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  By Chhotebhai  
  FATHER Josef Neuner SJ passed away in early December in Pune, at the grand age of 101. I did not grieve his death, because for a holy man like him, death is but another step forward in the journey of life. Normally the number 101 is associated with the book/movie "101 Dalmatians". Dalmatians are white dogs with black spots, and highly strung by nature. Neuner was quite the opposite.

He was a gentle giant, which may sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. 2000 years ago Simeon had prophesised that Jesus would be a sign of contradiction (cf Lk 2:34). Some modern translations use the phrase "a sign that will be opposed", or contradicted. Perhaps a better word would be a "contra-indication"; for words like "contradiction" and "opposition" have today assumed a negative connotation.

The word "contra-indication" would be apt for Neuner; for he was lucid in his thoughts, simple in his lifestyle, very devout with a special love for Mother Mary, and tenacious in his theological convictions. It is for this reason that I have carefully chosen the word "contra-indication" to describe Neuner. He combined the intellectual prowess of the Jesuit with the humility and simplicity of the Franciscan.

Fr. Neuner could not be categorised as a liberal or a conservative, pro or anti liberation theology, charismatic renewal, indigenisation, psychotherapy etc. I happened to be in De Nobili College, Pune, for his 74th birthday on August 19, 1982. Though I was a layman, he especially agreed to guide me in the classic 30-day Ignatian retreat (I had earlier made one under another great Jesuit -- Fr Dan Rice SJ). For Neuner's birthday I made a sketch entitled "The Cup is better than the Bottle", that I presented to him; and it was later put up on the seminary notice board. At that time there was a strong movement to stop the use of feeding bottles, being unhygienic. It was better to feed infants with a cup and a spoon.

This is what I saw in Fr. Neuner. He did not want theologians or priests to be mere bottle suckers, swallowing what was fed to them. He wanted to inculcate in them a spirit of enquiry and a thirst for truth.

What amazed me about Fr Neuner was his clarity of thought. At that time I was living as a layman in a Christian ashram, and trying to discern my future way of life. Fr. Neuner said to me in no uncertain terms, "The life that you are now living finds no place in the Church. You are neither a religious, nor a layman, neither fish nor fowl. You must decide for yourself what you want to be." That is when I felt God speaking to me through Fr Neuner that I should revert to a secular life as a married person, and work for the Church in the temporal order through secular affairs.

I had first met Fr Neuner a couple of years before that at the National Convention of Vocation Promoters in Pune. I was then the founder Secretary of the U.P. Regional Youth & Vocations Bureau. At the convention we were in the same discussion group. Several priests and religious waxed eloquent on the new emphasis on the basic Christian vocation, as against the earlier one on promoting vocations to the priesthood and religious life. I had tried to intervene that we should not discourage specific vocations, but needed to drastically revamp the process of vocation promotion, which then concentrated on catching them young and uncorrupted by the ways of the world! I had tried to advocate more mature vocations, after going through a young person's period of growth in critical awareness. Mine was a lone voice, until Fr Neuner intervened to say that the convention should take serious note of what I was propounding.

It was also at that time that I saw Fr Neuner's book, "The Prophetic Role of the Laity", published by NVSC, Pune. It had a profound impact on me -- the nature of a prophet -- one who stands alone, is unfazed by criticism or ostracism, and speaks in God's name, for the welfare of His people. The book also emphasised the role of the laity in secular/temporal affairs, as envisioned by Vatican II. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the laity, who are blissfully unaware of Vatican II, still thinks that being a member of the parish council, doing the readings or taking the collection in Church on Sundays is the ultimate form of lay participation in the life of the church.

Fr Neuner was probably the greatest contemporary Christologist in India. His monumental work "The Christian Faith", published in 1973, is a standard textbook for theology in every seminary in India. It was first written in German in 1938, and constantly updated, especially to incorporate the teachings of Vatican II. Later editions of this work found appreciation and support from Rev Karl Rahner SJ, undoubtedly the most brilliant theologian of the 20th century. Despite his gigantic standing in the world of theology, Fr Neuner was ever the humble and simple soul. His life and teachings have left an indelible mark on me.

As an expert theologian who assisted in the drafting of the Vatican II documents, he was deeply committed to the radical reforms envisaged by Vatican II ecclesiology. Unfortunately, in India at least, these reforms have been largely cosmetic, and limited to the liturgy. The church has not addressed the core issues of a dialoguing, participatory, indigenous and servant church. It still continues in all its Roman pageantry, triumphalism and hierarchical clericalism. Has Fr Neuner's life been in vain?

Thousands of priests and religious, and perhaps a few laypersons like me, had the unique opportunity of learning the ways of the Lord from Fr Neuner. Now that he has gone ahead I hope and pray that his students and disciples will imbibe his spirit of theological honesty and social praxis; for the cup is better than the bottle. (Courtesy: Indian Currents (
The writer is a former National President of the All India Catholic Union

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