For some time now the world has been living in the shadow of the leadership of people like George Bush and Tony Blair. One, the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. The other, the leader of a nation much admired for its democratic parliamentary system, its outstanding judiciary and its multiculturalism.
Nearer home we have a Prime Minister of the highest integrity, a competent economist whose dithering on important issues and whose weak, mumbling personality behind the microphone have driven B-schools to get the best scholars to research the new meaning of leadership.
There is a world crisis of leadership. Wonderful nations are being led by the most incompetent leaders.
Is the Catholic Church too, which has followers outnumbering the populations of the most powerful and much admired countries, now facing a leadership crisis as well?
In the year 1984, Pope John Paul II appointed me to the Pontifical Council for the laity for a period of five years despite my known differences with the Church in India, mostly about the marginalised role of the laity in the functioning of the Church. Ultra-conservative members of the Indian hierarchy were convinced that the appointment was due to a computer error.
Be that as it may, I came face to face with the then-Cardinal Ratzigner. We were participating in a conference in a wonderful location outside Rome called ‘Rocca del Pappa’. During one of the discussions I intervened to say that there was not enough sharing of power between the hierarchy and the laity in the Church in India. Red in the face, Cardinal Ratzinger got up and said, “I want you to know that there is no such thing as power in the Church, Mr Menezes.”
It cost me, I’m told, my participation in the Synod of the Laity. I also learnt that the Cardinal was ultraconservative, and allergic to negative feedback but by far the most the brilliant and the most powerful member of the Pope’s inner circle.
I’m quite sure Pope Benedict XVI’s advisers would have advised him of the dangers of quoting from a conversation between the 14th century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Palelogus and a learned Persian.
There must be reasons, good ones, why Pope Benedict went right ahead and quoted Emperor Manuel who said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”
There are many sources from which the Pope could have quoted to make his point. He made the wrong choice. He also chose the wrong time. A time when the whole world is debating the clash of civilisations and making pathetic attempts to deal with what has become now to be known as Islamic terrorism. It was poor leadership at its worst.
No doubt these are stressful times for the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. The churches in Europe are empty. There is a shortage of priests. More and more Catholics are joining religious cults that appear to give them more freedom in their beliefs and warmer and more meaningful relationships within the community. The more the teachings of Jesus and the witness of his followers become relevant in a violent, quick-fix, hedonistic world, the less Catholics are able to tolerate any inflexible, irrelevant practices of the structured Church in which they see themselves as subservient to the hierarchy.
In the dwindling numbers of true believers it becomes ridiculously necessary for a Bishop from Kerala to bring to the notice of his flock that something urgent must be done about those numbers. Unconcerned about the struggles and the pains of parenthood, he urges them to go forth and procreate.
Is there a sense of panic in the Catholic Church? Is it not a fact that Islam has more adherents than any other religion in the world? Is it not that most of those who were converted to Islam in recent times were persons belonging to the Christian faith?
It is a great pity that for most religions — especially the great religions of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity — numbers are becoming more important than the intensity and sincerity of one’s faith as well as a disciplined, undistorted practice of its teachings.
All these issues must have weighed heavily on mind of Pope Benedict XVI. And I believe it took him a lot of courage to say what he did, knowing that a great part of the world would chastise him and that he would become a new target of terrorism.
I may be greatly uncomfortable in the structured and institutionalised Church but I have great faith in the teachings of Jesus. I do believe in the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Father was truly guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit which has made it possible for the Catholic Church to have the right Pope for the right time.
Pope John XXIII, who walked around the streets of Rome and was called Johnnie Walker was inspired, despite much opposition, to convene the Second Vatican Council that changed the face of the Church forever. Pope John Paul II, whose holiness, transparency and unconditional love for people was greatly admired beyond the borders of Christianity, brought the message of peace to a world decimated by violence.
Pope Benedict XVI must have been reminded that the Catholic Church had a great price to pay for its silence during the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis. I believe he was inspired to speak up. To make his and the Church’s stand clear.
In all this polarity one has to look at several things. That the Pope twice emphasised that he was quoting. He also said, “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul,” issuing an open invitation to dialogue among cultures.
All of us are indeed waiting for world leaders to do just that.
(The writer is a management
consultant and an activist with several Catholic organisations.)