If it was to be about optics and strong messaging in soft syntax, the Vatican meeting of Pope Francis with visiting prime minister Narendra Modi has fulfilled it purpose. Mr Modi has probably insinuated himself into the good books of a section of Catholics in poll bound Goa and church stronghold Kerala. And Mr Modi finally has invited the Pope to visit India. No dates, but Indian church hopes it will be before 2022 is over.
The official visuals of the 55 minute meeting show Mr Modi, sporting a well-styled mid-length beard, performing his practiced manoeuvre of a hug with the Pontiff. Francis smiles and reciprocates. Gifts are exchanged and after which the two move on to a desk for a formal talk. With interpretation, the actual talks take perhaps 20 minutes. But there is some triumph in that it exceeded the scheduled 30 minutes.
But did the Pope tell Modi of his concern at the persecution of Christians and Muslims, the curtailment of human rights and civil liberties, and the desertification of the Constitutional landscape? And did Modi repeat his party’s charge that Christians disturb the peace by fraudulent conversions, Muslims are anti national, and civil society seditious? Not in these words. The Jesuit who is now Pontiff has his own words for the occasion.
Modi himself would not go beyond tweeting “Had a very warm meeting with Pope Francis. I had the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with him and also invited him to visit India. @Pontifex.” His gift, officials tweeted, were a silver candelabra, and a book on India’s initiatives in Climate Change initiatives. Fitting gift, that book, for the Papal meeting is on side-lines of the summit on that impending crisis, and the Pope’s own oft voiced concern on what mankind has done to its home, the planet earth.
It is in the Pope’s gift that optimists and activists seek meaning, and home. Francis gave a circular bronze casting illustrating the biblical verse “The wilderness will become a fruitful field”, a quotation from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapter 32, verse 15.
No one is, of course, expecting miracles. Not even those who ensured that the Vatican, and Italian, media give comprehensive coverage in recent days to the gross violation of human rights and religious freedom in India. Reports carry the action of non-state and state actors, including the Sangh Parivar, and prosecution and investigating agencies currently cracking down on individuals and groups in a finely choreographed black opera.
There will be no withdrawal immediately of the central investigations of a cardinal’s books, or an assurance that a lesser bishop will be absolved of serial sexual assault. FCRA regulations are not expected to be softened. And the state of Uttar Pradesh, ruled by an Indian pontiff no less, will not suddenly ask Sangh cadres to stop beating up pastors, assaulting nuns, and young Muslim men.
But the Pope and his senior curia, such as his secretary of state who also met Mr Modi, are no doubt acutely aware of the Indian situation today even as the National Human Rights Commission or the National Minorities Commission who continue to be in a state of denial. The media has strongly spoken of the atmosphere of xenophobia.
The Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue in its greetings on Deepavali, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue speaks of the need for solidarity and fraternity. It hopes the festival will “light up” lives, even in the midst of the anxiety and uncertainty arising from the pandemic.
“Both Christians and Hindus, can bring the light of hope in people’s lives in such challenging times”. There have been silver linings of solidarity and fraternity. The power of solidarity through assisting the needy, more so with an interreligious character and responsibility, gives visibility to the light of hope. Bringing light together in people’s lives through interreligious solidarity also validates the usefulness and resourcefulness of religious traditions in society,” the statement said.
“It is incumbent upon religious and community leaders to nurture the spirit of fraternity among their followers with a view to helping them walk and work together with the people of other religious traditions, most especially during crises and calamities of every kind,” the Council statement concluded.
It is the verse illustrated in the bronze casting that theologians in the human rights family see refences to a hope of better governance in the land. It is, of course, not exactly the Raj Dharam mantra that the then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee sought to remind the then chief minister of Gujarat in the 2002 pogram against the Muslim community. The Pope doesn’t speak in such language. Jesus himself spoke in parables. The connect resonates.
In the mouth of the Prophet Isiah, the most prolific predicter from the age before the birth of Jesus, is the vision of an age of peace and prosperity after the end of the prevailing tribulations. As explained by a Biblical commentary, the beginning of the chapter says “That magistrates should do their duty in their places, and the powers answer the great ends for which they were ordained of.”
And on the 12th verse, the subject of the gift, the Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament says it gives a comprehensive prophesy of hope, “the destruction of the false would be followed by the realization of the true.
“Until the Spirit is poured out over us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is counted as the forest. And justice makes its abode in the desert, and righteousness settles down upon the fruit-field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the reward of righteousness rest and security for ever. And my people dwells in a place of peace, and in trustworthy, safe dwellings, and in cheerful resting-places.”
What more can people hope for, even those who do not believe in Abhramic Deity and prophesies of the Old Testament. To the believer, this is a chastisement of all that injures the people.
The following is Chapter 32 of Isiah in the Old Testament, which makes for salutary reading for everyone, Christian’s including:
.The Kingdom of Righteousness
32 See, a king will reign in righteousness
and rulers will rule with justice.
2 Each one will be like a shelter from the wind
and a refuge from the storm,
like streams of water in the desert
and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.
3 Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed,
and the ears of those who hear will listen.
4 The fearful heart will know and understand,
and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear.
5 No longer will the fool be called noble
nor the scoundrel be highly respected.
6 For fools speak folly,
their hearts are bent on evil:
They practice ungodliness
and spread error concerning the Lord;
the hungry they leave empty
and from the thirsty they withhold water.
7 Scoundrels use wicked methods,
they make up evil schemes
to destroy the poor with lies,
even when the plea of the needy is just.
8 But the noble make noble plans,
and by noble deeds they stand.
The Women of Jerusalem
9 You women who are so complacent,
rise up and listen to me;
you daughters who feel secure,
hear what I have to say!
10 In little more than a year
you who feel secure will tremble;
the grape harvest will fail,
and the harvest of fruit will not come.
11 Tremble, you complacent women;
shudder, you daughters who feel secure!
Strip off your fine clothes
and wrap yourselves in rags.
12 Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields,
for the fruitful vines
13 and for the land of my people,
a land overgrown with thorns and briers—
yes, mourn for all houses of merriment
and for this city of revelry.
14 The fortress will be abandoned,
the noisy city deserted;
citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever,
the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks,
15 till the Spirit is poured on us from on high,
and the desert becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
16 The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert,
his righteousness live in the fertile field.
17 The fruit of that righteousness will be peace;
its effect will be quietness and confidence forever.
18 My people will live in peaceful dwelling places,
in secure homes,
in undisturbed places of rest.
19 Though hail flattens the forest
and the city is levelled completely,
20 how blessed you will be,
sowing your seed by every stream,
and letting your cattle and donkeys range free.