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Gospel According To De Mello

The unorthodox writings of Indian priest Anthony de Mello create an uproar in Rome

Gospel According To De Mello

IT is being seen as just another of the many devices of the Western Church to pin its Asian counterpart down. Two months ago, a notification emerging from the Roman Catholic Church's Congregation of Doctrine of Faith, a padded modern-day progeny of the Inquisition, tolled out a warning to the 'Christian faithful'. That some of the writings of an Indian Jesuit Fr Anthony de Mello, who passed away in 1987, were "incompatible with the Catholic faith" and could "cause grave harm". Coming from the Roman portals and with approval from Pope John Paul II, the notification from the watch-dog organisation is being viewed as the first nail on the Asian cross.

"On the part of Rome," says Fr Allwyn D'Silva of the Mumbai-based Social Justice Cell at St Pius College, "there is a constant watch on Asian theologians and an unnecessary worry about the growth and thinking of the Asian Church. But the fact is that Asian values are more Christ-like than those of the West. Christ himself followed the customs of his people and was rooted in their reality. Anthony de Mello never denied the uniqueness of Christ but simply used stories from the Asian experience."

A 'pioneer-priest' in his time, Tony de Mello, as he came to be widely known, employed the story-telling device of Christ himself—that of parables—while embarking on a spiritual quest that was to consume him throughout his life. Dipping into the treasury of Zen and Sufiteachings, he reworked his beliefs based on revelations of the moment. Among them: the nothingness of God, the irrelevance of one's destiny after death, the clubbing of Jesus as a master alongside others and the questioning of morality notions. Rough weather positions that sailed through during his lifetime, but 11 years after his death, were to make him the Church's prodigal son. "We fully accept the findings of the Church," says Bishop Oswald Gracias, secretary, Catholic Bishop's Conference of India (CBCI), "The standing committee of the CBCI has accepted it and we have now asked the doctrinal commission on how to implement the findings."

Already, the dwindling stocks of De Mello's books are not being replenished in Mumbai's bookstores as a method to clamp down on the priest's 'incompatible' works. A futile attempt, reason most Jesuits, to closet the charisma of the man. "Tony de Mello's books at this point are easily available all over the world in several languages among people respectful of the Congregation's warnings and others who would not care less. Large financial profits are being made and will continue to be made by people beyond the reach of the Congregation. Easy access to machines and the Worldwide Web make it impossible to control the diffusion of Tony de Mello's ideas," says Fr Lancy Pereira, author of The Enchanted Darkness.

Among De Mello's six other works feature best-sellers The Prayer of the Frog and Song of the Bird, while three posthumous publications have been attributed to him. "There are passages of dubious value in some works officially attributed to him—eg, Call to Love. But these are works that he himself never edited," argues Fr Pereira, of operators cashing in on the De Mello cult.

However, unlike the brief excommunication of controversial Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya last year, the notification against De Mello has become a rallying point for Indian clergy. Firstly, the notification has brought to light the weak-kneed attempts at injecting an Asian perspective into the proceedings of prayer. "Inculturation only in liturgy is a superficial addition. You have to go much deeper. You have to think Asian and the inculturation should be evident in one's dialogue with life," notes Fr D'Silva.

 Second, and more importantly, the Congregation's warning is being increasingly viewed as part of Rome's orchestration in undermining the Asian cause. The widening fis-sures were expressly manifest during the Asian Synod held earlier this year, ironically in Rome. "The Western Church is in a shambles, spiritually and otherwise.

They have no hold over their own domain and to retain control over the Eastern Church, these attempts at twisting the arm of Eastern thinking are being made," says a furious Jesuit, on condition of anonymity. "Tony lived fifty years ahead of his time," adds Br Mario Correa, a close associate of the priest for over seventeen years, "and I strongly believe that as in Galileo's case, the Church will live to regret this condemnation."

 Save for a few like Linus Rego who feel that "the writings of Fr Anthony de Mello may work at the level of literature but not as articles of Catholic faith"—the laity seem oblivious to the conflict of stance. But the spinoff is this: Those who have experienced a spiritual renewal from De Mello's seminars would treat writings—even those by unauthorised hands—as gospel truth. More than anything else, this would be the ultimate tragedy of what has been widely hailed as a visionary position.

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