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Indian Catholics’ task is rediscovering Jesus’ Asian face

NCR Staff
Chhindia, India

Mid-way through the Vatican Synod on Asia in April 1998, Cardinal Jozef Tomko reiterated the Vatican’s official position on missionary work in Asia. It must start, Tomko said, with the person of Jesus and his unique role in the salvation of all peoples.

Tomko, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, was restating a position held for years by church officials in Rome. But it’s one that many Asian bishops disavow.

Such a “proclamation” approach does not work in Asia where Catholics are a tiny minority, bishops insisted in synod interventions.

The Asians are calling for a subtler kind of evangelization, one characterized by dialogue and witness. Such methods, they said, are more compatible with Asian circumstance and spirit.

Bishop Joseph Vianney Fernando of Kandy, India, speaking at a news conference, put a positive face on Tomko’s report but went on to express disappointment that key points Asian bishops had made were left out of Tomko’s report.

The give and take masks deeper ecclesial tensions that have grown between Asian bishops and Asian theologians on the one hand and members of the Roman curia on the other.

For three decades, Asian bishops and theologians have been working toward a radically new approach to church. It stresses an evangelical path characterized by the “triple dialogue”: dialogue with local cultures, local religions and the poor.

Meanwhile, it is generally accepted that Indian theologians, many of them Jesuits, have moved to the forefront in formulating theologies. They are seen as some of the most progressive theologians in the church today.

Rather than emphasizing conversions, these theologians speak of finding the spirit of God within other religions. They see the importance of learning from other religions and cooperating with their adherents to build the kingdom of God. The theologians also speak about entering into solidarity with Asia’s poor and rediscovering Jesus’ Asian face. Without such crucial steps, they argue, Christianity will have little or no future in Asia.

The Vatican, for its part, has criticized Indian theologians, posthumously condemning the works of Fr. Anthony de Mello and, more recently, investigating Jesuit Fr. Jacques Dupuis. Dupuis, a Belgian, spent more than 30 years teaching in India.

The Vatican’s concern is the “relativizing” of the Christian faith, diluting the Christian message in efforts to accommodate and dialogue with members of other religions. When Pope John Paul II came to New Delhi in November 1999, he provoked uproar among Hindus and consternation among Catholics when he spoke about the need for conversions in India.

Today, Hindu nationalists continue to accuse Indian Christians of being manipulated by foreign interests. This is a charge many Indian Christians understand but resent, given the long history of Christianity in India.

According to legend, that history began with St. Thomas the Apostle. Many Christians believe he arrived in southern India in A.D. 52, evangelizing and performing miracles in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. It is believed he was martyred on the site of San Thomé Cathedral in Chennai (Madras). Historic evidence dates Christians in India back to at least the third century. Members of the Syro-Malabar church, an eastern rite of the Roman Catholic church, trace their history to Thomas.

The second wave of Christianity came with early Roman Catholic missionaries. The Portuguese, led by Jesuit Francis Xavier (1506-52), expanded from their bases on India’s west coast making many converts, especially among lower castes and outcastes. Xavier’s body remains on public view in a glass coffin at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa.

The third wave was largely Protestant and came with the onset of British colonialist rule in the 19th century. Nearly all forms of Protestantism can be found in India today.

The fourth wave grew in the 20th century as Christian missionaries began to evangelize among tribal groups and dalits, otherwise known as outcastes. Missionaries have led the way in the development of written languages and literature for many tribal groups. Christian churches have provided a focus for unity among different ethnic groups and have brought with them a variety of charitable services.

In much of India today Catholicism continues to have a Western face. This is particularly true in Bombay, where European influence is pronounced. It is also the case in Goa where centuries of Portuguese influence have made a lasting mark. In parts of southern India the Syro-Malabar church has its own flavor and separate rites.

Interests of more progressive Indian Catholics mirror those of progressive Catholics in Europe and the United States: social justice, the role of the laity and the role of women in the church.

Meanwhile, much of the growth in recent decades has occurred in the northeast in rural areas among tribals and lower caste Indians. Along with this growth has come a parallel growth in some of the religious communities, most notably Jesuits. In the past year, Indian Jesuits became the largest in any nation, surpassing the number of Jesuits in the United States.

The Indian Catholic church, varied and complex, in some ways mirrors India’s general rich ethnic and regional varieties. But it is a church bent on becoming more Indian.

In 1994, for example, the Indian bishops unanimously requested the Vatican to allow them to use an Indian eucharistic rite in their Masses. They worked to develop the document for nearly 20 years.

To date, the Indian bishops are still waiting for response from Rome.

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001