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Voices from Catholic India

Asdrid Leles Gajivala
Professor and lay member
Indian Catholic Theological Association
Bombay [Mumbai]

We have a new cardinal [Ivan Dias, archbishop of Bombay]. When he came here one of the first things he wanted was to do away with the social justice commission and make it a pro-life group. A small group of us came to the conclusion that we must become part of the peoples’ movement to do social justice work. That way it could be done without being under the control of the local hierarchy. That way we can work for social justice irrespective of the hierarchy. …

Many of us women are empowered by Christianity. You come to see and know the vision. It is a vision that moves you to work for justice, to work for equality. You put your whole life into it. And soon it puts you up against your own institution, the church. This is something I cannot understand, disturbs me tremendously. I always have to explain my church. I always have to explain the attitude of my bishop. Why? Why aren’t we on the same side? We are both empowered by Christ. I ask whether it is worth my while to remain in the church.

I have three small children. They allow me to live out my Christianity. Being concerned about women and wanting to be in solidarity with women, I cannot waste my time banging my head against the wall. I am at a point in my life when I ask if it is worth trying to transform the church. Isn’t it much better that I join a secular organization? I can still act. I am still empowered by Christ.

My writing on feminist issues has been a real drag for the cardinal. Before he came to the see, I used to give feminist theology courses. No longer. The excuse he gives [for discontinuing the courses] is that my children are not baptized. My husband is Hindu. I have raised them in the Catholic faith. They go to church with me. But my husband and I have agreed this [decision on religion] will be a decision they will make when they are grown up. In the meantime, they receive all the religious education they would get at any Catholic school.

We have a Catholic women’s group. We get together and talk about our lives and faith. We talk about the church. We talk about women and our common plight. We have ideas and want to share them. But the archbishop said he did not want to meet with a woman’s group. Imagine. What kind of attitude is that?

We have decided we don’t want to be part of this priesthood. We are not interested in the kind of priesthood that is happening now in our church. We want a new priesthood, a different kind of priesthood. …

When I was on the Catholic women’s commission, you could not even use the word feminist. So when you would write for the commission you would have to be careful. If you used the word feminist, people would think you are talking about something extreme. All we were talking about were women.

We are grown women. We are adults! We know how women think and feel. Who are they, these bishops, to tell us how and what we think? I find this very difficult. Why waste time working for this church?

Fr. P. Arockiadoss
Director of the Regional Jesuit Theologate
Chennia [Madras]

If our theology [in India] today has tried to enter into new areas, with new agendas, with new issues, it is because the church -- at least the thinking people here -- are involved in the day-to-day problems with the poorest of the poor, the dalit people [outcastes]. Their sufferings, their longings, their aspirations are what motivate our theological reflections today. So we are taking up issues that are meaningful to them. That is why our theology is a living theology, a relevant theology, a creative theology. The Spirit is acting here.

I strongly believe that the aspirations of the dalits for humanity, for equality, for fellowship, for justice, for freedom, coincide with the aspirations of God. The God of history wants freedom, want equality, wants justice. Therefore, today they [dalits] become the mediators of God’s will to us. So when we vibrate with that, our theologies become meaningful and living and life giving.

That’s also why the theologies from the West are so foreign to us today, so strange to us. They seem to be living at an academic level, discussing issues that are maybe related to philosophical things.

That’s why the language of Dominus Jesus [a recent Vatican document on non-Christian religions] seemed so strange to us. What hurt us, what shocked us, what surprised us, is the issue that the poor were completely absent in Dominus Jesus. That the Vatican can send us a document on Christ completely ignoring the poor and the issues of the poor is a shocking thing to us, because we cannot talk about Christ without talking about the poor.

Auxiliary Bishop Bosco Penha
Bombay [Mumbai]

For me the big problem became ritualism. But what was it leading to? I searched for an answer. I kept wondering how to move from ritualism as the center of church, making it come to life in order to transform the world. After a while the answer came to me: small Christian communities. That was the answer. I am convinced that this is what the church needs. In Bombay, we have active small Christian communities in most of the parishes of the archdiocese.

Indian culture has come to be so varied. It’s really an amalgam of a lot of hues and colors. Buddhists, Moguls, Muslims, Dutch, Portuguese, they have all left remnants. Beyond that, Bombay is the most Western city in India. This makes the process of inculturation especially difficult. Inculturation? Yes. But into which culture?

I will give you a recent example. As you may know, our girls do beautiful Indian dances. They may come to the church in mini-skirts. Then they dart to the sacristy and change into Indian dress, do some dancing, put back on their mini-skirts and go home. You can see the problem.

Fr. Jacob Theckanath
Director, National Biblical Catechetical & Liturgical Center

I have been with this center since 1976 and director for the past 10 years. This center has been the pulse of the renewal of the church in India. People involved in church renewal come here. We get people from all backgrounds. Today we train as many lay as religious. We just finished a seminar on the leadership of the laity, and over 100 came from Tamil Nadu [a state in southern India].

I am hopeful for the renewal of the church, especially from my experience. Even those who were negative to the [Vatican] Council now accept and even embrace the challenge of renewal, not only here, but also all over the country. I get a very good feeling that renewal is a process. No one can stop it. People may be able to slow down the momentum of renewal, but renewal itself will go on.

The laity are awakening. They come here [to the center] for the training. When we started the program hardly 10 percent of the participants were laypeople. Today it is nearly 50 percent that are laity. About 2000 come each year. This represents the awakening of the laity. They want to play a larger role in the church. They want to have a participatory church. In the process, the church in India is becoming more concerned about the world and its peoples and their real needs.

Fr. Julian Saldanha
Professor of missiology
St. Pius X College Seminary
Bombay [Mumbai]

What strikes me in the life of Jesus is that he does not seem to be primarily concerned about teaching doctrines. He is primarily concerned with how we should live and what is the meaning of a human life. For me, therefore, the central revelation is summarized in the paschal mystery: Jesus’ whole life, death and resurrection. It is in and through this that he reveals to us the meaning of human life, the destiny of our life and of the world. This is really what he has revealed. …

I feel that one of the ways in which East and West differ is the concept of truth. The West thinks more in the principle of non-contradiction, that is, an exclusive idea of truth. In Asia, there are a lot of inclusive ideas, both/ands. That is why Indian theologians often clash with people like [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger on the notion of truth. This is also why Indians are known for their tolerance. We are not so much concerned about orthodoxy and unorthodox. Rather we have a kind, tolerant and inclusive understanding of truth.

John Dayal
National convener
United Christian Forum for Human Rights
New Delhi

We don’t need unending food banks for the poor of India. We need programs that eradicate injustice.

I asked to take leave from my newspaper position so I could do my social action work. So I could draw attention to the persecution of Christians here. I was told I could not take leave. Then I was forced to leave. So now I have no income at the moment. But I am inspired by my faith and the call to justice.

So you ask, “What does Christianity mean to me?” It means intervening in those processes that keep people poor and oppressed. It means standing up on behalf of the Untouchables. Christianity is all about social activism. That’s where we find its salvific meaning.

Lorna Barrett
Archdiocesan Women’s Desk
Bombay [Mumbai]

While there is a move toward a global church, the experiences of the Eastern churches are not being acknowledged, maybe even negated, by the Western frame of mind. Even so, the Eastern churches seem to be moving in their own directions, which, I think, is a sign they are being guided by the Holy Spirit. We are also being guided by the experiences of the people who are suffering in the East.

I find the church in the West taking a position of dominance, and it affects all our leaders in the East. This is especially true in the area of inculturation. While there is a very strong sense among our people about the needs for a multicultural society, constantly we receive documents or statements from Rome that say the universality of the church is more important and it must be maintained at all costs.

I am hopeful because the number of people who want change is growing. I am also hopeful for the youth. I see hope in the solidarity of our bishops who want to bring about a strong Asian church. My hope is that we will emerge with a strong Asian identity. And who knows? The old men in the Vatican will die soon.

Virginia Saldanha
Executive secretary
Office of the Laity
Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences
Bombay [Mumbai]

My girls don’t like to go to church. They come back angry. Yet they work with the poor. They do good work. I keep telling the bishop this. I say that by the year 2020 the churches will be empty and there will be no women unless the church wakes up to the way women feel about things.

The young people will not put up with some of the things we put up with. So I end up feeling tremendous anger and pain. Often the things that are being said in the gospels are not being practiced in our church. I cannot leave the church, but my daughters will not be a part of it. This makes me sad.

We recently had an archdiocesan synod. During the four days a lot of subjects came up. There was a lot of talk about what we should address, how we should be in solidarity with the poor. On the fourth and last day, the issue of women came up. The priest who was running the meeting said we should give women a chance to express themselves. Some did.

Then it was time for the closing Mass. It was a time the archbishop [Ivan Dias] told us he had listened and would respond to our concerns. He went through the list mentioning all sorts of subjects. However, one was most absent. It was the subject of women. He left women out completely.

In Bombay the church allows altar girls, but there was none during the synod. No young girls were allowed. What kind of signal does that send out? As a token, two young girls were allowed to stand at the far side of the altar and hold a miter and a cross. They sat in the corner the whole time. A man read the words. It could have been a woman.

The archbishop was giving us a signal that he did not accept women. This is the man who tried like anything to close the [archdiocesan] Women’s Desk. In the end, he was not able to because we stood up for our rights. This is sad for the church of Bombay. We have a cardinal, but he does not have an Asian mind. He comes to us from the Roman diplomatic corps. This is bad because Bombay gives direction to the rest of the church in India.

National Catholic Reporter, May 4, 2001