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Jesuits in an ancient land


Recently I lectured at the Xavier Labor Relations Institute in Jamshedpur, India. Founded 52 years ago by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, the institute has become one of the most prestigious graduate schools granting what in America we would call a master’s in business administration.

One of the first things I saw as I entered the Jesuit community in Jamshedpur was a photo of the 65 American Jesuits who have taught at the high school and at the institute. They have reason to be immensely proud of what they have contributed to the Catholic church in India.

That church is indeed impressive. There are only 16 million Catholics in India out of a population of over 1 billion. The church has 143 dioceses and 180 bishops. There are 25,000 priests, almost 100,000 nuns and 5,000 seminarians. The Catholic community is proud to boast that there are 30 Catholics in the Parliament of 500 members.

But speaking to priests at the Catholic Conference in Delhi revealed deep anxiety. Hindus, who account for over 80 percent of the population, have a few extremists who loudly proclaim that India is a Hindu state that should not extend tolerance to Christians or Muslims -- at odds with the Constitution, which guarantees equality to all persons of faith. The 120 violations of the human rights of Catholics reported in 1998 topped all previous records. The spokesman at the Catholic Conference in Delhi stated that they are “anxious but not panicky.”

The vitality of the church is impressive. The Jesuits who run 110 high school and 33 university colleges now slightly outnumber Jesuits in America. The Salesians and other religious orders operate schools all over India, which has four times the population of the United States in about one-third of the land.

One of the manifestations of the vitality of the church in India is the 12-year-old Catholic weekly edited by Catholic laypersons, Indian Currents. This weekly bills itself as a “voice for the voiceless.” It has a circulation of some 30,000, a full-time staff of 12 and maintains two regional offices. The day I spoke with the editors, they were pleased that a Catholic bishop had just ordered 57 subscriptions for all of his priests.

One of my tasks in India was to talk to some of the 4,000 graduates of the Xavier Labor Relations Institute. It was heartwarming to listen to the largely non-Catholic graduates of a Jesuit school and hear their praises for the nine Jesuits and 35 lay professors. These graduates are in middle or top management in some of the most influential multi-national corporations in the world. Some 200 of these alumni are now professionals in the United States.

It is probably presumptuous for a visitor to India to try to speak with some authority about this ancient land. But some things are clear. One is the relationship that the United States should develop with a country that now has one-sixth of the human race. India’s population is now over the billion mark.

During the Cold War the United States was turned off by India with its partially socialist government and its leadership of the nonaligned nations. In addition, there was worldwide condemnation of India’s underground detonation of nuclear weapons in May 1998. But the Clinton administration tried to open avenues of dialogue and cooperation with India. President Clinton’s visit to India in the year 2001 is talked about with great excitement and gratitude.

The U.S. ambassador to India, Richard Celeste, the former governor of Ohio, confirmed that the United States is trying to reformulate its relationship with India. The United States is seeking to inaugurate a policy by which India could benefit from more extensive trade and assistance from the United States. It will not be easy. One of the jokes in India is that the British departed in 1947 and left behind their vast bureaucracy that has grown more rapidly than the population.

India maintains the largest military force in the world. It is the fourth-largest exporter of arms on the planet. It appears to be determined to remain as a nuclear power because of its fears of Pakistan and China. And poverty persists. Almost one-half of the 800 million persons in the world who are chronically malnourished live in the remote villages of India. In addition, at least one-third of all the children never go to school.

One of the best sources for information on the social problems of India is the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in Delhi. A group of nine Jesuits with a staff of 65 recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of this remarkable institute. It conducts training programs and publishes dozens of books and four journals. Its annual report on the state of human rights in India chronicles the dreadful violations of the rights of women, children and the dalits (the untouchables). The report for 1999 touches on tribal struggles, the denial of economic rights, the lack of health care and the worrisome statements of some Hindu fundamentalists.

An encounter with India is overwhelming. Indians had a developed civilization in the year 3000 B.C. They developed the world’s first university. Through the centuries, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and others have together fashioned a unique culture.

Christians are still only 2.5 percent of the population. St. Thomas the Apostle came with the good news in the years between 50 and 60 A.D. St. Francis Xavier came in 1542. Mother Teresa left her native Albania and won the veneration of India and the world for her work in Calcutta.

Have Christians failed to evangelize? As I prayed at the tomb of St. Thomas, the apostle who doubted, I wondered if Christ himself might have suggested to Thomas that he bring the gospel to India. That nation was very remote from Jerusalem. Christ certainly spoke at length with his apostles in the many conversations that are not recorded in the New Testament. Christ must also have known that Thomas would face martyrdom.

When I offered Mass at the grave of St. Francis Xavier in Goa, the same thoughts came to me. Did he and St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, have an intuition or even a revelation that Christ wanted the Indians to be evangelized? It was surely unusual for Francis Xavier to leave the thriving work of the Jesuits in Europe and go to remote Asia.

Drinin writes, “As I flew out of Delhi, bewildered by the complexity of the nation I had just encountered, I thought about the fact that each of the countless persons I had seen was precious in the eyes of God.” They were created from a divine love unique to every individual. They were given a guardian angel directly by God. They deserve from us and the whole world some share of the love lavished on their immortal souls by God.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001