FR ANTHONY FERNANDES
Five years after an assassin’s bullet almost killed him, Saint John Paul II, our former Pope on a visit to Australia in 1986, popularised these evocative words of St Augustine, the 5th Century Saint: “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our Song”. Subject to one’s perspective, these words can mean different things to different people.
Unfortunately, like Easter-20, Easter-21 is also celebrated in an unusual manner with restrictions in the shadow of COVID-19 which has refused to ebb even after a year. Painfully, as per WHO, this pandemic has already taken over 2.8 million lives and afflicted nearly 130 million people globally, including India, till date. Sadly, Goa too, has lost 832 precious lives so far. Alarmingly, as we write, we are looking at a second wave of death, sickness and suffering both, in India and Goa as it’s happening in other parts of the world.
In as much as this pandemic has left a trail of death, pain and suffering, it continues to impart us with invaluable faith and life-lessons. One of the most profound of these is intimately linked with the mystery we are celebrating this Easter Sunday called the Paschal Mystery. The Paschal Mystery refers to the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ that is at the core of the hallowed Lent-Easter Seasons that the Universal Church marks annually around the springtime.
The Paschal dynamic of DYING (including Passion) and RISING is fundamental to Christian faith. It is also fundamental to our life-experience in various aspects and spheres of our life: physical, psychological, spiritual as well as personal, professional, political, social, cultural, ecological, etc.
Even though each Christian is immersed in this paschal dynamic of ‘Dying-Rising’ through the baptism, it is crucial that it is appropriated, personalised and lived by every Christian (part of the process of growth in Spirituality) in their particular context for it to be truly effective.
Easter can be truly meaningful when the Paschal dynamic of DYING-RISING is celebrated, not just liturgically and symbolically in the Church, but more so, existentially in our daily life. It has to be lived in the here and now in the prevalent socio-politico-economic context. This can be the most challenging aspect of our Christian Discipleship and celebration of Easter.
If we are to do this authentically, it would be pertinent to examine the three possible existential/behavioural approaches one can take to this Easter or Paschal Dynamic challenge. It would be helpful to take as inspiration some of the key characters of the passion narrative that we heard on Good Friday for this reflection of us.
CAUTION: These approaches do not denote three different categories of disciples, rather three types of behaviours that can be prevalent in each one of us at various times with any one of them being the dominant type at a given time.
ONE: The PRACTICAL ATHEIST a la JUDAS
This type of disciple says and shows he follows Christ but his life-vision and life-values are contrary to that of Christ. He professes one life-vision but lives a contrary one. In practice, this type thinks, acts and behaves as if there is no God. This type puts self-interest before everything else and can go to any extent to get what he wants even if it means outright ‘betrayal’ like Judas or even playing God.
Such Christians are termed variously as ‘Sunday Catholics’, ‘Cafetaria Catholics’, ‘Catholics by Convention’, etc. For such Catholics, Christianity and Christ’s teachings, values are a matter of social status, convenience, etc, as long as it suits their personal agenda. The paschal dynamic means little or nothing in their lives.
The Existential Easter Challenge
The pandemic put to test one of the most fundamental teachings of the Church related to human life and human dignity. Upholding and preserving life from the womb to the tomb is a fundamental social teaching of the Church. This is the reason that the Church has been very vocal about denouncing a ‘Culture of Death’ and promoting a ‘Culture of Life’ over the years.
Sadly, with the exception of the brave and exemplary COVID-Warriors (doctors, nurses, other healthcare and frontline workers, etc.), to a large extent, individually and institutionally, we Christians, particularly in Goa, have fared poorly on this count in this pandemic. While individually we have indulged in Covid inappropriate and reckless behaviour contributing to a culture of death, institutionally, it appeared, we lost our moral voice in the face of a careless and insensitive State that did little or nothing to protect the precious lives of its citizens many of whom were also prominent members of our own community. From the beginning, the response of the State has ranged from utter mismanagement to total disregard for innocent lives and public health. Most of the 832 deaths were avoidable as Covid-19 is not fatal in itself. We have seen in the last few months that the State has abdicated its responsibility to protect and preserve the lives of its citizens. Deaths have become mere numbers or statistics with State officials claiming that the numbers are within the normal range exhibiting total insensitivity to people’s suffering, pain and trauma.
Unfortunately, many of us Christians (faithful as well as leaders) bought this narrative wholesale. Though unacceptable, we could understand the political and economic compulsions for the State to open up in the middle of the pandemic. Many were, however, perplexed at the compelling reasons for our irresponsible actions. A Church that bases its decisions on what can be done or cannot be done or allowed or not (legal concern) rather than what should be done or not (moral concern) has totally lost it. We can say it has lost its focus on its core mission of ensuring the fullness of life that Christ promised (Jn 10: 10). Unlike the State, the Church that stands for a culture of life cannot see deaths as mere numbers or statistics. For the Church, even one death matters and needs to be a cause for deep pain and concern.
Moreover, by our eagerness to open up and even conduct non-essential services and thus aligning ourselves with the State narrative that ‘all is well’; we failed to exert moral pressure on the State to do more to protect and preserve lives of its citizens. In fact, our willingness to ‘play ball’ was a shot in the arm for the insensitive State. To be fair to the Church leadership, however, they found themselves facing undue pressure from those who saw the situation as curtailment of their fundamental religious rights rather than a necessary evil to uphold the fundamentals of our religion. The leadership did remarkably well in standing up to the pressures of the fundamentalists who were on a high of ‘spiritual arrogance’ in the first few months but sadly succumbed to their wiles in the middle of the pandemic.
In the face of the second wave, it would be pertinent to emphasise that the ‘Right to Life’ needs to take precedence over the ‘Right to Livelihood’ for the Disciples of Christ.
The Paschal Dynamic Challenge for individual Christians will be to adhere to COVID-appropriate behaviour by eschewing our selfishness. Being authentic Christians/Disciples of Christ is being responsible citizens concerned with public health and life and dignity of every human person as it is intrinsically linked to the love commandment.
The Paschal Dynamic Challenge for the Institutionalised Church will be to take COVID-appropriate responsible decisions by forgoing our institutional interests. We cannot go by secular thinking and indulge in semantics. Spurious distinctions like festivities and Liturgical services are inappropriate. We need to lead, rather than be led. We need to claim our moral prophetic voice, not just seek to be legally correct. This may even mean taking proactive and bold decisions to promote the common good and wellbeing. With the exception of essential sacramental services, pastoral activity now should be purely to save lives and alleviate suffering. We can even assist the State in its mass vaccination programme to the extent feasible. Alarmed at the slackening of response to the pandemic and some people’s desire to promote herd immunity devoid of vaccine, the WHO Chief was forced to warn last October: “Letting the virus circulate unchecked therefore means allowing unnecessary infections, suffering and death.” He termed it unethical and immoral. It is a pity that a secular organisation had to remind us of this.
TWO: The COWARD TRIUMPHALIST a la PETER
This type of a disciple wants to pompously show that he/she is committed to the Vision & Values of Christ. In a sense, such a person wears his faith on his sleeve. Such a person wants to celebrate his faith/religion with much pomp, fervour and piety. He is very faithful to his religious rituals, customs and traditions.
However, when it comes to the crunch his preoccupation is to save his skin and even go to the extent of ‘denying’ his guru and his mission. Such a disciple wants a religion with no trouble, pain, struggle or suffering.
He desires a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ spirituality promising the moon and loves ‘beautiful services and liturgies’ that serve to give him a ‘spiritual high’. Such a person reduces religion to mere ‘aesthetics’ and a ‘therapy’, ‘opium’, a panacea for life’s ills.
Such a person is too scared to contextualise or ‘incarnate’ his faith. The prevalent socio-politico-economic issues mean little or nothing for him with a ‘not my cup of tea’ attitude. He thinks politics and activism is for scoundrels, not for his type of ‘pious, holy, righteous’ persons.
The Existential Easter Challenge
Goa has been rocked by many socio-politico-economic issues in the last few months such as issues of good governance, participatory democracy, ecological concerns, economic distresses, existential fears, etc.
Some Catholics are rightly involved in responding to these issues but most are unconcerned. They see no connection between these issues and their faith displaying a dichotomy between their faith and life. Their Breaking of the Word (Liturgy of the Word) & Breaking of the Bread (Liturgy of the Eucharist) is bereft of their socio-politico-economic context.
The Paschal Dynamic Challenge for individual Christians will be to bridge their faith with life; to be able to let the ‘word’ get ‘incarnated’ in their particular socio-politico-economic context and illumine their perspective and responses to the issues affecting Goa and Goans. It is crucial that the Disciples of Christ learn to reflect on socio-political issues in light of their faith rather than have a secular perspective. For instance, the rising trend of militant regionalism with its potential for ‘hate-politics’, has to be scrutinised with the Gospel telescope to see its alignment with Gospel values.
The Paschal Dynamic Challenge for Christian leaders will be to help their faithful reflect on their particular context and make a faith response to their specific issues rather than serve them with a ‘pie-in-the-sky spirituality’ or a ‘Triumphalist Church’. Emphasis on Orthopraxis, rather than Orthodoxy, is the need of the hour.
A few years ago, Pope Francis speaking about Triumphalism to Vatican employees said: “A great temptation that lurks in the Christian life is triumphalism like it happened to Apostle Peter. The triumphalism of the Church stops the Church. It becomes a Church that journeys only halfway to its goal of salvation because people become satisfied with everything being “well organised — all the offices, everything in its place, everything beautiful, efficient.” (Homily, 2013).
THREE: The STEADFAST DISCIPLE a la MARY
This type of Disciple is ‘at the foot of the cross’ till the end like Mary, John and other faithful disciples; committed, dedicated, to the vision & values of Christ.
Such a person is steadfast, resolute in the face of life’s struggles, pain, suffering, successes, failures, etc. Such a disciple has truly appropriated, assimilated and personalised the Paschal Dynamic of dying and rising. S/he is unmoved like Mary because s/he has learnt to process things in the right way.
Processing life issues in the light of faith is crucial for a committed disciple. Conversely, thinking of life/growth as a process is vital to one’s spirituality.
Patience and Perseverance are two important qualities to imbibe on this arduous journey. Given the consumeristic and materialistic culture around us we can be easily tempted to seek quick or instant results and get disillusioned when it doesn’t happen. Very few seek to walk the ‘narrow’ path.
Waiting for the Kairos, the Divine time, not mine, for the expected outcome/results with hope and steadfastness is crucial in a process-spirituality. A leader given to process-leadership helps this happen gently, subtly and seamlessly.
The Existential Easter Challenge
Recently, three prominent global democracy-watchers (US-based Freedom House, Sweden-based V-Dem Institute and UK-based The Economist Intelligence Unit) downgraded India’s liberal democracy with one of them warning that it is turning into an ‘electoral autocracy’.
Moderate liberal democracy is perfectly in tune with the social teachings of the Church particularly in as much as it upholds the dignity and fundamental rights of every human being.
It is important that right thinking citizens and groups, eschewing their political persuasions and petty egos, unite to save our liberal democracy. All other issues such as saving Goa, Goa’s environment, ensuring sustainable development, protecting minorities, press freedom et al are all intimately linked to protecting participative, liberal democracy.
Of late, in Goa, we see a worrying trend of the line between political activism and electoral politics being blurred. It appears, classical activism and activists are fading away. Classical activism believes empowering people is a process. It sees and believes in people as the real power rather than seek to capture political power through electoral politics. Therefore, they invest considerable resources in grassroots education famously called a process of ‘conscientisation’ by the Brazilian philosopher and social scientist, Paulo Freire.
Surprisingly, ‘Fly-by-Night’ political NGOs (like it happened in mining once upon a time) are trying to ‘short-cut’ the process by turning wholesale lock, stock and barrel from an NGO into a political party with the same justification as the politicians give when they switch parties. This is alarming as it strikes at the very root of what gives political activism its legitimacy: trust.
The Paschal Dynamic Challenge for individual Christians is first of all to understand that ‘activism’ is a means of bringing about God’s empowering, liberating and life-giving Kingdom, not necessarily sharing the ‘cake of electoral power’. And then committing to this tedious empowerment process even if it means umpteen experiences of ‘dying-rising’ in this long journey.
The Paschal Dynamic Challenge for Christian leaders is to facilitate this empowerment process as a necessary pastoral dynamic, or else, risk being redundant and irrelevant.
May the Celebration of Easter 2021 make the Paschal dynamic of dying & rising real to each one of us in our particular context! May the resolute belief that Easter Sunday has to follow the Good Friday, meaning that our many day-to-day deaths/crosses/sacrifices have to be necessarily followed by the resurrection/victory/success in His time be the potent vaccine we truly need for our spirituality and life! ALLELUIA! BLESSED EASTER SEASON!
(The writer is a Goa Diocesan Priest and has majored in Pastoral Studies, Loyola University, Chicago, USA.)