Decolonising The Church
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By Benny Aguiar. Former editor of the New Church diocesan organ, the Examiner. Excerpt from the book, Discoveries, Missionary Expansion And Asian Cultures. This extract originally published in the O Heraldo newspaper, Ponje, Portuguese India. This version published in the Coastal Observer, April 1995.
Five hundred years of colonialism have left a legacy to the Church in India that is a mixture of lights and shadows. Christianity had come to India early in the first millenium, but it was only after the fifteenth century that it spread beyond Kerala to other parts of India and to Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, along with the gospel message, there came the veneer of a culture that tore the new converts from their roots, giving them new names. Their liturgy was the Latin liturgy, their churches were built in pseudo-Gothic and Baroque styles, their religious art, paintings and music were cheap importations from the West.
Foreign Christian missionaries had played a vital role in the development of some India languages. In Bihar they had made great efforts to better the social and economic conditions of the tribals. But it was mainly after the Vatican II council sent out a call tot the church to be involved in development and to heal the hungry and the needy, that missionaries took up the pickaxe and shovel to work in the fields.
Besides distributing foodstuffs, they embarked on projects for digging wells, laying roads, loaning tractors for ploughing and harvesting, providing fertiliser and pesticides, constructing godowns for storage of grains, organising co-operatives and making surveys for long-term projects.
The divisions among Christians in India had long been a souce of scandal to non-Christians. The spectacle of one denomination trying to rival another in making converts created confusion among other Indians.
But with the critical food situation in the 1960s and the council's call to go ahead with development, another of the council's themes - ecumenism - got a great filip. Catholics joined Protestants in common prayer, exchanging pulpits and singing christmas carols on the beaches.
But it was on the food-front that they gave their best witness. Responding to the call of India's then Health Minister, Ashok Mehta, several church related and other voluntary agencies banded together to form one service agency. Thus the Action for Food Protection (AFPRP) was born, bringing together CRS, Caritas, Corags, the India Social Institute and the Protestant Indian Council of Churches.
The first fruits of the council were the reforms in the liturgy. Vernaculars replaced Latin and the altar was brought forward to look more like a table. But the norms for adapting the liturgy to the genious and culture of the people had still to be applied. The council had set the church in India on the part of inculturation and dialogue.
Some progress had already been made in the field of religious art. Christian themes were being depicted in manner of ancient Indian and Moghul art by Agnelo da Fonseca, Angela Trinidade and Wesley.
In the realm of Indian dance, music and drama, Fr. George Proksch, SVD, had achieved remarkable success. As regards philosophy and theology, there had been attempts to show how Christ could be reached trhough a study of the Vedas and the Upanishads, and through the works of Shankaracharya and Ramanujacharya. the pioneering efforts of Frs. Johann, Dandoy and Antoine in Calcutta as well as of Fr. H.O. Mascarenhas in Bombay (Quintessence of Hinduism
) were remarkable in these fields.
As for dialogue, Abbe Monchanin had started a contemplative monastic ashram on the banks of the Kaveri near Tiruchirapalli. He was later joined by Swami Abhishiktananda (Dom Le Saux) and by Bede Griffiths.
As a result of the colonial mentality however, for the majority of Catholics in India, Hinduism was a religion steeped in mythology, superstition and errors.
If God could have spoken through non-Christian scriptures, if the relationship between Hindus and Christians was to be marked by dialogue rather than by conversion, if the airm ofChristian educational institutions was to make Hindus better Hinus or Muslims better Muslims, then where was the point of the vast missionary endeavour of the church down the ages as typified by the apostolate of St. Francis Xavier, they reasoned.
In other words, could mission and dialogue be compatible with each other?
The great breakthrough came with the church in India seminar in Bangalore in 1969, dubbed the 'new Pentecost.'
A novel feature of the seminar was the Indian rite service. Over one hundred priests walked barefoot ot the altar, and the chief celebrant was vested in saffron shawl wrapped around his shoulders. Anjali hasta, aarti
and panchanga pranama
were some of the distinguishing features of the service. All wer part of th epackage of twelve points approved by Rome for use as and when the episcopal conference of the local bishop thought fit. But while there was unanimous approval to adapt the liturgy to India's cultural and religious heritage, there were considerable objections to the clause "integrating authentic forms of Indian worship." In all, 168 voted for and 134 against, whilst nearly 200 abstained.
Thus, though technically the twelve points were approved, there was considerable hesitation to accept what seemed to many, a gradual conversion of the liturgy into a poor imitation of Hindu temle worship. Moreover there was a debate, that if Hindu worship was to be accepted, why leave out Muslim forms of worship?
Moreover, could these gestures and symbols be extricated from the myths, superstitions and errors in which they were embedded? The aarti was not really an offertory, but a rite for driving out evil spirits. The anjali hast a was a salutation to human beings and lesser gods, and could not replace genuflection. The mystic syllable 'Om' which was used instead of Amen was the god Shiva's cry of joy after relations with his wife.
Controversy round the twelve points raged for many years and took a serious turn when the All India Laity Congress, a traditionalist organisation, launched a diatribe against what it called 'the Hinduisation of the liturgy.' They took to the court the priest for having built a chapel in the shape of a southern Indian Hindu temple and with grill windows depicting the Hindu triad (Trimurthi) and the dancing Shiva (Nataraja).
Still worse was the fate of the India anaphora or eucharistic prayer. Composed by students and professors of the Jesuit theological faculty at Kurseong, the text used phrases and expressions resonant of the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. At a meeting of the CBCI, Cardinal Parekattil endorsed it, but since the total count lacked one vote for the required two thirds majority, the proposal was lost In 1975, Cardinal Knox issued instructions forbidding the use of the Indian anaphora, the reading of non-Christian scriptures in the liturgy of the work and unauthorised experimentation in the rites of the mass.
A resolution of the seminar that fared slightly better was the one that encouraged the setting up of contemplative monastic ashrams - a place of sustained intense spiritual quest, centered around a person of deep spiritual experiece, the guru.
Capitalist Legacy Of Colonialism
Another legacy of colonialism was capitalism. After the Industrial Revolution, India's ancient art and craft fell into disuse and the country was mainly regarded as a source for raw materials for the industrialised West.
After Independence, the place of foreign capittalists was aken by Indians and a dualistic type society emerged with a vast majority living in poverty and a minority group monopolising power, culture and economic consumption.
A social analysis of the Indian situation revealed that the top ten percent spent thirty percent of the country's income, while the bottom ten percent, only two. Religion was too often looked upon as a legitimiser of the power structure.
The Asian Seminar on Religion and Development held at Bangalore in 1973 convinced many groups, throughout the country, that the task of the church now was to disengage herself from the feudal ruling groups, the capitalist forces and structures, and identify herself with the struggles of the opressed. As the leaven began ot spread in Bihar and Maharashtra, in Goa, priests spearheaded thestruggle of the smalll fishermen against those who used trawlers and purse-seine nets that swept away fish roe during the spawning season. In kerala, a similar agitation ecame news when priests and nuns who were leading it, courted arrest and went on hunger strikes.
The theology of liberation had thus come to the Indian scene with a bang. Thiswas largely the result not only of some individual theologians like Fathers Samuel Rayan and S. Kappen, but also of the Indian Theological Association and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT).
The situation in the church today is stagnant. The legacy of colonialism still pesists. Yet the labours of many in various directions cannot be in vain. A ferment has been created by the numerous seminars, consultations and conferences that cannot but bear fruit in due time.
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