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! 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Goans emigrating to Portugal

Thanks to a quirk of Portuguese nationality law, a number of Goan Indians are eligible for Portuguese citizenship, and, as a consequence, of all the benefits of being a citizen of the European Union. Many use this a path to the UK (No one, it seems, wants to actually migrate to Portugal), and is, apparently, one factor in the discontent involving "Brexit." This weekend's Business Standard has an interesting feature story on the phenomenon of Goan Indians seeking Portuguese passports.
Sources within the consulate say 50 to 60 passports are issued each day. In 2015, an average of 2,000 people are said to have surrendered their Indian passports. Real numbers could be higher since non-resident Goans also give up passports at Indian missions abroad. Around 40,000 Goans are known to have registered births in Lisbon, although unofficial estimates put that figure between 300,000 and 400,000. 
The subject became controversial after it was revealed that several politicians, police officers, and bureaucrats hold Portuguese passports. Two legislators, Glen Ticlo and Caetano Silva, were found to be Portuguese citizens. The singer Remo Fernandes was reported to have changed nationalities as well. RTI activists in Goa are pushing for cases of dual citizenship to be pursued against them. Charges of unpatriotic behaviour are flying thick and fast.
Most of these Goans are Catholic -- thanks to Church records, it tends to be  much easier for Catholics to document the ancestry requirements for establishing a claim to Portuguese nationality, than others.

I would think that Portugal is the only country to keep a Consulate in Goa. This piece is an interview with the current Portuguese Consul General, Mr. Baceira. (I didn't know that the Portuguese Prime Minister is of Goan descent!)
Old links of family and kinship between Goa and Portugal apart, migration over the decades has seen the rise of an influential Portuguese elite of Goan ancestry. Antonio Costa, Portugal's Socialist prime minister and former mayor of Lisbon, is of Goan origin; so are some of the country's leading judges, politicians and artists - Prime Minister Costa's father Orlando was a distinguished poet and writer.

Though the Portuguese colonizers in India were, arguably, a lot more brutal than the British, the missionaries that accompanied them brought a new vigor to the spread of the Catholic faith, so that Goan Catholics, with their 500 year old Indian Catholic culture, are an important and, indispensable, part of the Church in India.

Of course, the most famous Goan Catholic is neither of Goan origin, nor Portuguese, but a Basque Spaniard, whose tireless efforts were the seed of the Catholic faith in Goa, and who continues to exercise spiritual influence, and attract devotees, sometimes up to half a million, of all religions. I am sure Goencho Sahib will continue to intercede for his spiritual children, even if they leave the shores of Goa to seek a better life for themselves and their children, in the West.

Postcard from Portuguese India showing the facade of the Basilica of Bom Jesu
India Post stamp honoring St. Francis Xavier

[I always want to remind Indian priests, who fret that the Church in India isn't "Indian" enough, and who concoct all kinds of artificial ways of "inculuration" that seem to downplay or deny essential parts of traditional Christianity, of this history. One cannot just claim that 500 years of Goan Catholicism is irrelevant, or un-Indian. To do that, one would need some other standard of "Indiannness," and it baffles me that Indian Catholic theologians would put forward Brahmanical Hinduism as the proper criterion of "Indianness." This would be more appropriate coming from the Sangh Parivar than Catholic theologians!]

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Mr. Joe Sheth (1945-1991)

[Image courtesy the Times of India]

"Be First Class."

A whole generation of boys in South Bombay's exclusive Campion School were taught by a simple, unassuming, giant of a man. He died unexpectedly, in the prime of life, twenty five years ago today, at the age of forty five.

He taught English. His love and passion not just for the subject, but for life itself, was obvious, and contagious. Every single one of us was hooked. A whole world came alive. Shakespeare was infinitely more interesting than whatever slop the TV slung up, or the Alistair Maclean and Louis L'Amour pulp fiction that was the staple of boys our age. In a short tribute to the teachers in my life for Teachers Day on this blog a couple of years ago, I wrote:
Shakespeare came alive in his classes: Julius Caesar in 8th grade; The Merchant of Venice, in 9th.  His voice still rings in my head at Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes?" or Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strain'd." Byron, Shelley, Milton and Tennyson dripped from our tongues. (I could possibly still recite "Ozymandias" from memory!) We loved Sheth wildly, deeply.

Indeed we did. "Be first class," was Mr. Sheth's constant refrain, one that we've shared, among other tributes, all afternoon in the WhatsApp group for our batch (the class of 1988, the year we graduated from Campion, after the 10th grade). Not a few of us feel that he was our own John Keating from Dead Poets' Society. Don't just aim for First Class (grades), but be first class. He called all of us to be men of excellence, of virtue.

The day of Mr. Sheth's funeral is etched in my memory, vivid, all these year later. In 1991, I was in my first year of college. I always recall this as being in 12th grade, but memory is treacherous about some things! A number of us at St. Xavier's College took the train up to the distant suburb of Andheri and joined a packed congregation (it seemed like there were a thousand folks there!) in the fan-shaped Holy Family Church in Chakala. I recall being at the very back, and following the Mass (this was three years prior to my baptism), and mumbling the responses (in Latin! I clearly recall kneeling and saying dona eis requiem at the Agnus Dei and wondering why no one else did).
The coffin was surrounded by the distraught family, and we surged out behind it after the Mass, to the graveyard outside, as the sun set, and darkness fell.
Twenty five years later -- all of us in our early forties, in a variety of fields of work, scattered across the globe, most with families and kids about the same age as we were back then -- the impression and experience of this quiet man hasn't left us. It is not just that we have fond memories of him. We certainly do. But the root of these memories lies in the fact that in the presence of this man, in the experience of his care and love for us, something about us changed. We were transformed, and for the better. Indeed, we have all, I am confident, striven to be first class, ever since.

On this twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, what a privilege and blessing it was, to offer the Holy Sacrifice for the repose of the soul of this good and faithful servant.

Thank you, Mr. Sheth. Memory eternal!