Analysis | Was there a hidden message in Pope Francis's enigmatic Old Testament gift to Modi

Pope Francis meets with India's Prime Minister Modi at the Vatican. October 30, 2021. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS

The pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pope Francis holding each other inside the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City on October 30, with Italian Renaissance painter Pietro Perugino's 'Resurrection' looming over them in the background, showed genuine warmth and affection. Modi himself tweeted he had a "very warm" meeting with the Pope.

The Church in India welcomed Modi's initiative to invite the Pope to India. Major Archbishop Baselios Cardinal Cleemis, the head of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, said the meeting had "historical importance".

But the Pope, it seems, can be as inscrutable as God. His gift to the Prime Minister, a bronze illustration of Isaiah 32:15, has now begun to bother those who had initially seen a lofty political and social message in the meeting. Here is what Isaiah's 32:15 verse says: "Until the spirit is poured upon us from on high,/And the wilderness becomes a fruitful field."

When India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pope Francis met. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS

Ventriloquist Pope

Was this a veiled message to Modi, using an Old Testament prophet to convey that India will remain stuck in the dark ages (wilderness) as long as bigotry rules.

Observers within the Church point to Isaiah's verses that lead up to 32:15, where they believe the true intent of the Pope lies. "Tremble, you women who are at ease," Isaiah says. A senior priest of the Syro-Malabar Church, on the condition of anonymity, said “this is a wake up call for us Christians in India.”

The prophet warns of the bad things that will soon descend upon Jerusalem. "On the land of my people will come up thorns and briers,/Yes, on all the happy homes in the joyous city." Palaces will be forsaken and cities will be deserted "until the spirit is poured upon us from on high".

The Syro-Malabar priest wondered aloud: "Was the Pope trying to say India is a benighted land until the light of religious harmony falls upon it? Was he telling Modi that his was not the reign of righteousness?"

A priest of the Latin Church in Kerala gave a political spin to the Pope's message. "Perhaps, he was warning the Christian community against cosying up to the BJP. A section of the Christian community, at least in Kerala, is at ease about getting close to the BJP despite the right-wing atrocities inflicted on Christians in North India, especially in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand," the priest told Onmanorama.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pope Francis embrace each other. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS

Modi's baggage

Meanings are read into the pontiff's gift because Modi's visit to the Vatican was preceded by reports of Christian persecution in India.

There were two recent international reports with great influence in the Christian world – one by the advocacy group Open Doors and the other by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom – that spoke of Christian harassment in India.

The Open Doors ranked India as the “10th worst country in the world where it is most difficult to follow Jesus". "Hindu extremists believe that all Indians should be Hindus, and that the country should be rid of Christianity and Islam. To achieve this goal, they use extensive violence, particularly targeting Christians from a Hindu background," the report said, and added: "If they don’t “re-convert,” their community may boycott them, with a devastating effect on their ability to earn income and buy food."

The report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom designated India as a "country of particular concern". The report says anti-conversion laws are being used to trample upon the Christian community.

“These anti-conversion laws are too often the basis for false accusations, harassment, and violence against non-Hindus that occur with impunity. In 2020, for example, mobs — fueled by false accusations of forced conversions — attacked Christians, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious worship services. In many cases, authorities did not prevent these abuses and ignored or chose not to investigate pleas to hold perpetrators accountable,” the report says.

Both the reports were given wide coverage in Vatican News, the Catholic news website founded by Pope Francis in 2015.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pope Francis. Vatican Media/Handout via REUTERS

Death of a Jesuit priest

More damning than the reports was the death of Fr Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who worked for the tribals and the underprivileged all his life and who was jailed for allegedly inciting violence during the Bhima Koregaon memorial held in Pune on January 1, 2018. He was accused of being a Maoist and had allegedly hatched a conspiracy with dalits and Muslims to topple the Modi government.

Vatican News had given a detailed obituary of Fr Stan Swamy. 

The octogenarian priest, who breathed his last on July 5 this year, had Parkinson's and had difficulty even sipping water but was still denied a straw. Dumped in the overcrowded Taloja Jail in Mumbai, he also contracted COVID-19. “I was healthy when I was brought into Taloja jail eight months back but over that period all my bodily functions have deteriorated. I can’t eat on my own, can’t bathe or walk on my own,” Fr Swamy told the Mumbai High Court in May.

 Fr Stan Swamy
Fr Stan Swamy. Photo: PTI

Can Pope Francis forget Fr Swamy?

His death shocked the global Christian community. The Catholic bishops of Asia called Fr Swamy the “latest saint of modern India’s poor". “His last month in custody on a hospital bed till the last moments is the most heart-wrenching tragedy of an innocent man persecuted for doing good,” Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference, had said.

The Syro-Malabar priest said that Fr Stan Swamy's life and death was a demonstration of Pope Francis's ideal. “The Pope said he preferred a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it had been out on the streets, rather than a church which is sick from being confined and from clinging to its own security. Fr Swamy was the embodiment of this sacrifice. Pope Francis would not have easily forgotten,” he said.

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