The effect of my resignation on India

As I have stated before, when I decided to publicly resign from the ministry, I had also made up my mind to minimise any pastoral damage it might do to people to whom I had ministered. And among those, India featured prominently. For fourteen years I had taught in St John’s Regional Seminary, Hyderabad, and at the National, Catechetical, Biblical Centre in Bangalore. Then, after 1984 I had spent six months every year for many years on end giving courses and retreats all over India. What impact would my resignation have on all priests and religious I had taught, and on the thousands of lay persons who had read my books?

I realised that giving good information would be crucial. So I compiled a special dossier which I entitled ‘Personal Report’. It contained my press statement as well as background documentation on the precise issues I was protesting about.

From two weeks before I released my press statement, I began sending out copies of this dossier with personal letters. They were addressed to each of the eight bishops of Andhra Pradesh, and to the heads of the various institutions I had been dealing with: St John’s Seminary, the Conference of Religious of Andhra Pradesh, Jeevan Jyoti, Amruthavani, Jyotirmai, the NBCLC in Bangalore, and so on.

I print here a sample letter, addressed to Bishop Marampudi Joji, then Bishop of Vijayawada, who had been a student of mine.

7 September 1998

“My dear Bishop Joji,

Half a year has passed since I last met you in Hyderabad. I hope that you are well in body and spirit by the grace of God.

Over the past few months I have gone through a very difficult time. I am writing you this letter to inform you of what has happened to me, so that, if there were to be any publicity about this in India, you are acquainted with the true facts.

As you may know, for more than 20 years I have been involved in theological research concerning the priestly ordination of women. Rome, on the other hand, is trying to suppress all further discussion on the topic, and the Congregation for Sacred Doctrine has recently declared anyone who believes women can be ordained priests as being no longer in full communion with the Church. This has put me into a serious conflict of conscience.

After a lot of prayer and reflection I have come to the sad conclusion that this compels me to resign from the priestly ministry.

My main reasons are as follows:

  1. Throughout my life as a priest and a theologian I have considered my personal
    integrity as one of my main assets. I know that my students (and the readers of my books) have accepted my teaching because they valued my personal sincerity as well as my scriptural or theological arguments.

I know it to be a fact that many theologians (if not most) agree that women can be ordained priests. They are now keeping silent, conducting an underground theology as one put it to me recently, until Rome will revoke its decision (as it has so frequently done in the past). I feel that I cannot, in conscience, follow that path as it is my duty to speak the truth.

  1. Moreover, I feel I have an obligation in justice towards the ordinary faithful, who
    are the ‘underdogs’ in this case. Millions of women, especially in the West feel
    utterly let down by the latest Roman decree — they are virtually pushed out. But
    nobody in the Church speaks up for them. Bishops, theologians, religious superiors in spite of their own disagreement or unease with the Roman statements, join in what so easily becomes a conspiracy of silence.

Dear Bishop, I am not writing this letter to defend myself, but for a very practical and pastoral reason. Since I have contributed to the formation of so many priests in Andhra Pradesh, I want to ensure that all my students, whether they agree with my position or not, at least understand the reasons for my decision.

I am providing some more information in the form of the enclosed ‘Personal Report’. I have sent a copy of this letter to all the Bishops of Andhra Pradesh.

I leave it to your discretion to inform your priests about all this in what you consider the most prudent and effective manner. I want all of them to know that I am not renouncing my Catholic faith or my priestly calling in a wider sense of the term (as proclaiming the Good News). I stand by everything I have lived and taught, and encourage all of my former students to continue dedicating themselves to the good of people through their priestly ministry.

Also, the sad step I am forced to take in conscience, will not stop me working as a writer and theologian, nor my world-wide apostolate in faith formation through Housetop.

I take this opportunity of expressing once more my deep regard for you personally and to wish you God’s richest blessings on your difficult and beautiful task.

With many kind regards yours respectfully in Christ,

John Wijngaards.

Response from Indian Bishops

Archbishop Samineni Arulappa

Samineni Arulappa, the Archbishop of Hyderabad, who had been a personal friend of mine, did not bother replying to my letter. But I heard later from others that he publicly condemned my step. Speaking at the plenary of the Association of Theologically Trained Women of India (ATTWI), held at the Auditorium of Stanley Girls High School, Chapel Road, Hyderabad in the year 1999, he said that women in the Catholic Church should be content with having been given duties like Bible reading, offering communion, etc. and with holding independent positions in religious orders and managing institutions.

But others were more forthcoming, especially bishops who had studied advanced courses in theology.

Dr Leobard D’Souza, church historian and Archbishop of Nagpur, wrote: “Your courage is admirable and I feel the wrench it must have cost you . . . I am still teaching church history to the students of St Charles Seminary. I narrate the chequered paths taken by the church through the centuries and I remind them of the humbling and sobering lessons we must learn. If the ‘Holy Spirit and we’ could overturn the law of Abraham and open the church to the world, we will need the same Spirit to bring about Jerusalem II.”

Dr Gali Bali, scripture scholar and Bishop of Guntur, sent me his support: “I can well understand the agony you must have undergone before taking such a drastic decision. I am sure that all those who know you personally well both in India and elsewhere will be able to understand the reasons that have led you to take this step. I sympathise with you and pray for you that the good Lord may continue to bless you in all the good work you have been doing. Two or three priests casually inquired from me about your resignation from priestly ministry and I explained to them the reasons that you gave in your letter. On the whole they showed a sympathetic understanding about your decision.”

Dr Mallavarapu Prakash, theologian and Bishop of Cuddapah, wrote: “I respect you and your decision, your sincerity and your courage to stand by your theological views as a believing Christian. I appreciate your kindness to write to me to disclose the news yourself. I remember my conversation with you last year at St John’s on the topic of Ordination of Women. I am in solidarity with you regarding the convictions you have and the decision you have taken. The Spirit has used you and your talents for the growth and progress of the mission of Christ and His Church. My wish and prayer for you is that you continue to find joy and fulfilment in the ministry you are engaged in.”

Archbishop Marampudi Joji

Bishop Marampudi Joji, who had been one of my students in St. John’s Seminary, visited me in my home in England, after he had become the new Archbishop of Hyderabad. Though, for diplomatic reasons, he did not want to express a personal opinion on the ordination of women, he told me that I enjoyed his full personal and moral support.

Religious Sisters and lay people

One group in India I was very much concerned about were the nuns. Remember that I had been moderator of the Conference of Religious of Andhra Pradesh (3000 members at the time), that I had founded the theological institute for religious Jeevan Jyoti, that I had taught hundreds of nuns from all over India in the National Catechetical and Liturgical Centre in Bangalore.

So I sent letters and my ‘Personal Report’ to prominent Sisters in many institutions. But what I had feared happened. Instead of hearing the reasons for my decision from myself or an unbiassed source, most Religious in India learned about my step from  hostile publicity about me in Indian newspapers. Father G. Michael SJ published a scathing presentation of my views in Indian Currents. This is how he concludes:

“Wijngaards’ reasoning is puzzling. Since he intends to continue to remain a
Roman Catholic [is he not ipso facto excommunicated?] and continue working with his team at Housetop, co-producing and distributing faith-formation courses world wide, his prophetic voice will continue to disturb the Church and our church leaders. On the 7th October, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, I consoled the womenfolk present in a large number for not being denied the priesthood. I said to them, ‘Try to understand the Church’s intention behind the ban on women’s ordination. You are exercising the real priesthood in your life of loving service and in pasturing the faithful in so many novel ways. By ordaining you the Church does not want to degrade you to a purely symbolic priesthood. What priests perform only symbolically on the altar, you are doing it in reality as Mother Mary did. She conceived in her womb the Word of God and gave him to the world; suffered with him till he died for the life of the world and even after his death continued being a ‘pastor’ to the apostles’ community of believers.’ The women in the congregation thanked me for my appreciation of their real priesthood. But what will be the remark of Mr. John Wijngaards? He might say, ‘0 Father Michael, you have mastered well the art of deceiving the womankind with flowery language from the papal encyclicals!’ My answer: ‘Thank you, Wijngaards, for the compliment! I hope The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith too gives me the same remark after reading this article!”

The resulting confusion among Religious who had known me was predictable.

A Sister whom I had known personally and who now worked in the North of India wrote as follows:

“I was shocked reading in Indian Currents that you had resigned from the priesthood. I used to look forward to the day every week when you used to offer Mass at Amruthavani. Your resignation is a great loss to the priesthood. I do not know what to write. Will there be any change at the top? There are so many kinds of feelings in me, and I am sure that all those who know you, love you, appreciate the good work that have done and are doing are like me in pain. I know you love the Lord deeply, loved India and its people, worked so very hard for us. I am confused.”

A provincial superior sent a similar message:

“The information on the ‘sad step’ that you were forced to take in conscience, and the reasons for your decision etc… shocked me to the core. I assure you of my prayers, sacrifices that you carry on successfully the ‘prophetic role’ – which you are convinced is ‘imperative’ – for you as well as for all of us. May God enable us to accomplish His Will with prudence and courage.”

The head of the Jeevan Jyoti Institute, to whom I had sent a full information pack, wrote as follows:

“We heard the shocking news of the decision you have made. I feel very sorry but at the same time I congratulate you for your courage to stand for the truth. The prophets are made voiceless and treated badly by the church. Surely the day will come when your writings are accepted. I am anxious to read all your books now.”

A professor in a college for women:

“I know how difficult it is to take a stand as you have done and I assure you of my prayerful support. I will quote this passage from a book: ‘Twenty centuries ago in  a small country of the Middle East which we now call the State of Israel a young man whose name was Jesus of Nazareth dared to raise his voice and say what was going wrong in his land, but people wanted to keep him quiet. He dared to go against the trends prevailing in society, and people got scandalised. He dared to take risks in defence of those who were oppressed, and the leaders of the nation managed to get rid of him …’ Dear Father, the risk you have taken to stand like Jesus, – may it bear fruit for God’s Kingdom. It costs much to be prophetic in ordinary situations, the Lord has asked you to proclaim it from the housetops!”

Some lay people also wrote, such as Dr Evita Fernandez, Head of a Maternity Home in Hyderabad:

“Ever since I heard you have left the priesthood and read your explanation on the internet, you have been in my thoughts and prayers. I feel sad that this prevents you from celebrating the Eucharist. I am trying to understand WHY you had to leave? A part of me at the same time admires your courage. A part of me shares your helplessness – as director of our Maternity Hospital I feel that often with regard to Government rules – and maybe a little anger too . . . I am grateful for ALL the difference you have made for people all over the world. Continue to inspire us.”

And then there is this letter from a Telugu man who had worked as a doorkeeper in Amruthavani for many years:

“This letter comes with joyful tears. I came to know that you have resigned your Priesthood. But you stand holy before God. You are really like John the Baptist who had the forerunner spirit. Your thinking is very high. Father, fear not, Jesus quotes – ‘Birds has nest, fox has holes, Son of God has no place in this world’. This means truth has no place in this world. Sometimes, I am also helpless and in tears, real poor are suffering. There is no help for them. My heart breaks, Father, looking at things happening in the Church. Church needs revival. I pray God — Father, all our family members are sending you their wishes and prayers. I hope this message will encourage you. Remember, you are standing before God as his true and living servant.”

Reactions from priests

Unfortunately many of my former students among priests did not get the full picture of why I stood down from the priestly ministry. This was mainly due to some bishops in Andhra Pradesh wilfully withholding the information I had sent them. Anyway, the priests who disagreed with my decision did not write to me. Others did.

Fr. Udamala Bala, the Rector of St John’s Regional Seminary, sent me this message:

“I communicated to the staff in our usual staff meeting the sad step you have been  forced to take. The staff, naturally, was taken by astonishment and disbelief. But they all understood the conflict of conscience you had been put into and the reasons you gave in taking the sad step of resigning from the priestly ministry. The staff told me to write to you that we understand you and appreciate your concern and commitment in following the dictates of the voice of your conscience. We are happy to note that you will continue your world-wide apostolate in faith formation through Housetop. We, in turn, assure you that we will continue in our priestly ministry. I communicated your decision to the student community too. I am sure that they understand you.”

A priest from Warangal diocese:

“I read your ‘personal report’ in which you explain your decision. I have gone through it. It was something like a pilgrimage through your world vision. May God be praised. As one of your former students I express my solidarity and concern for you. You brought to Andhra a new Vêda, and washed away her stain of ignorance by proclaiming from the housetops the divinity of man. Thanks Father for Amruthavani, Jeevana Jyoti and Jyotirmai, and above all thank you for all that you have been to St. John’s Regional Seminary. May you be happy. May you be healthy. May you enjoy freshness of life in years to come.”

Another priest from Hyderabad:

“I sympathise with you. But ever since hearing of your decision I have been wondering if you would not have served your cause better by not resigning from the priestly ministry. In my opinion the ‘Motu Proprio’ of JP II was not an infallible pronouncement of the Holy See. By allowing the authorities to take disciplinary action on you, you would have developed a public controversy whereby the whole principle itself would have become a point of public debate. It would also have created an occasion for you to expose your views on restrictions put on the priesthood. Is it not better to be made a victim for a cause?”

Another former student of mine in Nalgonda:

“I appreciate you very much for the integrity and conscientious behaviour you kept up all through your life both in word and in deed. Whatever you said or did, you did with a personal conviction formed after enlightened knowledge and faith. I, and for that matter many of my colleagues, consider you as a visionary, a prophet much ahead of our times. You also work for it vehemently without compromises. At times living in our own small world, we failed to understand the inner promptings of the Spirit through you. Now with this new European situation, which is soon going to be ours too, we see you as a champion of women’s rights, a prophet who pleads for God’s ways and stands on their side. Lost in our own local issues, we have not put much attention into the issues you raise. These are issues which will be accepted in the course of time in the catholic church too. The courage with which you take a stand is really praise worthy and reveals the depth of your faith conviction. I continue to have a great respect for you and keep a high regard for your theological and faith formation work. I assure you of my prayers and convey you the assurance of many of the colleagues here.”

Finally, the message from a theologian in Kerala whom I had already got to know when we were both studying in Rome:

“Fr. Wijngaards, Friend of India, Resigns from Priesthood” says a headline in Indian Currents of November 1, 1998. Ever since that headline struck my eyes, my mind was constantly with you, talking with you, discussing with you, sharing with you, keeping you company, worried about your loneliness.
If you ask me ‘why?’ I have to say: ‘I don’t know’. You have been to me an alter Ego, even though separated for long and not having the opportunity to work together for some common ideals, like two meteors thrown up in the sky by some unseen bad unsuspected hand, to meet and part, to shine and disappear, all in the flickering of a second. Why? Nothing is an accident in the dance of events for any honest believer. So too our meeting was not an accident, nor was our parting. Deus ludit in orbe terrarum.  How does it feel to be bombarded with God’s graces?  And how does it feel to be bombarded with bullets?”

Father Christopher Coelho OFM, a dear old friend of mine and partner in many projects, wrote to me in October 1998 to say that he considered me a prophet. Being the well-known artist he was, he also sent me this drawing to express his feelings:

drawing by Christopher Coelho OFM

All these messages from India moved me deeply. They also confirmed my assessment that most were sufficiently grounded in their own faith and understanding of the Church not to be negatively affected by my resignation.