BLESSED  CHAVARA

AND

HIS PROPHETIC MISSION

 

Joseph Pathrapankal  CMI

             One of the basic characteristics of our society is that it makes progress or suffers regression through the role certain individuals play during the course of its history. This is true of social, economic, political as well as religious realms, and this phenomenon keeps on making its periodic appearance, some times bringing joy and hope to the posterity and at other times creating anxiety and fear for the present and future generations. Whereas a Francis of Assisi is responsible for the birth and growth of a dynamic spiritual movement in the Church within Europe and also gradually throughout the world during the 13th century CE and afterwards, the name of an Adolf Hitler is associated with machinating the total destruction of the world order during the 20th century through his political ambition and misguided philosophy of life. It is the vision of life these and similar people held which ultimately conditioned and fashioned the kind of role they played in human society either to promote its growth and prosperity or to bring about its decadence and destruction. The posterity would look back to these persons either with love and gratitude or with horror and hatred, depending on the quality of the role they played in shaping human society at large and in influencing people in their understanding the meaning of life as a whole.

 

            Another remarkable trait of our society is that, on the whole, it is very slow in recognizing and appreciating the importance and the significance of the positive role some persons have played in its history, even if they have contributed something exceptional and worthwhile for its holistic progress and growth in its religious, social and political life. The honour and esteem which Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Indian nation, receive today in India and all over the world after almost a century is a typical example of this initially negative attitude of people at large to acknowledge and appreciate something good and meaningful done for them. A geologist, scientist and theologian was Père Teilhard de Chardin, and he was considered almost a heretic and a bad theologian by the official Church when he was alive during the first half of the 20th century because of some new orientations in theological thinking he had proposed with sufficient theological and biblical background. But now almost half a century after his death his theology and world vision are  exercising great influence on contemporary theology so much so that the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, can be said to have drawn its inspiration and orientation from the theological, teleological as well as the cosmic vision of this great theologian. This is true of many other theologians, past and present, including Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas who was about to be condemned for his efforts to combine Greek philosophy with Christian theology. It took only some time for the Church to acknowledge him as the perennial theologian of the Catholic Church.

 

            Looking around during these times and observing the kind of honour and admiration Kuriakose Chavara, the founder of the CMI Congregation, is getting today, more than a century after his death, we feel that the same is very much true about him also. It was more than a question of the society of his time which did not recognize the significant role Chavara was destined to play in the history of the Church in Kerala during the 19th century CE. There was also something radically wrong in our perceptions and value systems. Due to a cultural bias, we have all been very slow and reluctant in appreciating the many invaluable contributions Chavara has made to the Church in India, and especially to the Church in Kerala. In a certain sense, it is part of an inherited inferiority complex Indians, in general, have developed in their lack of readiness to appreciate the contributions of their own people in their enthusiasm in recognizing and accepting anything foreign and everything that comes from the West. It is heartening and encouraging that, of late, we have started thinking and reflecting for ourselves and affirming ourselves and our persons. We have also begun to appreciate that our cultural and religious identity has a contribution to make to the total well-being and growth of the human society as a whole. It is within the larger framework of this self-awareness and self-esteem that we would present the personality of Chavara as a great prophetic leader of the Church in India during the 19th century CE. In order to understand the prophetic personality of Chavara, first of all, we have to look at the long and eventful prophetic tradition which is very well recorded in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, which is almost similar to what it was about the Church in Kerala during his active ministry and social involvement.[1]

 

Prophetic Tradition in the Bible

In order to understand the prophetic personality of Chavara, we should start by examining the very meaning of the word ‘prophet’ in biblical tradition. A prophet, for many, is primarily a ‘fore-teller’, namely, someone announcing in advance events that would happen in the future. This is not what a prophet is, at least, in essence. The Greek word prophetes is the translation of the Hebrew nabi and, most probably, this Hebrew word is derived from the Akkadian nabu, which has the basic meaning of ‘call’. Hence nabi would mean a person who is called and also one who calls forth. Combining these two meanings, one could say that a prophet is one who is aware of his being called by God in order to speak forth and act in the name of God. The former meaning refers to the specific personality of the prophet as one who is personally called by God for a specific task, as against the kings and the priests in the Old Testament, who received their office through heredity and right. The second meaning of nabu refers to what the prophet was supposed to do, namely, to speak forth and proclaim a message in the name of God and thereby to stand on the side of God and defend his cause at all costs. Hence prophets are not primarily foretellers; rather they are forth-tellers, who speak with power and persuasion. It is such forth-tellers and actors in history who are called prophetic persons and their action in history is associated with prophetic involvement.

What is essential here is the God-perspective and God-orientation of the prophetic personality. The prophets of the Old Testament were no more than ordinary persons when they were called and also when they carried out their ministry. Sometimes they were even discredited for their enthusiasm for propagating religious values. Some of them were seen as ‘trouble-makers’ by a society that was given up to religious indifference. But later generations began to study the role they played for the good of the society. Their oracles were preserved and codified and so we have in the prophetic literature one of the richest contributions of Old Testament theology. The present trend is to understand the prophets as the true defenders of the Hebrew religion, a role which they played not on account of the official religion which was controlled by the kings and the priests, but in spite of them. In fact, kings and priests were those who were supposed to be the real promoters and defenders of the covenant religion of Israel. But they were the least interested in it because they were after prestige and privileges, and most of them were the least concerned about the people. This is an important dimension for understanding the true nature of prophets because it is such persons who have changed the course of history and who continue to change the face of the society at the religious, social, cultural and political levels. It very often happens that at the time of their prophetic involvement, these prophetic persons are seldom noticed and very often they are discredited as offenders and trouble makers because they act against established conventions and popular traditions

            In the course of Israel’s long and complex history there arose several great and small prophets, whose perception of God’s word and his involvement in history was deep and profound. This prophetic tradition in Israel had its humble origins during the early years of Israel’s history in connection with the deliverance of the people from Egypt. Hence Moses can be properly called a prophet (Hos 12:13). But from the time of Samuel, the word nabi was applied to a special class of people in Israel’s society. The professional prophets of that day were the immediate forerunners of the great prophets, of whom Elijah came to be regarded as the representative. But the prophetic phenomenon began with the emergence of ecstatic prophecy, probably borrowed from the Canaanite environment, and it was known for its often abnormal and frenzied manifestations. These prophets may have experienced some kind of ecstasy or possession by a spirit at the time of contact with the supernatural power. But very soon prophetism in Israel was transformed into something very sublime, and prophets played a very important role in the history of Israel. They were spokespersons of Yahweh in the arena of Israel’s complex history.

            Among the many characteristics of prophecy in Israel, an important one is that prophetism reflects a Northern Israelite perspective. The major focus of this tradition was a summons to fidelity to the covenant between Yahweh and Israel established at Sinai. The principal figure is Moses as the mediator of this covenant. Scholars believe that this Northern tradition originated during the period of the Judges and was somehow linked with several of the Northern shrines. Its influence is found primarily in the Elohist layer of the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomistic history and the prophetic traditions of Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah. Southern or Judean prophetic tradition, on the other hand, has a distinctly Davidic character and emphasizes loyalty to the dynasty and its political and religious institutions. Despite this, all prophetic traditions have come down to us with a marked Deuteronomistic quality in them. These prophetic traditions were probably edited and codified sometime during the exilic or post-exilic period by some prophetic persons with a Deuteronomistic sense of history. Post-exilic prophetic material shows evidence of both Northern and Southern prophetic influence.

            The most conspicuous characteristic of prophecy in Israel was its dynamic stance in the affairs of the society, something entirely different from other institutions in Israel, especially kingship and priesthood. Whereas kingship and priesthood were clearly defined institutions that tried to safeguard the political and religions dimensions of the Hebrew society, prophecy in Israel was much more a movement, which was aimed at keeping the holistic dynamism of the nation as a whole. This resulted sometimes in the confrontation between the prophets, on the one side, and the kings and the priests, on the other. As persons fully aware of their direct and personal call from God, the prophets had their positions clearly defined, and this enabled them always to stand on the side of God, to feel with God, to speak on behalf of God and thereby to guide the nation along authentic religious traditions transmitted to them from the time of Moses. We may call it an awareness of being called by God or better still as a “God-sensitivity”. This aspect of prophetism is very clear in the case of Amos, who had to stand all alone and carry out his mission over against the threat from priesthood and kingship (Amos 7:10-16). What is significant about this prophetic stance is the firm conviction the prophets had that they were standing for a cause of God, to which they had been committed from the time of their call. Whereas false prophets changed the tone of their prophetic utterance depending on the material advantages they were getting or not getting, the true prophets of Israel had only one cause to stand for, and that was the cause of God. Hence opposition and rejection did not deter them from the execution of their prophetic task in the Hebrew society.

            It is true that some prophets functioned at the heart of the society as significant members of the political or religious establishment. But many others belonged to marginal groups and they addressed the social scene from a less privileged position. Thus both Isaiah and Jeremiah seem to have had access to the king, to whom they gave counsel, while Amos was an outsider, at the shrine of Bethel where he pronounced judgment on Israel and the nations. Their prophetic call might demand a radical social or religious change, or one that was moderate and gradual. They might press for a return to traditional values and mores or for a steadfast adherence to the status quo. Thus Isaiah warned against a foreign allegiance. The language of Isaiah was clear and bold: “Trust in Yahweh; be quiet and keep calm” (Is 7:4). The warning was also clear: “If you do not stand firm in faith (tha’aminu), you shall not stand at all( the’amenu)” (Is 7:9).Isaiah underscored his message of faith with a characteristic play on Hebrew words and affirmed that the greatest resource in time of trouble is faith, absolute trust in and dependence upon God. Jeremiah encouraged capitulation to Egypt (Jer 38). But he was equally critical of the Temple which he said was no bulwark of security, no guarantee that “God is with us”. Jeremiah’s sermon created an uproar among the people. Nahum directed his attack against Nineveh, Israel’s ancient enemy. The social context out of which and the religious needs to which the prophets spoke, shaped the basic message of the prophets. Hence the word of the prophecy was always a response to a specific social situation in Israel.[2]

Prophets and their Commitment to History

            By ‘sense of history’ I mean the power of discernment humans are supposed to have, through which they want to, and are able to understand an event and its implications in the total context of life, to which they are ontologically, ethically and socially related. People who have this sense of history are responsive to all realities connected with the events, especially if these events are having consequences for the life of the people. To live with a sense of history means to be sensitive to human needs, to the problems and concerns of others. People with a sense of history are more socially sensitive and are more interested in the developmental factors of social life. A sense of history brings together people to identical interests, as they foresee future possibilities with some kind of special intuition. For persons having a historical consciousness it is spontaneous to learn from the past and to face the present and the future in the light of the past. For people with a sense of history, history itself is an experience of creativity and an experiment of creating meaning and a mission for themselves. It is a living in the present with a sense of rational sequencing of past, present and future as one continuum. They live in a mode of experiencing the similarity of the three phases of time in one tick of moment. People with a sense of history will not be subjected to the condemnation of repetition of the past. It is those who are not learning from history who are condemned to repeat it. They are people who speak about a third world war because they have not learned from the first and the second World Wars. It is against the background of these considerations about the sense of history that we have to look at the prophetic sense of history and its repercussions in the history of Israel. Prophetic involvement in history always presupposes this sense of history, then as well as now.

It seems that the most important characteristic of the prophets of Israel was their sense of history. The prophetic sense of history in Israel could be explained as the capacity of these prophets to see the ongoing movement of the past, present and future as something planned and willed by God. Whereas individuals and groups are always tempted to forget their past in favour of the present, often with a sense of opportunism, and also neglect the future as something beyond their reach, the prophets were committed to the holistic understanding of history as a convergence of the past, present and future, as one inter-related reality. It is true that the present is the only one that is available to humans. The past is gone forever and the future is beyond one’s reach. At the same time, the prophets were more than convinced that it was the past of Israel’s history that fashioned their present and that it was that present which would decide and mould their future. In their efforts to guide the people through the changing vicissitudes of history, the prophets had to make clear to the people that their past was different from that of the others, and consequently, that they were expected to be different from others in their present, and that this awareness of the present alone guaranteed their better future. It is precisely in the context of this sense of history that the genuine prophets of Israel were clearly distinguished from the false prophets who were active among the people and who wanted to deceive the kings and the people through wrong guidance given to them in order to have their selfishness and greed fulfilled.

Prophets and the Secular Dimension of Religion

            The above reflections on the sense of history in Israel invite us to analyse the concerns of the prophets of the Old Testament to make the community of Israel respond to the demands of the covenant also in their socio-economic life because this secular dimension of religion was also part of the covenant religion which the prophets were supposed to defend. In fact, what James wrote centuries later about true religion has its basis in the teaching of many of the pre-exilic prophets. James wrote: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). It is precisely this that Isaiah emphasized in the context of his criticism of the externalism of cult in the Southern Kingdom: “Wash yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Is 1:16-17). Starting with Elijah, it was the task of the prophets to guide the course of Israel’s history, very often against the collective will of the established hierarchy of kingship and priesthood. It is significant that we read in the book of kings about Elijah undertaking a journey to Sinai, where Moses had received the revelation from Yahweh about the holistic life and activities of the covenant community also in their social dimensions.

In a certain sense, the whole prophetic movement, of which Elijah is a pioneer, was a pilgrimage back to Sinai, to the sources of Israel’s original faith. The prophets did not claim to be innovators, who came forth with some bright new ideas that would enable Israel to keep their history up-to-date in the onward march of culture. Rather, they demanded that Israel return to the wholehearted covenant allegiance demanded by Yahweh. They were reformers who took their stand on the ancient ground of Sinai. But in a deeper sense the prophetic movement was not a kind of archaism, a timid response to cultural crisis. In the message of the prophets the Mosaic past came alive in the present with new vitality and meaning. What was latent in the Mosaic tradition began to come to fullness, and Israel was given a deeper understanding of the implications of the covenant and Yahweh’s ways in history. Thus the Naboth incident (1 Kgs 21:1-16), in which Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel were involved, provides an excellent preface to the social message of the prophets of a later period. The great Israelite prophets were champions of the stern ethical demands of the ancient Mosaic tradition. Israel’s covenant obedience was motivated by gratitude for the great acts of redemption that Yahweh had wrought on behalf of his oppressed people. Yahweh had created a covenant community in which all stood equal before the law, whether they were rich or poor, kings or private citizens. The whole community was responsible to the sovereign will of Yahweh as expressed in the laws that had been handed down from the wilderness period and refined by legal usage. When the justice of few was downtrodden by the powerful, Yahweh intervened to defend the weak and the defenseless and to restore the order and solidarity of the covenant community. Baalism tended to support the status quo, with the aristocracy on top. But the Yahweh faith, as revived by the prophets, supplied the energy for a protest against the evils of commercial civilization for social reformation.

Thus, when the northern kingdom reached the zenith of material prosperity during the reign of Jeroboam II, economic injustice thrived. As a result, Samaria, its luxurious capital, became the centre of wealth and an oppressive social pyramid grew up with the royal courtiers and the merchant class at the top and the great mass of people ground into poverty at the bottom. The heinous crime committed by Ahab against Naboth was perpetrated on a wider scale, as economic tyrants with the sanction of corrupt courts (Am 5:10-13) “sold the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (Am 2:6; cf. 8:4-6). Amos felt that these crimes would have been shocking to any of Israel’s neighbours with an elementary sense of justice (cf. Am 3:9-10). The prophetic books of Amos and Hosea give a clear picture of the social injustice practised in Israel. Amos pointed out the social injustices of his day with such severity that Amaziah regarded his message as high treason. Wealthy merchants, lusting for economic power, were ruthlessly trampling on the heads of the poor and the defenseless. Public leaders, reveling in luxury and corrupted by indulgence, were lying in beds of ease. The sophisticated ladies were selfishly urging their husbands on an easy life. Law courts were used to serve the vested interests of the commercial class. Religion had no word of protest against the inhumanities that were being perpetrated in the very shadow of the temples of Bethel, Gilgal, Dan and Samaria. To Amos, all these things were symptoms of a deep ‘sickness unto death’. It is in similar circumstances during the time of Manasseh that we hear another prophet, Micah, voicing his concerns about a covenanted people: “What does Yahweh require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8).    

            It is in the midst of these developments that the prophets, as the check-posts of Israel’s history, voiced their concern for the future of Israel in terms of threats and promises, but always standing on the side of God, ultimately articulating their optimism of grace. While Proto-Isaiah sees this bright future in terms of a restored Davidic dynasty (Is 7:14; 9:2-6; 11:1-9), Deutero-Isaiah sees the Servant of the Lord (Is 42:1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12) purifying the nation through his elevated personality and Trito-Isaiah speaks of the one who is anointed by God to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted and to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners (Is 61:1-3). Jeremiah announced the inauguration of a “new covenant” of inner renewal and interiority (Jer 31:31-34) and Ezekiel described the new era of the spirit and the heart (Ezek 11:17-20; 36:26-28). The most important aspect of the mission these prophetic persons is that they wanted to see history as fully taken care of by God, even if human malice and lack of faith and justice on the part of Israel seemed to thwart God’s plans. In fact, there was no question of a history left to its own destiny. It is this prophetic sense of history and commitment to the society that were to be carried on into the history of the early Church with new overtones and new challenges.

Prophetic leaders in the Early Church

            Our discussion about the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament as something committed to its sense of history which is spread out in the various books of the Old Testament would remain incomplete if we do not analyze some books of the New Testament, especially the Acts of the Apostles, which also present the prophetic role played by some authentic leaders in the early Church with their powerful sense of history. Though the Acts of the Apostles apparently is interested in presenting the early Church as a very inspiring and ideal community committed to the gospel, a close analysis of this book shows that it was not the case at all. The early Church was a Church in crisis because it had to discover it is own identity in the context of ideological conflicts. The problem was not about the message that was committed to the Church and her leaders by Jesus, rather it was a question of how they understood it and wanted to put it into practice. Though Jesus envisaged only one kind of mission that would embrace the whole world within the larger context of his announcement of the kingdom of God, the leaders in the early Church were somehow forced to conceive of two missions: one run from Jerusalem, with Peter and the Sons of Zebedee in charge, and later James, Jesus’ brother, and other members of his family; and the other run by Paul, first of all, from Antioch and later on from various centres in Asia Minor and Greece. The two missions were agreed about the supreme significance of Jesus, but they disagreed about almost everything else. It is true that the New Testament, as a whole, gives the impression of a united, developing body of belief and practices because it is a selection of writings. Naturally, it was selected by the winning mission, that is the Paulines, and that is why it consists of many letters of  Paul and four Gospels, two of which are very much Pauline, namely, Luke and John, and the other two building bridges to Jerusalem.

It is within the framework of this critical history of the early Church that we have to see the role played by prophetic leaders who were determined to hold on to the original message of Jesus of Nazareth and were ready to take up a critical stance against the pro-Jewish understanding of the message of Jesus. Over against the idyllic picture of the Jerusalem Church as a community characterized by inner and external harmony (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35), we see tensions and crises growing up among the Jewish Christian members because of cultural differences among them, and this is described in the story of the widows in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-6). As one elected by the community to serve it with prudence and fairness, Stephen, a prophetic leader, realized that the ultimate problem in this crisis was deeper than cultural differences. It was more a question of a sectarian understanding of the religious movement inaugurated by Jesus of Nazareth, and Stephen wanted to safeguard the truth and integrity of the gospel against all sectarian thinking. Hence he had to become a controversial figure in the early Church, apparently calling his own identity into question. As the first authentic witness (martyrs) to Christ, it was also his fate to undergo these oppositions which Jesus himself had to face from his opponents and adversaries. Beyond that, Stephen’s witnessing to Christ involved the same critical attitude of Jesus towards the Jewish Torah and the Jerusalem Temple. It is paradoxical to see that Stephen was criticizing the very same Temple which Peter and John as well as the other disciples of Jesus were visiting several times during the day for their official prayers (Acts 3:1; 2:46). For the first time there was an inner polarization between the Christian community and Judaism. For the first time the Church had to define her inner nature and establish her identity independent of Judaism. Stephen, with his prophetic sense, had the courage to do that, but at the cost of his own life. His bearing witness to Christ meant for him the need to stand for the values that Jesus had already introduced through his earthly ministry and to establish which he had to undergo the scandal of the death on the cross. Stephen also had to face this fate in his being stoned to death (Acts 7:59-60). As the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, Jesus had to die outside the camp in order to sanctify the people and hence he exhorted his readers also go outside the camp in order to bear witness to him (Heb 13:12-13). Stephen, the first witness of Jesus and the prophetic leader of the early Church, had the courage to go outside the myopic camp of a sectarian Christianity at Jerusalem, which was controlled by the Twelve, in order to bear witness to Christ and thus to liberate the Church of the future from all kinds of sectarian thinking.

            The Stephen episode initiated a new wave of tension and prophetic stance in the early Church which is further narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. It seems that Paul was mainly responsible for the killing of Stephen because it is said that the witnesses against Stephen laid their coats at his feet (Acts 7:58) and that he approved of the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1a), which indications are powerful enough in the context of what Luke has to say later on about the reverse role Paul played in the future history of the Church. In the beginning Paul persecuted the Christian movement, which was supposedly a sectarian group confessing a crucified Jesus as the Messiah, much against the basic belief in Judaism. But Stephen had gone a step further when he emphasized that Judaism had only a relative role to play in history and that the Christ event was something transcending and fulfilling the history of Israel, a doctrine Paul was not at all ready to accept until he encountered the risen Jesus on his way to Damascus. The prophetic role played by Stephen in the early Church resulted in a severe persecution of the Christians by the Jews. Were all Christians persecuted? It would appear that only the Hellenistic Christians were the main target of the persecution. In fact, in Acts 8:1b it is clearly stated that the apostles in Jerusalem were not persecuted. If all Christians were persecuted, why were the apostles spared? The reasons seems to be the following: Firstly, the author of the Acts found it necessary to see the Jerusalem Church continuing to exist and operate through the presence of the apostles, and secondly, because the apostles themselves were not a problem for the official Judaism, except that they had the courage to confess the risen Christ as the Messiah. In fact, the apostles were a more a pro-Jewish group, and probably they were not very happy with the stance taken by Stephen towards Judaism. For many, Stephen was a person who was a trouble-maker and so he was to be eliminated.

But the crisis that resulted from this persecution was a beneficial one for the future of the Christian movement. It was a time for the wider diffusion of the power of the Spirit, which had got powerfully started through Stephen. The Hellenistic group, characterized by its centrifugal power, began to take advantage of this situation. Although not authorized by the official Church of Jerusalem, Philip, one of the seven servants of the table, went and preached the gospel among the Samaritans, the bitter enemies of the Jews. But the mission of Philip was a big success, as it is reported in the Acts: “The crowd paid great attention to the words of Philip as he spoke to them and saw the wonders he had performed” (Acts 8:6). In fact, this mission among the Samaritans was part of the programme of witnessing the risen Jesus had entrusted to his disciples (Acts 1:8). The real outcome of this commission should have been that the apostles would never have taken the initiative for this delicate task, because of their psychological aversion toward the Samaritans. But God’s plans about the future of the gospel was not in any way controlled by human resistance. Peter and John went and prayed over the converted Samaritans. Philip was only a layperson; but it is was this layperson who was responsible for taking the gospel outside of the Jewish territory and make it available to the Samaritans. It seems that the daring act of Philip to preach the gospel to the Samaritans prompted Peter and John also to go back to Jerusalem, on the way preaching to the same Samaritans: “They returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans” (Acts 8:25). Although the persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem constituted an apparent setback for the progress of the gospel, as a matter of fact, in a more mysterious manner, it promoted the spread of the gospel into the wider world.

            The role played by Philip in preaching the gospel is further enhanced by the fact that it is also he who was inspired by the Spirit of God to admit the Ethiopian official into the community of the believers (Acts 8:26-39). Through this daring prophetic action Philip, the lay missionary, once again inaugurated the far more challenging mission of the Church among the Gentiles. In fact, in course of time this would become a crucial issue for the Church. This invitation given to Philip to admit the Ethiopian official into the community of the believers gave him a new impetus to preach the gospel in the north-western part of Palestine, such Azotus and Caeasarea where Gentiles lived in large numbers (Acts 8:40). We do not know whether the Jerusalem Church ever came to know about it. But Luke has shown his wisdom and theological insight to draw a broad framework for the missionary work of the early Church through the initiative of a lay leader. As a theologian of history Luke has taken great care to establish that the history of the early Church was more in the hands of God and in the able leadership of a few prophetic people, like Stephen and Philip, than in the myopic vision of the official authorities of the Jerusalem Church. 

Paul’s Prophetic Stance in the Early Church 

            It is within this dynamic prophetic tradition that we have to see the significance of Paul for the early Church, a Church that was struggling to discover its identity in the context of confusing ideologies and misguided loyalties. Though Paul was responsible for his total rejection of the Christian movement as something opposed to the ideologies of Judaism, once he was convinced of the new meaning and challenge of the person of Christ, he was fully committed to this new gospel. But it was not anything easy for him to stand for the full truth of the gospel, precisely because of the myopic approach of the Jerusalem Church to the question of the admission of the Gentiles into the Church. More than anything else, Paul was a prophetic leader of the early Church and the Church of today owes its identity and existence precisely to this great apostle and prophetic leader. The mission Paul and Barnabas started from the Church of Antioch with the inspiration of Holy Spirit and the authorization of the prophetic teachers of that Church in a Gentile area (Acts 13:1-3), resulted in a major breakthrough in the progress of mission and thereby the Church became universal. At the same time, it opened up new challenges and conflicts that demanded a healthy solution.   

            After guiding his readers through a series of historical happenings which ultimately realized God’s plans, at one stage Luke stops to narrate an event which should be seen as the most serious crisis in the early Church which called for a prophetic solution. The timely and prophetic involvement of Peter and Paul averted the crisis for some time. The story has two versions, one by the author of the Acts (Acts 15:1-12) and the other by Paul (Gal 2:1-10). Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch after their first successful mission among the Gentiles and a new atmosphere of freedom and peace was evident all over the area when the gospel regained its transcendent power as something available to all. All on a sudden, a major and unexpected attack came from some members in the Jerusalem Church who questioned the validity of the mission undertaken by the Church in Antioch through the initiative of the Holy Spirit. Some believers from Jerusalem went down to Antioch and began to argue that Gentile Christians were also to be circumcised and directed to observe the prescriptions of the Mosaic law, just like the Jewish Christians. The implied idea in this approach was that these persons wanted to keep the Christian movement as a sect within Judaism. For them it was more a question of accommodating one more sect within the larger reality of Judaism, which was made up of a number of sects and groups, sometimes one opposed to the other.       

            As it happened in the case of the problem of the widows (Acts 6:1-6), here again an official and practical solution to the problem had to be arrived at. It was the question about the identity of the Christian movement in relation to Judaism. Externally seen, it was all about the question of admitting the Gentiles into the Church without circumcision and the observance of the Torah. While Paul and Barnabas had preached a gospel according to which the Gentile Christians were not bound by these Jewish practices, some influential Jewish Christians insisted on the need of obeying these Jewish prescriptions. The author of the Acts had already prepared his readers for a healthy solution to the problem through the story of Cornelius where there was no question of any circumcision. It was all about baptism and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the entire family of Cornelius. Hence in the Jerusalem Council Peter intervenes by stating that no further restrictions should be placed on the Gentile Christians. Apparently the problem was once and for all solved in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-12).

            What Luke has explained as the Jerusalem Council with Peter as the spokesperson and the final authority, has received another version in the writings of Paul and it is the opinion of many scholars that in Gal 2:1-10 Paul is referring to the same event in his own words. Here the accent of the story is on the decisive role played by Paul in the Jerusalem council, much against the general trend in Jerusalem. Paul had to fight single-handed to safeguard the truth about the gospel and he did not give in to any human interference because he was a convinced and committed person. Because of Paul’s strong stance, there emerged a compromise formula about the future mission of the Church, according to which Peter and others would go for a Jewish mission while Paul and Barnabas would concentrate on a mission among the Gentiles. Although the details of this narrative are very much different from that of the Acts of the Apostles, the main conclusion of the story about the freedom of the Gentile Christians stands out clearly in both narratives. Considering the inner nature of this issue from a psychological and cultural point of view, it would appear that the credit of this decision goes more to Paul than to Peter. Hence this is the most challenging prophetic event in the early Church.

            The crisis that started in the early Church with the problem of the widows in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-6) kept on taking new forms until a final crisis threatened to destroy the whole work of Jesus of Nazareth. Thanks to the prophetic involvement of some gifted leaders, every time a solution was reached. But the issue of the diversified qualities of the Jewish and Gentile Christianity always remained a burning issue during the following years also. It is a tragedy of history that people never learn from the past. Religious fundamentalism has its own ways of repeating the past under the pretext of respecting tradition. Some tend to repeat the mistakes which once proved to be dangerous. But Paul had realized for himself that the past he had given up in favour of a better present and future should never be repeated. As a man of conviction and commitment, he always remained faithful to the prophetic call he had received from God. It meant sufferings and rejection for Paul. But he was not discouraged. He had his faith and trust in God and in the power of the risen Christ. Moreover, the bold stance taken by Paul in his liberal attitude toward the Gentile Christians resulted in the leaders in the Church of Jerusalem developing a negative attitude towards the very person of Paul and also towards the collection he had organized for the poor Christians in Judea among the Churches of the Gentile Christians at the request of these leaders of the Jerusalem Church (Gal 2:10). Hence Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome to pray for him so that the offerings he had collected from those Churches with much difficulty (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8:1-9:15) may be acceptable to the leaders in the Church of Jerusalem (Rom 15:31). But Paul was ultimately rejected and betrayed by his own people. The warning of Jesus that “No prophet is welcome in his own country” became true about him though it was Paul who transformed the Christian movement into what it is today.

Prophetic Personality of Chavara

            On January 4, 1871 Father Kappil Mathai Mariam Thathampalli spoke during the funeral service of the late Kuriakose Chavara: “Today the flag of Kerala has fallen down”. Chavara who died on January 3, 1871 at the age of 65 was the flag of the Kerala Church; he was the prophetic leader of a Church for four decades. When people speak of Chavara, it is customary to enumerate his many personal qualities, his various achievements, his many undertakings in pastoral and social areas, such as education, press apostolate and social service. Chavara, however, was more than anything else a prophetic person, a prophet of his time and a prophet for all times. In fact, it was his prophetic personality that made him what he was then, and what he is today. Chavara was a prophet of this kind, a man who was called and also a man who was sent into a society to speak forth and to work in the name of God. The name ‘Kuriakose’ meant ‘someone belonging to God’. Chavara belonged exclusively to God. In the same way as Jeremiah was called at a very young age to work for God, Chavara also had to start his mission at a very young age, and thanks to the awareness he had of his task and responsibilities, he was faithful to the call he received and he was committed to it through his prophetic ministry till his death.

In order to understand the important role Chavara played in the Church and in the society during the 19th century, we should have some clear information about the Kerala Church during those years. After the arrival of the Portuguese colonial powers and their missionary bands, the Church in Kerala had to pass through many unpleasant and adverse circumstances. Looking at the Christian praxis of the St. Thomas Christians as an imperfect form of Christian life, the Portuguese tried to bring in all forms of Western Christianity into Kerala, the climax of which was reached in the Synod of Diamper in 1599 CE. When we evaluate the impact of the Portuguese presence among the St. Thomas Christians, we have to keep in mind two important aspects which reflect their attitude towards the Portuguese. The lack of a correct perception in the balancing of these two approaches accounted for much of the tension that prevailed in the Kerala Church from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 19th century. In fact, in a certain sense the 19th century witnessed the climax of this tension between the Western Christianity and the St. Thomas Christians and it was during these years that Chavara had to exercise his prophetic ministry with maximum care and commitment. 

            The St. Thomas Christians in their relations with the Portuguese appear to have been influenced by two considerations, explicit in their actions, if not in their thinking. The first is the spontaneous feeling of Christian solidarity with their fellow Christians from the West and the spontaneous relief they felt at the thought that these people were powerful people and would help to strengthen their hands. The other, which is more important, was the sense of exclusiveness the St. Thomas Christians had, as regards their community life, a sense which was as strong as the Indian attitude to caste. Hence there was no question of their giving up what was their own either in faith or in customs. Efforts to bring about certain improvements were welcome; but this should not mean a radical change in the accepted ways of life. In the beginning, when the St. Thomas Christians welcomed the Portuguese with such spontaneous expressions of cordiality and Christian solidarity, they took it for granted that the latter would respect these sentiments of theirs. They could never imagine that the Portuguese had other goals in their minds and that they would interfere in the internal affairs of their community life and try to impose their own ways and religious practices on them. After watching the ways of the Portuguese and studying their intentions, the St. Thomas Christians became apprehensive and more cautious in their relations with the Portuguese. Several instances of unwanted meddling with their age-old ways and customs were witnessed, and this resulted in their resentment and made them dislike them.[3] It is true that during the early part of the 16th century their attitude was not marked by any violent reaction. But later on it was a period of confrontation which reached its climax during the 17th to the 19th century, which was a  period of search for the lost identity and unity as well as struggle for autonomy, which all resulted in the restoration of a good measure of autonomy. But unity and identity were very much in danger. Consequently, the picture of the Church of the St. Thomas Christians during the early period of the 19th century was that of a Church in crisis and also that of a decadent Church at all levels. This Church was very much in need of a holistic renewal in view of an authentic growth and transformation. It is precisely this task which Chavara had to take up and, thanks to his pastoral vision and prophetic commitment, he could lead the Church of the St. Thomas Christians to a glorious future, although he himself could not see much of that future.

            Looking at Chavara’s personality one could see how he ventured not on a line of confrontation, but rather on a healing mission in a Church in crisis. What Chavara did was to renew the Church from within and guide it with a remarkable sense of pastoral vision. This he could accomplish precisely because of his prophetic personality. He had great sense of faith and divine intimacy. As in the case of the prophets of the Old Testament, Chavara had a profound sense of history which stretched back to origins of Christian faith in India from the 1st century CE onwards. He knew only too well that the Church in Kerala had an authentic apostolic tradition and a genuine spiritual wealth which had got blurred and confused through the historical vicissitudes of the 16th and 17th centuries after the arrival of the Portuguese. Hence, the Kerala Church was in need of a radical renewal and revitalization. The clergy needed to be updated. Christian families had to be renewed from within. Chavara took up the challenge and did whatever he could to bring about a lasting renewal of the Church in Kerala. Chavara found education as the sure means of guiding a community towards a better future and with this goal in mind he encouraged the parishes to start schools for the education of the children. The absence of Christian literature had its adverse effects on the Christians and Chavara started a printing press to help Christians understand the importance of ongoing Christian formation. Chavara gave importance also to social actions, such as caring for the sick and the suffering. For him faith education was an important dimension of pastoral ministry. Renewal programes were started in parishes for making the people aware of the importance of leading an authentic Christian life.

            More than anything else, it was the Rochosian schism which brought out the real prophetic role of Chavara. Though he was fully aware of the need of maintaining the identity of the St. Thomas Christians and their cherished traditions, for which a bishop of their own ecclesial tradition was the ideal, Chavara was more concerned about keeping the unity of the Church under the Roman Pontiff rather than falling a victim to the thrill and enthusiasm that was created in Kerala through the arrival of Thomas Rocos. It was in his fight against this schismatic bishop that Chavara proved his real zeal for the Church, something similar to the fight of Elijah against the Canaanite gods. Chavara gave more importance to universal values of the gospel and was ready to sacrifice narrow interests of the sake of common good. This is a lesson which all have to learn from Chavara, especially at a time when there is so much energy spent on exercising and establishing one’s own identity in ecclesial traditions at various levels.

            The prophetic vision of Chavara enabled him to relate himself to the various aspects of the life of the Christian community and to adopt ways and means for educating and revitalizing it from within. His pastoral vision was so comprehensive that no aspect of Christian life was left out in his all-embracing commitment to transform the society. Thereby Chavara tried to restore the authenticity of an ancient Church in matters of discipline, worship and spirituality. Through this he expected to create a better Christian community, a better clergy, better Christian families and a better Church. The many vocations to religious and priestly life from among the St. Thomas Christians during the past several centuries owe their inspiration and rationale to the renewal of Christian families undertaken and accomplished through the efforts of Chavara during the 19th century.

            The two religious communities which Chavara founded, both of men and women, have to take up this prophetic task of renewing the Church in Kerala and thereby building up and spreading the kingdom of God, not only in the narrow geographical boundaries of Kerala but also throughout India and, as far as possible, in other parts of the world. They have to become more and more prophetic in their thinking and action; but above all in their personal life. They have to be proud of being the spiritual sons and daughters of a prophetic leader who in the remote past, with so little possibilities, accomplished such great things and, at the same time, led an authentic Christian and religious life. For those of us who are living in the beginning of the 21st century all what Chavara planned and did for a meaning Church is evident and inspiring. But the fact that more than a century ago Chavara had planned and launched all these apostolic activities implies nothing less than a profound prophetic vision and a radical commitment to the cause which he had set before him. While remaining grateful to him for all that he has done and bequeathed to us, we should take up the challenge of his vision and mission as something precious.         

Prophetic Persons in the Church: Their Role in our Times

            The Church in our times also passes through a series of crises and this is true of all Churches. What is important is that we should have a positive approach in the face of these crises because they belong to the very dynamics of growth. It is all the more so because the Church is not a mere human institution. It is at the same time divine and human, visible and invisible, this-worldly and other-worldly, and it could very often happen that the human, the visible and the this-worldly obscure the divine, the invisible and the other-worldly, and sometimes they try to blur and extinguish the divine and the invisible. It is painful to face these crises, but it is inevitable. Paul was referring to the crises in the Church of Corinth in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and he concluded his observation with an optimistic note: “It is good that there are factions among you” (1 Cor 11:18) because factions and crises reveal who are genuine and who are not genuine. What we very much need today is the presence of women and men, characterized by wisdom and having a share in the Spirit of God, who not only initiate crises but also guide them to a successful outcome in such a way that the Church can emerge as the real servant of the kingdom of God. The prophets of the Old Testament, Stephen, Philip and Paul were all characterized by this wisdom as well as a dynamic sharing in the Spirit of God, and they invite us to do the same in our times, not for the sake of crises themselves but for the good results that have to result from these crises.

            The history of the Church during these past several centuries also has witnessed several prophetic persons who have changed the face of the Church and the course of history through their prophetic involvement. But it is true that precisely at the time of their involvement some of these persons were suspected as heretics and destroying the inner reality of the Church. But time has proved that they were right.The decisive factor in all prophetic involvement seems to be an ecumenical vision of things and issues, through which all issues related to humanity are understood as the concerns of the Church. Although ecumenism as a theological discipline grew up in the Church as an inter-Church issue in the context of the many divisions in the Church, today ecumenism is understood more as an approach to things from a wider and cosmic perspective, faithful to the inner meaning of the Greek word oikoumene, as the inhabited earth. Ecumenism is essentially a cosmic vision. It has intra-Church, inter-Church, inter-religious, intra-humanity and intra-cosmic concerns. Ecumenism is hope in action, hope that the Church will be one, hope that the world will be one, hope that the obscurities of our life in this world would be clarified and its frustrations overcome when we see Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one, as the hidden dynamism of history. What the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic promulgated by the Parliament of World’s Religion in Chicago in 1993 should serve as a model and pattern for the world of prophetic leaders to reflect on, to discuss and motivate the religions and the society to move into action.[4]

Towards the end of the Babylonian captivity Deutero-Isaiah exhorted Israel who had by then developed an introvert psychology of closing their doors to all other issues and concentrating only on their own petty interests: “Widen the space of your tent, extend the curtains of your home. Do not hold back! Lengthen your ropes, make your tent-pegs firm, for you will burst out to right and to left” (Is 54:2-3). This exhortation is very much applicable to the leaders of the Church in our times who are also challenged to go out of their centripetal world of limited horizon to the wider world of God. Human society, as such, and the Church, in particular, during the course of history are always blessed with the presence and the active role played by prophetic persons who were gifted with a vision of things far beyond their own inherited and limited world vision. At a time when Christian life in Italy was undergoing a major crisis, it was the prophetic personality of Francis of Assisi who took up the challenge of renewing the Church through his radical renunciation which created a wave of spiritual renewal during the following many centuries, and which still stands as a challenge to the value systems of contemporary society. Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelsen Mandela have all bequeathed their own prophetic contributions to the societies of their times which we have to admire and appreciate, as we stand on this side of history. The latter half of the 20th century was blessed with the prophetic presence and activity of Pope John XXIII who changed the face of the Roman Catholic Church and the role of the Church in the world through his courage and optimism. It is the very same prophetic personality that inspired the Albanian Mother Theresa of Calcutta to launch a spiritual movement of seeking and caring for the least and the lost that made her name great and glorious in the midst of a consumerist society where, unfortunately, greed and not need is the criterion of human enterprises, both political and religious.   

Prophetic persons are very much needed for the growth of the society and the Church at large. It is their task to think differently, to speak a different language and to act in ways that are not the usual.  What Karl Barth, as a theologian of the Word of God, has contributed towards a dialectical theology during the 20th century, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer has persuasively established through his non-religious interpretation of the Bible and through his message of Christian worldliness, what Karl Rahner has convincingly developed in his doctrine of theological anthropology and the complementary understanding of nature and grace, what the scientist-philosopher-theologian Teilhard de Chardin arrived at through his innovative theological conclusions about cosmogenesis and a theology of optimism and hope within the context of a coherence of the sacred and the secular, and what Hans Küng has painstakingly established through his ever-widening ecumenism from inter-Church through inter-religious to intra-cosmic are all prophetic contributions which we have to share and develop to make the Church and her theology relevant and meaningful. What M.A. Thomas in the Indian Church did through his total ecumenical vision and what M. M. Thomas in this country achieved through his integrated vision of the unity of the temporal and the spiritual order and through his struggle for the humanization of the self and the society, sometimes as a dissenter and rebel, often crossing established borders and barriers, and what D. S. Amalorpadass contributed through his relentless efforts to make the Church truly and authentically Indian through his courageous efforts of inculturation and other challenging programmes should always remain as a source of inspiration for the younger generation of prophetic persons in the Indian Church.     

            In the Book of Numbers we read the story of Moses exclaiming before his people: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them!” (Num 11:29). It would also be the prayer of Chavara as he now his sons and daughters spread far and wide in the world, that they all become prophetic leaders like him with a sense of history, that they all display a prophetic vision in their life and carry out a prophetic mission in the world of today, that they all think and act in the present with a sense of the past and a vision of the future, that they do not remain satisfied with the given and the established, but rather that they transcend the limitations of the present to live into the future, that they develop a broad vision about their mission and become available everywhere and to everyone in this vast world of God in order to transform it into the kingdom of God.

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[1] Cf. Joseph Pathrapankal, “Chavara: a Prophet of our Times” Journal of Dharma  15(1990) 71-76.

[2] Cf. Joseph Pathrapankal, “History and Prophetic Involvement” in Time and History: Biblical and Theological Studies, Asian Trading Corporation, Bangalore, 2002, pp. 77-116.

[3] Cf. A.M. Mundadan, History of Christianity in India, Vol. I, Theological Publications in India, Bangalore, 1984, pp. 490-492.

[4] Cf. Hans Küng-Karl-Josef Kuschel (Eds), A Global Ethic. The Declaration of the Parliament of the World’s Religions (London: SCM Press, 1993).

 

 

 

 
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