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Keep the dangerous memory of Jesus alive

Christian Brother sees the need for ’de-schooling’ traditional concept of Religious life, religion

Keep the dangerous memory of Jesus alive
Brother Philip Pinto reporters, New Delhi

January 5, 2011

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Brother Philip Pinto, who heads the Congregation of Christian Brothers, says religious life in its traditional sense is “dying” across the world, but wants people to accept the process as part of God’s plan. A new lease of life to Religious life would come from lay initiatives, asserts the Indian Brother, who is now in his second six-year term as the superior general. Brother Pinto, who was born and raised in New Delhi, sees a desire among lay people to do social service inspired by Gospel values. On the other hand, he has seen the need for “de-schooling” the traditional concept of Religious life, religion and God himself. God, he says, should not be seen as entity independent of the universe, but part of the process that resulted in the evolution of the cosmos itself, and everything in it. The Rome-based Brother headed New Delhi’s famous St. Columba’s School before becoming the congregation’s Indian provincial. He also spoke about how his congregation tackles the issue of child rights in the wake of sex abuse scandals in the Church. Brother Pinto spoke with UCA News while on a visit to New Delhi. He spoke on various subjects including the relevance of brotherhood. What is the relevance of Religious life in modern world? BROTHER PHILIP PINTO: Religious life, as we know it, is over or dying across the world. I’m more than ever convinced of it. In some part of the world it is just over. There is absolutely no one joining. You can look at it in two ways. You can say God is in charge of what is happening in the world, or he is not fully in charge. In the first case, you should also believe that what is happening in Religious life is also part of God’s plan. Some people say this (the dwindling number of Religious) is the work of the devil. But I would say this is God working among us. My understanding of God has changed over the years. How I understood God 15 years ago is very different from what I know now. Is this changed concept of God  a result of your two terms heading the congregation? No. The job showed me my total inadequacy. If I rely only on my human skills, I’m not needed. So I said I’m not going to do any of the work provincials did normally such as opening new houses or setting up schools. My work is to hold the center of what it is to be a Religious person. That is the search for God and what Jesus came to tell us about God. The Gospels are not about Jesus, they are about how to be a disciple. Are you saying lack of prayer-experience is the real challenge for the Religious? It is a huge challenge. How many Religious pray now? How many priests pray, for that matter? They are too busy doing things that don’t need to be done. What is a Religious person supposed to be doing? He is supposed to be saying to the world that the values it upholds are not necessarily the right ones. The world must see the difference in the Religious. The world is thirsting for this difference. Trying to speak about Jesus without showing him in life is irrelevant. Is this the reason why Religious life is dying? Absolutely! Religious life is dying because it has become irrelevant. Why is the Church in Europe dying? Because it has become irrelevant. What do we mean by making Europe Christian? Taking people to churches? Forget it. No one has ever found God in a Church. You go to church on Sundays because you want to celebrate the God you have discovered during the week. At one level the Vatican is trying to bring Religious life to its orthodox roots, while on the other leaders like you advocate a radically different way. Do you see a split? There is no split here, but tension. What the Vatican is trying to do is not that bad. I tell this to my Brothers, if your local bishop praises you for what you are doing in the diocese, there is something wrong. By vocation, the Religious and the hierarchical Church are to be in tension. The Religious life started when the Church became hierarchical. The Religious life was started to keep alive the dangerous memory of Jesus. That is what the Religious are supposed to do: keep alive the dangerous memory of Jesus. There has to be tension when we keep the dangerous memory of Jesus alive. The Church is a human institution that tries always to accommodate the powers that be, the dominant culture. Look at Latin America. The Church has been always on the side of the oppressor. We needed a Romero to show us that. (Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador  who was shot dead in 1980 after he organized local people to fight for their rights.) However, we cannot do without the hierarchy. We need the hierarchy to control us. Otherwise we would become a very loose organization. Coming back, you said Religious life is dying. Then more in danger is brotherhood than Religious priesthood. What are you saying? Recently, the Vatican wrote to me to send them a note on Religious Brotherhood. I wrote back saying I’m not for this game again. They wrote back asking what game and said I misunderstood them. But I told them why they don’t ask nuns to write a note on Religious Sisterhood. If Sisters are the norm of Religious life for women, Brothers should be the norm for men. Priesthood and Religious life are two vocations. Priesthood is a vocation to minister to people. Somewhere Religious made priests since they needed ministers. Priesthood then became the norm of Religious life, a status symbol. The Vatican does not want to change the norm. If they change, each Religious community could have a Brother as the superior. Are you trying to put the primacy of brotherhood? No. I’m trying to put the primacy of Religious life. Religious priests are forced to give more importance to their ministerial work than their monastic or Religious community life. People consider Brothers as “second class” in Religious life. We need to do something to change that perception. What sort of a Church do you visualize? I repeat, our task is to keep alive the dangerous memory of Christ, not to satisfy the Magisterium? There is a huge disconnect between what is happening at the altar and people standing around it. In Europe, people ask questions, but in India no one does so. If Christianity has crashed in Europe, it is going to crash here too. One of the setbacks for the Church was the sex scandals. How has your congregation tackled it? We were one of the first congregations to be affected by it. Ours started some 20 years ago, when we realized this is not an isolated incident but a bigger issue. It started with one institution in Canada. It was terrible; there must have been seven Brothers who abused children over 40-50 years. That case actually bankrupted our province there. Then we began to look at all places, including India, where we have residential facilities. We noticed that the abuses happened when the Christian Brothers were at our strongest. We were thriving in terms of vocation, power and money. The government would not dare to question us. The abuses happened when our public image was strong, when we were considered highly loyal to the Catholic teachings. It shows actually we were rotting and Religious life was rotting. While we observed all the externals, inside we were empty. All those accused are dead or very old. Now anyone accused of child abuse is taken out of the ministry. We have been very strict. We have protocols now on how to deal with the issue. The protocol is a series of steps to ensure the child is safe. Every province has a child protection officer, and every institution is asked to have one. Teachers must know the protocols. If teachers notice behavioral differences and suspect something, they should report that to the child protection officer. Since we have been dealing with it for several decades, we have some expertise in it. We hear you are moving your headquarters to Manila from Rome. Why have you chosen Manila? The Church is vibrant in Asia, where we are present in India, the Philippines and East Timor. We don’t want to come to India, because it has a province. We have no province in the Philippines. To live in Rome, you need Brothers who can speak Italian. The two men who can are now 75 and 78. Let us be fair to them. Besides, Rome is too expensive. Manila will be much cheaper. Now, will it work? I don’t know. Some provincials are against the move. But it is not my decision, it is the decision of the congregation. IA12707.1635
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