Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"The India Moment"

Elsewhere in the wide world of church, Lent and Easter are a popular time for meetings of the national conferences of bishops.

Along these lines, as the Indian bishops continue their eight-day session in the eastern outpost of Jamshedpur, earlier today the body elected Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, the major-archbishop of the Syro-Malabar church, as its new head.

A Redemptorist, the 80 year-old cardinal (above right) succeeds Latin-rite Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay in the top post. Made a cardinal in 2001, Vithayathil has served as global head of the 4 million-member church, which claims its descendancy from St Thomas, since 1996. (An eparchy for the US' 100,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics is based in Chicago.)

The highly-regarded Gracias, 63, who was elevated to the college by Pope Benedict at last November's consistory, was elected the body's first vice-president in today's balloting. Reflecting the catholicity of the Indian church, the head of the country's other Eastern rite -- Major Archbishop Basilios Cleemis of the Syro-Malankars -- was chosen as the second deputy.

(For all practical purposes, a major archbishop functions as a patriarch over a sui iuris, i.e. self-governing, Oriental church, albeit without the title of patriarch for himself or his see. At present, the Holy See has established four major archdioceses: Kiev of the Ukrainians, Ernakulam-Angamaly of the Syro-Malabars, Fagaras and Alba Iulia of the Romanians, and Trivandrum of the Syro-Malankars.)

At a Mass following his election, Vithayathil told his confreres that "Communication of faith is the primary duty of every bishop."

"As the apostles assumed leadership in the task of proclaiming the Good News and even laid down their life for the cause, bishops, as apostles’ successors, should be even prepared to lay down life, if need be," the cardinal said.

"Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim the Good News. Complying with that mission, we need to communicate the Good News with courage and commitment, bringing joy and fulfillment into people’s life."

"The Scribes and Pharisees of the time of Jesus knew how to interpret the Scriptures, but failed miserably to open their hearts to the Good News announced by Jesus," the new president added.

"Their rational faith did not lead them to accept the will of God, as Abraham did."

The leaders of the 20 million Catholics in the world's second-largest country -- where an economic boom has drastically altered the landscape in recent years -- India's 200-plus bishops meet in general session every other year; the current gathering is the body's 28th plenary meeting.

Reflecting the body's prominence, the Vatican's Charity Czar -- the Cor Unum president Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes -- made the trip East to deliver an address.

Reflecting on the example of Indian church's most-famed contribution of recent times to the wider world, he said that Bl Teresa of Calcutta's "ideal was not mere philanthropy, nor was her charity inspired by political motives aimed at social reform”, rather in the poor and the dying, Mother Teresa “saw and tried to console Christ himself."

In the wake of recent waves of attacks on Indian Christians, Cordes "pray[ed] that pure and generous love of neighbor, rather provoking suspicion, will bring to fulfillment the command of Jesus: ‘seeing your good works they may give glory to your Father in Heaven.'"

"For Christians," he said, the work of service, "should carry a deeper meaning as a sign not only of human compassion but also God’s goodness."

The body also received a pointed but encouraging message from the nuncio to New Delhi, Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana.

Amid the tensions of recent days, Lopez said the answer lay in "loving the enemies, bringing healing to the victims... and bridging the gap between the rich and poor."

Calling the bishops to "stand for life at all levels," the former top official of the Secretariat of State also urged the body to remember that the laity were called "to take full responsibility in the life and mission of the church."

In response to concerns expressed by the rank-and-file, a focus on "empowering women in [the] church and society" was placed on the plenary's agenda.

According to local reports, a survey conducted by the bishops before the meeting "revealed that a majority in the community did not believe that the church treated women at par with men," and that it "could contribute more towards women's empowerment."