I was born,brought up and got fermented as an apprentice rebel in the Roman Catholic Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala. Me and our village poet Josukuttan were ex communicated at the age of 20 along with a group of Islanders in Kadamakkudy for questioning certain theological distortions of the church. We used to bring out anti-Church leaflets periodically and also ensured reaching them out in bundles whenever our parish priest sought his peace of mind in distant retreat centres. The language of our anti-Church literature was acidic. We were to lose the battle with the Church which was foretold. Yet, in an over enthusiastic mode we fought against the Church and eventually lost in the High Court of Kerala. As a result, I had to flee my native island Kadamakkudy and migrate to one of the seven islands of Bombay. Josukuttan put his acid in poetry and me distilled it in my films as a public sector rebel in the erstwhile Films Division, Govt of India.
Kadamakkudy island is marked by now as a major tourist spot for the city dwellers of Ernakulam. Back in the 80s it was inaccessible. Josukuttan and myself rang the Church bell of St.Augustine’s Church,Kadamakkudy after 8pm. The last official bell rings at 8pm at the Church. We rang the bell incessantly in an attempt to gather the Parish people on that turbulent night. My father had his daily quota of country liquor and hence was oblivious of the alarm bell. Rest of the parish elders rushed to the Church. We were ready with our fire-spitting literature which nobody cared to read. The then Parish Priest assigned an articulate village atheist to negotiate with us, the wayward black sheep. We lost our arguments that night to the flourish of a sharp rhetoric.
After almost 40 years on August 20th,2023 on a Sunday, the incumbent Parish Priest of St.Augustine’s Church Kadamakkudy is labelled as a ‘rebel priest’ alongwith around 400 other priests by Papal delegate Archbishop Mar Cyril Vasil. The narrative of rebellion has by now, it appears to me, completed a circular movement with a linear leap in the contemporary Church history. As an insider-outsider of the Syro Malabar Church, I tried to play an interlocutor when I met Mar Cyril Vasil two days back. I presented him a book on Calcutta authored by veteran critic Vidyarthy Chatterjee. Mar Cyril Vasil listened to me very patiently for about 20minutes. In a missionary tone, I had requested him to build bridges not walls, mirroring a thought of Pope Francis. Underscored that around 300 churches which were burned down in Manipur in the ongoing ethnic conflict, is a real issue. On the other hand, 328 Churches in Kochi are going to be kept closed according to an official order from Mar Cyril Vasil. A non-issue which is being made into an issue, I said. How does it matter to me or my son or my grandson that during the holy mass a Priest will be facing me for sometime and then facing the altar during the holy mass! To my utter surprise I found Archbishop Mar Cyril Vasil agreeing to my line of argument. He joined his two fingers of the right hand facing the palm to me and then gesticulated those two fingers facing him. He summarised the entire liturgical conflict in a Haiku performance. However, the whisper from him could not be deciphered till now-“It is only the tip of the iceberg. We have to start somewhere. Till the Papa tells me,it’s enough…” I am still at a loss to comprehend the Papal designs behind this whisper.
Archbishop Mar Cyril Vasil prayed for me. We hugged each other. There is a long queue of people to meet him. I had scribbled my email Id in the book hoping against hope of brokering peace within the Church against which I had rebelled. In hindsight it appears as an ironic image that an atheist had to play, the interlocutor for a theist friction at St.Augustine’s Church in the back waters of Kochi.
In any choreographed movement of power, some ironic and iconic images will always be bloomed for eternity. Like the one image which I had mentioned to Mar Cyril Vasil during our brief meeting. The image of him carrying Christ, which is believed to be filled with the presence of Christ and is surrounded in the picture by a large battalion of Kerala police personnel. Bible is not just a book for me. It is in fact a library of sixty six books. When I read Bible from the Old Testament instantly something echoes from the New Testament and vice versa. ‘The Lord of Hosts’ as captured by the Mathrubhumi daily photographer may make Christ cry and anti-Christ laugh at the same moment!
Joshy Joseph is an award winning writer-filmmaker