Is the Church poor?

Speaking of the Archdiocese of Bombay, my late friend and mentor. Fr Larry Pereira once said, “There are no poor Churches.”  This statement needs context. Larry, as I called him since my youth, was an expert in his own right in ‘local’ Church History and even more had the power of observation and a memory to match it. His interventions at clergy meetings were insightful, based on reality and peppered with humour. If Larry stood up to speak at a clergy meeting, the house listened and often erupted into what many might consider an ‘unclergy-like chuckle,’ for his tongue-in-cheek comments. He spoke truth to power and truth to his companions, as he did with me.

Larry did not make this statement lightly. Having served as Youth Director for the Archdiocese of Bombay, he opted to work in the missions. He spent the next eight-odd years in Kalamboli which back then was just being urbanized. He took the state transport bus and never owned even a motorbike much less a four-wheeler. He did however come from a very affluent family and we would often ask him in jest to share a ‘thin slice’ of his property with us. From this context, he said, “There are no poor Churches in the Archdiocese of Bombay.”

Larry did not for a minute discount poverty or the fact that many Catholics in the Archdiocese of Bombay struggle to eke out a living. In effect, what he did by often making this statement, was to challenge the Church to be more Christ-like in its giving.

Several years ago, the former finance minister of India, P. Chidambaram added several clauses to the functioning of charitable trusts. One of them demanded that charitable trusts spend 85 per cent of their annual income within the financial year.  At a meeting with the clergy, the Archbishop of Bombay agreed wholeheartedly with the principle. He said, that by its nature, charitable trusts were created to assist in charity and not hoard cash deposits in the bank. If money is collected in the name of charity, then why is it not spent? And if we make a case for ‘saving for a rainy day’ then we throw the providence of God out of the window!

As former priest-in-charge of a small community of believers at St Jude Church, Malad East, I found myself ‘shepherding’ a congregation of 800 souls. A majority of these wonderful people were financially challenged and a Sunday collection never exceeded Rs 3000/- a week; two of which were sent to the Bishop’s House.

On making a representation for the needy in my parish to the archdiocese, its then financial administrator and also the present administrator (then an assistant) with the consent of the Archbishop, stepped up to the plate providing educational, medical and pastoral assistance on a project basis. Accountability was crucial to this process and only a scrutinized utilization certificate would see the next project passed. Anyone who chooses to ask on behalf of the poor will receive but must be ready for accountability. Checks and balances must be in place.

The Archdiocese of Bombay under the brilliant mind of Bishop Percival Fernadez (who baptized me, gave me my first communion and then inducted me as priest-in-charge) created a corpus fund to help Catholics in the Archdiocese of Bombay when in need of medical assistance. He did not want to see a catholic running helter-skelter when strapped for funds in medical emergencies.

He sent in place a simple but effective procedure to help the needy. The parish priest was to render immediate assistance from the community welfare fund. Half that amount would be reimbursed to the parish by the archdiocese. If the need arose and more financial assistance was required, the parish priest had but to write (with supporting documents) to the archdiocese. I can tell you that when I appealed for help in three such cases, the archdiocese sanctioned rupees five lakhs each.

Having said that, this corpus must grow as the interest of the corpus has to be scattered over a year. Bishop Percy does not need a reward. He who humbly washes his car and drives himself and long ran a premier Medical School has seen and understood pain and poverty. He saw and acted and to quote to him his often-said words to others, “God bless you!”

St Jude’s did not have much financially. It did however have generous souls. To meet the weekly quota of food grains for the needy, parishioners, many of whom themselves struggled, would wrap up the last hundred odd grams of grain, sugar, flour or rice in their kitchen and drop it in a box at the start of the mass for someone less fortunate. Offertory, at St Jude’s, began before the mass.

Poverty must not and should not be glorified. It needs to be addressed intellectually and pastorally in every parish. A Bishop once said to me that he sensed that some of his priests were not generous in caring for the poor and needy during the COVID period. Many middle-class Catholics slipped silently into poverty during this time. Here is my contention and perhaps a rather controversial one for some. If a bishop is forced to act against a priest for sexual misconduct or failure to perform sacramental duties, should he not act swiftly when the scandal of poverty is not addressed in a parish?

I am sure some will argue, “Have you not heard of the pride of the poor?” Ahh, but then the rich have no pride? Is it? Poverty cannot be condoned and Churches must respond and must do more to bring dignity to the lives of members of their congregation. If we are still debating on how many packets of food we need to give to a family and have not deliberated on how to educate their children or give them a home with dignity, then our pastoral care is lopsided. Even ‘The Master’ gave more than crumbs from his table!

There are many, who reading this article will begin with their ‘what aboutery’ or even more deliberating on issues such as, “is this the forum to address such matters? I have raised these and other issues at general and private forums. I often feel I am barking up at any tree much less the wrong one.

These articles are written to stimulate thought and growth within the Church. If we cannot be open to listening to viewpoints and want to hush every issue under the carpet then we are truly a POOR church and that poverty is the worst.

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A vegetable garden soaked in blood – Monday, 11th week in ordinary time – 1Kings 21:1-16

There is a familiarity with this storyline of today’s text. Lest you strain your brain, 2 Samuel 12:1-5 tells us of the greed and lust of King David in taking Bathsheba for his wife; this, when scripture names eight of his wives while mentioning that he had many more.

 What makes a person believe that they can snatch away even the meagerness of the poor when their coffers are bursting? In Ahab’s case, we might be compelled to attribute it to his nature. Chapter 16 of the same book tells us that he was the worst King of Israel in Yahweh’s eyes. How then do we explain King David, a man handpicked by God himself to be ruler over his people?

At the heart of these narratives lies two realities that find themselves doing a robust tango; power and greed. Even those who sit on a stool of power (much less a chair) begin to think that they are not accountable to anyone, trouble sets in. They falsely come to believe that the power they wield is everlasting. How the mighty have fallen, yet history has taught us so little. But when power gets intoxicated, it pushes its boundaries to poach on any and every area and greed is first on that list.

Ahab had God’s mercy poured all over him. Chapter 20 tells us of two battles which God won for him over Benhadad, King of Aram (Syria). God ensured a total victory for Ahab and Samaria. Benhadad had come against the nation of Israel will a coalition of 32 kings. Israel on the other hand had a rag-tag army of young men who served as district governors. These were no fighting men!

Yet God wanted to make a point; He was the one who would win a victory for Israel and not Ahab. Ahab, could not see the light. For him, this was his victory and he went against the wishes of God and made a treaty with the enemy whom he was told to destroy. Ahab made human alliances rejecting the covenant that he had in place with God.

Now that power has intoxicated him, greed stood next in line. Ahab had the world at his feet and yet he coveted Naboth’s vineyard to cultivate vegetables. Naboth declined the offer of money because the vineyard was his ancestral property. The Lord, the owner of all of the land of Israel, had forbidden Israelite families to surrender ownership of family lands permanently (Leviticus 25:23-28; Numbers 36:7-9). Naboth feared God, not Ahab. This sale of his land was never on the table in the first place.

The text of today tells us of Ahab’s shenanigans. A king with a crown throws a star tantrum. We are told he is ‘resentful and sullen.’ ‘He lays down on his bed, turning away his face, refusing to eat.’  His tantrums come to the attention of Jezebel, his queen and wife.  Her evil was legendary.

Like with Christ, a mock trial is called for at the behest of Jezebel. False witnesses (in this case two scoundrels) bring charges that Naboth has blasphemed against God and the king. These charges are ratified by the ‘men of the city’, the elders and the noblemen. At Jezebel’s bidding, they take Naboth outside the city and stone him. Ahab now has his vegetable garden watered in blood.

So many elements in this narrative and those of 2 Samuel 12:1-5 prefigure the trial and death of Christ, of the proto-martyr Stephen and the many martyrs and confessors. Little has changed today.  It is not some fleeting longing for power or greed that we experience but rather an in-your-face reality that has pervaded our world. The devil continues to use these tools effectively to manipulate the world.

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Why I disagree with Pope Francis

Pope Francis is known to make off-the-cuff remarks. Many of these have left the Vatican press office scampering for cover. Recently he apologised for using an anti-gay slur during a meeting with Italian bishops. That comment in itself was illogical when weighed in with the many ‘pastoral’ overtures to the ‘least the last and the lost.’ But what has got my goat this time is his comments on the duration of homilies and more technically the breaking of ‘The Word.’

A few days ago, on June 12th the Holy Father at a general audience said, “Priests should keep their homilies short and speak for a maximum of eight minutes to prevent members of the congregation from nodding off.” If I am right, this is the fourth time he has made such a comment in public.

To my mind, such comments, introspective as they are, are demeaning and demoralising when made in public forums which do not have the faculty to bring about changes on this matter. This statement would be well received if Pope Francis was speaking to a group of clergymen. These comments are nothing short of playing to the gallery; one that leaves a poor taste in the mouth!

The consequences of such comments are scattered all over the media and the internet. Borderline and lapsed Catholics love to add their spice to the unfolding drama. I received a forward on the matter from a lapsed catholic who is also a dear friend. His message was meant to hit hard for he said to me, “You are warned!”

It is no hidden secret that the quality of homilies across the board is poor. But what should be fixed is not the length of the homily but the quality of the content. You don’t walk into a cinema and expect to be told a story in eight minutes, much less break the word of God. To think that the pulpit should compete with ‘Ted Talks’ is playing into the hands of those who want ‘God-talk’ silenced.

Clearly, the Holy Father is troubled by the feedback he gets on lengthy homilies. But there are thousands of excellent preachers of the Word who have held us riveted for hours. We don’t want less of them but rather more. It is not the length of the homily, Holy Father, but the content that you should be talking about. I can listen to Bishop Barron, Fr Michael Payyapilly and the late Archbishop, Fulton Sheen for hours on an end, not speaking of the many preachers of other denominations who hold their congregation captive; hanging on to every word that comes from the preacher’s lips.

The Holy Father sits in a position of authority that can bring about real change rather than cheap chatter.  If he so desires, he could summon the powers that be, to evaluate both seminary formation and how homiletics is taught.

In the Archdiocese of Bombay, we spend years studying philosophy and theology and yet the speech and homiletics class is held just once a week with a seminarian getting to practice his prepared homily perhaps once in three weeks. If the face of the priesthood is the Sunday homily, then should this class not be graded like any subject of theology or philosophy? The fact is that no one has ever ‘failed’ seminary formation (as they would do for other subjects and issues) for a poor homily because homiletics is not taken seriously in our seminaries.

If the Sunday homily is (ironically) the face of the priesthood, then we need reform. We must invite the best from the secular and the religious world to train and form our seminaries. The Redemptorists were known for homiletic content and style because they spent hours training their seminarians on what was their forte. Sadly, few of that generation live on.

Even more, if we admit, as we should, that the overall quality of homilies in the Church is dismal then why do we continue to teach a failed methodology in our seminaries? I can say with certainty that the methodology for teaching homiletics has not changed in more than 25 years and if that be so then why do we insist on using a failed methodology? Which organization in the world, knowing that a product has failed, does not work backwards to fix it?

While I don’t agree with the manner and mind of the Holy Father on this issue, I do believe that it is time that the Bishops of India and seminaries across the board put their minds together to churn out better preachers. If not, we will continue to talk through our hat Sunday after Sunday.

Fr Warner Dsouza

Do leave your comments……

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Stepping into the closet (dealing with irrational fears)

So much of our daily life paralyses us. We are often faced with a to-do list as long as our arm but the thought of what lies beneath and beyond leaves us terrified. Letting lying dogs lie does not work because the nagging feeling of an unaccomplished task never leaves you. Let’s take cupboards, closets and drawers for example.

Many play hide and seek with their closets. Ironically, it’s a one-sided game for it is not the hiding that is the issue, that comes easy! If you care little for arranging your freshly washed laundry then you find yourself chucking everything in the drawer or closet and all you have to do is walk away; it is now hidden. It’s the seeking that gets vexing especially when you have to pull it all out for that one white shirt that you know is whiter than the others.

Then there are those like me. We colour code and arrange our washed laundry and separate the Sunday from the weekday wear. Towels have their place and so does the bed linen; if that’s not enough we have separate sections for single bed sheets and doubles and don’t forget the Christmas sets. No, we are not neurotic we are simply organized!

Yet there comes a moment, when no matter how you choose to live your life; that closet, that cupboard and that drawer must be cleaned out and arranged. I am convinced that clearing and cleaning out closets is a universally disliked activity. It is as if the ‘boodaman’ (an imaginary Indian ghost) is hidden somewhere beneath the bed linen and the curtains. It’s a place you don’t want to go and FOMO does not apply here.

Procrastination does not help.  The reality of daily opening the closet confronts you with that job not done. How easy it would have been if the closet did not have to be opened daily and yet it has to. Why are closets like so many other areas in our life, so hard to deal with?

Today was ‘closet day’ for me and guess what? It was not all that difficult! Fear had paralyzed me into thinking it was insurmountable.  Procrastinating what was just a regular chore had made me sentenced to self-inflicted house arrest.

So much of our lives are like our closets. The task at hand may seem like climbing a mountain but it’s a pleasant walk up a hillock. So here is what I have learnt. Get the bull by its horns. I am sure you won’t find the ‘boodaman’ hidden inside, rather like me, you will have a clean closet. Oh, by the way I also found some cash.

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This recipe is from a very old cook book

Pork Vindalho
1 kg. pork (cubed)
6 onions
15 flakes garlic
2″ piece ginger
20 Kashmiri chillies
3/4 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. peppercorns
1″ piece whole turmeric
6 green chillies (slit)
salt, tamarind, vinegar and sugar to taste

Finely slice the onions, 6 garlic flakes and 1″ of ginger.
Grind together the Kashmiri chillies, cumin, peppercorns, turmeric, and the remaining garlic and ginger. Fry the green massala (ie., the onions, garlic and ginger) and when brown add the pork, then the ground massala, and fry for 10 minutes. Next add warm water sufficient to cover the pork. When the water has reduced to half add the green chillies and the sugar, salt, tamarind and vinegar to taste. Simmer on a slow fire till the gravy is thick

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