Interview of the month : Fr. Cedric Speaks.
“To Serve the Faith and to Promote Justice” month
1. Fr Cedric, can you share with us your vocation story?
Perhaps, like for so many of us, the story of my vocation was a gradual unfolding. I guess it would have begun in my family. The fact that my mother and father nurtured us in the faith ensured that we never missed the daily family rosary. We missed daily mass only when someone was really very sick. As children, we were always taught to love our faith. Then beginning in std VIII, I started visiting Jesuit mission stations along with some of the Jesuit fathers, first in the Bombay missions and later, in Gujarat. I felt inspired by the lives and the work of the Jesuits, the way they served the poorest of the poor in the remotest of places; bringing the ‘good news’ to the people there.
After my graduation I spent over a year working with the AICUF and then another 14 months with the Taize community based in France. Both these chapters in my life were significant stepping stones in the answering of this call. So the story of my vocation was not as dramatic as that of Saul – been thrown down from a horse – but that gradual, consistent call to which I finally said “Yes” exactly forty years ago, on 16th July, 1974, when I entered the novitiate in Ahmedabad.
2. Can you recall and share an unforgettable event or experience that has affected and shaped your life deeply?
Wow, what a question! There are several unforgettable events / experiences that have affected and helped shape my life – highlighting just one, would in fact be an ‘injustice’ to the many others, but I will risk doing so:
From June 1973, I was in Taize, France, as part of an intercontinental team helping prepare the World Council of Youth which had to take place in August 1974. One member of our team was a young French lady, Claire, who had taken a break from her medical studies to be part of the team. During these months of preparation, Claire and I must have had two long conversations. She hardly spoke English and my French was all too raw – but what she shared with me was that she and her boyfriend Philip, after completing their medical studies, would go to a remote village in Africa and minister to those who had practically no access to medicare. I always wondered why a young French woman, who had everything in life, would want to go and give up so much to serve others. But in the course of our conversations, she was also able to share with me her motivation and that was simply her love for Jesus and the fact that she wanted to serve others because HE so desired it.
Sometime, early in January 1974, Claire just left our group. A few days later, we were told that she was suffering from a very severe type of leukemia; we were also told that her father was one of the most well known cancer specialists in France. A few weeks later, some of us went to visit Claire in the hospital. I easily recognized the warm cheerful face and the smile which radiated love, but I was too shocked to see her totally emaciated. Where was that young vivacious vibrant young lady who had come to inspire me? Claire could hardly talk but she told us one thing, and that is to give our best to life because of Jesus. She passed away a few weeks later.
In a memorial service which was held a little after Easter, her father read out extracts from her personal diary. It was simply amazing of how in a short span of twenty two or twenty three years, Claire gave so much to the world she lived in; she dreamt, at that time, of a more humane, just and compassionate world and she wanted to be part of that effort. God willed otherwise and took her to himself and I really wondered why. Today I am quite certain that Claire has been a source of inspiration to me and to several others who in some small way have tried to follow in her footsteps.
3. What was your vision as a young man joining religious life, and what is it today?
When I joined the Society in 1974, the world was certainly in turmoil. Plenty of things were happening in the western hemisphere and later on, the ‘emergency’ in India. For us Jesuits, we also had the 32nd General Congregation which was indeed a defining moment in our lives. As a young man when I joined religious life, the mandate of GC 32 became my vision: ‘to serve the faith and to promote justice’. The more I try to realize this vision in my life, the more I realise that they not only complement each other but are also non-negotiables in my life as a religious. It was then and it continues to be so today. Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ reminds us that “the Church, guided by the gospel of mercy and by love for mankind, hears the cry for justice and intends to respond to it with all her might” (#188)
Yes, this is my vision and perhaps a vision for all – yesterday, today and tomorrow!
4. Who is the person / saint you admire the most and why?
There are several persons / saints who I admire – high up on the “official” ones are Ignatius of Loyola, Francis of Assisi and Teresa of the Child Jesus. Then, closer home are Mother Teresa, Oscar Romero and Rupert Mayer. So once again, it is a real difficult act to single out just one; however, in the context of today, Oscar Romero does mean a lot to me. As a Bishop, he left no stone unturned to take sides with the poor and marginalized and to speak out against powerful vested interests and unjust systems. He very clearly showed that Christian discipleship is about being a servant and not being a ‘Lord and master’. He sacrificed his life because of this, but we all know that his martyrdom was not in vain. Needless to say, his real conversion began when his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande, a great promoter of liberation theology, was brutally gunned down on 12th March 1977.
5. What is your opinion about the Church today?
In the last year or so, I think the Church has come a long way. Thanks very much to Pope Francis and the way he has gone about in ‘word’ and ‘deed’. He has set an example by identifying himself with the many illegal immigrants in the island of Lampedusa last June. Earlier and this year too, he had no qualms about washing the feet of women, non-Christians and others at the Maundy Thursday service. He has been strong and unequivocal in matters related to injustice, the market-driven economy, child abuse by clerics and the way the Church has alienated herself from the realities of today’s world.
However, despite his many efforts, the Church in general is still very hierarchical and patriarchal – so much of the life of the Church is centered around bishops, priests and religious. We suffer from what I call a ‘Church Compound Mentality’. Our focus is often on rituals and on rites which in other words is about power and money. We spend more time quibbling on what words to use at mass and whether we should put plastic or natural flowers on the altar rather than in the accompaniment of the people of God. The Church soft-peddles its stand generally when it needs to speak out against injustice and against the powerful, and unfortunately this they call ‘tact and diplomacy’. We see instances even today of how Church dignitaries cosy up to the government in power, rather than on real issues which plague the people of the day. An important meter to gauge what is happening to the Church today is to see how many of us are taking ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ seriously. We need to take a closer look at this important pastoral from Pope Francis and see how best we can internalize it in our daily personal and collective lives.
6. You are known for your work for social justice. What inspired you to take up this ministry in particular?
As a Jesuit novice, we were fortunate to have the privilege to be part of a defining moment of our Jesuit history. GC 32 challenged and mandated us to go beyond the ordinary, to involve ourselves deeply among those who are victims of injustice, to take a stand for what is right. So there is no doubt, that I was personally touched and inspired by GC 32.
7. What is your definition of the word – ‘freedom / liberation?’
In a way, it is indeed difficult to define ‘freedom/liberation’. Firstly, I think it cannot be confined to mere words. I believe that Nelson Mandela who served several years in prison and in solitary confinement, was a free man because he believed in something: freedom for his people. So freedom is primarily an attitude. It is an attitude of belief; even perhaps faith!
Freedom is also action: my involvement, my engagement – in the small simple, ordinary things or in the struggles of others. Freedom is ultimately the courage to answer a call, to transcend my own nothingness, my narrow-mindedness, my self-centredness and all for a greater good.
Freedom / liberation is about ‘MAGIS’.
8. What is your message to the readers of DNC TIMES?
We are all on a journey, a pilgrimage – a very short one at that. We need to make the most of the opportunities that we have wherever we are, not for ourselves but to ensure that the world we live in is more human, more just, more equitable for all. We all can certainly contribute towards this. Let’s begin now!
by Sharath George SJ