Paulos Mar Gregorios: Star of the East / A. J. Philip

K. Raveendran was my best friend at college. His elder brother K. Gopi was equally close to me. They lived very close to the Orthodox Church at Thekkemala near Kozhenchery in Pathanamthitta district. Both of them were very close to Fr Thoma who was the Vicar there.

It was through them that I met the father. He became my friend as well. He was a theologian of exceptional standard. He believed in doctrinal purity and was not ready to accept any interpolation or interpretation that was at variance with what he believed was the essence of Orthodox belief.

His rival in the church was Fr Paul Varghese, whose popularity as a speaker, theologian, teacher and original thinker was soaring. He published a thick volume to demolish Fr Varghese’s doctrinal positions and was busy writing the second volume when we met at the parsonage.

No, Fr Thoma did not have anything personal against him. Theirs was a religious disputation like the one Adi Shankara had with Mandan Mishra. There was, alas, none to moderate them like Mishra’s wife Sarasavahini.
The subject of their dispute was too theological for me to understand at a time when I was trying to find out why the uprising in Naxalbari found a resonance in the young minds in Calcutta, Delhi and Kerala.

Of course, Fr Paul Varghese was not new to me as I had heard him at the annual Convention the Orthodox Church used to organise at Makkankunnu, Pathanamthitta. He used to attract a larger crowd than any other speaker.
After my meeting with Fr Thoma, I heard Fr Paul Varghese’s speeches with greater attention. I realised for once how deep he was in his thoughts and expositions of Biblical doctrines in the Indian context. He had the ability to draw upon the various Upanishadic traditions of the country as he could dwell upon the writings of Augustine of Hippo.

I became an admirer of Fr Varghese, even as I remained a friend of Fr Thoma, who visited my home at Valanchuzhy in Pathanamthitta when he heard that I was leaving for Delhi in search of a job. His prayer was my strength.

I never met Fr Thoma again. He left for Canada when a breakaway group of the Orthodox Church in Toronto wanted the services of a priest. In the case of Fr Varghese, I continued to follow his writings and speeches.

Soon after he was consecrated as a bishop in 1975, he visited Bhopal when I had a long, leisurely interview with him. I was with The Hitavada at that time.
It was thrilling for me to know that a person who had a humble origin in Kerala and who started his career in the Telegraph Department could become a close confidante of Emperor Haile Selassie, a defining figure in modern Ethiopian history.

I also knew how he and a layman, Dr MM Thomas, who became governor of Nagaland, were able to give a new direction to the World Council of Churches and bring it closer to those struggling for freedom everywhere, including South Africa where apartheid was still in force.

He continued his forceful interventions on the world theological stage even as he assumed the role of the first Metropolitan of the newly set up Delhi Diocese. I know how he tried, though unsuccessfully, to publish Rao Bahadur O.M. Cherian’s 13,000-page manuscript titled “Haindava Dharma Sudhakaram”, culled from the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

It was against this backdrop that I accepted Fr Shaji Mathews’ invitation to deliver a memorial lecture on Bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios at the St. Thomas Orthodox Church, Ghaziabad, on December 1. It coincided with the Ninth elocution competition, held in the bishop’s memory. The subject of the competition this year was “Christian witnessing: Media judgement”.

I told the assembled how I was impressed by the writings of the bishop. I have read all the books of Jawaharlal Nehru and what impacted me the most was his will and testament. I read it several times. It is as beautiful as Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.

The final will and testament of Bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios, written in Delhi and completed in Germany, was another piece of writing that impacted me a lot. To me, it was written in poetic prose. Here are a few lines from his will and testament he wrote when he turned 71.

“I bow before the good, wherever it shows up — in people of different faiths and religions, in people who claim to believe in no God, in birds and animals, in trees and flowers, in mountains and rivers, in air and sky, in Sun and moon, in sculpture and painting, in music and art, in the smile of the infant, and in the wisdom of the sage, in the blush of dawn, and in the gorgeous sunset”. What a felicitous style!

All I did was to explain to the audience the significance of the leadership he gave to ecumenism the world over and his role as the Metropolitan of Delhi.
He made a speech when he was enthroned as Metropolitan of Delhi. I tried to explain to the audience in Malayalam what episcopacy meant to him. Let me quote him here:

“Permit me to say one word about the responsibilities of a bishop also as a civic leader of his people. The bishop cannot afford to be a pure monk, completely detached from the affairs of the world and of the nation.

“I trust in God to continue in my world-wide ministry to the whole of humanity, in that concern of Christ’s for the welfare of all humankind, but especially for the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the victims of aggression and exploitation. Thus I will continue to be concerned for example for the blacks in Southern Africa, the American Indians in the U.S.A., and the poor of the world especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia,

“In this country I am committed to the cause of the poor and the exploited masses. Their welfare I regard as the welfare of my country. I stand committed to the cause of justice – justice for the poor and the oppressed…

“I stand for a nation that is free from outside control, in which the people can participate in the making of major decisions affecting them, and in which the masses themselves punish and reform the social offenders – the smugglers, the black-marketeers, the givers and takers of bribes, the peddlers of influence and the misusers of power.”

I am glad there is a website devoted to the bishop’s writings. They are as relevant today as they were when they were written.

I do not know how my words impacted the audience but I know for sure that the eight contestants in the elocution competition won their hearts. Some of the speeches were simply brilliant. They seemed to have read him.

One of them mentioned an incident in which Paul Varghese wrote a sensational news-report before he became a priest. He came under tremendous pressure to disown it but he cared two hoots for such pressures.

As is the trend now, women excel in all fields. I was not surprised when all the three prizes were won by women. The winners were Ananya Elizabeth Varghese from Mar Gregorios Orthodox Church (Noida), Alina Sara Samuel from St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral (Hauz Khas) and Jinsa Elizabeth George from St. Mary’s Syrian Orthodox Church (Chandigarh).

Three deacons from the Orthodox Seminary at Nagpur, Dn Subin, Dn Sobin, Dn Eldo, served as Judges. An ever-rolling trophy, a memento and a cash prize of Rs 10,000 were given to the first prize winner. The others were also given cash prizes and mementoes.

I am grateful to the church for the honour bestowed on me to speak about Bishop Paulos Mar Gregorios, whose memory needs to be perpetuated, because he was truly the Star of the East whose genius mounted, without a cloud to obscure it, in the firmament of the church.

A. J. Philip is former Editor of Tribune newspaper