13 December 2016
Syro-Malankara Bishop Jacob Barnabas Aerath and Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, pose with village children during a visit to northeast India in late November. (photo: John E. Kozar)
CNEWA’s president Msgr. John E. Kozar recently completed a pastoral visit to northern India, and it’s attracted some attention in the Catholic press.
From Catholic News Service:
In remote northeastern India, where Christianity is largely unknown, members of two Eastern Catholic churches are taking people on a journey of faith simply by living with them.
Priests, nuns and laypeople are living in mud-and-dung huts among tribal Indians, “reaching the unreached,” said Msgr. John E. Kozar, president of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which supports Eastern churches in India and other areas.
Msgr. Kozar spoke to Catholic News Service after returning from a recent trip to northeastern India. He described remote areas of jungle, forest, rolling hills and tea estates, where it is not unusual for people to have family members trampled to death by elephants.
Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics are “doing some wonderful evangelization work there” in a delicate situation, he said.
Msgr. Kozar asked not to specify the towns he visited. Although the Indian government says it accepts all religions, hardline Hindu nationalists have attacked Christians when they thought they were trying to convert people.
India’s most-Catholic state is Kerala, but Msgr. Kozar said the Eastern Catholics he visited are “breaking the Kerala model of building, building, building ... it’s living with the people; letting them come to know Jesus” by getting to know the missionaries who live with them.
“The sisters and the priests — the greatest witness that happens is they live” in the same conditions as the tribal people, inviting them “to get to know them, to get to know how they pray.”
He said there is no presumption that anything will happen, but there is an attitude of “we’re here, showing who we are.”
In these situations, people “draw closer to Jesus,” he told CNS. They are learning stories about the faith.
“This plays out in such a wholesome, beautiful way. ... You’re taking people who had no affiliation ... (but) they have this yearning to relate to a higher power,” he said, noting that some people who live with these missionaries are now preparing for baptism.
Ethnic Mishing children are seen in northeast India, where members of two Eastern Catholic churches are taking people on a journey of faith simply by living with them.
(photo: John E. Kozar)
The tribal languages are initially a barrier, Msgr. Kozar said. “There aren’t even textbooks to learn these languages.”
He noted that at one stop on his 20 November-2 December visit, he spoke in English, and translations included Bengali, Malayalam and the local language.
Religious are making portions of the Bible available in local languages and are beginning to train catechists, he said. This is especially challenging because many villages have no school, or people can only attend school for about five years, so they would not even have a middle-school education.
Despite all these obstacles, the missionaries are “trying to bring good news of Jesus where he has never been known.”
The churches “have to resist the temptation to build institutions,” he said. “This is about giving witness by living with the people.”
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church traces its roots to St. Thomas the Apostle. The Syro-Malankara Church was formerly a faction of the Jacobite Church, an Orthodox group in India, but reunited with the Holy See in 1930. Both are among 22 Eastern Catholic churches that originated in Eastern Europe, Asia or Africa. India also has a Latin-rite Catholic Church.
The trip was rich in personal encounters, as Catholic News Agency noted:
Msgr. Kozar recalled that in several of the villages they visited, “we were very warmly” embraced and frequently welcomed with dances and songs, “signs of great love and respect.”
“In some instances I was probably the first person with white skin to ever visit them,” he said, noting that the terrain in the remote tribal areas they visited is rough enough that people are still at risk of attacks by wild animals.
As an example, Msgr. Kozar said that during their trip one woman was mauled to death by a wild tiger, while a man was trampled by a herd of elephants that “poured out of a tea estate and trampled a poor three-wheeled jitney driver.”
“This is a very common occurrence,” Kozar said, noting that he met several people who had lost loved ones in similar incidents. The landscape, he added, “varies from jungle, to forest, to rolling tea estates to plains cultivating rice in paddies.”
He pointed to the “impressive” catechetical work that lay people, both indigenous and from the Syro-Malankara Church, do in the tribal areas.
Since it’s still early on in their formation, courses deal largely with basic concepts of God, Jesus and Mary, teaching the people simple prayers and bible passages, as well as the concept of what it means to pray.
“The people are responding wonderfully and welcomed us with religious singing and even did a religious enactment of the Prodigal Son in their tribal language,” Kozar said, explaining that they are likely on a two-year program to be baptized.
He stressed that there’s no hurry, and it could even take up to a year of more after their baptism before the people are fully introduced to the Eucharist. In this sense, he said the Syro-Malankara Church “is doing the evangelization in a most responsible way and I think in a durable way.”
At one event 575 tribal people came together to participate in a religious ceremony and cornerstone laying for a new Church, he said, noting that they came from different villages and tribes in the area, some of whom traveled 7 hours by truck or jitney (a small bus), or walked several miles on foot simply to welcome the delegation and be present for the event.
During the celebration, “many tribes shared their cultures with each other by dressing in their native handmade woven skirts and performed their ritual dances, perhaps for the first time shared with other tribes.”
“This was in itself probably an historic event for them,” he said, noting that “it was the Church which brought them together.”
Read more at CNA’s website.
Sisters and tribal women walk in a small village in northeast India. (photo: John E. Kozar)
Tags: India Catholic Indian Catholics Evangelization