Attacks on the church institutions are taking place frequently in India. Celebrations related to Christmas festival such as carol singing, prayer meetings, processions and floats provoke the Hindutva groups. The latest incident was the attack on two priests and 32 seminarians in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, by the Hindutva fringe group, Bajrang Dal. It was reported that they went to a village for carol singing and conducting a prayer meeting which they had been doing for the last 30 years during the occasion of Christmas. Not only the Bajrang Dal group attacked the priests and seminarians but the police who reached the spot took them to the police station and detained all of them for a long time in a small room. When they were freed from the custody the police asked them to report to the SP office next day.
When some priests reached the SP office as per schedule the Bajrang Dal members came there and started shouting slogans and burnt a vehicle belonging to the church which was parked near the SP office. The Bajarang Dal made a man in the village to make a statement that he was offered Rs.5000, a cross and a Bible to become a Christian. The Hindutva groups have succeeded in making false cases against missionaries in different parts of the country and putting them in jail. It is part of a well planned strategy of the Hindutva fringe groups.
We may recall the violent attack against the Christians in Kandhamal, Odisha a few years ago. This violent attack on Christians took place a couple of days before Christmas, on 23rd December . Many Christians including priests and religious had to run to the forest and stay there even during the cold Christmas night. It was a well planned attack to disrupt the Christmas celebrations. Many innocent Christians were burned alive and women were raped during the subsequent violence in the region. Even a religious nun had to go through the terrible ordeal of being raped in broad daylight in public view.
We celebrate Christmas and other festivals with great enthusiasm to give the message of peace and joy to the world by the arrival of Jesus, the saviour of the world. We take this trouble as a part of our commitment to proclaim Christ. All Christian schools keep up the tradition of making Christmas cribs and organising carol singing competitions with traditional fervour. Students of all faith take part in these celebrations very enthusiastically.
These traditional practices of singing carols in the streets, villages and families were very much accepted even by the people of other faith till recently. I remember, as a parish priest in Sagar, how I had organized floats with Christmas carols through the city roads and visiting Hindu families with parish youth for carol singing. I felt great when they worshipped baby Jesus and offered money as offering. As a young parish priest I took pride in this way of evangelisation. Neither the neighbouring Hindu people nor the government administration ever objected to the use of loudspeakers during the midnight Mass. They gave full support to the processions and carol singing through the city streets. All of us felt great satisfaction in this kind of evangelisation and thought we had achieved something great. I even entertained the fantasy of people gradually coming forward to become Christians.
I am sure that even today many who indulge in these prayer meetings and singing with poor people of other faith nurture the fantasy of making them Christians one day. Even the practice of taking the children of other faith in our boarding houses to the church for Mass and Christian prayers is to give knowledge about Christ for their gradual conversion. The truth is that as they grow up they turn against us for violation of human rights despite helping them to get good education and career. Continuing the century old colonial missionary practices in the hostile socio-political context is inviting unnecessary trouble. Many of us do not realize that in practice the Hindu Rashtra has arrived. The fringe groups do not understand and accept the meaning of freedom of religion. The police and the government administration usually protect the criminals who are patronized by the politicians belonging to the ruling party. Often the officials pacify the church personnel with false assurances. The criminals of the fringe groups repeat their attacks.
Though Jesus had warned his disciples to be cunning like serpents and innocent like doves often we fail to follow his advice in our missionary works. There were many occasions when priests, nuns and bishops were fooled and cheated by the people in the world. They trust the wrong people very easily. Attacks and harassments by the fringe groups continue, troubling those who work in the missions. A young priest is put in Dewas prison since two years because of the deliberate conspiracy of the Hindutva groups of ruling party. The attack on the priests and seminarians in Satna is the latest case in MP. Another Hindutva fringe group in UP has threatened Christian schools not to celebrate Christmas. What will CM of MP do if such things happen in his state? It is time for the Church leadership to call a spade a spade and ask the CM to provide dignity and security to Christian community before hosting the Christmas celebration. Disciples of Christ shall safeguard their self respect and courage.
From the day Mr Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, I had been writing about the urgency of preparing a strategic plan by the church to face the new challenges. Whenever I had spoken about the urgency of arranging a serious consultation on the fast changing socio-political context in the country to prepare a strategy, many in the hierarchy took it lightly and said, “Now we do not need any such strategy. Let us also wait for some time. BJP also should get a chance’.
I had again written about the ‘Saffron Tsunami’ after BJP swept the UP elections in ‘Indian Currents’. Fr. Jacob Peenikaparambil had written a book with creative proposals to meet this ‘Saffron Surge’. I had sent complimentary copies of this book to more than hundred bishops by registered post. I was happy to get an encouraging letter from one bishop who also placed an order for 100 copies of the book to be given as gifts to his priests.
During the last three years there were CBCI meetings and CCBI meetings. Seeing the indifference and ignorance of the church personnel I feel to compare the church in India to ostrich which puts its head in the sand when it sees danger and threat to its life. If responsible people become slaves to unproductive routine practices, death and destruction is inevitable. The tragedy is that those who face threats are those who refuse to introspect and look for new alternatives.
Christ wants us to prepare clear strategies and concrete action plans. For the last 25 years we have been inviting Bishops, provincials, priests and sisters to go through this radical renewal programme. I am happy a few bishops including His Eminence Oswald Cardinal Gracias of Bombay and leaders of several religious congregations have tried to learn and experiment this way of Christ in their communities and mission.
Now time has come for all of us to rethink and return to the way of Christ by abandoning the old colonial and imperial ways which are contrary to Christ. This is what the present prophetic Pope Francis wants every Catholic to follow. Christ and his teachings should be placed above everything. The fundamental question we need to ask is: What would Jesus do if he were here in our context? He wants us to ACT, ACT NOW; not just sit and say prayers loudly.
I write these lines after reflecting on what is happening in our country and world at large. We can still do it; we can still make the Church relevant because Christ and his way is the only way for stable peace. We can do it by taking up our mission to be ‘prophets to the nations to bear lasting fruits’. Abandon the unproductive and routine OLD WINESKIN both in life, systems and in our ministry.
(Published on 26th December 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 52)