Lent: Call to Conversion

Fr. Subhash Anand has sent this reflection. TK.
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A Call to Conversion
Last Sunday (10th February 2013) our parish priest announced the beginning of Lent from coming Wednesday – Ash Wednesday. He emphasized the importance of prayer and penance as part of our Lenten discipline. Basing myself on many years of pastoral involvement, I am sure many other parish priests have done the same. I know many lay people and few a bishops, priests and religious, who give up alcohol and non-vegetarian food during Lent. Many flock to the Church to participate in the Way of the Cross. Many resume the recitation of the family rosary. Some even inflict violence on their body. Is this sort of Lenten observance going to bring about the much needed conversion? Frankly speaking, I have my serious doubts.

The Greek word for conversion (meta-noia) suggests a change of mind, a change in the way we look at life. During Lent we are called to engage ourselves in critical reflection: Is my relation to God right? To answer this question correctly and adequately we need to have a correct idea of God. The God we confess is the Abba of Jesus. He is a God who is Love (1 Jn 4.8, 16). Hence God is always willing to enter into dialogue. God loves simplicity and dislikes pomposity and solemnity. God loves honesty and authenticity, and dislikes show, decorations and makeup. God refuses to be contained within boundaries, and dislikes laws and boundaries that curtail the legitimate freedom of Her children. God makes all things new and He invites us to re-examine the way we formulate our faith and celebrate our liturgy. We can never do this enough, and so we need Lent every year.

What happens when we fail to do this? Here we need to remember what Carlo Martini said a few days before he passed away last year. “The Church is two hundred years behind time.” Martini was no upstart. He was an internationally respected New Testament scholar, the archbishop of Milan, a cardinal of the Roman Church. He was not only a papabile when John Paul II died, but also a fairly acceptable candidate. If the reports we have are correct, noticing a division of votes between Ratzinger and himself during the conclave, he stepped out of the race to prevent the hardening of the division within the Electoral College, and subsequently within the Church. From what I see and what I hear from highly qualified and responsible persons, Martini’s decision was most unfortunate, but what he said is very true. If the Church is two hundred years behind time, then it is the failure primarily of priests and bishops. We are the ones who are most responsible for the tragic situation in which the Church finds herself: two hundred years behind time. To put it bluntly: the Church today does not have the right leaders.

In this year of faith, we are recalling the great gift the loving Mother and Father gave to the disciples of Jesus: the Second Vatican Council. It is very sad that many of us – including priests and bishops – are not aware of its teachings. Hence let me first quote from its Decree on Priestly Ministry:

Since human culture and also sacred science has progressed in our times, priests are urged to suitably and without interruption perfect their knowledge of divine things and human affairs and so prepare themselves to enter more opportunely into conversation with their contemporaries (no. 19).

Let me also remind you of what its Decree on the Office and Ministry of Bishops has to say:

The bishops should present Christian doctrine in a manner adapted to the needs of the times, that is to say, in a manner that will respond to the difficulties and questions by which people are especially burdened and troubled (no. 13)

In order effectively to accomplish these things, bishops, "ready for every good work" (2 Tim. 2:21) and "enduring all things for the sake of the chosen ones" (2 Tim. 2:10), should arrange their life in such a way as to accommodate it to the needs of our times (no. 16).

We cannot respond to the needs of our times without updating our knowledge of Sacred Scripture, Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics. When I say this to bishops and priests their stock answer is: “We have no time.” We also need to evaluate our pastoral style.

We priests and bishops are happy to receive invitations from persons who know us, especially nuns. They make a lot of fuss about us. They make us feel important. They want us to be the chief guest. “Every one is searching for you” (Mk 1.37). But we fail to realize that they are using us as a social decoration. In our highly hierarchical society – the Church and the country at large – priests (Brahmins) – are important. Their presence adds to the glamour of the function. Many Hindus believe that more the Brahmins greater the effectiveness of the rituals. The Hindu blood running in the arteries and veins of Christians is thicker than the water of Baptism. We carry deep within us the Hindu mentality. This explains why there is so much caste consciousness and discrimination within the Church. We are hierarchy conscious: our priests are Brahmins, and of course the bishop is the big Brahmin.

Many of us – bishops and priests – waste a lot of our precious time sitting through cultural programmes, adding grace to the occasion, whatever that may mean. We spend a lot of time visiting convents – first vows, final vows, feasts of the congregation or province or the superior, jubilees silver and golden, etc. Similarly we waste a lot of our precious time going to different parishes: ordinations, first communions, engagements, marriages, titular feasts, feasts of shrines, etc. So also we invest a lot of our precious time in conducting rosaries, novenas, holy hours, way of the cross, pilgrimages, etc. Some of us even think that we have to organize cultural programmes, sports, picnics, etc., for our parishners. Then there is the TV with endless cricket matches, and the internet with whatever you want to see. We need to honestly confront ourselves.

Most of the functions we attend do not need an ordained priest, definitely not a bishop. Even when they do call for an ordained priest, one is enough, more than enough. What then is the pastoral gain of this investment of time, energy and the money needed for our vehicles, attending all those functions? What do we ourselves gain in our closeness to God and effectiveness in our ministry from all that running around? We justify and console ourselves by saying that people expect us, that our presence is a source of encouragement. Who taught the people to expect us? Who provided Jesus the encouragement he needed? Let me be very frank, some people invite us not because they really cherish our company or value our words, but because they think we will be angry if they do not. I know bishops and priests who do get angry when they are ignored. We are very fragile, or shall we say we are very childish. We need to stand before our crucified Lord and ask ourselves: “Why did I become a priest?”

It is not merely the question of time. The reasons are deeper. We find sitting down and quietly reading some worthwhile stuff very difficult. This is all the more reason to make it an essential part of our Lenten agenda. There is still another, a more frightening reason: many of us bishops and priests are more comfortable with an outdated church. We do not need to dialogue with anybody: we can do what we like. We can continue running our institutions without being accountable to the laity. We can busy ourselves with rituals and in the process collect a lot of money Rituals do not call for much knowledge and authenticity. We need not reach out to people: they need us, and so they should come to me. In short we are at home with a highly male-dominated clericalized church.

Today there is a growing malaise within the Church: consumerism and glamorization. This has entered even our sanctuaries. A lot of our precious resources are spent of pompous celebrations and showy buildings by bishops, priests, religious committed to evangelical poverty. At the same time we continue begging funds from the West, forgetting that he who pays the piper calls the tune. We spend a lot of money on social events: engagements, marriages, birthdays, etc. All this money could have been put to much better use in the service of the poor and the needy. We cannot blame the lay people. They tend to draw inspiration from their self-appointed religious leaders and self-proclaimed spiritual guides. On the other hand the gulf between the rich and the poor is widening. We should not allow ourselves to be fooled by the statistics put out by the government

There can be no real conversion without our examining our priorities and the way we manage our time and other resources. Fasting, bodily penance and prayers can be a dangerous escape from our real Christian responsibility. We can live with false complacency. It is not easy to be an authentic Christian today. We have to walk with Jesus. This is the real Way of the Cross. This is the only true Way of the Cross, the only Way we all very badly need today.