Calcutta - In the chapel of St Anthony of Padua



        Although early summer, his cheeks stung in the cold gusts skimming off the river Thames. This was a pleasant contrast to Calcutta's clammy heat, and the freshness of the air injected a spring into the strides which were carrying him towards the Catholic cathedral at Victoria. Here, he planned to browse amongst the richly-stocked shelves of its theological bookshop. 

        The elegance of this modern building impressed him, and curiosity diverted his steps to the entrance, where his eyes explored the warm rich interior and the motionless rows of people in prayer. If faith in organised worship might be restored to him, it was logical that it could occur in such a place, and at such a moment. A minute later - and for the first time since he could remember - he found himself participating in Holy Mass.  

        As familiar ceremony and ritual progressed, Jack Preger realised that God had slipped wearily away. Perhaps He was sitting with the tramp on the bench outside, or was whispering to the whiskered old lady selling newspapers on the windy corner. But God was no longer in here.
And He was not a part of this.


        Our stroll from the hotel towards the church took us through the covered area of the New Market, which spills out to snake haphazardly along adjacent streets. Dating back to 1874, and restored after a huge blaze in 1985, it was formerly known as The Hogg Market, named after Commissioner Sir Stuart Hogg. Here elegant shops, cheap stalls, and primitive pavement patches offer a bewildering spectrum of goods, backed up by a chorus of voices emanating from some of the most persuasive salesmen on the globe.

         "Silk underwear'" urged one voice stridently from a shop doorway as we passed.

         "Very purest silk, please take a look!"

         We did so out of amusement to observe that the shop window was indeed decorated with a generous assortment of lingerie, of all sizes shapes and colours, including in pride of place, a megasized and garishly red brassiere, evidently designed and constructed to keep even the largest Bengali bosom under rigid control.

         "For your wife, your girl friend, very very nice gift sir! Take a look, take a look - only looking!" the man insisted with eager gesticulations of his hands, like a mantis anticipating a meal.

         "Very pure silk, best quality! Special price!" said the now disappointed voice, fading behind us.

         "I thought you said Bengali ladies don't wear panties?" I teased.

         "No, ordinary women don't, but the fashion-conscious middle and upper classes do, I suppose, although I'm not an absolute authority on that particular subject" he chuckled, as we approached No. 19, Market Street.

         Most people would walk past this unassuming church without noticing it. The main entrance door from the road was firmly shut, with a group of urchins playing games in its dusty shade. Access was from the courtyard of an adjoining school.

         "Saint Anthony was a Doctor of the Church" remarked Jack quietly, with the incessant traffic noise now soothingly blocked by the building behind us.

        "He was actually born in Lisbon in 1195, and baptised Ferdinand, but joined the Franciscans, and took the name Anthony. He died in Padua when he was only 36"

        I was curious to know how his saintly life had ended at such a young age, but my question was silenced by our respectful entry into the little building. It was empty. We settled down in the simple wooden seats at the rear and I noticed Jack did not observe any rituals, but sat beside me, looking straight ahead, with his eyes seemingly fixed on the inscription above the altar, which read simply:  'MY LORD AND MY GOD'

        If the exterior of this church was unremarkable, the dim interior was equally so. The floor was stained a dull red, and a row of iron pillars, painted an unattractive brown and cream, flanked either side. A line of slanted crosses decorated both side walls, and a picture of the Virgin was framed flamboyantly in multi-coloured light bulbs. For reasons unknown, just one ceiling fan beside the door was switched on, and whirled alone. An ambience of peace compensated generously for the plain and uninspired architecture.

        I wondered what Jack was thinking, and whether he might be silently acknowledging the Saint who it seemed had answered his prayer all those years ago, when things looked hopeless. 

         He broke the comfortable silence.

         "Well, are you impressed?"

         "Not greatly" I confessed, "But the atmosphere is really pleasant"

         Jack nodded

          "It is refreshing to see something as simple and unpretentious as this, yet have it retain the feeling of being a place of Roman Catholic worship, without all the usual trimmings"

         "When was the last time you went to Mass?" I asked out of curiosity, knowing that Jack had neither affinity nor affection for formal worship or ceremony.

         He was still staring straight ahead, and without changing his expression, he replied:

         "Last year in London, at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Victoria, but it was an empty experience. It was just theatre. Acting out the same old part, repeating the same old script. It was spiritually sterile if I can describe it like that"

         "So how do you see the future of the Catholic Church Jack?"

         He turned his head slightly, and looked around the interior, as if asking its sanctified walls for permission to reply, then leaned forward.

         "I can sum it up best in the words of one of our volunteers - a chap from Belgium, which is a staunchly Catholic country as you know - he has really an outstanding intellect, a budding philosopher really. He said quite simply one day to me 'All we need is one more Pope like John Paul II, and we won't have any more problems with the Catholic Church - because we won't have a Catholic Church'"

        He smiled humourlessly.

         "I think there's a lot of truth in that assessment, as I feel that under the current supporting Cardinals, they're heading for self-destruction. But - if you look at their history, I think that no matter how rigged the next elections are, no matter how much wheeling and dealing goes on in smoked-filled rooms in the Vatican, when this Pope retires [John Paul II] or goes to his eternal reward, the church will eventually realise how far backwards it has gone since the time of Vatican II. You may get therefore during the next papacy, or the one after that, a revision of the more reactionary policies that have been put into practice during the current one"

        He cast his eyes skyward, and smiled sadly.

        "I'm not speaking now through divine inspiration - I think that this is a widespread opinion anyway within the church, and they've got themselves in such a mess now, it's going to take some time to sort anything out. Another Pope John XXIII [1958-63] would be able slowly to work great improvements, but until something does happen, it is very difficult today for any educated free-thinking person to accept current doctrines. For a start, you have to be very stupid, bigoted, or both, to block half of the world's entire Catholic population from the priesthood just because they happen to be women, not men. I mean what kind of worldly body has a right to denigrate the spirituality of a human being just because it happens to occupy a female body? If women have been discriminated against for countless centuries by the male ego, it is all the more inadmissible now - when women are leaders of their countries, flying 747’s and demonstrating that they can do many things equally well, often a lot better than men – that the Catholic church perpetuates this belittlement. And their stand on birth control, faced with Third World horror stories caused by over-population, is unforgivable"

         Jack was shaking his head

         "But where is this birth control obsession based?" I asked.

         Jack continued with an element of frustration creeping into his voice.

         "Well, in biblical times, when Onan cast his seed on the ground, he was rebuked, as this was against the divine will for procreation, and the message was to 'go forth and multiply' ... and they did so in extremely under-populated areas, which of course was perfectly valid then. But over three thousand years later the same inane message being broadcast in third world countries - which are unable even to feed themselves - is causing suffering on a massive scale. Despite this, they still believe that the more Catholics there are, the better things will be, and of course leading to even more converts, and the propagation of the faith. It's just not comprehensible"

         Jack was staring up at the roof.

         "And they've only just discovered that life is of divine importance" he added with a hint of irony.

         "This is only something that they've recently come across - I'm referring to life in the womb – but life in third world prisons, refugee camps forced labour camps or whatever - that kind of life is not of such divine importance. The unborn baby in the uterus has now assumed enormous significance in the minds of Catholic orthodox theologians - despite the fact that a large number of pregnancies abort naturally in the early stages because of foetal deformities, placental abnormality, and many other causes. Many pregnancies never come to full term, and God, in the divine scheme of things, has apparently planned that more children are unborn than born - in other words, there are probably more naturally occurring early abortions than actual births. Now that's a fairly profound contradiction of Catholic teaching"

          He thought for a moment, and went on:

        "They would answer that we have to accept divine will, but if so, then what is really wrong with preventing conception in the first place if we have to accept all these natural abortions? I agree that there is some argument that abortion may be against the will of God - and most certainly in cases where the woman acts sexually irresponsibly and becomes pregnant, then I would totally oppose and condemn getting rid of an unborn child. However, there are many other scenarios, and if for example the health of the mother would be in danger, or the is foetus malformed, or even if the family's circumstances are so desperate that the child would seriously jeopardise the survival of the others, then there may be full justification for such an action - but whatever the case, the decision is up to the mother, if necessary with the advice of a competent doctor - and certainly not up to a bunch of theologians"

         Jack's voice had become slightly louder, in marked contrast to the slightly hushed tones up until now.

         "You see, it reverts back to the essence of all religious teachings, and for me it is completely unacceptable for any church to create its own laws, like some kind of police state, and expect all adherents to abide by them, or face eternal damnation. As I've said many times, the teachings are already there from various divinely inspired prophets, and the basic message in each is identical, and provides us with a clear example of how we should lead our lives in order to find fulfillment and happiness. It is in fact incredibly simple, and even the most foolish minds will realise sooner or later that ignoring the essential wisdom, and living selfish, dishonest lives eventually engenders a terrible state of disharmony, whereas loving your fellows with compassion and understanding brings - just as inevitably - a state of expanding happiness which transcends material things, and earthly amusements, and this fulfillment is accessible to every one of us if we choose to pursue it"

         His words now rang around the little church. He continued with a trace of frustration in his voice.

         "But what is so tragic is that many religions set themselves up as a kind of dictatorship, bending or altering or interpreting the scriptures to suit themselves, and sitting in judgment on millions of people which has them living in absolute fear, or guilt, or both - now what kind of basis is that for creating balanced and happy human beings? The role of the church is to make available the essential teachings, and to demonstrate it by example, which will allow people to discover the happiness it brings – but certainly not to make up its own rules and regulations, which it expects everyone to blindly and submissively follow. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens, and frightened adherents are bombarded with endless preaching from some self-appointed authority which makes the rules to expand their power base, or based on interpretations from scriptural writings which are about as appropriate today as telling the third world to go forth and multiply! I wonder also how literally these learned folks would take the star that apparently travelled billions of miles through space to finally hover above the stable? That leads us back to things having the 'ring of truth' I mentioned earlier, and the necessity to take only from any scriptural teachings what is clearly a divine message. Other aspects can be studied as a theological curiosity, and debated endlessly, but it is a sin conveniently to interpret them to make your own rules in order to manipulate the masses"

        His voice tapered off as the small doorway darkened with the silhouette of an elderly man, who sat down near the entrance under the single revolving fan, and bowed his head in prayer. We sat in silence for a while, until Jack tapped his watch and nodded to me. We rose, and made our way out.

        Near the exit there was an inscription which read:

13th June 1931. To Commemorate the Seventh Centenary of the Death of St Anthony"


         Outside in the bright sunlight, I decided to explore up to the end of the little path running alongside the church, and my heart thumped in my chest as a large dog leapt at me savagely from behind a frail looking fence, alternately barking and growling threateningly. I beat a hasty retreat with wet palms.

         Jack was smiling broadly where he had waited for me.

         "I'm glad to see the caretaker has got an able four-legged assistant" he said. 

         "I'm glad the caretaker doesn't let him wander about" I added.

         The noise of the main street seemed louder than usual.

         "I must leave you now" he said "And I won't be able to see you until tomorrow afternoon"

         I nodded happily, realising how much time he'd already given to me, and the amount of work that probably awaited him at the cramped Calcutta Rescue office - abundantly benevolent, but totally lacking in comfort. Every single rupee is used for "The Work' as Jack likes to call it.

         "We could meet after lunch if you like" he said. 

         "Wonderful" I replied.

         He looked at me with a curious smile. 

         "And what else do you want to talk about?"

         "Oh, dying and death in general" I replied. 

         "That's a nice cheery way to wind things up, and where would you like to talk?"

         "Anywhere quiet and convenient, outside, if possible"

         "Have you ever visited South Park Street Cemetery?" he asked.

        "No, but I've read about it - "

        "It's at the bottom of Park Street opposite the Assembly of God complex. I'll meet you at the entrance at two o'clock. It's quiet, peaceful, and if you want to talk about that kind of morbid subject it's a fairly appropriate venue I reckon" he said with a chuckle.

        "I'll be there" I said gratefully, wondering what Jack would have to say about that inevitable moment which awaits us all, sooner or later.

        The end of our life - and the end of everything?

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