[This is part 2 of a 5-part interview with Fr. Jose Panadan SJ. Introduction and links to other parts.]
Can you give a brief overview of the Church in Gujarat today?
In 1891, 6 individuals from the Vankar (weavers’) caste (of Dalits) from Kheda district, who were working in St. Joseph Convent in Bandra, Bombay, as kitchen and cleaning staff, were baptized. This was the seed that lead to the beginning of the modern Catholic Church in Gujarat.
There are four Diocese (Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad, Baroda and Rajkot [which is an Oriental Diocese]). There are maybe about 200,000 Christians in Gujarat, out of a population of about 55 million.
The majority of Christians belong to the Dalit community (the “outcastes” or “untouchables” in India’s mind-bogglingly complex and infuriatingly entrenched caste system). Thanks to missionary activity, however, the Dalits are among the most educated groups in Gujarat. Originally, the Dalit Christians were from the Kheda and Anand districts, which remain the center of local Christian (as opposed to Christians who have immigrated from other parts of India) life in the state. There are a good number of vocations from these communities, several of whom serve overseas as well. The growth in the Dalit community has stalled over the past few generations: currently, growth is only by birth, and not conversions.
About 40 years ago the Church started venturing into the tribal pockets of Gujarat: Dangs, Surat, Bharuch, Valsad and Vadodara districts in the South, and Sabarkantha in the north. The growth among tribals in south Gujarat was enormous, which has stalled a bit in the past decade or so. The growth in the north was less spectacular. There is an enthusiastic vitality in the life of the Church among the tribals. India’s tribals are not traditionally part of the Hindu religion – though neo-Hindu activists are trying to change that. The religious traditions are generally animistic. There seems to be a correlation between the “Hinduization” of tribal communities, and their receptivity to the Gospel. The less “Hinduized” communities have seen a lot of growth, across India, in places such as the Chhota Nagpur belt in the east.
Around the same time, there was a mandate from Rome to reach out to other communities and castes, beyond the Dalits and tribals. This is the root of the so-called “caste missions” of north Gujarat. These have worked mainly among the Ravals, Thakors, Darbars, Kohli Patels – who are all part of the “Other Backward Caste” (OBC) classification under Indian law – and there have even been some miniscule conversions among higher castes, such as Patels and Brahmins.
What about Saurashtra?
The Rajkot Diocese, which covers the culturally and geographically distinct areas of Saurashtra and Kutch, is a Syro-Malabar jurisdiction, because the area was given to the CMI congregation to develop the missions. The CMIs, being an Oriental congregation, were granted permission to erect an Oriental Diocese. Incidentally the Syro-Malabar liturgy is celebrated in Gujarati translation in this area (and not the original Malayalam, which is the language of the state of Kerala, the home of the Syro-Malabar Rite). Masses in the Latin Rite are also said. There are really no indigenous conversions in this area, and most Catholics are immigrants from other parts of the state or the country.
All the four diocese have a number of educational, social and medical institutions, oriented towards the integral development of the surrounding society, irrespective of caste or creed. For instance, there are some 20,000 children from poor families of all religions, in residential schools around the state, who receive a free education.
Incidentally, for many years, some of the food for these children is provided by Catholic Relief Services from the United States.
What about local religious and priestly vocations?
There are priests and religious working in Gujarat from many states (such as myself). There is also a healthy number of local Gujarati vocations as well. And there are two indigenous sisters’ congregations which originated in Gujarat: The Little Sisters of Francis Xavier and the Devpriya Sisters in Rajkot.