Myron J. Pereira SJ, Mumbai
Updated: June 14, 2017 08:06 AM GMT
Pope Francis waves as he arrives during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square on June 7 at the Vatican. (Photo by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)
Catholic priests in India are not known for speaking out in public. By and large they are a subdued lot, given more to surreptitious politicking than to candor and outspokenness.
So, it was a matter of great astonishment for Indian Catholics to hear the reports of a candid attack on the pope in mid-April. Speaking to his congregation in Montesilvano, Italy, Father Pushparaj openly criticized Pope Francis, an action which led to boos from his parishioners. Consequently, he was transferred by his bishop.
Is this open act of papal criticism unusual? It certainly is.
But perhaps it should not be so surprising. Even as the popularity and support for Pope Francis continues to grow around the globe, there's a gradual mounting opposition to the pope and his methods.
The resistance originates from within his own Vatican Court, where long-term courtiers (read: cardinals and monsignori) are concerned with his eye-catching, modest lifestyle and his public displays that embrace the poor, the ordinary, the marginalized and (horrors!) even women of other faiths, some of whose feet he has washed and kissed.
This resistance is shared in certain quarters across the world by those who feel the pope's attitude encourages laxity in marriage rules and ambiguity in Catholic traditions.
The Vatican analyst Father Thomas Reese recently commented on the last four years of the Francis papacy astutely noting that "he has not so much changed doctrine, as he has fundamentally changed the way in which we see the church."
He has done this, says Reese, in four ways: Firstly, Francis has spoken about a new way of evangelizing, at the core of which he has placed mercy and compassion.
Next, he has encouraged open discussion and debate, unlike in previous times when theologians were muzzled by the church and bishops were dismissed for speaking out of turn. This new, contemporary approach is so out of keeping with the traditional practices of this rigid institution that it will take time to acclimatize.
Thirdly, Pope Francis has confronted the church and global community over their mutual procrastination to address the single most important issue of our time: climate change. His encyclical Laudato Si challenges us all to become more environmentally responsible and to change our consumerist lifestyles.
Nor has he shied away from talking publicly about the plight of refugees, probably the biggest geo-political crisis of this decade, demanding more compassion from governments.
Lastly, he has begun to undertake a series structural changes to the governance of the church. It is this last sequence of actions which makes several bishops and priests uneasy and hardens their opposition to him. Remember that for most clergy and the hierarchy, ordination is a career entitlement, not a duty of service. Nothing could be further from the minds of those bishops and priests who "become, in a sense, collectors of antiquities or novelties" rather than living as the pope has requested, as "shepherds with the smell of the sheep."
It's a clericalism that comes accompanied by many subtexts. Among these: a distrust of the laity, a refusal to treat women on par in the office of the church, covering for each other in cases of sexual or financial crimes, and a predatory attitude to male adolescents and females of almost every background. The sad incidence of pedophilia and the Vatican financial scandals are proof enough.
The recent resignation of Marie Collins from Ireland illustrates this pointedly. Collins, a victim of sexual abuse within the church, had been appointed by the pope to work with the Vatican committee investigating the many cases of clergy abuse.
Two years into this task she gave up citing lack of cooperation from the Vatican. She could not stand the slow pace of inquiry and the resistance she received. As she said in an interview, "The pope is not the CEO of a global enterprise called the Catholic Church and cannot simply carry out what he wants." Even if he does issue a directive, it doesn't mean that bishops or provincials follow wholeheartedly or immediately.
Another glaring example of resistance to cooperation relates to the preparation for the Synod on the Family. Rome had sent out a questionnaire, clumsy and inadequate though it was, asking bishops to circulate it widely within their dioceses. Pope Francis wanted the laity to express their views on their experiences of family life. Several dioceses across the world — and many in India — quietly ignored the request. In many cases, bishops completed the answers themselves, because, after all, they knew what their people needed.
Why is it that bishops so insistent on respect and obedience from their flock in their own dioceses, so frequently disobey the pope?
Perhaps they act this way for lack of retribution, safe in the knowledge that, unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis does not work on fear. He does not punish, excommunicate or threaten with sanctions. He is the living example of the mercy he preaches, showing patience and forgiveness to the recalcitrant.
But there is a deeper reality at work which not everyone is aware of — we are slowly but surely moving from a uniform model of the church to one which is diverse and pluriform. This may be hard to grasp for many, for they have grown up in an institution where just one voice matters; "the voice of the Father." It is now harder to take responsibility for one's life, one's beliefs, one's moral choices.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis continues onward, on his own terms, reforming the council with the help of his bishops and his clergy … and oftentimes, despite them!
Father Myron J. Pereira SJ lives in Mumbai, where he is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]