April 04, 2020
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St Thomas, Turnabout

Evangelisation isn't always an eastward wave. It's Indian 'shepherds' who're flocking to the West.

St Thomas, Turnabout
St Thomas, Turnabout
The Eastern Magi
  • Indian Catholic priests and nuns are increasingly in demand in the West, which has a dearth of new recruits
  • The flow of missionaries is now from East to West, over 20,000 Indians serve in Catholic institutions in Europe, US
  • Valued for their qualities of head and heart, they serve as parish priests, in hospitals, also as professors, managers
  • Prominent Indians in the Vatican hierarchy include Cardinal Ivan Dias, former Archbishop of Bombay; Father Thomas Reddy who heads Archivum Romanum; Archbishop Francis Chullikat, the Vatican's envoy in Iraq; Fr Jacob Srampickal, who heads Communications at the Pontifical Gregorian University; Monsignor Felix Machado who leads the Vatican's inter-faith dialogues
Jesus must have smiled when Paramjit Prem and his band of "brothers" broke into bhangra to the rollicking beat of Tu ni boldi at the Christmas celebration of Indian priests and nuns in Rome. Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Vatican's seniormost Indian, sat in the front row with a tilak on his forehead, having lit the traditional lamp to inaugurate the ceremonies. Sisters in shining Kanjeevaram saris had just finished a prayer dance holding diyas, and Father Boban was about to shake a leg to a popular Tamil film song. The congregation capped their tribute to Indianness by singing the national anthem.

A little away from St Peter's imposing dome, Indian Catholics had just delivered a refresher course in peaceful coexistence and inter-faith dialogue. If Rome were to learn a lesson, this was it. As Pope Benedict struggles to open lines of rapport with Islam, assuage hurt Jewish feelings, build bridges with Hindus and Buddhists, Indian Catholics seem to show the way. Their ease with other traditions—in this case Hindu—and their ability to mingle globally yet retain their Indianness, even assert it, was a heartening example of "Live and let live".

No wonder they are in demand in Rome, the centre of the Catholic Church, as the Vatican faces a dearth of priests, a zero birth rate and an ageing population in Italy. More than 3,000 Indian priests, brothers and sisters from nearly 200 Indian congregations, are in Rome—not just as students, but as priests, professors, managers, caregivers and nurses. Interestingly, a majority are women— from 130 orders—including some who have stepped in to save the "dying" orders and serve in the hospitals and old age homes attached to them. Nearly 120 Indian priests are now tending Italian parishes, while in Germany, 500-odd Indian priests are keeping churches open. But the figure is the largest for the United States, where an estimated 5,000 Indian priests are on loan at any given time on assignments lasting two to three months.

The phenomenon is being called "the great mission reversal" from an earlier age, when missionaries went from the West to India to spread Christianity. Now it seems Indian priests and nuns are saving souls and providing succour to a spiritually demoralised Europe and America. They face cultural differences, language problems and that incurable western disease—isolation—but they soldier on. True, life in the West has all the material comforts, while early missionaries in Asia faced harsh conditions. But there are Indians doing tough assignments abroad for the Catholic church too, like the Pope's ambassador to Iraq, Archbishop Francis Chullikat of Kerala. A Vatican diplomat for 18 years, he has the extra burden of saving the few Christians left in Baghdad.

At least 15 Indian professors are teaching everything—from the history of dogma to modern communication—at the seven main papal universities in Rome. For the first time, Archivum Romanum, the most important Jesuit archives, has an Indian director—Father Thomas Reddy. He speaks three European languages, reads two more and guards some of the earliest historical accounts.

"It is an epochal change. Missions no longer come from West to East," says Paolo Aranha, an Indo-Italian scholar of church history in Florence. "India is proving to be an exception to the general trend of decline in vocation. Development has made the West more secular, but that model does not apply to India." He adds that there are "too many candidates for seminaries in India, and bishops have to choose". Compare it to Italy, a 98 per cent Catholic country, where an average of only 30 priests are ordained annually. The nadir in Europe was reached in the 1970s when seminaries began closing and one particularly dry year, only one priest was initiated in Italy. Alarmed, the Vatican under Pope John Paul worked hard to reverse the trend.

Cardinal Dias lights the traditional Indian lamp

Father Jacob Srampickal, a Keralite and director of communications at the prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University, says Indian priests are much appreciated in Europe because they do their work with a personal touch. They are still willing to go to people's homes to administer and organise family prayers. "They are very different from the formal and ritual-based ways of the local priests. Their attitude is more humane, compassionate and hospitable, which is part of our Indian culture," he adds. There is also a financial spinoff because they send a large percentage of their earnings back to their bishops in India.

Coming from a multi-religious, multi-ethnic society, Indian Catholics have helped in the cultural integration of immigrants, even in inter-religious dialogue. In fact, an Indian, Monsignor Felix Machado, has been at the forefront of the Vatican's inter-faith dialogue, participating in joint prayers with Hindu, Jain, Muslim and Buddhist priests and youth in Assisi. While the upper layers of the Vatican, including the Pope, appear to be hardening their stand on how and why a dialogue should be conducted, Indian priests have an instinctive feel for living with other religions. "I feel the future of Christianity to a big extent depends on accepting cultural diversity and fostering respect for other religions, with which Indian priests seem to be much at home," says Father Srampickal.

Father Reddy says that being from a "positive culture" is helpful in Rome where Catholics from different parts of the world congregate. "We are more ecumenical. Sometimes I try preaching Gandhiji's principles of non-violence and not differentiating between colour and creed," he said.

This respect for other religions and thoughts comes across strongly in the post-Independence generation of Indian missionaries who grew up with the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru. Even western theologians who spent time in India have been influenced by Hindu thought and culture, often to an extent that has alarmed the Vatican. Jacques Dupuis, a Jesuit who worked and taught in India for 35 years, had imbibed Indian concepts to an extent that his Christian basics were seen as shaky by authorities when he returned to Rome. His belief that the relationship between Christianity and other religions can't be viewed in terms of opposition and much less as "absoluteness on one side (Christianity) and only potentialities on the other" was found offensive, for it went against the belief of Christ as the only saviour. Dupuis was suspended from teaching at the Gregorian in 1997 and died in 2004, but he cherished his Indian experience. In one of his last interviews, he said: "I consider my exposure to Hindu reality as the greatest grace I have received from God in my vocation as a theologian."

The Vatican won't officially comment on the special grace Indians bring, or their blending of Hindu practices into Catholic rituals, for to acknowledge would be to concede. And Rome resists dilution—practical or philosophical.


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