(Part I was published on October 6, 2012)
This is an article wrote for the Journal, Soul and Vision, by Father John K. Thekkedam (also known as Swami Dr. Snehananda Jyoti). With the permission of Soul and Vision we are publishing this article in three parts.
What do we need to do? 1. In general, we need to reform ourselves first through a passionate search for truth and an unrelenting commitment to follow the teachings of Christ. 2. In particular, we need to familiarize ourselves with the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, the Word of God. A Revised Standard Version of the Bible with the Apocrypha and Deuterocanonical Books approved by the Catholic Church is a good Bible translation in English, used by many Catholic seminaries training priests is a good ecumenical Bible to have. It is important to know Bible first hand before someone else’s interpretation, however scholarly it may be. Protestants generally are more familiar with the Scriptures. Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, interpret Scriptures literally or even selectively to prove their own particular view-points. At a discussion I had with some Catholics, they did not know who the first pope was. They did not know the first pope, Peter, was married (Mathew, 8: 14). They did not know that the Apostles and the disciples of Christ including Peter (Cephas), except Paul and Barnabas, were accompanied in their ministries by their believing wives (I Corinthians, 9: 5). 2. We need to study the history of the church to get acquainted with our traditions. To get a quick history of the Church is to read a good life of the popes as the history of the popes is also a history of the church. A very balanced ‘Lives of the Popes’ (from St. Peter to Pope John Paul II) by Richard McBrian, a catholic priest and a former chairman of the Department of Theology of Notre Dame University, is a good book to begin. In the tortuous and horrid history of the popes and the development of papacy as we know it today, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to see the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In all charity, at the most one can say is that God permitted the institution of Papacy. According to the Second Vatican Council the Church is the people of God. In that Church you and I and the pope have the same rights. Nobody needs to excommunicate or be excommunicated by any one. We all belong to the same family. We know what happened in 1054 when the Pope Leo IX’s legates excommunicated the Ecumenical Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, Cerularius, who in turn excommunicated the Pope’s legates. Centuries later, in a saner world in 1965 Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Eastern Orthodox Patriarch, Athenagoras I, nullified the anathemas (excommunications) directed at each other.
We need to be assertive and take back our own God-given rights that have been usurped by authorities in the church for their own ends with perhaps good or misguided intentions. We also need to remind ourselves that according to the Second Vatican Council the Church is the people of God. We are not second class citizens. Each one of us is as important as any bishop or pope as members of the Church. The Church is not the Magisterium or the governing authority brought about or appointed by the Pope. The vicious cycle is complete. The Magisterium is not the church as a political party ruling a country is not that country. The magisterium changes but the church does not.
The early history of the church shows that the Bishop of Rome (who is also the Pope) was selected by popular acclaim or chosen by powerful kings or emperors. In the history of the church there were popes who were married. There is report of at least one pope who was a son of a pope, another pope who was a grandson of a pope. The youngest pope elected was only eighteen years old who came to be known as the boy pope. Popes created cardinals who were their nephews giving origin to the very despicable practice connoted by the word ‘nepotism’. The youngest nephew made cardinal was only five years old. In the medieval times there were instances of popes being imprisoned, starved, poisoned, or deposed by vying political factions. There was a nauseous instance of one pope calling what is historically known as Cadaver Synod to put on trial the exhumed corpse of another pope to condemn him and then throw the body into the river Tiber. That kind of cruelty, barbarity, and inhumanity does not befit any Christian much less the Head of the Church, the most visible representative of Christ on earth. There were popes and anti-popes. At one time there were three popes each one of whom claiming legitimacy. There were also popes who were notorious for extreme debauchery and rampant immorality. There were popes who resigned. So popes do not have to be for life. All human beings age and become physically and mentally weak and frail at a ripe old age. Popes are no exception to this human condition. So they need to voluntarily quit and make rooms for others or are made to retire through appropriate mechanisms in place. There is no special sanctity attached to the person of the pope as pope. The honor is given to the title as head of the church. Citing a few statistics related to the lives of popes, I am giving a little flavor of what went on during dark and or unenlightened ages. One might also ask what all this has to do with holiness and the message of Christ and the Kingdom of God. One thing is certain that there is no need for carrying over the feudalistic, authoritarian, autocratic structures and practices of less enlightened past to this day and age. The church as a spiritual institution should set a shining example to the secular institutions, and not merely trail behind them or, worse, build road-blocks to legitimate human aspirations and progress.