by Rev. Nicholas L Gregoris
Pope Francis has called us to focus our attention more on the peripheries of the world, so I thought that I would take a little mental journey to the exotic land of India which, although the world's largest democracy and the fastest growing country after China, is still only two percent Christian -- and ever a land of much mystery and mystique from its exquisite silks and delicate spices (e.g., curry) to its sacred cows, temples, and rivers (Ganges).
For us Catholic-Christians, we reverence India as the land of the "Thomas Christians" where St. Thomas the Apostle, one of the original Twelve, is said to have first evangelized after Our Lord's Ascension into Heaven.
What directly inspired me to write this article was listening to the presentation of His Beatitude, Baselios Cleemis Cardinal Thottonkal, Major Archbishop of Trivandrum and President of the Episcopal Conference of India at the Sala Stampa Briefing of Saturday, October 10. So, the following day, at my residence here in Rome, I sat down for an extensive and fascinating interview with a diverse group of Indian priests, both diocesan and religious.
Here, I would like to thank them for their graciousness and the generosity of their time, not to mention their open and frank dialogue which, in many respects, mirrors the "parrehesia" (Gk: "boldness") called for by the Pope among the Synod Fathers at both the Extraordinary and Ordinary Synods on the Family. We discussed several themes pertaining to the state of marriage and family in the contemporary Indian culture and Church. Here are the fruits of that interview, which I have organized according to select topics. The reader should bear in mind that this interview by no means pretends to be comprehensive, but is merely a cursory overview in which I trusted the so-called "experts on the ground" for their insights.
The sheer immense size and scope of India is mindboggling. It is a land of extreme contrasts and diversity with a plethora of languages (23 major languages, especially Hindi and English), states, cultures, tribes, three major world religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity), three major Catholic rites (Latin, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara). Therefore, it is hard to imagine there might be much that unites Indians from north to south, east to west.
It seems as though the unifying factor must be the ancient, hereditary caste system, which was inculcated into Indian society almost immediately through contact with the Hindu religion, the oldest organized religion known to mankind (8th century, B.C.). By and large, the priests with whom I spoke did not think the caste system was a positive reality. Although its impact may have diminished in recent decades, it is not going away any time soon.The priests remarked that the impact of the caste system varies throughout India's many states and depends in large part on the education of people in particular villages and cities. The more educated the person, the less powerful the grasp of the caste system. Nevertheless, the interrelationship between the caste system and the institutions of marriage and family is undeniably strong from any objective point of view.
Political parties in India have a vested interest in maintaining the "status quo" of the caste system. However, as more and more social mobility occurs on account of Indians migrating to other countries around the world, the stranglehold of the caste system is weakening. Add to this, that Indian young people are now able to interface with the Internet and social media to discover how peoples from different cultures live in contemporary society. So, as the proverb goes, "Knowledge is power!"
The caste system in India is set up in favor of the Hindu majority, so that Muslims and Christians are often viewed as second- and third-class citizens.
Hindus are the majority in the government and want to protect their own by providing them with the best jobs and education possible. To change this rather circumscribed mentality, steeped in millennia of tradition, is a real uphill battle and perhaps a "mission impossible." And it certainly doesn't seem as though the Catholic Church in India is in much of a position to broaden India's horizons at this particular moment in time as far as the caste system is concerned.
On account of the caste system, arranged marriages are still normative, and it is not common for young people to cohabitate prior to marriage as has become an unfortunate custom in many Western countries, especially in Europe and North America whereby sex is reduced to a plaything, a veritable game of Russian roulette meant to provide instant gratification apart from any consideration of the ultimate two-fold purposes of sex: conjugal love and responsible parenting open to procreation as God wills it.
In India, the nuclear family and the extended family are very much prized possessions. They are considered sacred and protected by both cultural and religious norms that transcend the fleeting passions and pleasures of other more secularized and globalized societies. Given the restrictions of the caste system, marital separation (let alone divorce and remarriage) is difficult to achieve because in most cases wives are almost entirely dependent on their husbands and on the dowries provided for them by their own families as well. To risk losing that familial stability is to wish not only financial ruin for oneself and one's children but also social stigmatization, heaping hot coals on the family's head -- its name and its honor.
This is not a topic that enjoys open discussion in India because its mention can become an immediate source of consternation and is considered an affront to the family's good reputation and standing in society. However, if a woman does succeed in bringing charges of domestic violence to the attention of the proper authorities, the priests asssured me, there are very strict laws in place that, if followed, could lead to a man's arrest and incarceration.
Hindus, but especially Christians and Muslims, oppose abortion to different degrees and yet the Hindu-dominated government of India permits abortions and provides medical facilities for them to be performed free of charge. In hospitals it is forbidden by law to identify the sex of a fetus at any stage of its development because there is a tendency among Hindus in particular to favor abortion in the case of a female baby being conceived and subsequently deemed "unwanted" by the couple and their respective families.
In India, teenage pregnancy may not be as prevalent as it is among girls who are already studying at university. Therefore, many abortions occur clandestinely as a result of college girls having engaged in pre-marital intercourse, facts which they feel obliged psychologically and emotionally to hide from their families. In a typical Indian family, a girl of any age who admits to having procured an abortion is automatically considered a disgrace. For this reason, the government also provides free contraception with the added excuse of the need to control India's growing population. It also offers financial incentives to families who limit the number of their children to only two.
It is common for at least three days of marriage preparation to take place with the aid of a parish priest and sometimes also lay couples who instruct the couple about the nature of the Sacrament of Matrimony, as well as the vital family life issues like abortion and artificial contraception from a Catholic perspective. For Catholic bishops and priests to do this catechesis in a more public forum, however, is a real challenge, given the government's strong stance on these issues and the socio-economic implications for the average Indian citizen, not to mention to the average believer.
The priests with whom I spoke expressed relief that Pope Francis through his recent "Motu Proprio" has finally sought to streamline the complicated annulment process whose complexity is compounded when one factors in the tremendous diversity of the Church in India.
Inter-Faith and Inter-Denominational Marriage:
The Catholic hierarchy in India does not encourage such marriages because they inevitably create tension and lead to misunderstanding among the adherents of the different religions/denominations. Inter-faith or inter-denominational couples in India tend to convert in advance of the marriage, so that their children will be raised according to the religion or rite of the father, although there are exceptions to this rule, as to most rules in life. Indian bishops and priests have encountered a serious problem with Protestants who are eager to marry Catholics with the intention of converting them and then building large families in order to swell their ranks in a country where they constitute a real minority, compared to Catholics.
Priests and Family Ministry:
Priests in India tend to be very close to the people whom they serve. They have a knack for knowing each member of a particular family and his or her particular needs and problems, and not in some mere generic way. Due to much regular social interaction with parishioners outside parish confines, priests are able to address their flocks' needs in a more hands-on and profound way than many Western clergymen do or may even care to do.
I did not get any sense of "clericalism" among the Indian clergy I interviewed. Indeed, it was quite the opposite. I found that the priests were truly humble in their own estimation and that this humility can give them access to their people in a way that enriches more abundantly their pastoral ministry and the life of the local Church.
Priestly and Religious Vocations:
Indian villages seem to be more effective gardens for cultivating priestly and religious vocations than cities. A serious threat to an increase in vocations in India (as is the case in many other countries) is the rising rates of abortion and the widespread use of artificial forms of birth control.
At a very basic level, as Europeans should know very well by now (or perhaps they are just in denial or don't care), if you don't have children, you really don't have any future to look forward to and an integral part of that future from an ecclesial standpoint is the vocation to the ministerial priesthood, for, as St. John Paul II taught us in his last encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" (2003), "without the Eucharist, we shall surely die."
Catholic Youth and the Practice of the Faith:
About 50% of the Indian Catholic population attends Mass each and every Sunday. This is a phenomenal statistic, compared to the dwindling Sunday Mass rates of Europe and the Americas. Nevertheless, the priests I interviewed told me that the young people need special motivation (don't they always!) to attend Mass regularly because they find it difficult to do things merely because they are obliged to do so. More girls than boys attend Mass on Sundays but this was not always the case in a country where being religious is not something seen as womanish or contrary to some presumed cultural norm of "machismo" as we find is often the case in Latin American and in the countries of the Mediterranean world.
Unity and Diversity of Christian Rites:
The three major Christian groups in India are Catholics of the Roman, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Rites. The faith is strong in India and so too the people's love of their respective Christian rites and traditions.
One problem (albeit minor) that has surfaced is that sometimes Christians of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Rites unwittingly "steal sheep" from the Roman Rite parishes when they migrate to an area and open up their own dioceses/parishes to which Roman Rite Catholics then go on Sunday in preference to their own parishes. It seems as though India is not immune to the allure of the particular beauty of the Eastern rites, replete with their melodic chant and billowing incense. This is not so much a theological problem as it is a practical one for those Roman Rite pastors who find themselves short-changed in the Sunday collection. Note, however, that most of these church-hopping folk do not formally abandon their rite of origin.
Catholic Education and the Family:
Catechism classes are offered in the parish and the instruction can always be improved or deepened.
Fortunately, the parochial school system is flourishing, especially at the elementary level, although it now has more formidable competition at the secondary level with the arrival of so-called "independent" schools (in the U.S., these schools may be called "private" or "charter"), often enjoying more and better resources and gearing their curricula to getting their alumni into the best trade schools, engineering and science-oriented universities in India and in foreign countries -- with the United States of America and Great Britain being two of the most highly sought-after destinations for higher education.
The family structure is remarkably robust in India. It doesn't promote living alone. Rather, it promotes very large and prosperous families that allow for parents to continue living with their children even after they are married. This stability also is welcoming of grandparents who are an integral part of the family, as Pope Francis never tires of pointing out they should be.
Although, for the most part, Christians get along well with Hindus and Muslims, there have been episodic instances of Christian persecution at the hands of Hindus in the north of India. Southern India remains India's Christian bastion comprised of four states, with Kerala perhaps its most well-known on account of its strong Catholic identity and missionary outreach.
Poverty and Employment:
On account of widespread governmental corruption and unwieldy economic disparity, whereby large private corporations are afforded privileges to the detriment of the small businessman, the rich are indeed becoming richer in India while the poor are becoming poorer, a noteworthy socio-economic reality in many parts of the world, as Pope Francis underscored in his encyclical "Laudato Si."
The priests I interviewed expressed real concern that the rights of individual workers are routinely violated and that Indian labor laws are woefully inadequate. Furthermore, many if not most of poor workers are completely ignorant of their rights and so end up on any given day working more hours for less pay. Therefore, serious socio-economic reform is needed in India in order to bring about the social justice that both basic human dignity and the Gospel demand.
Perhaps India's bishops and priests can revisit with their people certain principles of the Church's social teaching as contained, for example, in the "Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church" and in landmark magisterial documents of Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum); Blessed Paul VI (Populorum Progressio); and St. John Paul II (Solicitudo Rei Socialis; Centesimus Annus).
According to the priests I interviewed, there is not so much a problem of literal syncretism as one may find, for example, in Central and South America, where oftentimes rites of "santeria" (a primtive and indigenous form of witchcraft) are merged with Catholic liturgies, as there is a desire on the part of the local clergy to find the right balance when it comes to inculturating the Gospel message without compromising its message and the Church's evangelizing mission in Indian society.
Due to a long history of celibacy as practiced by Hindu sages and mystics, celibacy is not an oddity, either culturally or theologically speaking. However, when a priest breaks his promise of celibacy or vow of chastity, it can immediately become a source of real scandal in a local church and can easily lead certain Indians to show disfavor toward the Church and the priesthood.
(to be continued)