When Narendra Modi Meets Pope Francis

On the night of the twenty-third of October I was woken up by a rather agitated message which read: “I hear that Modi is meeting the Pope…It legitimises what is being done to minorities – Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, and Dalits and women.” “The Holy Father should not meet him” a second message continued. These messages were referring to Prime Minister Modi’s now confirmed meeting with the Pope in Rome on the thirtieth of October, prior to the former’s participation at the G-20 meet in the same city.

My agitated friend was not the only Christian in India to so respond. However, there is no reason to react in such a manner. Contrary to the suggestion from the Indian media, the meeting is a routine encounter between heads of state. Pope Francis will also be meeting with President Biden of the USA.

Nonetheless, contemplating the unease for a while longer, I realised that there is an opportunity for Catholics in India to show Christian witness. Thus, not only must Pope Francis meet with Prime Minister Modi, but in doing so the Pope might possibly lead the direction for a wholesome Catholic (and Christian) contribution to politics in an increasingly troubled India.

We need to go back in time to three incidents to appreciate my logic. The first incident is the letter written by Thomas Macwan, the Archbishop of Gandhinagar, in November 2017, the second, the letter by Anil Couto, the Archbishop of Delhi, in May 2018, and the third, a letter by the Archbishop of Goa, in June of the same year. All the prelates urged Catholics to pray that the elections – the elections to the State Assembly of Gujarat in 2017, and the elections to Parliament in 2019 respectively – result in the selection of persons true to the values of the Constitution and the dignity of the human person.

A furore was, surprisingly, raised in all three cases, largely by supporters of the BJP, based on the assumption that the prelates were instigating a political action against the BJP. In doing so, they made a fundamental error in appreciating the nature of Christian prayer. Directed by no less than Christ himself, the Christian does not, indeed cannot, pray against persons, even if they may be enemies. The Christian is obliged to pray for persons. To quote Christ from the Gospel of Mathew when he preached the beatitudes, “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” for, he reasoned “if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” What no one seems to have told the BJP at the time, was that Christian prayer was most certainly not directed against them, rather if the BJP was in fact guilty of acting against the values of the Constitution and the dignity of persons, then the prayers were probably for their benefit.

This insight into Christian prayer must then determine how Pope Francis might respond to a desire of the Indian Prime Minister to meet with the Pope. Carrying over prayerful love into action would first require showing courtesy; for did not Christ promise “knock and the door will be opened to you”? Indeed, a perusal of the Gospels demonstrates that Christ was attentive to courtesy – considerate to the cries of those who called out to him, and even chastising those who sought to shoo away those who, like the repentant woman who anointed him with nard, sought to do him honour. Christ’s chastisement focussed precisely on the fact that these hosts did not show him the courtesy due to a guest, which this woman was now showing him. And it is not just Christ who stressed courtesy. The Bible is peppered with instances of courtesy as a mark of grace, and indeed, as in the case of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, they were violently punished for violating the code of courtesy to a guest. Courtesy, as a gospel and biblical value, demands, therefore, that the Pope meet with Prime Minister Modi.

But practicing Christianity is not simply about being polite and civil. It is also about being honest to the truth, even if it requires plain speaking. Christian love is not so much an emotion, as it is a process. In December 2015 Pope Francis inaugurated the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy; and significantly, one of the spiritual acts of mercy is correcting the sinner. Receiving someone with courtesy does not mean one simply papers over the problems with one’s brother. On the contrary, it obliges us to demonstrate how our fraters have violated the higher laws of God. Pope Francis will have much to communicate in this context to Prime Minister Modi, and we know that he will seize this opportunity.

He will perhaps communicate his concern that the Union Government presided over by Prime Minister Modi has not been doing enough to secure the bodily integrity of the various minoritized groups in India. He will also express the anxieties of multiple religious orders and congregations whose representatives are often denied visas to enter the country, especially if these representatives or their orders or congregations are seen as being too vocal in their critique of the state-of-affairs in the locations they visit, or work in. The Pope would also have to express his concern of how the rights of Overseas Citizens of India are being constrained, by requiring that they do not engage in any missionary work. Then there is the question of how conversion to Christianity, especially by those marginalised by state and society, is being effectively criminalised in India. The impending survey of churches and conversions in Karnataka is another crucial issue to address. And then there is the entire matter of detention camps being constructed in India.

Pope Francis would also, no doubt, like to discuss how his Jesuit confrere, the late Fr. Stan Swamy, was callously treated by the judicial system. In discussing this matter, the Pope will be aware, no doubt, that while Fr. Swamy died under the BJP’s control, the UAPA (Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act) that was eventually responsible for Fr. Swamy’s death was articulated by the Congress government in 2008 – pointing to the deeper lack of justice in the Indian state. None of these difficult, but necessary, conversations would be possible without the extension of the basic courtesy and hospitality.

No, Prime Minister Modi must have audience with the Pope, for refusing him this dignity would be tantamount to not showing the love that Christ demands of us even in the face of those who wish us dead. In acting with the law of Christ, Pope Francis could offer a useful measure for the politics of Christians in India: pray for those who persecute you, love those who hate you, refuse to dismiss them as incorrigible enemies, but create the situations so that we can fearlessly correct them in charity; a situation that, as we have already seen, the Catholic prelates in India have systematically been attempting to articulate. All of this requires that we shift our understanding of the ‘political’.

The values of “woke politics” which harshly condemns those who have made mistakes, or even committed crimes, has taken too strong a hold on contemporary politics. In the clamour of vengeance, and the ardour of self-righteousness, there seems little space to extend common and basic courtesies, or indeed the desire to correct the individual fraternally. Christian teaching is based, however, on the idea that vengeance is the Lord’s, not ours, and that violence to our bodies is not as harmful as is the violence to our souls. What Christian teaching brings to politics, therefore, is the suggestion that there is something more important than payback in the immediate, since everyone will be judged fairly at the end of times, and what we ought to focus on is the love of our neighbour, even if the neighbour prove oneself an enemy.

Writing in 2012, and studying the Catholic Church and political practice in Tamil Nadu, the social scientist Aparna Sundar observed on the various factors that that “lead it [the Catholic Church] to articulate a secular, even radical politics as its primary mode of religious engagement.” This tendency needs to be recognised as a problem, because it often, if subconsciously, denies the fundamentals of the Catholic creed, and we need to return to understanding Catholic politics as one that works between the realms of the natural, and the supernatural. It is only with a firm belief in the supernatural, and the promises of Christ, that we would be able to articulate a genuinely Catholic politics in India. This we need to do, because at this troubled moment, this is precisely what India needs.


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Jason Keith Fernandes is a researcher at the Centre for Research in Anthropology, ISCTE-IUL, Lisbon. His other writings are archived at www.dervishnotes.blogspot.com

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