[This is part 5 of a 5-part interview with Fr. Jose Panadan SJ, an Indian Jesuit missionary. Introduction and links to previous parts.]
It sounds like proper catechesis is a big challenge …
… is that a priority of the mission?
Yes, absolutely, though it is a huge challenge, both from the point of limited resources on our part, and lack of time and enthusiasm among the people. However, the children get regular catechesis in the residential schools.
What is the sense of attachment to the person of Christ among the people?
Very little among the adults. For the children, while they are with us, this is strong. However, there are small core numbers of loyal and faithful Christians here.
The small number of Christian families among these castes is a huge challenge for the continuity of the faith: because of strict endogamous practices, many girls of Christian families are married to Hindus, and stop practicing the faith. Same with boys.
Social ostracism by non-Christians is also very strong.
It seems that many elements associated with a Christian identity, or response to the Gospel are missing, or present only at a shallow level. Would you that the missionary approach you mentioned above – samajdharma versus sadhanadharma is problematic?
I would say that there are limitations to this method of evangelization.
Religion and culture are closely bound concepts, which are very hard to distinguish or separate. When we convert people using this approach, as I have said before, their Christian identity remains very ambiguous.
If one asks the question, “Who is the Christian here?” the answer seems far from clear from the point of view of the universal Church. For the people, as well as the missionaries, their following the Ishupanth, i.e. having a devotion to Christ, and accepting him as the purnavtar means that they are Christian, notwithstanding the other challenges.
Isn’t there a compromise with the Gospel when it comes to even a tentative acceptance of caste, especially if one understands caste to be inherently discriminatory?
Yes. However, it is such a deeply entrenched reality: one has to deal with it, and live with it and accept it as a temporary accommodation, that, one hopes, will diminish with the passing generations.
Has it diminished with the longer established Christians in Gujarat, such as the Kheda Christians? Or, for that matter, even older Christians all over the country, going back to the apostolic Christian communities, where casteism is rampant?
Well, caste identity is still strong among Indian Christians, especially when it comes to endogamous practices. However, I have to say that discriminatory practices do seem to have diminished among Indian Christians in general, notwithstanding some very public conflicts, such as we have heard of in recent years from Tamil Nadu or elsewhere.
Many people have made the analogy between the caste system and slavery in the West …
That is quite an apt analogy. The mindset of slavery was not overthrown overnight, and not without a bitter struggle.
So what about discipleship? Isn’t that at one level the heart of evangelization?
We have to make a distinction between following Jesus and becoming disciples of Jesus.
Could you elaborate?
As a result of our missionary works, there will be some people who will be inspired and motivated by Christianity, the message and person of Jesus (like Gandhiji, for example). However, they may not, for a variety of reasons, follow through to the step of publicly joining the Church, through baptism, for example. These are the followers of Jesus.
… such as the Kristabhaktas in Varanasi …
Yes. Disciples on the other hand, will be those who, through baptism, consciously take up the responsibility of living and proclaiming Christ.
But, not everyone who is newly baptized is a disciple. It seems that one has many “followers of Jesus” (or, in some cases, those who just look to the missions for material benefit) among the baptized.
So, again, the question is, how does one create disciples, as opposed to just followers, or just sacramentalized, nominal Christians? Some of the baptized in these missions, the way you have described them, I would hesitate to call even “followers of Jesus.” So, it seems further distinctions are necessary. So, how does one create disciples? [This, I should add, is one of the central challenges of the Church in the West as well!]
I suppose, one begins by identifying a receptive group … “followers of Jesus.”
… like the first Christians, and the God-fearers who surrounded the synagogue …
Yes … and invite them and work with them to discipleship. I have seen this myself, when people come up to me and say, “Father, this Ishupanthi life is very inspiring.” And then that becomes an opening to invite them to follow through and become an Ishupanthi themselves.
We have earlier talked about responsive groups when it comes to openness to the Gospel. Two generations after the first caste-missions started in north Gujarat, would you say that these castes are a responsive group?
This is a difficult evaluation to make. However, the Church is committed to continuing her work here. We are not ready to abandon the people. Not at all.
Changing gears, what about the challenge of persecution?
The only direct physical violence I have faced is from so-called Catholics who were upset that I could not provide them with the particular economic assistance they were looking for! However, intimidation and harassment are rampant, from government authorities, Hindu fundamentalist groups, and the general air of suspicion with which we are regarded by non-Christians.
However, there has also been active persecution of the Church in Gujarat?
Yes, in north Gujarat, a few decades back, there was an active persecution: lies were spread about us killing cows and drinking their blood in the Eucharist; a senior missionary was beaten up and false accusations filed against him which lead to his imprisonment.
In the south, in 1999, there was a fierce persecution in the Dangs district, which received national and international attention.
So, yes, periodically, the fundamentalist Hindu activists, manage to incite persecutions.
At one level, the Church recognizes that the reality of persecution will continue till the end of the world. However, at a human level, there seems to be some compromise in our missionary zeal in the face of persecution. We think, “Well, why should we invite trouble?”
Often in our experience, the light of the Lord is not visible clearly during persecution. We tend to pray, “when is my God going to show Himself as more powerful than the other gods?” Or, “Wouldn’t be nice if He worked a miracle through me right about now?”
This underscores the need for constant spiritual renewal.
Hindus simply cannot grasp the concept of religious conversion, as in changing one’s religious affiliation. Many oppose the Christian attempt to evangelize vehemently … I am thinking for instance of Arun Shourie’s book on conversion. Conversion is described as spiritual violence. How do you respond to this?
As a Christian, and as a missionary, it is my primary responsibility to preach and proclaim Christ. And I am convinced that the message and person of Jesus Christ has universal relevance. In doing so, if, people decide to become Christian, then I will welcome them. We absolutely do not coerce, or force people into becoming Christian, in any way. Besides, who am I to resist the Holy Spirit, if He is drawing someone to Christ?
I have a deep respect for Hindus and Hinduism, though definitely, not everything in Hinduism. This is not an attack on Hinduism. However, we have our own beliefs.
However, not just non-Christians, even many Catholics: theologians, priests, religious, seem to have come to the conclusion, that in today’s age, especially in the light of a new-found appreciation for religious pluralism, it is not necessary for the Church, to invite others to become Christian. Would you say that these views are common in the Church in India?
It is quite common. The general attitude seems to be, “Well, if someone happens to come our way, we will of course work with them. But we are not going to pursue conversions.”
Is that not discouraging for you?
Well, it occasionally makes me re-examine my own convictions, certainly. But, my own convictions about evangelization remain strong.
Have you had any dealings with evangelical Christians?
In 2001, I spent a month living with evangelical Christians in the Dangs district of south Gujarat.
And what was that like?
I was deeply impressed by the following things: the devotion to the Word of God. Not only devotion, but the familiarity even of the illiterate people with the Word of God. Their enthusiasm of these Christians to proclaim the Word with others. Furthermore, even though in comparison to Catholic groups, the material needs of these communities are not really taken care of, there was a deep loyalty to the person of Jesus. And like one sees in Catholic groups, there are also transformations such as giving up alcoholism, witchcraft, a reduction in extra-marital affairs (which are quite common among tribals).
I have seen illiterate, tribal lay people leading and conducting prayer services regularly. This is also common among Catholics in the tribal belt. Moreover, I saw lay missionaries from other parts of India working far from home – something that is unheard of among the Catholics. Yes, we have priests and religious, but they have institutional security and protection that these lay people do not.
I should add that this is a dated picture, that may not reflect current reality.
What about caste?
Well, these were tribals, so there is no question of caste.
And what didn’t impress you?
A rather literalistic interpretation of the Word of God. A very negative portrayal of Mother Mary. A strong focus on hell. It is almost that the fear of hell is emphasized. Not making a conscious effort towards integral development of these Christians – so their material needs are not taken care of.
In north Gujarat, I had a kind of informal rapport with a few evangelical groups that were active in the area. I have attended their prayer meetings, and preached there as well.
So, there is some sense of ecumenical collaboration?
How widespread is this?
Not very, but it is picking up. And there isn’t much of a conscious effort by the Church to promote this.
Is there an attempt by Catholic missionaries to work more closely with evangelicals?
After the 1999 persecution, there has definitely been a conscious effect to work together. On the other hand, the Catholic Church does dissociate itself from some groups that pursue very aggressive evangelization.
Moreover, the Charismatic Renewal has also brought in some of the positive elements of the evangelical groups, into the Catholic Church in Gujarat – such as familiarity with the Word of God, lay participation and leadership (such as at prayer meetings), and an overall deeper commitment to discipleship.
Father, there seems to be so much that is opposed to your work: certainly from outside the Church, but also from inside, whether it be the downplaying of the missionary impulse, or the always present weakness and sinfulness of the human side of the Church. What keeps you going?
I keep going back to the story of Abraham, which was such an integral part of my original sense of call. I left my home and my family in response to that call, to be a blessing to the nations, or that God would use me to be a blessing to the nations. And no matter how much good I might be instrumental in bringing about through work of development and social uplift, at the deepest level, I cannot be a blessing without proclaiming Christ.