Thursday July 1st: Power of forgiveness
July 1, 2021
Friday July 2nd: The call
July 2, 2021

Questions with Fr Martin Sirju: Bringing the marvels of God on to local soil

Fr Martin Sirju celebrated his 30th anniversary of ordination, Wednesday, June 23. Catholic News interviewed the Vicar General to discover what these years have brought to him in his Ministry.

How did you celebrate your anniversary?

Mass with my brother priests; that’s the highpoint. ‘Communion’ is a word unfortunately understood only in the context of receiving Holy Communion. We priests serve our people not only in communion with our Bishop but with one another. To have priests present at one’s anniversary reminds one that we are never really alone. The full range of Eucharistic communion strengthens us and comforts us.

The pandemic would have brought our clergy into a new space. What challenges, spiritually or otherwise, did you encounter and how did you combat them?

The first month of the pandemic in 2020 was tough. I was brought to a low, dark space from which I knew I must crawl out of. One of the senior medical doctors helped. He told the doctors under his charge they can take half an hour each day to let the doom and gloom get to them but after that they work as if it did not exist. They are called to save lives and self-pity is not an option. That helped me crawl out of the space I was in for three weeks.

The gloom of the present situation does not bother me as much as before. I have done a few funerals of victims of Covid- 19 but I am able to rise above it and manage my life and ministry pretty well. It is not always spiritually helpful to avoid the gloom. Sometimes you have to enter it to redeem it

In your writing and homilies over the years, what are the overarching lessons you wish to bring home to your congregation/listeners?

Every other culture is deuterocanonical (another context witnessing to Christ) beyond the primary one. For many centuries Europe was regarded as the only valid deuterocanonical culture. That is false.

Every culture stands on its own bringing its unique understanding of who Christ is for that space. The Caribbean does not stand in anybody’s backyard. We have only begun the plumb the depths of who we are and we have much to offer the Church through the articulation of our religious experience. This problem resurfaces over and over again. People think there is one Catholic theology. This is not so. There has always been a plurality of theologies as people made sense of the Logos (Word) in their own logoi (words). Regarding homilies, it is pointless to preach a homily that has no contemporary relevance. Every homily must move from the text and its context to the people in a way they can understand and welcome. The homily ought to bring the marvels of God on to your own soil.

What adjustments would you have had to make over the 30 years, in terms of your own ideas, and approaches? Have you experienced a “dark night of the soul”?

How ignorant we are when we start off. We think we know but we don’t. I have always maintained every priest has a double ordination: one by the bishop that makes him a member of the presbyterate (sacramental ordination), and another by the laity who helps him make sense of that priesthood once he remains close to them and reflect on their experience and his in the light of the sacred scriptures (“ordination”). The two are not mutually exclusive. I’ve had my own “dark night of the soul” but I have never felt the desolateness of the absence of God. That is for greater souls than I.

Culturally and universally, I think we are living through a “dark night of the soul”. On one hand, the world is jettisoning into the future with a variety of developments – the new possibilities created by AI, the digital revolution, social media, global interconnectedness. We are going through a New Enlightenment, a new optimism.

But it left us lacking the first time and will do so again. There is angst and darkness accompanying this new optimism– a global increase in depression and suicide, a very fluid gender ideology that will alienate people from their true selves, new forms of violence, an internal emptiness, not to mention the collapse of an old Catholicism while we await the formation of a new one. I think the only way to survive this cultural “dark night of the soul” and liminality is through a renewed mysticism as Karl Rahner foresaw so many decades ago.

What were some early missteps you may have made?

Many things we believe we understand only a posteriori. We think we understand them but only in retrospect we do. It’s a movement from not knowing better to becoming wiser. Experience is the teacher here. I made several mistakes in the area of inculturation but I think I have a better understanding of it now. One must always prepare people for special liturgies of inculturation otherwise they will be suspicious and confused. One must not do too much at the same time to cause liturgical indigestion. One must also study properly what one is going to do and listen to dissenting voices or voices seeking clarification. But sometimes these are not enough. You just have to dare to do what you have in mind while respecting the fundamental principles of good liturgy. Caveat: it is necessary to inform the bishop of what may appear to be a major change.

What general changes in the local Church have you seen over the period, both good and ‘bad’?

I continue to appreciate the thrust of the 70s in the direction of inculturation. I think we have stalled somewhat. Today, we speak of the “reform of the reform”. There is a new thirst for the Latin Mass. I still don’t know how to properly assess that. I hold no sympathies for it but I think there are great Latin musical pieces we should retrieve. I have learnt to appreciate the necessity to go digital as a critical mode of communicating the gospel and planning for the future. This is not an optional extra but a must as indicated in the AEC bishops document on social communications.

One of the marvelous developments in the recent past was the resurgence of Caribbean theology through “Catholic Theology in the Caribbean Today” conferences. There is a growing ecumenical and interfaith perspective. I don’t think we really get in the trenches and fight for justice. I see more attempts lately but there is a long way to go. The class divide in this country is appalling and Catholic

Education needs to do better at a faster pace. The increasing theological education of the laity is one of the more hopeful signs for the Caribbean Church. I think they will bring fresh perspectives and help modernise the Church in its organisation and delivery of services. I am also quite proud of the many things we have done during the pandemic to keep in touch with our people and come to their need. There is a lot more to do but we have done well.

How do you counteract the criticism you may have garnered with bringing ‘Hindu ting’ into the celebration of Mass over the years?

I am despondent here. I am a lone voice. Afro/Creole/Hispanic-inculturation have all been accepted but not Indo-inculturation. It hasn’t been accepted by many Indians either. I think Indo-inculturation is caught up with Hinduism/polytheism/paganism and UNC politics. One of the problems of Indo-inculturation is that is has not been promoted by clergy/laity like other forms of inculturation. Instead of it being a Church-thing it is seen as a Fr Sirju-thing, which is rather unfortunate. Interestingly, those who are “spiritual but not religious” see the meanings of these things more easily.

The theological component of inculturation is the weakest one. It is not only a question of how Christianity can penetrate culture and purify a culture but also how the receiving culture can also purify Christianity. And Christianity has had its evils – class discrimination, patriarchy, racism/white supremacy etc. that the young, NOT the old, are challenging. I am not putting all religions on the same level. Christianity is special because of the kind of Incarnation of which it speaks. That has never been duplicated in any religion. But it too needs to be purified as it purifies others.

There are hard questions to be asked. What do our Caribbean philosophy, theology, culture, literature, neighbourliness, patterns of family life, sense of humour etc. add to our understanding of Catholic faith? What new theological terms can arise from our context to add to the Catholic theological vocabulary? That the deya remains an obstacle to Catholic worship and not the drum, chac chac or flambeaux is a caricature of where we are. But I try to pay less attention to these seemingly impervious borders. The future is destined to happen.

Your special interest in Siparee Mai, how did that develop?

That really precipitated when I was in Siparia for nine years as parish priest. I had some interest in it before but being there is crucial to understanding what goes on there. Siparee Mai represents the only indigenous Mariology in the country and probably in the region. Its history is long and complex nor can its evolution to be separated from the thousands of Hindu pilgrims who visit that shrine each year. She is both Madonna and Murti, depending on who is worshipping. It is an understudied phenomenon locally and it needs to be studied more intensely. There is a lot more to be said about this but that will take up too much space. I have also written quite a bit on it over the years.

In what direction would you like the local Church to go?

Where Synodality says it should go. Synodality for Pope Francis is listening to the whole people of God, praying and discerning. I am somewhat tired of hearing people say which group has a say in the Church and which group does doesn’t. My late mentor and friend Fr Henry Charles once said: “The Church you have is the Church you want.” If you want something other than that fight for it. If you don’t want to fight for it under the guide of some deluded humility then shut up! Spiritual writer Brene Brown says courage is turning up. If you want another kind of Church, turn up, take your licks, and do something about it instead of licking your wounds with impotence.

By Simone Delochan