation. In his message, he recounts how he was initially committed to the liturgical mode of Holy Mass facing the audience, and was part of the delegation that went to Rome in the hope of convincing the Pope in this regard. The visit was unsuccessful and it was clear that the Pope required the archdiocese to comply with the Synod decision. From then on, the sporadic instances of protest by the clergy and laity of Ernakulam -Angamaly went into full throttle. The tide turned into a tsunami of physical, vocal and spiritual violence that culminated in the events during Advent upto Christmas Eve.
This was when this Reverend Father decided to part ways with his colleagues and follow the Synod’s decision. He clearly states his reasons for the departure. The protest was following a path that was not only unchristian but even inhumane. He quoted Samuel who reminded King Saul that God preferred obedience to sacrifice. He mentioned that he personally preferred the liturgical mode of facing the audience, but was ready to give this up for the Lord and for his commitment to his priestly vow of obedience.
The story attached to this biblical quote from 1 Samuel 15 has an uncanny resemblance to the situation we face today. Through Samuel, God gave King Saul a specific instruction to punish the Amalekites who had attacked the Israelites as they came out of Egypt. Saul was asked to destroy everything— the people and their livestock. Saul followed the instructions to a point. After that, obedience gave way to an independent assertion of will. Saul destroyed the people but spared their king. He also decided to keep for himself the best of the sheep and cattle. When confronted by Samuel for this act of disobedience, Saul defended his action saying that the captured livestock was to be used as sacrifice to the Lord.
Samuel struck the king’s lame excuses down with the following words:
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
The acts of dissent and disobedience we witness in our diocese today are all done in the name of God, in much the same way as Saul used God’s holy name for his selfish purposes.
Obedience is serious business. In a world where freedom and autonomy are celebrated, it is not easy for priests to adhere to their vow of obedience. It means giving up their wish and will to be in line with those in authority in the church hierarchy, believing that it is the will of God for the greater good of God’s people. This is what makes a priest worthy of our greatest respect. More importantly, he becomes worthy of the responsibility of shepherding the flock entrusted to him by the Almighty.
It requires great courage of conviction to swim against the tide when one’s entire community is united in disobedience. A few priests from the diocese have openly spoken up on the same lines as the respected priest mentioned earlier. They have been at the receiving end of mob violence, hate speeches and false accusations.
Ostracism from the community, which they look upon as family, cannot be easy to deal with. And yet they stand tall, fortified by their faith in God, knowing that any deviation from His Word will result only in darkness and death. We pray that many more priests find the courage to come out from this unholy and demonic trap they are caught in. May their light shine for the Lord, and may their example show us the way to God’s kingdom.