Note: Since Stan Swamy has become a phenomenon in India and since he left a legacy and had made an impact on the Church and on the nation, I am writing again on him (refer to my November 2020 Forum essay). At this time the emphasis will be on his sufferings and their impact.
Neither Stan Swamy nor those who loved and cared for him wanted him to suffer and die as an under-trial. Efforts were made to get him freed or get him out on bail. Since his October 2020 arrest, Stan has been in being in the news! He was in jail and finally he was hospitalized where he died on 5th July 2021. In life, and more so in his death, Stan, in a small but a significant way, has ‘redefined’ what the Catholic Church in India is and what its mission is, who a Catholic priest in India is and what his apostolate ought to be. In the process, he raised the bar high for the priests and the religious in the country. Here is an attempt to meditate on his life and mission, and how, sufferings largely made him what he came out to be.
Stan has been in the speech, in writing, in the print and electronic media, in the messages people penned and forwarded. From Parliament to the street corners Stan was discussed. Arguably, no other Indian Catholic priest was ever in the national public discourse as he has been? For weeks and months he was there in the papers and journals, in the magazines and on TV discussions. Not just the Catholic families, but the Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh families spoke about him and his convictions. Stan shook the conscience of the nation, and, he himself became the nation’s conscience. He did this by reminding us of shared human values, those enshrined in the pages of Indian Constitution and those in the Charters of Human Rights!
Leaving much of what is going on around Stan, I merely want to highlight one aspect: how his sufferings contributed to the shaping of India’s collective ethical imagination. Did Stan Swamy have any clue on what was to happen to him in the last eight months of his life? Possibly yes but most probably no! He knew that he would have to suffer for the mission and that eventually he would to die; but did he expect that the things would evolve in this way? Possibly, he had no idea.
Now, imagine if Stan was not arrested, if Stan got his bail immediately or eventually, if that ‘historic’ sipper/straw was granted to him on time (in my view, this sipper definitively and decisively changed the Stan Swamy discourse as millions of Indians were angry that he was denied sipper and the he had to wait for weeks to get it), if he was treated well at the hospital and in jail, we can go on with many ‘ifs…
These are the things that he and all of us wanted and fought for, and if they have taken place, the story of Stan would have been very different! Sadly, he was denied all of these, was tortured like the prophets of old, and in a small measure, like our Lord Jesus himself. So, basically something that Stan did not want, we did not want, has happened.
How to fathom this mystery! If everything went as he or we expected, there would not have been Stan Swamy that we in India and the world came to know of, what he worked for, what he dreamed of, what challenges he faced, and how he mirrored a nation’s conscience. Not that a plainer ‘Stan story’ would have been insignificant but it would have been very different.
It leads us to wrestle with the meaning and significance of suffering? Does God bring sufferings on our way or does God permit them, even if they bring glory to God? An age-old theological question! A distinction here could help. Most of what we suffer is unnecessary and it must be avoided. Due to our selfishness, lack of freedom, lack of growth, we bring pain and suffering to ourselves and to the others: and, several priests and religious falsely imagine that such sufferings are a part of divine plan and they willingly bear them. This needs to be rethought. Naturally, people love to be joyous and do their best for avoid sufferings. We do hope that God does not want us to suffer.
However, suffering for the Kingdom is of a very different kind, sui generis. The Lord chooses or permits it, and we may reluctantly accept or it may even be ‘forced’ upon. While a martyr goes through this crucible, God realizes something that he or she has no clue about. Another way to look at this is, even if God does not want us to suffer, when you are suffering for the Kingdom, God will accompany you and ensure that divine will is realized in a mysterious way in the context of pain and suffering. In a manner of speaking, the martyr has no control at this point. God’s Will and the martyr’s will sync so much that the martyr echoes with Paul: ‘it is no longer I who lives’?
Stan Swamy ended up becoming what he hardly expected. Martyrs like him are likely to let God choose what’s best for them and for the rest of us. Even if they are reluctant to walk that path or run away, God will chase and get them. This is a kind of leela, a sort of love affair! Once God is in love with you, as God is with the martyr, the story takes unusual twists and turns. Stan Swamy had his own plans for his life and God had other plans. In this apparent defeat of Stan Swamy, in his failures and weaknesses, in his sufferings and death, God triumphed. What many could not accomplish through their lives, God accomplishes through sufferings and death. God’s offer is frightening as well as enchanting!