“They made me run everywhere seeking permission for the funeral ceremony. I even went to Bishop’s House at Neyyatinkara but to no avail. Finally, we buried my father-in-law Maniyan in the church’s graveyard without any ceremony, which was heart-breaking for not just the family but the entire community,” said Basanio.
That was in March 2017. Now, people like Basanio – a wall painter who also does other odd jobs – who have been virtually ostracised by the Church have an option. They can “rent” a priest so that they too can have ceremonies related to birth, death and marriage done according to the Christian faith and sacraments. They can turn to dozens of priests who are part of the Open Church Movement.
“Denial of various rituals like holy communion, marriage or house warming rites has been effectively used against believers if they question the Church. That is when we decided to offer rent-a-priest services. Former priests and nuns agreed to offer services and it was a major relief for believers who have questioned the Church and are facing the consequences,” says Reji Njallani, chairman of Open Church Movement.
The movement was founded in 2014 when around 600 former priests and nuns from around the country – who were either expelled or chose to leave their congregation – attended a meeting convened by Njallani. One of them was 72-year-old Joseph J Pallath, expelled from the Society of Jesus in 2000. He was the first priest in the state to protest his dismissal, and later conducted a 44-day one-man agitation demanding compensation from the Church. Now, Pallath is back as a priest in the Open Church Movement. In January, he wore his vestments again to conduct the holy feast at St Sebastian Church at Balaramapuram.
Joseph J Pallath
The Latin Archdiocese of Neyyattinkara and the parish of the Balaramapuram church were at loggerheads over the ownership of around 18 acres of land, and the archdiocese kept the church closed for around 10 months. At the time of the annual feast, the parish approached the Open Church Movement and Pallath to conduct the feast.
Pallath said he was jobless and penniless when he was expelled. “I was one of the first persons to secure a PhD in anthropology in the state. During my priesthood, I had quit an educational institution to do social services. However, when I questioned a corrupt land deal of the Church, I was asked to leave. Expelled priests and nuns are the most stigmatized community,” he said.
The situation was similar for Maria Thomas, now secretary of Ex-Priests and Nuns Association, when she left her congregation in 1999 after 20 years. “Social stigma is a major issue for priests and nuns who quit or leave. Finding a job or a partner at that age is very difficult. In most cases, families too are not ready to accept you,” she said.
The movement is all set to question various unethical practices of the Church such as attempts to hide sexual crimes and paedophilia.