The Rediff Special/ George Iype
In a civil court in northern Kerala, an expelled Catholic priest is fighting a battle for reinstatement the like of which the Church has not seen before.
Joseph Pallath, formerly of the Society of Jesus, the world's largest Catholic congregation, has taken his grief to a judge in Kozhikode -- for the first time, it now turns out, in history.
That's not all. Pallath is fighting his ouster on the Internet too. The Asian Human Rights Commission, a non-governmental organisation, has put up a Web site to garner support for him.
It was on April 28, 2000 that Kerala Jesuit Province superior Father John Manipadam dismissed Pallath. The order, served with the concurrence of the Jesuits' Rome-based superior-general Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, said Pallath's "personal attitudes and ways of acting" did not conform to a Jesuit.
For his part, the bearded, 54-year-old Pallath describes his expulsion thus: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, they are persecuting me."
Pallath, who is an anthropologist, had launched several socio-cultural movements in Kerala, like the Arnos Padiri Academy in Thrissur, the Beach Blossom movement among fishermen in Kozhikode and Samskriti, an organisation to revive folk traditions.
"I was ousted for trying to evolve a model of religious life [that was suited] for modern times. The authorities found me unfit because I successfully carried out the inculturation process in spirituality, liturgy and celebrations," Pallath claims.
"My expulsion is a story of greed, envy and persecution," he adds. "Envy from my superiors was the root cause for my removal."
How so? The former priest alleges he was "physically thrown out" because the Jesuit congregation felt threatened by his many social and cultural accomplishments.
"It is for the first time that a priest is battling his case through the Internet," he claims. "It is also for the first time in the Church history that a priest has filed a civil suit against his dismissal."
Now, every morning after mass, he sits in his rented house amidst a heap of documents and files, sifting through the Canon Laws and the history of the Church for anything that can help him in his cause.
Pallath, however, is not fighting a lone battle. A few former priests and a number of social workers and human rights activists across Asia have launched a spirited campaign against the Society of Jesus.
Last October Pallath was badly injured when a gang, allegedly sent by the Jesuits, attacked him outside a church in Kozhikode.
"It is tragic that the servants of Jesus Christ are engaging gangsters to annihilate me," says Pallath, who has filed a criminal case against the Society. "What is my crime? I brought only glory to the Jesuit congregation."
Pallath's civil case argues that his dismissal is against the Jesuit constitution. "As per the congregation's constitution, the superior has to give a priest two warnings before expelling him. I was given only one. A priest should also be given 15 days to reply to the charges. I was not given an opportunity to argue my case," he says.
Office-bearers of the Society of Jesus, however, dismiss Pallath's claims. "We will fight the civil and criminal cases and win them. Pallath's sole aim is to discredit and defame the Jesuits in India," says Father V T Jose, executive secretary of the Kerala Jesuit province.
"His dismissal has nothing do with theology. He spent 33 years in the Society. But he was found to be unfit for final incorporation into the congregation," Fr Jose adds.
Pallath had got his case argued before the Vatican's Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, which upheld his dismissal stating "it was done according to the norms of law".
He says he will continue to fight. He plans to appeal before the Signatura Apostolica, the apex court in the Vatican, shortly.
"I am sure Pope John Paul II will see reason and grant me justice," he says.
The Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, meanwhile, is fighting for his cause. The Father Pallath Solidarity Web Site, which it set up for him is, according to the expelled priest, receiving thousands of page-views daily.
"It is a novel way of protest. Hundreds of supporters are writing letters to the Pope and the Jesuit authorities," he says.
Meantime, Pallath is working on two books on society and culture. He plans to set up a new organisation, the Institute of Culture and Technology.
He is also thinking about a book on the "decline of Christian values and spirituality among the Jesuits in India". "The Society of Jesus is now an elite Christian order with a large number of hypocrites," he laments.
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