ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Grass-Roots Evangelization

Mission work like that of Father Januarius Palathuruthi in India continues to inspire, guide and yield rich rewards.

When the Most Reverend Januarius Palathuruthi was appointed head of the new missionary diocese of Chanda, India, in 1962, there was not a single native Christian among a population of four million people. Some of those who knew Chanda well were pessimistic about the possibility of launching a mission there.

“You will have little chance of making new converts in these parts,” they told Bishop Januarius. “Bring in some Christians from the South, where the Church has long been established. Their presence will give new respectability to Christians here. That’s the only way you can hope to have any success.”

Today, Bishop Januarius says it was providential that he decided to ignore that advice. From the start, he strove to build up the Church with local people who accepted the Gospel. The bishop knew that a living local church cannot be imported; it must take root and grow among the people. Evangelization must embrace every aspect of their lives: economic growth, cultural development, social awakening, and fellowship in faith.

For the past eighteen years, Bishop Januarius has watched his missionary vision slowly bear fruit. The Catholic community of Chanda has grown from about one hundred members, most of whom came from outside in search of jobs, to over fifteen thousand, the majority of them new converts to Christianity from among the local people.

One of the most active and widely respected missionaries in the diocese is Father Canisius. He works among the Harijans, who are the poorest of the poor. In the caste system they are classed as untouchables, so low on the social scale that a Harijan’s presence or even his shadow was thought to pollute the members of the aristocracy.

Though the Harijans are destitute, Father Canisius does not dole out financial aid as an inducement to conversion. Instead, he shares their poverty by his simple way of life, and plans with them their economic development. When he obtains financial help from the outside, it is the kind that helps them to help themselves: a pair of bullocks to plough the fields, seeds for sowing, and building materials for their houses. All financial aid is channeled into developmental projects to help the new Christians become independent and self-reliant.

Father Canisius also insists that the people pay in kind for his food and the other expenses of the village chapel. Supporting their priest and their church gives the people a sense of satisfaction and self-respect; it has also helped to erase the traditional branding of Harijan converts as “milk-powder Christians,” an allusion to the freely-distributed American milk-powder which was alleged to be a bait for attracting the poor to Christianity.

Other tribes in Chanda include the Madigas, Gonds, and Uraos. All of them are poor, but they take great pride in their tribal ancestry. Some claim a nobility equal to that of the Brahmins, the top-most rung on the Hindu caste ladder. The sense of nobility prevents them from looking for handouts and from being swayed by financial interests in making decisions regarding faith. They have a strict moral code that will not tolerate any marital infidelity or sexual license. Stealing and lying are considered a social disgrace, and the people are most cooperative in common projects.

The great wealth of these tribes is their culture. They wear colorful clothing, and with music and dance they joyously celebrate important events: births, weddings, and the changing seasons, especially the harvest. Religion too is above all else a joyous celebration. The children of these tribes receive their initiation into tribal music and dance even before starting their elementary education.

The task of the missionary is to help this natural morality and innate sense of beauty develop into expressions of faith. Stringent laws protecting the traditional identity of the tribals make any mass conversion among them impossible. But they are very receptive to the Gospel and really live Christian values even before they can publicly proclaim themselves Christians. The missionaries who work among these people constantly remind them that there is no opposition between their culture and Christian faith. Even the non-Christian tribals appreciate the presence of the missionaries and their interest in the traditional cultural expressions.

The Harijans and the other tribals who form an important part of the diocese present two special needs: education and health care. Long neglected by the public educational and health services, they have a very high percentage of illiteracy and an above-average occurrence of leprosy and other diseases. In meeting these needs, the services of the religious Sisters are invaluable.

Sister Cecily of the Sisters of the Destitute is an Indian who, like her companions, received her religious training in Koblenz, West Germany. She takes care of the aged in a nursing home at Adilabad. Most Indians, however, faithful to tradition, would rather keep the elderly at home with their children and grandchildren than put them in a nursing home. So Sister Pridia and her three companions, who live in the village of Vattanippalli, go out daily to the peoples’ homes. They give primary medical assistance to the sick and the elderly, instruct families in hygiene and nutrition, and refer the more serious cases to hospitals in the cities.

There are more than sixty religious Sisters engaged in this rural apostolate, supported solely by the resources of the diocese. Other Sisters live and work in urban centers like Balharsha, conducting hospitals and teaching children. In over twenty schools run by more than a hundred Sisters, the children of new converts receive a complete education. The hostels where the children live during the academic year provide them with lovingly supervised training in Christian living.

Bishop Januarius knows the importance of infusing every aspect of life with Christian values. To accomplish this, he designed a seven-point catechetical plan for evangelizing Chanda.

All families are urged to display and venerate in their homes a cross, a Bible, and a picture of Our Lord. A light is lit to remind everyone that Christ is the Light of the world. All are encouraged to participate in communal prayer, especially Sunday Mass, to forgive one another unconditionally, and to share generously what they have. The bishop notes that observing these practices helps the people of Chanda to establish a Christian identity.

The diocese of Chanda has a special identity of its own as a missionary venture of Oriental Christians. Since the early 17th century, the missionary work of the Catholic Church has been organized mostly under the auspices of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Only recently was this tradition relaxed, with a few limited areas assigned to Oriental Catholic Christians for evangelization. Chanda is the first full-fledged mission diocese established under the aegis of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches. Hence it takes on the appearance of a new Pentecost.

The work of the missions everywhere is more than the propagation of faith, a sort of salesmanship for the Gospel. As Pope Paul VI said in his Apostolic exhortation Euangelii Nuntiandi, mission means evangelizing cultures, inspiring every aspect of man’s life with faith. The experience of Bishop Januarius and his fellow workers in the diocese of Chanda for the past eighteen years shows that the encounter of the Gospel with the whole life of man not only works, but yields rich rewards.

Father Chethimattam was born in Kerala, India, and holds degrees from Gregorian University in Rome and Fordham University in New York. He is professor of philosophy at Fordham.

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