Think Tank Meeting

MAR 01

Stimulating, Challenging, Enlightening

The “Think Tank” meeting organized by National CRI in CRI House, New Delhi, on January 28 and 29, 2019, proved to be stimulating, enlightening and challenging.

The members included: Brother T. Amalan FSC (National President, CRI), Sr Rose Celine Fernandes BS (President, Women’s Section), Fr George Panthanmackal MSFS (President, Priests’ Section), Fr Joe Mannath SDB (National Secretary) and the following experienced and competent persons who were called in for their experience, wisdom and familiarity with the issues religious face: Brother Philip Pinto CFC (Former Superior General and involved with several religious orders), Fr Varkey Perekatt SJ (former Provincial of South Asia, and provincial for two terms, who has a 20-year association with CRI), Sr Sujita Mary SND (former General for two terms, who had lived and worked among the poorest people of Bihar and then with the Bihar Government), Brother Paul Raj SG (former Director, CRI Brothers’ Institute, Bangalore, and member of the Montfort General Council), Sr Teresa Attupuram SCJM (Provincial and President, North Region of CRI), Fr Denzil Fernandes SJ (Director, ISI, Delhi, and Head of the Jesuit Think Tank), Sr Anastasia Gill PBVM (Practising lawyer and member of the Delhi Minorities Commission), Bro Laurence Abraham SCSM (Former Provincial and representative of National CRI at NEG-FIRE), Fr Paul Moonjely (Director, Caritas India), Advocate Tehmina Arora (President, Alliance for Defending Freedom)

To set the right tone for our mutual listening and learning, we started with Psalm 139, which assures us that we are never alone; we are always held in the love of a God who knows what we need, and never forgets us for a single instant. Our confidence and serenity in facing reality comes from this awareness.

A Passion, a Vision, a Clear Understanding of Reality

Bro Philip Pinto spoke with deep conviction of the need of a deep spirituality, beyond the mere recitation of prayers, a need to discover the real Jesus and to share God’s concern for His world. “Don’t ask what the world needs,” he challenged us. “Ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” The church or religious life should not be self-referential (focussed on ourselves). One essential aspect of being true to our call is not to live any lie, to reject untruth in all areas of life. Many of the structural aspects of what we are used to as religious life are dying, and we need to face it. Several new initiatives pushing humankind forward are coming from secular forces, not from religious circles.

Fr Denzil Fernandes SJ addressed us on the “Changing Indian Situation and Our Response to It.” We need to understand what is happening today, and why. Events that seem unconnected are not what they appear to be. We need to understand the polarizations taking place, the difference between Hinduism and Hindutva, the influence of neo-liberal economic policies, the majority-minority issues, the rise in intolerance and curtailing of free expression. We need to network better, have a pluralistic approach, be ecologically sensitive. Religious become irrelevant if our main concern is maintenance, or if we waste too much energy on celebrations. We need to understand the new situation and respond creatively.

Sr Anastasia Gill PBVM reminded us to make use of Government policies, scholarships, etc., and to do our duties as citizens. Many Christian children drop out of school, often unaware of scholarships. The Church needs to respect sisters more and listen to them.

Advocate Tehmina Arora, President of ADF, spoke of the Theory of Significance that may help us understand some of the acts of violence we see today: Poor or unemployed young men can be influenced to commit acts of aggression if it makes them feel significant (important) as part of something greater. She also spoke of the need to document what is happening, and to stand by the victims, whoever they may be, and to take action as needed.

Fr Paul Moonjely, Director of Caritas, spoke of its close association with forty religious orders, and some ways in which CRI and Caritas can collaborate better, especially in times of natural disasters or other calamities.

Sr Sujita SND gave a moving account of her life among the Mussahars of Bihar, and how she found Jesus by living among the poorest. She saw the openness of government officials to her presence in government work, and how her opinion was respected. For us, the mystical and prophetic elements must go together—God-experience and concern for the least.

Bro Paul Raj SG presented ten issues facing religious in India and suggested some approaches in dealing with them. The issues he addressed included: rejection of patriarchy and other forms of oppression; the need to be more involved in the digital world; the issue of multiculturalism; the unnecessary founding of new religious congregations; the need to study religious life in India scientifically.

Sr Teresa Attupuram SCJM, President, North Region CRI, presented the status of the “Peace and Reconciliation Committee” on which the CRI and the Bishops of the region have been discussing for three years. The aim is to settle disputes and other issues amicably. This can be done by setting up a committee of persons acceptable to both the dioceses and the CRI. Such an agreement has already been accepted in Tamilnadu. The North Region hopes to get this finalized soon.

Our hope is to have such agreements in all regions, and at the national level.

Lay Collaboration, Tasks Before Us, Need to Look Ahead

Fr Joe Mannath SDB, National Secretary, presented the results of a short questionnaire which he had prepared and circulated to the members before the meeting. The questions were on: The strengths and weaknesses of religious life today, the helpful and tough aspects of our setting, our main role and tasks as religious, and priorities for the near future, especially for those in leadership.

Many other valid points came up during our exchange—too many for this short report.

One issue religious in India need to face and study seriously (and implement) is collaboration with the laity. India has many competent and well qualified lay women and women. We need to involve them more in our ministries.


As a follow up to this “Think Tank” meeting, we need to do the following things. The decisions have to be taken by the CRI National Executive. Among the ideas that came up for follow up are these:

  • Set up “Peace and Reconciliation Committees” in every region.
  • Set up “Disaster Management Committees” together with Caritas.
  • Study and research on Religious Life in India.
  • Make sure all have a voter ID, and do our duty to vote.
  • Make inspiring videos on Indian religious.
  • Set up a digitalized archive of source material at National CRI.
  • Look ahead to the new forms the religious

As I listened to the Think Tank members and felt energized by the sharing, I was reminded of what a senior and very competent Spanish Salesian asked me after spending three months in India and meeting many Salesians: “Spain was like this fifty years ago—with many young religious and young seminarians. My own province used to have thirty or more ordinations a year. This year we may have one. Most of the Catholic schools are led by lay persons. Are you all living in the past, or looking ahead to the future?”

A good question for us, Indian religious, to reflect and act on.

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Jan 16

The recent floods in Kerala and Coorg caused incredible damage, of course. There is no denying the unprecedented nature of this disaster.

But what was equally evident, and even more striking, was the exceptional human heroism and solidarity so many people demonstrated in the wake of the tragedy. As we know, suffering brings out the best and the worst in human beings. Some reached out with selfless concern and did heroic things—of which the fisherman of Southern Kerala were an outstanding example. Others used to chance to promote bigotry and blame the victims. Both are aspects of human beings.

What is the role religious orders played in reaching out to the survivors?

Nothing short of heroic, to say the least.

In fact, most observers would admit that the Catholic church provided the most effective, the most extensive and the most immediate relief work after the floods.

Speaking in the name of CRI, I am talking mostly of what religious communities did; but I must add, without any hesitation, that a number of parishes and institutions run by dioceses and parishes did yeomen service.

A priest said, “As I heard of the floods, and stood wondering how to help, I found that I did not have to look for help. People came to me spontaneously, asking: ‘What can we do?’ I opened our halls to shelter the people who were brought. But I did not have to worry about food or water. So many individuals and families came with food.”

Another said, “As soon as boats started coming into the town carrying people most of whom were drenched and shivering, some Sisters from the neighbouring convent rushed there with hot coffee and tea. Seeing this, bakeries and other shops nearby brought eatables for the people—all for free distribution. The shopkeepers did not use it as a chance to make a fast buck.”

A collector said on TV how impressed he was by the generosity of the people. He made an appeal on social media, expecting that by evening a truckload of food might come in. Instead, so much more food and water was brought by people—and the material kept coming.

Some religious orders opened all their houses to shelter the flood victims. Others took in hundreds of people and provided them not only food, but also clothes, since many of the survivors had rushed out from flooded homes with just the clothes on their back. Young people volunteered; and they informed people through social media.

One lovely trait so many commentators noted: Neither the help-providers nor the beneficiaries asked which religion or caste people belonged to. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this same sense of oneness were evident in normal life, too, and not only in times of tragedy?

Grown-ups and college students moved around, going to homes and offering to clean up the mess after the waters receded. They did this as a free service, of course, not for money.

It is impossible to quantify the contribution of religious in this unparalleled saga of human generosity. How do you measure the day and night availability of religious to the victims? How do you calculate the help given by institutions that opened their gates and hearts to all those who needed a safe place, clean food and water and urgent medical attention?

The financial contribution given by the religious orders in Kerala to the church’s relief work (according to one source) exceed sixty-six crores.

As for the National CRI, I wrote to the Major Superiors that all those who wanted to contribute money, could do it through Caritas, since Caritas has the experience in dealing with emergencies and the money would be accounted for. This is only a small part of what the religious orders spent or donated directly. Even this small part, which was routed through Caritas, exceeds 1.5 crore.

Following Jesus’ teaching to do good without a show (“Let not your left hand know what you right hand is doing”), most have done impressive and even heroic work without publicizing it, nor seeking kudos. There were no complaints about discomforts, nor efforts to get the people to move out, nor waiting for Government help to compensate for what Catholic religious houses or parishes or schools or colleges spent so generously.

The Church’s well-functioning official structure, its dedicated cadre of religious and priests and committed lay persons, and the general trust most people have in the Church and in its personnel proved their worth in this time of tragedy. So, too, as writers from elsewhere in India noted, Kerala’s commendable atmosphere of inter-religious harmony, sense of human dignity, self-confidence and political awareness, coupled with the state’s overall human, social and economic development, prevented greater loss of life and property, and facilitated mutual trust, open collaboration and effective remedial action.

We, religious, are at our best when human needs are pressing, when unpaid work is called for, when people need to be treated according to need, not affiliation, and where others fear or hesitate to step in. Examples abound, all around us. The recent floods are just one instance.

Fr Joe Mannath SDB

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