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Samuel Rayan: A living theologian

That is Father Samuel Rayan the Jesuit who lived at a time when he had Jesuit Pope Francis whose thinking goes well with Rayan’s and when he breathed his last on 2 January 2019 in Kozhikode, Kerala, Indian Church has lost a library of living theology of a living God who showered Manna in the desert for every crying empty belly and told the people not to hoard. Hoarding food without sharing has no place in Rayan’s theology.

Samuel Rayan: A living theologian

By Joe Palathunkal
Samuel Rayan’s class! All the lethargic theology students of Vidyajyoti, Delhi, will rush who were otherwise quite indifferent to the theology lectures which came to them as dry facts like dry bones devoid of flesh. But the short man born in Kumbalam village of Kollam (Quilon), Kerala, on 23 July 1920 changed all that.

And he begins his lecture to a class of nearly 100 and all the eyes and ears are on his gentle face of trimmed beard and the riveted eyes of the students do not move from his face and they greedily take in the poetic flow from this top most Catholic theologian of Asia and the world.

It is his poetic language that bore deep theological reflections intertwined with the life and suffering of the people is what fascinated me, perhaps because of my own poetic temperament. His theology’s intimate relationship with the life of the struggling and suffering people make him the only living theologian in the literal sense and he indeed made theology alive and dynamic, which is quite evident in Samuel Rayan’s quote we carried in the Living in Faith September 2018 issue:

“Development is much more than escape from misery, disease and ignorance. It is a question rather of building a world in which every man and woman can live a fully human life; a new world in which human persons can be truly free of every form of servitude; one in which all will be able to give and receive, and thus create an ever widening circle of neighbourhood; and in which the poor man Lazarus can sit down at the same table with the rich man.”

This is the theology of Samuel Rayan whose sole concern was to make Jesus the God of the struggling and suffering human person for bread and breath as the people of Israel did in the desert for 40 years. As you can see in the above quote, Lazarus and rich man were always before Samuel Rayan’s theological eyes and therefore bread and breath became his agonizing concern.

In his famous writing of Development and Evangelization also Rayan has made this Lazarus alive against a rich man who hoards the bread for himself. Prophet Amos came alive through Samuel Rayan the theologian and poet whose poetic manifestation of theology may not be as thunderous in expression like that of Amos but the roaring spirit of the Old Testament prophet flowed through his poetic theology.

The whole of Samuel Rayan’s theology can be summed up in one short expression: bread for all through a faith that does justice. For him faith devoid of justice and concern for the poor and the marginalized was not a faith at all and this faith if it has to be Christian it must feed the hungry by making bread and sharing it which was for Rayan the living Eucharist. Feeding by sharing is crucial. In his typical poetic style he writes:

“Rice for sharing, bread must be broken and given. / Every bowl, every belly shall have its fill, / to leave a single bowl unfilled is / to rob history of its meaning; / to grab many a bowl for myself is / to empty history of God.”

That is Father Samuel Rayan the Jesuit who lived at a time when he had Jesuit Pope Francis whose thinking goes well with Rayan’s and when he breathed his last on 2 January 2019 in Kozhikode, Kerala, Indian Church has lost a library of living theology of a living God who showered Manna in the desert for every crying empty belly and told the people not to hoard. Hoarding food without sharing has no place in Rayan’s theology.

Bishop Paul Mullassery of Kollam who knows Samuel Rayan from his seminary days has rightly said: “The Church in India will remember him for the radical interpretation of the Bible, with a concern for the poor and marginalized.”

But this gentle theologian was also a theologian with courage and conviction who churned out numerous theologians during his 36 years of theology teaching in Vidyajyoti which he started in 1972 and continued till he went to Kerala ten years ago. During such long professorship how many of his students have become bishops and theology professors is anybody’s guess. All of them will definitely carry Rayan’s deep theological convictions that came forth from a courageous heart and vibrant mind.

His courage to question the establishment is found in his every theological reflection and an excellent example is “I Confess” making the Church down the centuries confess what it should not have done and it is worth reading for a critical student of Church history.

Though he taught me and my fellow students eschatology, he did not simply speak about heaven and hell but he made eschatology as a branch of theology that deals with the present situation of the people and he kept on saying in every lecture that eschatology is about the already and not yet kingdom of God where justice, love, reconciliation and freedom will dominate.

Ordained priest in 1955 Samuel Rayan held several significant positions like AICUF Chaplain, Member of Commission on Faith and Order, Professor of Theology and Principal of Vidyajyoti, Member of EATWOT and Principal of ISET, Bangalore.

The man who pronounced his final vows as a Jesuit on 15 August 1958 in Rome before one of the greatest Jesuit Generals Fr. Jansens did live his vows through his theology that advocated bread for the hungry and freedom for the oppressed and his concern for the bread for all makes his theology very much congruent with the Living in Faith which is a publication of the Eucharist, the ultimate Bread that was broken for all the broken people down the centuries.

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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