Symbols of Faith

text and photos by Richard C. Walker

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Dawn gently rolls back the sleepy solitude of the tropical night. Thin shafts of light glisten and play upon the broad fronds of coconut trees rustling and shimmering in the early morning breeze. From the vantage point of the hill overlooking the village, the effect is not unlike that of a vast sea of green, rhythmically swelling and falling in a show of light and darkness. Below, the village is muted in the blue and indigo shadows of early morning. Mothers and daughters, dressed in calico cloth and lace mantillas scented with hibiscus and jasmine, walk with husbands and sons wearing freshly starched white shirts. They follow the red clay road past the paddy fields to the clearing at the end of the village. There, standing out like a beckoning lighthouse against the Indian jungle splendor is the radiant whitewashed facade of the early 16th century Church.

The village is in Goa, a state on India’s west coast, where life has been carefully orchestrated for centuries. The elements of family, nature and trust in God’s providence form the harmonious balance that results in the symphony of life’s purpose.

The story of Goa’s Catholics is a tale of the past, continually reborn and witnessed in the beliefs and symbols of today’s faithful. As the whitewashed facade of the village church radiates the faith of the community of believers, other symbols stand in profusion throughout the Goan milieu, declaring the same message. Large alabaster crosses adorn the courtyards and fields of rich and poor, while small grottoes and shrines are found in every village for evening’s common prayer. Frescoes depicting the Virgin or a favorite saint stand half-blackened by devotees’ candles near bus stops for morning offerings by the faithful on their way to work. Throughout the marketplace crosses are garlanded with marigolds by village women coming to see the sea’s fresh bounty or the land’s harvest. A man genuflects before an icon nailed to a tree along the main boulevard, while another says a prayer in front of a monument by the sea. A rosary is left in the hand of a statue by a petitioning pilgrim, the prow of a fishing boat boasts that “God is Love” (on the other side, “Joy to the Fish”), and the spare tire covering on a motor scooter is adorned with the image of Christ. Everywhere one looks the gestures and symbols of belief are in evidence. The invisible gift of faith is made abundantly visible, and the invitation to give thanks and praise is open to all.

The church in India is truly Catholic. Amidst its Eastern environment the Latin rite thrives. The gift of faith was planted in Goa by Portuguese missionaries during the 16th century. Because of the Portuguese evangelization the Catholics of Goa are Latin rite. Other missionaries, also from Europe, brought the Latin rite to different areas of India where today it flourishes alongside the Malankara and Malabar rites.

To discover the roots of Goan Christianity is to journey through history to the 16th century to the Rome of the East, the golden city of Old Goa.

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