Thou Shalt Not Sext

Social Commentary

Thou Shalt Not Sext

Illustration: Namaah/Arré

“L

ook at this, the local church is trending on Twitter.” The office was abuzz when the hashtag #BQOTD (Bandra Quote Of The Day) made a splash on Twitter. The parish’s message board regularly regales passers-by with Twitter-friendly punchlines like “Why 4G, God is the best G”, which often find their way into their neighbour Salman Khan’s Facebook feed. Their last hit message telling the world, “Hang out with Jesus, cos he hung out 4 u”, had as many retweets as everyone’s favourite food porn account.

“Wasn’t that cool, are churches cool these days,” the millennials wondered out loud, as the baby boomers tut-tutted about the days when church message boards borrowed from the Bible, not the internet for inspiration.

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But has the Church really changed? With a tweeting Pope at the helm (Pope Francis is a Twitter superstar with 10 million followers and headline grabbing tweets), who seems to be breaking the silence on homosexuality, contraception, and other wholly taboo topics, it certainly looked like it.

I walked into Sacred Heart on a Wednesday morning. The popular parish is situated on one of the busiest roads of Bandra, a Catholic stronghold of Mumbai, which is also one of the trendiest postcodes of the city. I was there to meet with the cleric responsible for the message boards and their pithy one-liners. Father Allwyn Nazareth was a revelation in more ways than one. While the nun who manned the telephones at the office was in full church regalia – habit, veil, and large crucifix swinging on her neck – the priest walked in wearing a striped kurta and sandals, the only allusion to his clerical calling being a small crucifix pinned to his pocket.

His phone kept him busy through the conversation; he does most of his work through 14 WhatsApp groups, he told me. Father Allwyn, who leads the youth movement of the Sacred Heart parish, is game for anything that brings the flocks in, even if it is a life lesson borrowed from Instagram. He seems to be taking more than a leaf from the Pope’s book.

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The Church is keeping pace with modern love by adding sexting to its list of sins.

Photo Courtesy: Abhinav Sharma

The Pope’s choices and the media coverage thereof have generated a revolutionary aura around him. For the moment, at least, there is a sense that a new springtime has arrived for the Church’s progressives. From the reportedly unscripted response, “Who am I to judge?”, when asked about gay Catholics to his willingness to address prickly topics like abortion, liberal Christians hope that Pope Francis will be the man who will update the religion for the 21st century.

As his leader breaks new ground in Rome, in faraway Bandra, Father Allwyn seems to have upgraded too and embraced new mediums. But the question really is, has the message changed?

***

“When you feel like sending a picture, write a nice text instead,” intoned the 36-year-old Shweta Jadhav with a straight face. She has been picked out by Father Allwyn to steer the young ones on the right path. This was another of the parish youth committee’s endeavours to keep its flock away from sins, a lengthening list thanks to the enabling nature of that omnipotent force, the World Wide Web.

The gathering was solemn, but a giggle would often break the silence. It started at the back of the group; a muffled, embarrassed laugh, and then took over the room. The youngsters, all between the age of 16 and 30, just could not help it. The agenda of this session, strongly urging them that the best sext is no sext, made them break out in helpless laughter.

The idea of an afternoon dedicated to lecturing about the evils of sexting, came from a newspaper article. Teenagers were using their smartphones to send naked pictures to each other, it warned, and the parish swung into action. So they sat there, young men and women, listening on as they were told about the consequences, both worldly and otherwise of this new-age sin. Did they leave the session determined never to sin again?

Only the Lord knows, but Shweta Jadhav and Father Allwyn refuse to stop trying to speak to them about things in their world and in their language. They use Facebook to help publicise their church programmes. (There is even a church in Orlem that has an app which gives you access to priests.) Father Allwyn scours all repositories of the written word, from Tolstoy to Tumblr, along with a group of parish members, for the nuggets that he posts on his church message board, even though it still has to acquire the cult status of the one at St Andrews.

That the messages originate from the same corner of the internet where semi-naked selfies are de rigeur, does not seem to be a concern. But clicking a naughty image is still a no-no. New habits like sexting are joining the old list of sins, and teenagers are now advised to give up their consumption of social media during Lent. These new moral codes are popularised by youth leaders like Shweta, who after her successful anti-sexting workshop plans to take on other new-age sins within the parish, and mould the young as she was once moulded by her faith.

The leaders of Catholicism have always been circumscribed by tradition and bureaucracy, and on vexing issues Rome tends to move last.

But are the adolescents listening more closely just because the parish is speaking their language? Apparently not. Sacred Heart, once among the largest congregations in Mumbai, has seen its numbers dwindle from 20,000 to 7,000 in the last decade itself.

The Church may abound in aphorisms borrowed from social media, but its structure itself is of the traditional mould, unchanged and stoic within its sprawling grounds. The language may have changed, but the beliefs seemingly haven’t. They still stand strongly against pre-marital sex and contraception in this pro-choice world and couples hoping to get married under the Lord’s watchful eye have to undergo Pre-Cana sessions which preach the same virtues.

When I ask Jadhav about this schism in the way the Church operates, she maintains that Catholicism is evolving. She once again points to Pope Francis’s stance on the LGBT community. That conversation seems primed to be the Pope’s legacy and his recent response to the Orlando gay club shooting has once again been hailed as path-breaking.

Aboard a flight home from Armenia, the Pope fielded a pointed question from reporters: Did he agree with German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who, in the wake of the Orlando shooting, said gays deserve an apology from the Church? His answer was frank. The Pope reportedly closed his eyes as if in pain and replied: “I believe that the Church not only should apologise to the person who is gay whom it has offended,” the Pope told reporters, “but has to apologise to the poor, to exploited women, to children exploited for labour; it has to ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons.”

Father Allwyn, however, doesn’t believe that change is in the air. When I ask him about homosexuality, he sidesteps the issue by saying that “the sexuality of his parishioners has never been a concern”. This don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy seems to be working for him, but if you look at it carefully, it’s also working for the Pope. While commenting on the Church’s apology to the gay community, he cleverly hemmed the issue by including myriad other subalterns into the comment. It’s not for no reason that one of most popular moniker used for Pope Francis, both by admirers and critics, is “master of ambiguity”.

The leaders of Catholicism have always been circumscribed by tradition and bureaucracy, and on vexing issues Rome tends to move last. But still, many among the young parishioners of Mumbai expect the charismatic @pontifex to leave an indelible impact on the Catholic Church. But until he does that, the Tinder generation will have to live in the fear of eternal damnation.

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