India’s Catholic Church—Where Is It Heading?
By Awake! correspondent in India
It represents a small minority of the population. Often it is viewed as a foreign intruder and eyed with suspicion by the majority, who adhere to faiths considered native to Indian soil. But India’s Catholic Church unquestionably has a foothold on the subcontinent and desires to remain firmly planted here. What is the church doing to reach this goal? Will it succeed? In short, where is the church heading?
THE Catholic Church may not be the most important of India’s religions—its nearly 14 million members here comprise less than 2 percent of the nation’s inhabitants. Yet, the importance of India’s Catholic Church to world Catholicism was highlighted when, in February 1986, Pope John Paul II paid a ten-day visit to India. His 14-city tour included a visit to the state of Kerala, where the largest concentration of Catholics in India is found.
Kerala shines as a jewel in the eyes of the church. It is the seat of Catholic power in India, and the church is one of the biggest organized institutions in the state. Kerala is also thought to be the home of Christianity in the nation. According to popular tradition, Thomas—one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ—came to the Malabar Coast of Kerala after the death of the Messiah.
It was not until some 14 centuries later, however, that the Roman Catholic Church came to India. Portuguese explorers and missionaries who followed them brought the Roman church to Goa, a former Portuguese colony on India’s west coast. From there, believers made their way south to Kerala.
The Catholic Church has long existed as a paradox in the eyes of the local people. While many credit the church for its educational, social, and medical services throughout the country, they disdain what they see as the real purpose behind the presence of the church—the making of converts.
Is ‘Conversion’ the Aim?
When fundamentalist Hindu organizations warned that the pontiff’s presence would itself encourage mass conversions to Christianity, the church did everything possible to put distance between itself and the thought that it desired to convert Indians. “No one need be afraid,” said the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. “The Holy Father is not coming to convert people.” Even more emphatic was the statement of one Indian archbishop: “The Catholic Church strongly opposes proselytisation. It is an interference in religious freedom. We denounce it, condemn it.”
What about the pope himself? “The Catholic Church recognizes the truths that are contained in the religious traditions of India and this recognition makes true dialogue possible,” he told an audience representing Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam, and some professing Christianity. On another occasion, he professed a like-mindedness with other faiths, stating: “We proclaim our solidarity with our Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters and the followers of other religious traditions.”
This professed solidarity was manifested not in words alone. During the pope’s visit, he was garlanded by a priest of Calcutta’s famous Kali Temple of Kalighat.a At another time, he received vibhuti, or holy ash, on his forehead from a Hindu priest and donned a Muslim ponnadai (shawl) displaying symbols of the Islamic faith.
Despite all of this, when the pope addressed the Indian bishops, he outlined the “proclamation of the Gospel” as one of the key issues affecting the well-being of the church in India. But what kind of gospel proclamation did the pope have in mind? Not surprisingly, he emphasized that the spreading of the gospel should come through programs for social justice and economic advancement.
The pope stated that “the Church’s mission of evangelization includes energetic and sustained action for justice, peace, and integral human development. Not to assume these tasks would be to betray the work of evangelization; it would be infidelity to the example of Jesus.”
“All who have advanced the dignity and freedom of their brothers and sisters are blessed in the eyes of Christ,” the pope proclaimed. Thus the Indian press appropriately observed: “No one—not even the most conservative and pro status quo member of the church hierarchy—now talks of preaching the good news in the narrow, literal sense of spreading Christianity as a religion.”
A Hindu-Catholic Church?
In an effort to make Catholicism less foreign and more Indian, the church has encouraged a program of adaptation in its worship. Thus, some Catholic priests will read prayers while sitting on the floor as in a Hindu ashram, Vedic mantras may be used in place of Western hymns, and Hindu Nilavilakku (brass oil lamps) may be lit before many functions.
“The idea,” according to one Catholic layman, “is to identify the universal elements in Hinduism and other religions and to incorporate symbols and rituals associated with those into our worship, to complement and support it.” The religious rites and methods of worship in many of Kerala’s churches are a definite mixture of Catholic traditions and Hindu customs.
Where Is the Church Headed?
While in India, the pope, alluding to the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi, advocated that “leaders of all peoples must believe and act on the belief that the solution to the world’s problems lay within the human heart.” He also urged the youth to “follow the teachings of the great sages of yore whose words contain ‘perennial wisdom and truth’ and which will inspire them to march forward in life.”
How different all of this is from what Jesus Christ taught! The central theme of his teaching was the coming Kingdom of God, a world government that would completely eradicate poverty, social injustice, and diseases. (Matthew 9:35) The entire Bible highlights this Kingdom as the only solution to mankind’s problems. Jesus also displayed implicit trust in God’s promise when he said in prayer, “Your word is truth.” (John 17:17) And he urged his followers: “Keep on, then, seeking first the kingdom and his righteousness.”—Matthew 6:33.
What about collaboration with other faiths? The Bible clearly warns true believers: “Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers. For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have?”—2 Corinthians 6:14; Deuteronomy 12:30, 31.
So, then, as the Catholic Church in India moves in what it deems a positive direction—and one that will secure its position here—it is in reality drawing further away from Bible truth. As it does so, however, more and more people are being called upon to make a distinction between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the Catholic Church. In what way?
Presently, more than 7,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout India are single-mindedly upholding the truth of the Bible. They desire to help interested ones appreciate God’s promise of unending peace under his Kingdom rule. And unlike the Catholic Church or other religions, they do not take part in the wars of the nations or political controversies. (Isaiah 2:2-4) If you would like to know why the Witnesses are different and how they are able to conform to the Bible, write and ask the publishers of this journal.
a Kali is a Hindu goddess of destruction.
[Pictures on page 15]
Image of Jesus Christ seated in Hindu yoga position. Written below is the ‘om’ mantra, and below it, the star of David
Image of Mary dressed in sari with tilak (dot) on her forehead