Indian cardinal at synod: Church needs 'new way of being' amidst suffering

Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, poses for a photo in Mississauga, Ontario, Sept. 18. (CNS/Michael Swan, The Catholic Register)
This article appears in the Family Synod 2015 feature series. View the full series.

Vatican City — One of India's eight representatives at the ongoing Synod of Bishops has called on the Catholic church to take up a "new way of being" focused on standing in solidarity with the suffering faced by many people around the world.

Cardinal Maran Mar George Alencherry -- who is attending the Oct. 4-25 Synod primarily in his role as the leader of the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church -- said the Catholic community should adopt a new "common style" focused much more on witnessing its teachings than simply proclaiming them.

"There should be a new way of being the church," said Alencherry, speaking in an NCR interview Oct. 8.

"And in that new way, the messenger of the one who gives the message of Christ will become the message," said the cardinal. "His life itself will become a message."

"Jesus' message was his life," he said. "This should happen in the church of today and tomorrow and then only we will have the meaning of whatever we preach and whatever we proclaim. The proclaiming and preaching church has to become a witnessing church."

Alencherry, who is also the archbishop of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly on the southwestern edge of the Indian subcontinent, was speaking in a 40-minute interview that focused both on his thoughts on the synod and his wider vision for the church.

The cardinal is one of three representatives of his Catholic rite at the synod, and one of eight Indians participating from three Catholic churches of different rites -- Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, and the more traditionally known Latin church.

Alencherry began the interview by focusing on his homily during the Morning Prayer before the first working day of the synod, which focused on the role of the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament. Like Jeremiah, the cardinal said in that homily, "the pastors of the church in the present times are called to take upon their lives a prophetic role of suffering and kenosis."

In the interview, the cardinal said that amidst the suffering of the world, "the church has no right to celebrate at this moment in time."

"I think heroically we have to take up the role of the prophets and Jesus Christ to suffer and also to come down to the suffering of the people," said Alencherry. "I feel that unless the church heroically initiates certain ways of visiting the people and being with them, and suffering with them in order to bring them consolation, in order to bring them to God, we are not doing our actual mission."

The cardinal also criticized church leaders and institutions that have adopted as markers of progress worldly standards like efficiency instead of other standards like efficacy of the Christian witness.

Such leaders, he said, "give a kind of leadership which is efficient and effective according to the norms of the world."

"We are in a situation identifying ourselves with the secular vision of humanity rather than the vision given by God through our Lord Jesus Christ," said the cardinal.

"Institutions by themselves are not redemptive," said Alencherry. "Institutions have to be made a real source of the love and mercy of God through the persons who are working in them. But very often these institutions simply became replicas of the institutions of the world, rendering very effective service."

"It is up to the priests, bishops, and lay leaders who take the role of Yahweh to bring the people back so that Yahweh or God may have sentiments or love for the people," he said. "That is our task. It is not an easy task."

The cardinal also said that the church must focus on attracting people through its witness, giving as an example Pope Francis' global popularity.

"Unless we give this message by our lives, people will not be attracted," said Alencherry. "They will question our intentions and motives and they will say that we are going to create a kingdom of power and influence, which is a threat to the other forces in the country."

"The Holy Father is accompanying the whole church by his words, by his witness," said the cardinal. "He touches the hearts and minds of people. And because of that the people are getting attracted."

"Everybody has his or her own charism," he said. "We cannot imitate the pope. But we can do in our way the same thing. All together, we will give a witness that is good for the church."

Alencherry also spoke about the different experience of family life he is bringing to the synod coming from India. He said he thinks the situation for families in his country is "comparatively better" than in other parts of the world because of the widespread practice of religion.

While Christians only make up about two percent of the Indian population, nearly 80 percent there identify as Hindu and there is also presence of Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains.

"We have the context of a religious population," said the cardinal. "Because of this, the family system in India is comparatively better than in other countries." He added that by and large, "children are well cared for, elderly people have a very good place, [and] family prayer is there."

"We have a better context in which we live, but because of the influence of the world economy and globalization, there are certain young people who think we should enjoy in the way that young people in many other countries are enjoying," said Alencherry.

"What I bring is really a caution, a warning … against such tendencies into the community, such tendencies that come from globalization," he said.

"The only safeguard is the accompaniment of the servants of the church with these people," said the cardinal. "That accompaniment is very important."

"As the pope says, go to the people and share with them, discuss with them in a friendly way," he said. "Not simply preaching to them."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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