A Prophet with a Smile

Dr. Mani Jacob

His Grace Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, Metropolitan of the Delhi Diocese of the Orthodox Syrian Church of India, passed away on 24th November, 1996. In his own words, he "entered the tunnel of death leading to eternity".

The illustrious and chequered life and work of Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios Metropolitan is well known. His admirers and disciples are all over the world. Respect and veneration for his prodigious scholarship, intellectual acumen and prophetic vision are universal. There are thousands who have found a new meaning in their faith and understanding of the scriptures thanks to his innovative, inspiring and sometimes amusing exposition of the doctrines and texts. A man ahead of the times, he has been a prophet to our times, but a prophet with a smile! He has also been a prophet with intense sympathy towards the common people, sensitive to their suffering needs, weaknesses and potential goodness.

Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios was born on 9th August, 1922 at Tripunithura in Kerala. He was educated at the local High School; Goshen college (Indiana); Union Theological Seminary, Oxford University and Gregory of Nyssa Research Institute, Germany. He was the Metropolitan of the Delhi Diocese of the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East and the President of the Synodal Committee for Inter Church relations. He also functioned as the Principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary and the Chairman of various organisations and bodies such as International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, Inter-religious Federation for World Peace, Indian Council of Philosophical Research etc. He was the President of the World Council of Churches from 1983 to 1991. He received numerous honours, prizes and awards including three doctoral degrees (honoris causa). He was the author of 21 books including 'Joy of Freedom', 'Gospel of the Kingdom', 'Freedom of Man', 'Freedom and Authority', 'Human Presence', 'Cosmic Man' and 'A Light Too Bright'. He also wrote hundreds of periodical articles and symposia and encyclopedia contributions published in different countries.

Dr. Gregorios was  a life-long student and teacher with a passion for learning. After school education he manifested precocious aptitude in journalistic writing and library work. From 1947 to 1950, he worked in Ethiopia as a school teacher and during this period, he learned the Ethiopian language and could write and speak in that language with scholarly expertise. He acquired mastery over various languages such as Greek, Hebrew, Russian, French etc. and could fluently communicate in them- a gift which facilitated his successful participation in numerous international conferences. Between 1950- 1956, he continued his studies of Theology and Social Sciences in American Universities. Later he took his Ph.d degree in Theology from Serampore University in India. As a student he took keen interest in public speaking an organisational work and eventually became General Secretary of the Orthodox Student Movement and the Associate Secretary of the Student Christian Movement. Reading and research were second nature to him and kept his mind on the cutting edge of exploration into new frontiers of knowledge. His library contains some of the best books published in recent decades. Two years ago at the age of 72, he was vigorously reading the latest books on Medical Anthropology and the Indian Systems of Medicine. During the last couple of months, after he was afflicted with cancer he had made extensive research into the latest information on that disease through internet!

As a teacher he was a perfect model. As Principal of the Orthodox Theological Seminary at Kottayam he trained generations of Priests in Theology and Ministry. Apart from that in the Churches public meetings, learned societies or international conferences, he always spoke like a teacher. Well grounded in facts and figures, clear on the etymology of words and endowed with a prodigious memory, he could keep any audience spellbound. He carried the weight of his scholarship on light shoulders and could easily adapt the style and content of teaching to the needs and capacity of the listeners. Very often he used to write his lectures in long hand which enabled him to be throughly prepared. These are all qualities which teachers and students can assimilate in their personal life.

In a message to an educational institution once he observed:

"The most important purposes of education are, according to me, to help each child become more of a genuinely human person than he or she would otherwise tend to be in all his/her relations; to help the child to understand more deeply the reality about the Transcendent, about oneself, about the nature of the world one inhabits and about the meaning and purpose of life; to help the child equip oneself to care for and serve others; and to learn professional skills to be a creative servant of the created order.

Unfortunately most parents and many students believe that the purpose of education is to improve one's capacity to make money and to climb the socio-economic ladder. Parents, and sometimes even teachers, put such ideas in the minds of children. In fact society as a whole seems to think this way. So my humble advice to you is: Do not conform to the World and its ways. Resist and refuse to conform. You should be transformed from within, so that you can be an agent of transformation for society as a whole, rather than letting society shape your attitudes and values. Be wise and be good".

He passionately championed the cause of Bharatheeyatha (Indianness) in lifestyle, attitudes, belief and arts. As a theologian and scholar with worldwide reputation he advocated a close relationship of man with God and nature. In his writings, speeches and actions, he demonstrated the unity of all faiths and his conviction that a global spirituality rooted in diverse religious traditions was emerging. His life was a wonderful blend of the pursuits of 'jnana' (knowledge), bhakti (faith and prayer) and karma (action).

I would like to record here some interfaces of my personal relations with him, mainly in the context of the formation and work of the All India Association for Christian Higher Education. In September, 1970, it so happened that I was one among the aspirants for the post of Deputy Secretary of AIACHE. At that time I was a college lecturer. In order to know more about AIACHE. I sought an interview with Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios on a Sunday afternoon. He was sympathetic, courteous and helpful to me and gave me the necessary encouragement and blessings. I hope my 25 years of work in the service of AIACHE have not belied his expectations. But for the timely guidance given by him at that time I would not have changed my career track from college teaching to ecumenical work. My gratitude to him for this act of personal and professional guidance is boundless.

His Grace played a key role in the conceptualisation and formation of AIACHE at the Consultation of Principals of Christian Colleges held at Madras Christian College, Tambaram, in December, 1966. He functioned as the Chairman of the whole Consultation which elected an executive Board consisting of representatives of colleges belonging to the various Churches. The report of the Consultation reads as follows:

"At the conclusion of this historic step in the history of Christian higher Education, the Chairman, Father (Now Metropolitan) Paul Varghese took the opportunity to remind the members of the federation present that they had undertaken a very major responsibility in asking these men and women to be their representatives and office bearers and that the support they gave them would be the mark of their own earnestness in the action they had taken".

Initially the new organisation of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Colleges born at that Consultation was named "National Board of Christian Higher Education in India". From 1967 to 1970 the "Journal of Christian Higher Education", published by the Board was edited by Dr. Gregorios.

At the Triennial Conference of Christian College Principals held at Ernakulam in 1970 he pleaded for including five units in the management of AIACHE - students, teachers, principals, the public and the college managements. He remarked:

"Can we justify the fact that an All India Association for Christian Higher Education should be controlled entirely by one of the five groups, namely the Principals? I know the practical difficulties. I feel, however, that given the will the difficulties can be overcome. It is no use saying that the students and the teachers have their own organisations. In the first place it is not true, and in the second place it does not make much difference. It is not true that the student bodies of the Christian colleges in India have their own organisation. Neither SCM nor AICUF nor the Orthodox Student Movement caters to the whole student body of the Christian colleges. Nor do the teachers of Christian colleges have their own Christian organisation for higher education in India can make its decisions without adequate representation from the students and teachers of Christian colleges.

Perhaps one way to get the ball rolling is for AIACHE to organise a few regional seminars on higher education with all the five units sufficiently represented, but with students and teachers in fair majority. From there one could see how the problem of decision-making structures for AIACHE can be equitably handled. I will leave that matter at that".

During the last twentysix years since these suggestions were made students, teachers and managements have been involved in AIACHE programmes in an increasing measure but the kind of structural changes envisaged in the paragraphs quoted above have not taken place.

One of the most creative ideas that emerged during the early years of AIACHE was the formation of a Thinking Cell. Outlining the purpose and functioning of the proposed Cell, Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios wrote in the editorial of the Journal of Christian Colleges in India (Vol. IV, No.1, December - 1970):

"Decisions have subsequently been made by the Board to constitute such a cell with a three fold purpose (a) to consider how private arts and science colleges can improve the quality of academic education they impart; (b) how these colleges can develop better social consciousness among their faculty and students; and (c) how they can, within the limits of their capacity, stimulate the economic development of the region around the college. The idea is superb, and has been effectively used in many commercial enterprises. But in these cases, they are employees of the enterprises concerned and large chunks of free time are placed at their disposal just for purposes of brainstorming. In our case, it is very much to be doubted if members of the cell would really have opportunity to do such leisurely brainstorming. There can be no doubt that without putting five or six people together in a comfortable spot somewhere in the hills for a period of 7 to 10 days, nothing worth-while will come out of it. These men (and women, we hope) should be given complete freedom to fix their own agenda and time-table, to produce or not to produce, to talk their heads off or to sit down and write, to play golf or tennis, to romp in the woods or swim in the streams, to come out with half a page of ideas or a whole book. Only in such relaxed freedom does activity rise to new heights. Having a few more conferences or committees, thereby making the cell into just one more body, would be an atrocious waste of valuable time and precious money".

In 1977, speaking at the Tenth Anniversary Conference of AIACHE held at Bangalore, Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios Metropolitan, observed:

"On the one hand the Thinking Cell has to devise or evolve practical programmes and projects which can then be implemented by AIACHE. But it has another and equally important responsibility for doing some fundamental reflection on higher education in India.  It should, for example raise such a fundamental question as: "Why has the Kothari Commission Report so universally lauded and admired, been unable to achieve the desired results in higher education? Can we today take a second look at the Kothari Commission Report and the assumptions behind it?'' The task of the Thinking Cell as I had envisaged it, was mainly to do this kind of reflection about fundamental orientation in higher education".

The Thinking Cell held its meetings during the last 25 years on many occasions and did generate some creative ideas relating to college autonomy, women's education, women's empowement, cultural development, minority educational rights, curricular reforms etc. Some colleges have started their own "think-tanks" at the institutional level. However, AIACHE has to apply its mind more vigorously to translate the original concept of the Thinking Cell into a functioning reality. The requests from AIACHE to participate in various Conferences were accepted by His Grace most willingly and he would always give us the text of address for publication. Especially I  remember his keynote addresses at the Triennial Conferences of Christian College Principals held at Stella Maris College, Madras in January, 1985 and at the Renewal Centre, Cochin in January, 1991. The greatest help I received from His Grace was while planning the International Ecumenical Assembly of Associations of Christian Colleges and Universities held in New Delhi in January, 1995 on the theme "Preparing Humankind for the New Millennium through Ecumenical Partnership in Higher Education". While discussing the programme of the Assembly he was fascinated by the subject and other parameters of the Assembly. He offered his full cooperation to AIACHE in conducting the Assembly. In spite of his illness he would arrive at the conference Hall every day five or ten minutes before the scheduled starting time and sit through the proceedings patiently. His inaugural address at the Assembly on "Education for a New Civilization in the New Millennium" was a marvellous experience for all the participants, especially those from abroad.

He started his address with the following remarks on AIACHE :

"I am particularly privileged to be here, because I have pleasant memories of the not so insignificant role I was asked to play, along with Fr. Mathias and Dr. Dickinson, in setting up what is now known as AIACHE, and to co-chair that most memorable inaugural Assembly of the Board of Christian Higher Education at Tambaram, Madras in December 1966. This seems to be the only genuinely ecumenical institution that has survived the tosses and turns in the climate of ecumenical cooperation in the last three decades. Credit goes to the more than two hundred Christian colleges of India, and to the leadership of people like Fr. Theo Mathias and Dr. Mani Jacob; I salute them and congratulate them for this new initiative on a global plane".

He observed that his "intention was not so much to please, as to provoke", and provoke he did!

"Let me confess to you that I am very skeptical about the theme of this Conference: "Preparing the Humankind for the Next Millennium through Ecumenical Partnership in Higher Education" for a number of reasons. Quite apart from the clumsiness and awkward grammer of the formulation, the very assumption that we Christians can prepare Humanity for its task in the next millennium, smacks to me of rabid Christian cultural hybris. Equally fallacious is the assumption that it is Higher Education which is going to do that preparing. Higher Education today is an entrenched vested interest within the structure of the old. It can neither transform society, nor even transform itself".

Concluding the address, which was very well received, he argued that the modern state is not the "shaper of tomorrow" and is incapable of bringing about necessary changes in education. New emerging power units such as the larger units of economic production, corporations etc. cannot be ignored as enemies. They should be "Befriended without ourselves being captured or enslaved by them". They should be made "accountable to the general public and to do some creative and innovative experiments in education". He also suggested that a series of international and intercultural seminars, be organised to reflect deeply "on the nature of God's calling on the Churches in the educational field, to see the problems of culture, of science and the secular and to devise new pioneering experiments". Finally he stressed the importance of Christians working together with people of other faiths in all important endeavours. This was in tune with his mission of inter-religious dialogue and cooperation for a new human community.

He will be remembered by his friends and followers for his many qualities:

-      His life-long passion for learning, reading, thinking, conceptualising and communicating his ideas and insights to others;

-      The high standards of excellence he has set for himself and for others in spiritual and intellectual concerns;

-      The breadth and sweep of his international outlook, activities and relationships;

-      His deep faith in God and his commitment to Christ our Lord, which he shared with his fellow human beings through thought, word and action;

-      His intellectual honesty and moral courage.

-      His respect for other faiths and his constant communion with the people who expouse them;

-      His concern for the Creation and all that it includes, the plants, the animals, all forms of life;

-      His love and affection for children and youth;

-      His sence of humour and his ability to laugh at himself occasionally.

It is doubtful whether all that he spoke and wrote have been well preserved and documented. His ideas and insights can be beacons to the younger generation of today and to future generations. A project to publish his collected works needs to be undertaken.

Let me conclude thanking God for giving us the wonderful citizen of the world that Dr. Paulos Mar Gregorios, Metropolitan was and praying for the repose of his soul.