Pope Francis, the head of Vatican state, is also the Pontiff of the Catholic Church whose world-wide follower-population is around 1.35 billion. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the Premier of Indian state that has almost the same population. While the former was a priest of the Society of Jesus, the latter was a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – and both have been preaching what they believe. So, a meeting between them has great political and ideological significance.
Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council president Cardinal George Alenchery called it a “historic meeting” that will “add more energy and warmth to the relations between our country and the Vatican and the Catholic Church”. There was a lot of optics in the meeting, which included hugging, Bible kissing and gift exchanging.
According to India’s foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla, while accepting PM Modi’s invitation to visit India, Pope Francis said: “You (PM Modi) have given me the greatest gift. I am looking forward to visiting India.” Previously, Pope John Paul II had visited India in 1999.
A damning tweet from Hindutva ideologue Madhu Kishwar notwithstanding, there was unusual elation in the RSS-BJP camp whose followers deride the Pope as the “leader of the cassock gang”, referring to the attire of Catholic clergy. BJP president J.P. Nadda hailed the meeting as an occasion fit for the history books and a great step towards peace, harmony and inter-faith dialogue. RSS general secretary Dattatreya Hosable said the meeting enhanced the prestige of the country and welcomed it because “we believe in ‘Vasudhava Kutumbakam’ (universal family). We respect all the religions.”
Senior Kerala Catholic clergy belonging to the Syro-Malabar Rite seem to be ecstatic. They have hailed Modi’s invitation to Pope Francis as a historic decision that will help strengthen the diplomatic relation between India and Vatican City, and nurture the relationship between various sects of Christianity and other religions. Major Archbishop Baselios Cardinal Cleemis, who once headed the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, saw the meeting as a fresh opportunity for dialogue between the government and the community. According to him this has a historical importance since the meeting was between the head of the largest democracy and an ancient culture and the head of the largest religious community.
In the midst of such cosying between BJP leadership and certain Church leaders in Kerala, there have been stringent voices of dissent. As noted by journalist Liz Mathew in an article for The Indian Express, “Sathyadeepam, a publication of the Syro Malabar Church… alleged that “vested interests” in the Church leadership were making compromises with the BJP-RSS leadership despite increasing attacks against the community (and) that the leadership failed to raise the issue of attacks against the community and its institutions in other parts of the country.”
Father Suresh Mathew, editor of ‘Indian Currents’, told The Indian Express: “BJP has spared no efforts and even supported every attack and hate speech against Christians. Several states have enacted anti-conversion laws which are in violation of the Constitution. The BJP government in Karnataka recently initiated an unconstitutional survey of Christian worshipping places. Bishops, priests and lay groups should be aware of the dangerous situation. Time has come for the Church leadership in India to shed diplomacy and express their concern for religious freedom and human rights protection.”
The BJP’s game
The BJP is looking at the Pope-Modi meeting purely as a political ploy to influence Christian voters ahead of the Manipur and Goa assembly elections next year – the two states with 41.2 per cent and 25.1 per cent Christian population, respectively. The BJP hopes to use the Pope as a tool to prop-up its sagging fortunes in the poll-bound states and also to strengthen its base in Kerala (18.38 per cent Christian population) where some Church leaders are hand-in-glove in their own self-interest and survival. Hence the well-rehearsed event management, photo-ops and optics at Vatican. ThePrint columnist Jyoti Malhotra puts it succinctly: “PM Modi’s embrace of the Pope is photographic proof that one of the world’s most powerful religious leaders is not averse to him…When Modi returns, photo of him with Pope Francis will stand out. Nothing else will matter.”
Fortunately, though, the Pope, who is the Vicar of Christ on earth, cannot be fooled so easily. Pope Francis and his senior curia, such as his secretary of state who also met Modi, do know the extreme Indian situation of communal venom, hatred, intolerance and the torture that Muslims and Christians are regularly subjected to. They are also aware of the “gross violation of human rights and religious freedom in India, violence carried out by the state and non-state actors, including the Sangh Parivar, and prosecution by investigating agencies currently cracking down on individuals and groups in a finely choreographed black opera as well as the prevailing atmosphere of xenophobia,” to put it in the words of John Dayal, journalist, public activist and former president of the All India Catholic Union.
The Gift of the Pope
And so, the Pope conveyed his appropriate message through the gift he gave to Modi – a circular bronze casting illustrating the biblical verse “The wilderness will become a fruitful field”, a quotation from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 32, verse 15. In this biblical verse, there is a hope of better governance in the land. Pope Francis did not convey the message directly but through a parable, which is the language of Jesus. Parable is a story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told in the Gospels. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is universally known, Jesus uses the example of the Jew and the Samaritan, a native of Samaria, the region of ancient Palestine. When the Jew was dying on the road, it was the Samaritan, hated by the Jews, who rescued him and not his own brother Jews, who passed by.
In the mouth of Prophet Isiah, the most prolific predicter before the birth of Jesus, is the vision of an age of peace and prosperity after the end of the prevailing tribulations. The 12th verse, the subject of the gift, gives a comprehensive prophesy of hope that the destruction of the false would be followed by the realisation of the true: “… And justice makes its abode in the desert, and righteousness settles down upon the fruit-field… The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the reward of righteousness, rest and security for ever…”
But it is in the initial verses of Chapter 32 of Isiah that the poignant message of the Pope lies: “Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed, and the ears of those who hear will listen. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected. For fools speak folly, their hearts are bent on evil: They practice ungodliness and spread error concerning the Lord; the hungry they leave empty and from the thirsty they withhold water. Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just.”
One only hopes that the true papal message is understood and heeded.
The writer is a former Army and IAS officer. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)