Christian Voices from Mumbai

CCRI, Mumbai

Mumbai is a city that never sleeps. It is the industrial capital of India and much of the international business and offices are situated in the city, employing staff that are familiar with or getting familiar with the international culture. The lifestyle is fast and highly competitive for young professionals. With unforgiving workplaces that often result in people working anywhere between 8 to 14 hours a day mostly six days a week, young adults are quickly moving towards a burnout at an earlier stage of their lives. Thus, the underlying stress only seems to get carried over every weekend and entertainment or social networking becomes an easy outlet.

Amid all this, religion, faith and the family have a great potential to bring a balance in the lives of young people. However, many Christian youth in Mumbai are disillusioned by what is offered by the institution of the Catholic Church. I worked with youth for years as a student and a young professional and have had such discussions with numerous colleagues, classmates and neighbours. For this report, I invited over 20 youth to answer the questionnaire, and while all were interested, only eight could make enough time to answer a few questions and present their views about the Catholic Church. Most of the respondents informed me that they did not attend Mass regularly. They respected the Institution of the Church but could not relate to its current way of functioning. While all attended Mass regularly with their families when they were children, this practice has waned for most of them. Some found peace and solace in the quiet at home rather than the repetitive ceremony at Mass, while others found peace in the atmosphere of their church. Some attend only because they want to spend that time with the family or because of familial pressure (in Asia, most young adults either live with their parents or in-laws in a joint family system). Considering the stressful work life in Mumbai, some respondents simply chose to rest on Sunday. Mass isn’t the only place we find God. Sunday School prepared us to understand our faith, yet, it was better understood when we made our own inward journeys, analysed what we learned and applied it in our lives. Because of this, the compulsion or the dependence on Sunday Mass is reduced and we continue to live Christian lives and only attend Mass when our minds and bodies are prepared for it and are capable of making it a complete spiritual experience.

From the responses, it is evident that the youth feel that the church refuses to move with the times. However, all agreed that they noticed attempts by the hierarchy of the Church to catch up with the modern times (such as equality in the washing of the feet, mercy towards refugees, etc.), although the traditions still remain medieval. We have observed a contradiction that Christianity is about love but forces the followers to fear God with the threat of eternal damnation. The church must move ahead from believing that ‘only prayer can solve problems’ to a more realistic approach of ‘action can solve problems’ – keeping in mind the inequalities and poverty that exists in the world.

The respondents agree that the institution of the church has helped many Catholic youth by teaching and promoting gospel values, using effective leaders who have been an inspiration and by creating opportunities for leadership and community initiatives. In encouraging people to imitate Jesus in his message of social activism, mercy towards the marginalised, humility and charity, we can be called to an authentic Christianity.

Young people, however, are action-oriented and would rather use their energy to work for the community than be restricted to praying in an enclosed space. Many of us are willing to work and reach out to the poor. We are willing to ‘get our hands dirty’ in working for others. However, in our experience, the teachings of the church are merely spreading fear, criticising the youth culture, threatening with negative outcomes and appears more like a dictatorship than a religion about love. This makes us distance ourselves further from the church. Indeed, we are often young and naïve but the institution of the church needs to focus more on becoming partners with young people – knowing them, understanding their experiences in a way that they can create safer environments where young people can make rational and informed choices.

‘The church needs to focus more on becoming partners with young people – knowing them, understanding their experiences in a way that they can create safer environments where young people can make rational and informed choices. The church should prioritise the safeguarding of Human Rights of people especially women and children.’

“Priests of the parishes live in a biblical bubble and really need to listen to people to get some perspective.”

The hierarchy of the church should prioritise the safeguarding of Human Rights of people, especially women and children. At a youth event in Mumbai in 2016, young people questioned the absence of women in most decision-making positions within the Church – especially due to the lack of ordained women – and the recognition of only those women as saints who are submissive rather than those who challenge unfair social norms. The response by conservative Catholics on this issue is not only insufficient, but also illogical. Faith without reason is truly blind, and we are willing to put our faith in the Church if it gives us valid reason to do so. We live in an educated society where we understand equal rights, social norms, etc., without the need for the Church to define it for us using its own archaic anti-women/misogynistic laws. Meanwhile, the focus on ‘youth-centric activities’ is sometimes overdoing it. Young people end up in youth groups, with no real service done in a society that really needs help. The church needs to accept the current cultures and join with people of other faiths rather than remaining aloof and criticising other faiths. One youth stated, “priests of the parishes live in a biblical bubble and really need to listen to people to get some perspective.” In living lives where they are fully cared for and always listened to, priests have lost touch with the reality of human struggle. The bible and canon law are the strengths of the church but the reality is that we live in a world that is run by different rules and challenges. The hierarchy of the church must listen to the experiences of the young people and adapt to it. Our struggles are real – be it substance abuse, sexuality, sexual orientation, education, debt, parenting, exploitation, jobs, etc. So are our concerns about family planning, safe sex, sexual abuse, contraception and abortion. The church can no longer pretend that we can escape these realities. As one youth states:

“Young people are at an age where we like to question the things around us. At this stage, instead of justifying irrelevant practices it should remove the ‘shroud of hypocrisy.’” It is no surprise that young people prefer the influence of the social media which is relevant to our realities. Social media has helped spread universal values like support, peace, humanity, care for creation, LGBTQI rights, feminism and global movements such as #HeForShe and #MeToo. It has created global platforms and encouraged sharing. Cultural sharing is at its maximum, but within the Catholic Church, a medieval culture remains prominent. While our grandparents might enjoy it, we question the need for our Church to remain as a museum of the past rather than being a guide to the future. The Institution of the Church has the capacity to guide without judgment. It needs to become more approachable, with approachable people whom the youth will not resist. The Vatican is right in stating that social media has also created unrest, promoted instant gratification, and loneliness. One youth agreed saying, “We are, as a generation, becoming very robotic and mechanical in our thinking, attitudes, and behaviour. The internet culture is becoming a dominant culture and is slowly taking away our lives and our true identities as rational human beings who ought to care for one another and not harm or hurt other individuals.” The internet appears to older adults as a place infested with violence, sex, thieving, oppression and objectification of women. How different is that from the realities hidden in the current Church?

We do see the positive side of the Church, too. Young people in Mumbai recognised the church’s ability to bring the community together through its programmes. Missionaries have kept the interests of the people in their mind. The promotion of gospel values and the use of its resources to reach out to others is laudable. Under the leadership of Francis and the efforts of Christian activists, the church seems to rethink and reinvent itself to make itself effective. The strong system of networks, platforms, institutions, social movements are a great strength for the church. Of course the strength of the church is also the faith of the people, without which there will be no church. We see the popular belief among Christians to attribute the outcomes of our lives to God, creating an opportunity to shirk the responsibility of our bad choices. Rather, we must begin to face life and make choices using the gospel values rather than giving up and pretending to let God work on our problems.

We young people think there are many areas in which the Church needs to urgently ‘upgrade’ itself:

  1. ACCEPTANCE: Accept the life-choices of the people as long as it doesn’t harm themselves, the people around them, or the environment. Accept people for who they are and not what they want to be, regardless of caste, creed, sexuality, social status. Offer unbiased guidance.
  2. TRANSPARENCY: Transparent in action, financial dealings, and the selection of Bishops.
  3. RESPECT: Teach that we must respect each other, especially those of other faiths, rather than pretending to be superior and divisive.
  4. FAMILY LAWS: Church law related LGBTQI rights, marriage and annulments, abortion, contraception and sex must be made after listening to people who belong to these groups and understanding the medical and social science behind these choices.
  5. POLITICAL PARTICIPATION: ‘Change cannot occur if we only spend time in the church to pray.’ The Church must not discourage but rather encourage Christians to be involved in political movements that protect the democratic rights of the people.
  6. COLLABORATIVE EFFORTS: The church finds itself called towards a mission to the poor. It must thus learn to collaborate with grassroot-level groups and the locals in achieving their goals.
  7. CHURCH OF THE POOR: It is hypocrisy if the Church preaches poverty while it houses some of the greatest works of art and museums. Jesus was not born in a museum. The spirit of the Church is not within statues and paintings, but in the simplicity and struggles of life.
  8. EQUALITY: Laws of the church should treat women and men, lesbian, gay and transgender as equals. Similarly, the authority of priests, nuns, and lay persons should be on par with each other. Women should also be given the same rights as men to celebrate the Eucharist. There is no logical reason to avoid this.

‘Why do we only preach against radical Islam … (but not) Christian groups like the KKK?’

We young people are distressed by the injustice around us, that which is suffered by us, and that which we see within the administration of the church. The hierarchy of the church is ridden with politics. Our church is not yet inclusive and this is our weakness. The purity of the church is not weakened if we are inclusive of those of different castes and classes, rather it makes us whole and stronger. These words are spoken often, but not practiced by members of the hierarchy.  One youth raised some pertinent questions:

  • Why is there no response of the Christian/Catholic community towards the Israel-Palestine conflict?
  • Why is it that as a global community we (selectively) deeply sympathise with Christians persecuted by ISIS and not by Zionism?
  • Why do we only preach against radical Islam but haven’t addressed the issue of right-winged Christian groups like the KKK?

The magisterium of the Church seems to only promote gender stereotypes using the example of Mary and Joseph and the stories in the bible. The very structure of the Catholic Church has to change, in the way Jesus wanted – with the poor making up the centre, and the privileged serving them and supporting them. Women like Priscella and Phoebe have made an impact in early Christianity, but today Mary and women saints are simply presented as maidens or objects of purity.

One youth who came from a challenging background had been taught that priests have to live a life of simplicity and we have to keep helping them. But as a youth when he saw some of the pantries of the Churches, he was surprised to see that the religious are actually provided with every comfort and even the luxury of imported alcohols. The few priests and religious who do good work and live simple lives are mostly ignored by the church’s hierarchy. Those missionary priests would make better shepherds, better bishops than the current ones. Why is servant-leadership ignored by bishops who are living comfortable lives of luxury with so much attention given to them for the little they do, especially the patron of priests, St John Marie Vianney, who lived in personal poverty?

‘… Youth preferred community work as an act of faith rather than repetitive prayer and rituals.’

Most of the youth preferred community work as an act of faith rather than repetitive prayer and rituals. Yes, time in church does give us solace. However, young people today need to feel useful, wanted, and participative in meaningful activity. This is why sports, dance parties, cultural events are popular in this age-group because they are participative and involve collaborative action. Protecting animals, preventing damage to Earth, protecting forests, caring for orphans, aged, rescue in natural disaster can be more sustainable activities than Youth Day events and parties.

The Vatican also needs to tune itself according to the changing time where marriage isn’t necessarily between a man and a woman as well as respect that some may not want to get married or have kids. With the current global population at seven billion and the use of resources to support this population further destroying our planet, we have to seriously consider whether the purpose of a Christian family is merely to procreate or rather to support and participate in reducing social injustice around them. The Vatican must address sensitive topics like these and be a strong force in fighting patriarchy and patriarchal values. Church community action has resulted in the construction of safe houses for women and children who escape violence, but is silent on creating homes for LGBTQI youth who need to escape the violence by their families and community – despite the Pope’s recent statements that lesbians, gay and transsexuals must be embraced by the Church. By acting on these statements, thousands of LGBTQI persons can escape a life of stigma and social exclusion. It is imperative and will strengthen the bond that young people need to have with the Church.

‘The Church must step out of its protected… illusion of perfection… into the real world…and listen to people.’

We thought of solutions for the above-mentioned issues. One solution is that the Church must step out of its protected boundaries (an illusion of perfection) into the real world, experience the challenges, and listen to people who experience them before making laws and writing encyclicals on various issues. Priests and nuns will continue to be less effective as long as their own lives are separated from the community and they do not experience the struggles that we do.  They need more training in listening and understanding people and to work with the community, not above it. It is difficult to get over the age gap, but with humility and the willingness to learn the other person’s point of view, the clergy can become effective. A young priest/religious need not necessarily be suitable for youth ministry – if s/he is dominating. Priests and nuns are given a very archaic understanding of what should be done for youth. They lead instead of guide. This makes it suitable for youth for a short while after which the programme collapses.

‘…it IS possible to be a Church of the modern times without corrupting the message of Christ.’

Global brands, fashion, television and the commercial market have best understood the needs of young people to cater their products to them. If mere marketing executives can succeed in reaching out to the needs and wants of young people, why has the 2000-year old church in all its wisdom still been unable to connect with young people? Is it that the hierarchy in the Church isn’t trying hard enough? Or is it that they do not love the young people enough to understand us? We believe that it IS possible to be a Church of the modern times without corrupting the message of Christ. It IS possible for the Church to have people among them who have the wisdom and qualifications to guide the Hierarchy of the Church in the process. What we see lacking is the will power in the Vatican, to move away from their positions of power and be humble servant-leaders as Jesus was.

We youth have our own unique relationships with Jesus. For some of us, Jesus is a parent, a guide, and a friend. He is a watchful guardian and a thinker who challenged norms. With the above statements, we must not be misunderstood as haters of the Church or of Christ. Rather, we would love to see a church as inclusive as the church in the times of the Acts of the Apostles.