The cardinal and the power of boycott

Last weekend, your favourite Sunday newspaper reported that the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, had announced he would not attend any state event during the Christmas season. This protest on his part, the country's most senior Roman Catholic prelate said, would continue until the Government or the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) rectified the situation. That situation, for those who came in late, was the arrest a few days before of a reverend sister of Mother Theresa's Missionaries of Charity, who run the 'Prem Nivasa' children's home in Moratuwa.

Explaining his stance, his eminence intimated that he had previously held his peace because the case against the charity's local chapter was sub judice in a Sri Lankan court. Apparently responding to criticism in the national and international media that the Catholic Church had not acted to defend the Missionaries of Charity and their Rawatawatta operation, the Cardinal had finally opened up post the court's decision. Coming out of his corner with all guns blazing, MR (as he will probably be popularly known one day), affirmed that his declared modus operandi was in fact an official protest against what he perceived as "a high-handed decision by the NCPA".

Prem Nivasa, which accommodates 75 children, 20 pregnant women, and 12 nursing mothers, had been subject to a slew of accusations which led to the arrest of the nun, her incarceration, and the court case which drew an audience as far away as the Vatican. Back home, in an evident show of solidarity with the cardinal's outburst, another senior cleric of the congregation of the faithful in our land, the Bishop of Anuradhapura, also expressed his strong disinclination to grace any state event during Christmas time with his presence.

All well and good… despite the continuing criticism of those who will carp and cavil that the venerable ecclesiastics could have done much more in the cause of justice than banish themselves from government-sponsored banquets in the silly season. Because various branches of the episcopate - especially in the north of the country, with a few voices in the wilderness 'down south' - had previously essayed far more meaningful protests against what they saw as economic injustice and socio-political oppression. This pusillanimous bid to absent themselves from state tamashas was not so much an expression of protest, but an expedient procrastination. Thus far, no farther? No, father! (I mean, your eminence…). Plus, the proof of the Christmas pudding is in the eating - or not - thereof. The fact that the nun has now emerged none the worse for all the villainy proves that there is profit in pre-eminent protest. What benefit the bishop's absence of blessing brought about may be debatable, though, and matters may have resolved themselves thus in any case…

Be that as it may, it is a start. And as beginnings of eminent boycotts go, it is a good beginning. That it may go the way of similar eminent boycotts - that is to say, into the dustbin of history - is neither here nor there. The fact remains, like a stubborn stain on a favourite vestment, that a person of some eminence representing an institution of no little importance and attendant influence, has defied the conventional wisdom. To brave the status quo in this country today takes guts. And we doff our biretta or zucchetto to MR. He made his point and won the day.

By the way, his eminence's press conference was reported on the day that the great French Cardinal Richelieu died… way back in 1642… prompting a wit to suggest that our cardinalate was born again on the day after the predecessor of Cardinal Mazarin (another notable French cleric) was deceased. Vive les Cardinaux!

But back to the res. We were discussing the expedience of boycotts, in a day and age when the neo-patrimonial ethic of the incumbent administration casts a long shadow. That many of the mortal ills that plague our nation today go under the aegis of the government's largesse to its cronies goes without saying. One way to lodge a protest against this ethic may be to stay without going. As our brace of cardinals have undertaken to do - between Advent and Kingdom Come, perhaps?

Now who else? Popes, priests, and other princes of the church cannot be always counted on to lead the charge. Under the rule of men entirely great, the people are mightier than the powers that be. Which begs the question as to where the defenders of human rights and the champions of democratic norms are these days… have they held their peace so long that now there is nobody left to speak out against the egregious goings-on all around them?

More importantly, what else? If the church can forego its seat at the feast, cannot the world voluntarily resign its place at the festivities too? Business, we mean you! To say nothing of academics and professionals who kowtow to the bureaucracy to get their way, have their say, and secure their pay. As for civil society, why do we keep inviting sordid politicos and their shady acolytes to grace our plethora of events around the calendar - when it is clear that they are nothing but a disgrace!

MR's stance can easily be adopted by other dignitaries with a conscience. If the leaders lead, the people will follow. That may give MR (no, the other one, this time) and his cohorts some food for thought this Christmas - and beyond.

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