Last week, I travelled to Kerala in southern India on an unusual mission: to persuade a priest friend to end his indefinite fast. Although my mission failed, the experience convinced me that prophets have relevance even in this modern world. Swami Sadanand made history when he undertook the Gandhian model of fasting and prayer for peace and reconciliation. He adopted the extreme step after all his efforts failed to persuade the Trichur archbishop to intervene and solve the grievances of Catholics in Thalore parish. The archdiocese upset the parishioners when it took control of the parish from the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate congregation two years ago. The swami started his fast, silence and prayer in front of Infant Jesus Shrine in Thalore on December 1. Several people also joined him in prayer. When seven days of negotiations between the archdiocesan authorities and parishioners failed, the swami shifted his venue to the archbishop’s residence. Minutes after the fasting priest arrived there, the archdiocesan authorities called the police, who arrested and admitted him to Government Medical College. He remained adamant on fasting even on the eighth day, when I met him in the hospital. “I will end my fasting only when the Church leaders are ready to settle the conflict in the parish. The public scandal caused by the conflict should stop,” he said. He had no scruples about his method. “I do it following the teachings of my Lord Jesus, whom I have followed all these years,” the 64-year-old mendicant said. He also regretted that the scandal was damaging the image of the Church in Kerala, where Christianity claims roots from apostolic times. The swami called off his fast on December 10 in response to a request from the head of the Syro Malabar Church, who promised to resolve the matter in two months. Swami Sadanand was the first priest in modern times to fast for peace in an archdiocese in Kerala. I have known the swami for decades as both of us work in Madhya Pradesh, a central Indian state. Right from his formation days, Michael Purattukara, as he was then known, had adopted radical ways to follow Christ. He also drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India’s freedom struggle. Like Gandhi, the lanky mendicant with a white flowing beard abandoned western clothes and opted for a dhoti, a loin cloth, to identify with the poor of India. He stopped wearing footwear 40 year ago and covers his torso with a shawl in all seasons. He works for peace and harmony among all sections of society, especially the poor. However, he becomes a fearless tiger to fight all kinds of injustice. He confronted landlords who exploited poor villagers in central India. Corrupt officials and insensitive Church people have also experienced his wrath. He successfully undertook fasting and prayer campaigns five times in the past. The swami explained to me why he undertook fasting in Thalore. When he came to know how the parish conflict was causing a scandal, he felt convinced it was his moral duty to intervene. He wrote several letters to the Trichur archbishop and the Syro Malabar major archbishop expressing his concern. When he did not get any favorable response, he told the prelates that he would follow the model of Christ and undertake fasting and prayer until death. He clarified to the prelates that his was not a hunger strike as some politician do in India. Instead, he would follow the self-sacrificing means of fasting since God has consecrated him to bring peace and reconciliation to the world. I was anxious about his life, as he had undergone a bypass surgery two years ago. Prolonging the fast would have endangered his life. Fortunately, the major archbishop showed the good sense to intervene and save the swami’s life. On my part, I made several futile attempts to meet the officials of the archdiocese and the parish. It was obvious to me that the conflict was a simple problem that could be resolved if the two groups would forget their egos and follow the model of the Good Shepherd. Church leaders were foolish to prolong an internal conflict when the Church in India faces threats from its enemies all over the country. I have found many Church leaders behaving like ostriches when a conflict arises. This is because they are far removed from the sociopolitical realities around them. What was evident in Thalore was priestly arrogance, hurt egos and refusal to forgive and forget – all opposed to Christian values. The archdiocesan officials as well as the CMI priests have failed the people, who are reduced to the task of pray, pay and obey. There are many Thalores in the Indian Church now. It is at times like this we appreciate the role of prophets such as Swami Sadanand. They challenge us through personal example to follow the Crucified Christ, who emptied himself of his divinity to take the form of a slave to save us all. The mission of Jesus Christ was a proactive response to the sociopolitical and religious context of his times. Swami Sadanand’s example should inspire more prophets to speak up for truth and love. Father Varghese Alengaden is the founder and director of Universal Solidarity Movement, which aims to generate responsible citizens who promote harmony among India’s various ethnic and religious groups. He is based in Indore, in Madhya Pradesh state
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