Monday, February 29, 2016

Liturgical life in India in the 1950s

While writing the post below, I stumbled upon this video from the 1950s. It seems to be an American documentary from 1953 about life in Goa.

Starting at around the 11:50m mark, till about 13:30, one gets a rare glimpse of liturgical life in India from that era, prior to the liturgical reforms of the mid-20th century, at what seems to be a packed church during a (presumably) Sunday Benediction service.

I've never seen Benediction given with the Blessed Sacrament covered entirely, the way it is here. I can't make out what the chants are, but they're clearly in Latin. There is also beautiful footage of the decennial exposition of the relics of St. Francis Xavier (I was privileged to assist at, and concelebrate, the closing Mass of the exposition, last year.)

The Lord used the musical heritage of the Church, especially Gregorian Chant (which is supposed to have "pride of place" in the reformed liturgy, according to the Second Vatican Council), to draw me to Him and to His Church. Sadly, I've never experienced anything quite so beautiful or traditionally Catholic, as what I saw in this little segment of this video. [My conversion story, which was published in Asia News in 2010, seems to suggest that I heard chant in a church setting. That's simply not correct, unfortunately.]

Now a note about the video itself.

The video is clearly a political propaganda piece in support of continued Portuguese colonial rule in Goa. India gained independence from Britain in 1947. The Salazar dictatorship in Portugal refused to follow suit, until the Indian Army invaded in 1961, and Goa was annexed to the Indian Union. One of the claims of the video is that the Roman Catholicism of nearly half of Goa's population constitutes a "natural tie" with European Portugal. This claim is based on the false premise that Catholicism, or Christianity itself is an European religion. While this view might have been widespread at one point (and, from the little I know about Goan history, many within the hierarchy of the Church in colonial times, would have subscribed to this view), there is nothing essential in the Christian faith that ties it to Europe as such. 

Besides, a survey of Christian history will show Churches taking root all over the known world, including India (the St. Thomas communities, from the 1st century), the huge Christian centers in what is now largely Muslim north Africa (think Edessa, or Nisbis, or Mosul, or Babylon), as well as Syria, Iraq, as well as the Nestorian Churches of Persia, Central Asia and China, the Ethiopian Church, and so on. Furthermore, the latter half of the 20th century has shown just how rapidly. Furthermore, the latter part of the 20th century has seen an explosion of Christianity in the global South, especially in Africa, while Europe has seen the Christian faith evaporate and practically vanish. Portugal is hardly a Catholic country any more. 

While it can (and has) be argued that many external forms of the Catholic faith were "Eurocentric" and alien to Indian culture, and while the Second Vatican Council encouraged "inculturation" of liturgical forms, a discussion about which I do not want to enter in this post, I would like to point out that it is quite normal for the Gospel (and the liturgy) to find a variety of "inculutrated" expressions. Unlike, say Islam, no one culture has a monopoly on the Gospel. One can think of the various Rites of the Catholic Church as an example. Both Syrian Rites in India, for instance, while maintaining their Syrian character, are also unmistakably Indian. And whereas the Roman Rite was closely tied to the colonial culture, a rich local Catholic culture developed, in the  five hundred years since the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498! This did not exclude Indian artistic expressions for traditional Christian themes, for instance, this image of Our Lady and Child, by Goan artist Angelo da Fonseca (whose work was not without controversy in pre-Independence Goa). It dates from 1942. I found it hanging in the corridor of the seminary in Rachod, Goa, and used it as one of the holy cards for my Ordination to the Priesthood. 

Our Lady and Child, by Angelo da Fonseca, 1942.
This was one of the Ordination Holy Cards I had prepared
for my Ordination to the priesthood in 2013
The claim that Christianity is alien to India is one that has dogged the Church throughout the colonial era, as well as since. It is used as a political excuse to intimidate the Christian community, especially in the form of anti-conversion laws, and as part of hatred-inciting rhetoric coming from the Hindu-nationalist parties. Ironically, it seems, they agree with colonial sympathizers, at least according to this video! 

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