Register Correspondent

NEW DELHI, India — Complying with a Vatican directive, a Jesuit publishing house has discontinued sales of the work of the late Jesuit Father Anthony de Mello.

“Since we received the Vatican directive last week, we have stopped selling the books of Father de Mello,” Jesuit Father K.T. Mathew told the Register Sept. 7.

Father Mathew is the manager of Gujrath Sahitya Prakash (GSP), publisher of the nine official books of Father de Mello, who died of a heart attack in 1987 at age 56.

In a July 23 letter to the heads of bishops' conferences, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), had urged them to observe the notification concerning Father de Mello's writings. The notification, released to the press Aug. 22, pointed out that “in certain passages in [Father de Mello's] early works and to a great degree in his later publications, one notices a progressive distancing from the essential contents of Christian faith.”

The CDF notification acknowledged the popularity of the Jesuit author, describing him as “well-known due to his numerous publications … widely circulated in many countries.” Yet, the notification pointed out that “according to the author, any belief or profession of faith whether in God or in Christ cannot but impede one's personal access to truth. The Church, making the word of God in Holy Scripture into an idol, has ended up banishing God from the temple. She has consequently lost the authority to teach in the name of Christ.” In order to “protect the good of the Christian faithful,” the notification stated that some of Father de Mello's positions are “incompatible with the Catholic faith and can cause grave harm.”

Hence, Cardinal Ratzinger made the request to the bishops' conferences to ensure that local Catholic publishers cease reprinting Father de Mello's books. The letter further called for prudent withdrawal where possible of copies already available for sale, or the inclusion of a copy of the Vatican's notification in any de Mello book sold.

“The Vatican is right because there is the possibility of misunderstandings,” said Father Lisbert d'Souza, president of the Jesuit Conferences of South Asia and superior of the region's 3,500 Jesuits. He told the Register that the Jesuits had already appealed to the publisher to carry a “clarification” in Father de Mello's books. This move came, Father d'Souza said, after “we began to receive reports that misunderstandings arose regarding the books of Father Tony. Various groups were interpreting his speeches and stories in ways, perhaps, which the author had never had in mind.”

Father d'Souza added that “several unauthorized books attributed to Father Tony, some based on his speeches, are in circulation in Spain, and in North and South America. We don't even have a list of all of the books in circulation.”

[The nine official books of Father de Mello are Sadhana, The Song of the Bird, Wellsprings, One Minute Wisdom, The Prayer of the Frog Vol. I, The Prayer of the Frog Vol. II, Contact with God, Call to Love and One Minute Nonsense, the last three published posthumously.]

“Father Tony's books were not doctrinal expositions on theology,” Father d'Souza said. “His primary concern was to help people find God — believers (in Christ), non-believers, and even atheists. Hence, there is very little religious language used.”

Father d'Souza knew the controversial author since 1961 and, as the local Jesuit provincial, presided at Father de Mello's funeral in Bombay in June 1987. “If one understood the context in which his ideas were presented, there [would be] no problem,” Father d'Souza said.

In January 1997, the publisher GSP, which holds the copyright on Father de Mello's books, insisted that the publishers of all translations of the popular Indian preacher and retreat leader's books “attach in a separate page” the following clarification: “The books of Father Anthony de Mello were written in a multireligious context to help the followers of other religions, agnostics, and atheists in their spiritual search, and they were not intended by the author as manuals of instruction of the Catholic faithful in Christian doctrine or dogma.”

According to the explanatory note to publishers signed by Father Xavier Diaz del Rio, director of GSP “whichever other books [outside of the nine authorized works] have appeared anywhere in the world have not been written by Father Anthony de Mello and his name is incorrectly and unjustly attached to them.” The note also says that the publishers “even know [of] books attributed to him that have nothing to do with even (his) conferences or lectures and have been published for the sole purpose of profit.”

The Jesuit publishing house in India has carried the clarification in all new editions of Father de Mello's books. Had this “clarification” been carried more widely by other publishers outside of India, Father d'Souza suggests, “The Vatican may not have received the complaints that led to the present unhappy situation.”

Jesuit theologian Gispert Sauch told the Register, “If one does not have a certain spiritual and theological maturity, these [books] could be misunderstood. The [Vatican] warning is perfectly justifiable.” Father Sauch, the registrar of the Jesuit Vidyajyoti theological seminary in New Delhi, said Father de Mello's books were “basically wisdom literature … his writing [does not offer] doctrine, but advice through stories.”

Father de Mello was trained in psychology and counseling, the Jesuit theologian said, and was “not dealing with doctrinal truth but helping people to overcome their problems.”

“He followed the dialectic style of raking up controversy to awaken people. There is a certain irony and sarcasm in his stories. If you take them literally, you are likely to be scandalized,” acknowledged Father Sauch, who once attended an 30-day retreat conducted by Father de Mello.

Father Mathew, manager of the Jesuit publishing house said, “It is hard on us to withdraw all the books of Father de Mello just because some objectionable passages are there. However, we have complied with the [Vatican] directive for discipline. We have published his books only after our censors raised no objections.” A better option, Father Mathew suggested, would have been “to delete the controversial portions or to add explanations,” adding that “the bishop here (Ahmedabad) has agreed to take it up with Rome.”

Father d'Souza is saddened over the ban on the books of a priest who was “instrumental in popularizing the full (30-day) Ignatian retreat in India.” The Jesuit superior lamented that Father de Mello had been “dragged into a controversy of this nature” years after his death.

“This is certainly not the way those who knew Father Tony would have liked him to be remembered,” said Father d'Souza.

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi.