Priest who challenged Nazis my role model - Suresh Mathew
Jose Kavi - November 2023
Father Suresh Mathew, the outgoing editor of Indian Currents weekly, says the Church should not identify with regressive and repressive governments as its mission is to stand with the oppressed masses with little voice to raise their demands and grievances.
The 50-year-old Capuchin priest regrets that journalism is at peril as fascist tendencies gnaw at the fourth pillar of the largest democracy in the world. Journalists’ prophetic voices that once kept governments on tenterhooks have turned feeble.
He says his role model is Saint Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest, who stood alone against the Nazi regime that exterminated people by poison gas or shooting. “Titus Brandsma would probably be the only journalist-saint in the family of the ‘holy persons,’” he says.
In an interview with Matters India, Father Mathew shares his days with Indian Currents and his expectations from media people, especially Catholic journalists:
Congratulations on your new appointment. What is your new role? When will you take up the new job? How long have you been the editor of Indian Currents? How was the experience?
Fr Suresh Mathew: Thanks a lot for your words of appreciation. Ever since the news of my transfer was out, I have been receiving messages and calls thanking me for editing the weekly for almost a decade. I have been appointed as the guardian of our friary and manager of a high school in Amritsar in Punjab. Though all friars of our province are asked to reach their places of appointment by November 30 and assume responsibilities, I am given an exception till December 15 since I had taken up a few seminars and retreats months ago.
But I will hand over the editorial responsibility of Indian Currents to Fr Gaurav Joseph, the new editor, before the end of this month. The first issue of December will be published by the new editor.
I had a long stint in the weekly. I was appointed as the Managing Editor of the weekly in 2001 while pursuing masters’ degree in journalism from the Institute of Media Studies and Information Technology in Delhi. I was sent for higher studies in Rome in 2004 and returned in 2007 with another masters in Social Communications and Licentiate in Missiology.
Upon my return, I was appointed as the rector of our minor seminary, but the province wanted me to help the then IC chief editor, Fr Jacob Kani, as the assistant editor. I continued in the post until 2011 and proceeded to Rome for doctoral studies. I returned in 2014 after an interdisciplinary doctoral research on Media and Mission with specific focus on the use of Internet by teenagers in Delhi.
I was appointed as the Chief Editor in May 2014 and assumed the role in June 2014. As per the statutes of the Krist Jyoti Province of the Capuchins, to which I belong, a friar can be in the same place and the same position only for three terms, i.e, nine years. I have now completed a bit more than nine years. Our provincial chapter which was to be held in May was postponed and later cancelled. The new provincial team was appointed by the Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchins in September.
After having consulted the friars of the province, they issued the transfer list on November 5. I gladly accept and honor the decision of my superiors and wish God’s blessings on Fr Gaurav. He joined seminary when I was rector of our minor seminary. So, there is a strong bond of relationship between us. I will be glad to render any help he requires to run the show.
My tenure in Indian Currents as assistant editor and managing editor for seven years under the guidance of Fathers Xavier Vadakkekara, Alex Kizhakkekadavil and Jacob Kani shaped my journalistic pursuit. I learnt a lot from them and was convinced of the prophetic role of Indian Currents weekly in the Indian society and the Church.
How was Indian Currents when you took over as its editor? How are you leaving it? Is it self-sustaining?
When I took over, I had requested my provincial to give me editorial freedom to continue the vision of Fr John Vallamattom, the founding editor of the weekly. I had promised them that I won’t compromise on the faith and morals of the Catholic Church while carrying stories on various issues. My former provincials, Fathers P.A. Joseph, Benoy Joseph and Skylark George gave me full freedom regarding the content of the weekly. At the same time, on a few occasions, we had to rub shoulders on the administrative affairs. Yet I must confess, they were strong pillars of support in every possible way even when there were many in the province who could not understand the purpose or vision of a weekly like Indian Currents.
There is a marginal increase of readership of the weekly during the last few years, thanks to the writers and editors of the weekly. Their ability to write on relevant and current issues even with a short notice has attracted readers across the spectrum to the weekly. Their pieces are in no way less than what appears in the secular daily newspapers. A few of them are veteran journalists who have proved their mettle in secular media and have had decades of long stint in newspapers. People from various religions regularly wrote for the weekly giving it a complete secular identity.
With the help of my office staff, I could increase more than 1,300 subscriptions of hard copies during this period. The weekly is read by thousands in our country through our website. More than 20,000 people receive free soft copies through Email and WhatsApp.
With few advertisements, the escalating cost of paper, printing, postage the weekly struggles to make both ends meet. Yet people and institutions of goodwill sustain it through various means.
In the last few years, I have been on the move taking classes, conducting seminars and workshops and preaching retreats, animating chapters and pre-chapters of various congregations. The honorarium received is also used to sustain the weekly. Those who know the intention generously support, giving me more than what I deserve.
Indian Currents is seen as the bold face of the Church media in India. What do you say about that?
Speaking truth to those in power is always risky. John the Baptist was beheaded for speaking truth to the king. Oscar Romero was killed for confronting the powerful establishment.
Indian Currents was established to speak the Christian conscience to the secular society. Hence, I could not compromise on the vision of the founding fathers and my predecessors. Moreover, a follower of Christ can never align with fundamentalist, fascist regime nor keep silence over their policies. If anyone is supping with the devil, no doubt they are either too diplomatic or have skeletons in their cupboard. They must read the Bible, especially the book of Prophets and the Gospels through the eyes of a follower of Christ, rather than through the eyes of a ritualist.
You were the editor when journalists and media organizations faced many threats. Have you faced any pressure/threats for writing about the present regime and its policies?
I have not directly faced any threat from the government, though I was called and questioned by an official machinery which I do not want to name here. The PMO receives a copy of the weekly and so also many politicians belonging to different parties. Once a letter was written to us by a Union Minister questioning the contents. They are aware of the contents of the weekly. But they know our readers do not make any impact on the election results. Hence, we are harmless before their eyes.
What gave you the courage to speak the truth?
The Church had many daring personalities in its chequered history.
It is not in Church’s interest to identify too closely with regressive and repressive governments. Its mission is to stand with the oppressed masses with little voice to raise their demands and grievances. The Dalits, tribals, minorities, farmers and workers in the unorganized sectors are at the receiving end of the biased policies and programs of the government which is adept at dancing to the tune of corporate houses and vested interests. There are examples of prelates and priests in Latin America, Africa, Philippines and other countries who were powerful critics of despotic governments just as St. Brandsma did during Nazi regime.
Pope Francis canonized Father Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite priest, in May 2022. He was more than a priest – a fearless journalist to the core. He was martyred in the infamous Nazi concentration camp at Dachau in Germany. He stood alone against a government that exterminated people by poison gas or shooting. Titus Brandsma would probably be the only journalist-saint in the family of the ‘holy persons.’ Like the prophets of the Bible who fearlessly took on the brutal and heartless kings of those days, Brandsma went hammer and tongs against the ruthless Hitler regime.
The Dutch saint is a role model for journalists like me. Moreover, my training in journalism both in the church universities and a secular college have helped me to stand up for truth.
However, you seem to have lacked the same courage to speak about the ills within the Church. Why was it so?
It is not fully true. If you analyze our content on various church scandals involving money and sex, I have assumed the role of an activist going beyond my journalistic responsibilities. The land row in Ernakulam archdiocese saw IC publishing a cover story, titled “Cardinal Sin,” which was later withdrawn. The sex scandals which rocked the Church prompted us to come out with a cover story, “Be human, be holy.” These are a few examples of IC covering issues plaguing the Church. On liturgical controversies I have carried articles criticizing the ritualistic roles played by leadership when the ordinary faithful are no more interested in rubrics.
I have carried many cover stories, presenting Pope Francis as the role model for the church in India, directly inviting the prelates to follow the path of Pope Francis. I had also spoken in public against the attempt to align with the BJP for crumbs falling from the table of the government. Of late, I have not carried cover stories on such issues, but continued to express views through articles inside the weekly.
What are your impressions of the Church in India? Is it fulfilling its prophetic role?
I am a faithful son of the Church and orthodox in my beliefs. My authorities in the province and the diocese know it well. I was also a parish priest along with my editorial responsibilities. Personally, the Church is my mother. My criticism is not against the Church as many misunderstand. Expressions of disgust were against elements that ruin the credibility of the Church, my mother, either through their scandalous behavior or their failure to read the signs of the times. Over-emphasis on ritualism, often ignoring the spiritual depth of Jesus Christ has alienated our people from the Church. The prophetic role is to be fulfilled by everyone along with other roles assigned by both God and the Church.
What about Catholic media in India? You are the secretary of the Indian Catholic Press Association. How is the experience of being in the leadership of one of the oldest Catholic media bodies in the world?
When Tribals in many places were being denied their legitimate rights, Fr. Stan Swamy’s consistent question was: “How long will the Adivasis be victims of systemic oppression?” His was a prophetic voice against an oppressive government and its minions.
Like a prophet of olden days, he spoke up for the afflicted and the persecuted; and he paid with his life for what he stood for, and what he spoke.
At a time when fascist tendencies are gnawing into the fourth pillar of the largest democracy in the world, journalism is at peril. The prophetic voices of journalists that once kept governments and their officials on tenterhooks have turned feeble. The searing words that exposed the wrong-doings of the government were enough to send a chill down the spine of erring parties and individuals.
Unfortunately, prophetic journalism is slipping to the margins; those who are willing to sing paeans to the powers-that-be are coming to the centerstage. Instead of uncovering the flips and flops of those in governance, the media is after the Opposition trying to ferret out their omissions and commissions. Here I am forced to say, journalism is under duress and prophetic journalism is taking a backseat.
The media that withstood the ‘arm-twisting’ tactics and pressures even during Emergency has been bending backwards of late. Instead of becoming voices of the oppressed, they have become mouthpieces of the government or exploiters of the people.
This has become evident in reporting tribal agitations, trumped up cases against human rights activists, police highhandedness in students’ stirs, people’s fight for their hearth and home, and many more such issues. Instead of asking questions to the government on policy failures and inadequacies in implementing schemes, media is more adept at becoming loudspeakers of the regime.
A section of media has become an instrument of polarization by focusing on such issues at the cost of people’s issues. Divisive communal issues eat up most of their air time.
Of course, it would be wrong to paint the entire media with the same brush. There are still media organizations and journalists whose prophetic voices boom, inviting the wrath of the authorities. This is evident from the number of journalists who are killed in the line of duty or jailed.
In this context, let me raise a pertinent question to those engaged in the Catholic media ministry.
Where do we, the Christian journalists and communicators of the country, stand? How do we Christian journalists approach issues in the Church? Today, within the Church too, those who raise concerns regarding scandals are branded rebels. Those who want the teachings of Jesus to be implemented, those who want to follow the path of Pope Francis are anathema or strict NO-NO at least for a few at the helm of affairs.
Catholic communicators must get out of the safe zones of the newsrooms and overcome the temptation to sing paeans to the powers-that-be.