ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Missionary Church Goes on Mission

India’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is finding new ways to minister to its far-flung people.

India is overwhelming. A massive subcontinent embracing 800 million people and growing; 22 official states; union territories; and a multitude of ethnic groups, cultures, languages and religions, it is the world’s largest democracy.

India’s poverty is also overwhelming and the government’s attempts to assuage this poverty, inadequate.

The church in India receives much of Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s energy, time, personnel and money. More than 300 of the Association’s 500 child-caring institutions are in India, as are the majority of the sponsored novices and seminarians. But the Catholic Church, in fact all Christian Churches, are missionary churches; a tiny though growing minority in a Hindu nation.

Last Fall, Mrs. Kamini Desai Sanghvi, Catholic Near East’s program coordinator for India, traveled to the missionary dioceses outside of Kerala, the heartland of Indian Christianity.

A Catholic-educated child of Hindu parents, Mrs. Sanghvi traveled to these mission Churches to improve communication between their bishops and the Association and to determine their needs. What she found was a Church finding new ways to adapt in a changing world, a Church clearly living the message of Vatican II.

Mrs. Sanghvi visited the missionary dioceses of Satna, Sagar, Ujjain and Jagdalpar located in the state of Madhya Pradesh, or Middle India; the dioceses of Bijnor and Gorakhpur located in Uttar Pradesh, or North India; the diocese of Chanda in south central India; and the Diocese of Rajkot in Gujarat, western India. Most of these dioceses cover an area larger than the state of Kerala, though with a very small Catholic population.

These Catholics are transplanted Keralites, members of the Syro-Malabar Church, a body that traces its foundation to the Apostle Thomas. Though immigrants, they are well educated; banking, insurance, industry and nursing brought them to these “foreign territories.”

These missionary dioceses were founded to administer to the spiritual needs of the immigrants. However, the Church’s work more often benefits the Hindu majority.

The standard of living in Madhya and Uttar Pradesh is below even that of Kerala, one of India’s poorest states. The villages, said Mrs. Sanghvi, are loosely formed. Families are grouped in several huts. Their lives revolve around seasonal agriculture. In some states, 14 hours of rain (or seven inches a year) is considered “a Godsend.”

“Most of these poor farmers do not own the land,” Ms. Sanghvi remarked. “They simply work the plots owned by the landlord. In certain areas where it has not rained in three years, they plow the fields anyhow – waiting for rain.”

As in the Middle East, water availability is the key to peace and prosperity. The undeveloped condition of Indian villages has its origins in water shortages, not over-population.

Several dioceses have sought funds to bore wells in these villages. Sometimes pipes must be placed 300 to 400 meters below the surface of the earth.

“When I entered a village, I saw only the elderly and a few toddlers. The families were in the fields harvesting. As soon as children learn to run about, they accompany their parents in the fields or tend cattle.

“What good is education?” Mrs. Sanghvi said. “There seems to be little incentive for parents to educate their child, when that child can contribute to the agricultural earnings of the family.”

Education is a top priority for the Church. However, she explained, the Church must be invited to the village.

“Villagers are afraid of the Church. They only want health services and primary schools, not conversion. Usually they invite a group of religious sisters to open a clinic or school and establish a convent. Since village society is a patriarchal one, the elders feel that they are still in control.”

After receiving permission, the sisters recruit native animators who are then partially paid by the diocese to operate balwadis – informal schools. While the parents harvest or plow, their children receive an education in open-air classrooms.

Female children experience the worst lot – if they are lucky to survive their birth. The dowry system remains influential. It is a known fact that poor parents, upon learning of the sex of their newborn, will smother the child if it is a girl. If the midwife or attendant nurse is a religious sister, the child will be given to her – hence the size and numbers of Indian orphanages. The poor simply do not have the resources to feed themselves, let alone provide dowries for their daughters.

The education of women also lags far behind developed nations. “It’s like watering your neighbor’s garden!” Mrs. Sanghvi remarked with a smile. “Parents do not want to educate their daughters, for when a woman marries, her in-laws profit, not her parents.”

The Church is slowly trying to change these attitudes – “social conscientization” it is called. However, ancient attitudes, traditions and beliefs are difficult to erase. The caste system remains the most powerful.

“Indian villages have strict structures. The lowest of the low, the harijan or the people of God as Mahatma Gandhi called them, live in the outskirts of the village. They must draw their water from other sources and wells; they are not permitted to walk by the homes of the higher caste, nor socialize outside their station in life.”

When a Catholic school is founded, it is built near the harijan village. After a time, the children cautiously arrive. Since the quality of education is respected by even the highest caste, their children also attend. “The Church seeks to erase boundaries,” Mrs. Sanghvi asserted. “It is a very slow process, but now after 10 years, they are beginning to see some changes.”

These missionary dioceses are just beginning to appeal to Catholic Near East Welfare Association for funds to operate these humanitarian projects.

Mrs. Sanghvi spoke enthusiastically of two of the many projects proposed to the Association. Kutch Vikas Trust is located in the diocese of Rajkot, Gujarat State. It is a large complex, made up of 240 acres of land, a precious commodity in India. The complex is a training program for handicapped children and their parents, which emphasizes self-sufficiency. The children are taught to feed, clothe and bathe themselves, and the blind are taught braille. Some of these children live in small homes on the complex grounds that seek to resemble normal family life.

The school itself is not just for the handicapped. Non-handicapped children learn alongside those with disabilities.

The trust has also begun a process of reforestation, land reform, cattle breeding and fish farming on this desert land.

In the diocese of Gorakhpur, Bishop Dominic Kokkat received death threats from Hindu militants for his social action work. Now, the bishop has instituted the “Citizens Forum for Social Action,” a committee made up of Christian, Hindu and Muslim community leaders. The forum seeks to provide primary health care and literacy “for all” by 2,000 A.D., and advocates for social justice and better living conditions for the urban and rural poor. Ambitious goals, but realistic now that the community is working together.

North American critics often see developing nations as opportunists seeking easy handouts. “We built this nation by ourselves,” they exclaim. Yet this nation, although home to many tribes, was not home to a complex civilization such as India’s. Civilization as we know it sprang from the Indus River in present-day Pakistan and western India. With that history comes centuries of traditions. Some encouraged economic and social development, some did not.

The Church in India, whether Latin, Syro-Malabar or Syro-Malankara, needs our help. Their mission is our mission; to Let the Light help many to a better life.

Michael La Civita is the editor of Catholic Near East.

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