A few decades ago a western missionary visited Keralam and returned to his homeland. The members of his church inquired about his missionary travels in Keralam, and particularly about the ancient Church of Keralam, the Malankarese Orthodox Syrian Church. His first description about the Church of Malankara was this: “I saw a church that deifies dead bishops. I had the opportunity to visit many churches. Wherever a bishop was buried people considered him equal to God, and they worshipped him by lighting candles and praying at his tomb. The Syrian Church is a church that accepts only the sanctity of its bishops, not of its priests or laity”
This perception of our church by a foreign missionary more or less depicts our general practice, if not our belief. The Church clearly teaches that everyone is called to sanctity, and that a layperson can attain Christian perfection and holiness equal to or more than a member of the clergy or a bishop. However, I wonder if our church is emotionally capable of recognizing the sanctity of an ordinary priest of layperson.
Indian culture and tradition are basically benevolent and charitable to anyone who is reported to be a Sanyasi or celibate. In other words, our culture venerates a celibate even if he is unchaste, and frowns upon a married person even if he / she excels in Christian virtues. Look at the awe people have at a single priest, even if he is not a monk, or a member of a monastery. In other words, one’s marital status is a great deterrent for people to accept his / her sanctity. Even if there was a layperson with outstanding Christian virtues, the recognition of his sanctity would be a matter for his immediate family. Even if there was a priest with outstanding virtuous life, the recognition of his sanctity would still be a matter for his immediate family or some people who knew him personally; if he was married, the appreciation of his holiness would be much less. I had the opportunity to visit many shrines and churches within our Church. Nowhere did I see people (other than family members) lighting a candle and praying at the tombs of persons other than their relatives.
It does not mean that those priests and laypersons were less holy than a prelate or a monk of the church; many of our people and ordinary priests did excel and do excel in holiness at a much higher degree than the higher clergy. It is sad to note that our Church does not have a system or policy to recognize the sanctity of her ordinary members. In the history of the Church we had many infants, laypersons, virgins, ordinary deacons and priests whose sanctity was solemnly recognized by the universal church.
The Roman church still fosters this tradition. Recently within the Syro-Malabar Roman Church in Keralam, a priest and nun were elevated to the rank of “the blessed”, a step before canonization. An ordinary nun, Sr. Alphonsa was named Blessed; and a priest, Fr.Kuriakos Chavara, was recognized for altar veneration. Byzantine Orthodoxy is still doing it. Coptic Orthodoxy is also promoting this tradition. When this writer was in Egypt, he could personally witness this noble practice. Unfortunately, our Syrian or Malankarese tradition does not seem to promote this practice. When a bishop dies, people flock to offer burning candles at his tomb, pilgrimages are arranged to his tomb on diocesan level. Secure safes are ceremoniously placed at his tomb to exploit the piety of ordinary people. As a result of this pecuniary motive, even his severe critics and bitter opponents at the parish where a bishop is buried also get enthusiastic in erecting a bigger shrine to perpetualize his memory. Anniversaries of that bishop take the form of jubilant festivals for that parish and diocese inviting pilgrims. Although he was contemptuously and abusively treated while alive, the scene is different after he dies. His tomb immediately becomes a holy place!
When we do not try to universally recognize the celebration of the sanctity of our ordinary folks, we are implicitly saying that there is no holiness shared by our ordinary people and clergy; what we are saying is that sanctity is the call only of the higher clergy. Thus we are denying role models for ordinary people and priests. If there are no saints from the rank and file, and the ordinary people that make up the church do not have heroes to follow in their own walk of life, can we call the Church holy, which is one of the notes of the Church as enshrined in the Symbol of our faith, the Nicene Creed. If sanctity is the call and monopoly of bishops, the Church does not have a mission on earth.Recently, there were two canonizations within the Russian Orthodox (Orthodox Church in America).