Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra described as ‘awful’ a Kerala church’s refusal to bury her grandmother citing religious laws. TNM spoke to church officials to understand why marriage outside the church is still considered a taboo in the present century.
Priyanka’s grandmother Madhu Jyotsna Akhouri died at the age of 94 on June 3. Born into the Kavallapara family at Kumarakom in Kottayam and baptized as Mary John, it was her desire that she be buried in the very same church that she had been baptized in, and one which her father had helped design -the St. John’s Church at Attamangalam near Kumarakom.
After completing her nursing studies, Mary had gone to serve in Bihar where she met Dr. Akhouri and married him, thereby becoming Madhu Jyotsna Akhouri post marriage.
She went on to make a name for herself as a freedom fighter, social activist and former legislator of Bihar, while her husband too served as the state’s MLC. But apparently, all this did not qualify her to be termed a true Christian, going by the church's stubborn stance.
Mary, however, never forgot her roots -according to what her relatives say- she had kept in touch with them. They insist that she was a regular church-goer and had even gone for confession and partaken of the Holy Eucharist just a couple of years ago in the very same church which refused to bury her next to her father, as per her last wish.
The Attamangalam Church even has a rare Raja Ravi Varma painting donated by the Kavallapara family in its possession, yet it failed to acknowledge the family’s close ties with the church.
On the contrary, church authorities were adamant that her marriage to a non-Christian had in effect made her an outsider and only if she had re-applied for membership, when alive, could they have acquiesced to the funeral being conducted there.
Justifying the church’s parochial approach to matters of faith, another priest from the Roman Catholic fold in Kottayam, speaking on terms of anonymity –not surprisingly- had this to say: "Well, for one, none of the church rules were followed throughout her life. She was not an active participant in church activities, even her religion had changed, why then would she want to be buried in a church cemetery? Tomorrow anyone from any community can approach the church and demand they be buried in the church cemetery. Will that be allowed in a mosque? If someone doesn't need the church in their life, they should simply keep away from it even after death."
Meanwhile, Kottayam bishop Dr. Thomas Mar Themothios of the Jacobite Syrian Church who had taken the lead in conducting Mary’s last rites at St Thomas Jacobite church at Ponkunnan on June 5 has been reportedly suspended and asked to stay away for six months.
The suspension which comes on the heels of the bishop’s truly Christian gesture to honour a dying person’s last wish has only added to the controversy.
Though the church synod at Puthencruz which took the decision cites the holding of church property in the bishop’s personal name as the official reason for his suspension, not many are convinced.
In a state where various Christian denominations are almost always at loggerheads with each other over matters of worship, this seems to be one time where all of them have rallied together to justify the totally un-Christian approach to the issue.
"The church does give you a choice: you can choose to live according to what the church propounds or you are free to exercise your faith, as per your own set of beliefs. We have never compelled anyone to be part of the church. But if you choose to live according to your own norms, then you have no right to force the church to follow suit. The church has always had its own sets of rules, regulations and traditions. You cannot enjoy all the benefits that the Church has to offer, without being a part of it. If you are a liberal atheist, you should continue to be that right till the very end," reiterated a priest from Ernakulam, thereby putting an end to all discussion on the topic.
And to think, Pope Francis has declared 2016 as the ‘Year of Mercy’ emphasizing Christ’s exhortation to Christians to ‘be merciful just as the Father in Heaven is merciful to you.’ We Christians just gave a very distorted version of that mercy for all the world to see.