A Missionary Church Goes on Mission

by Michael J.L. La Civita
photos: CNEWA files

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India is overwhelming. A massive subcontinent embracing 800 million people and growing; 22 official states; union territories; and a multitude of ethnic groups, cultures, languages and religions, it is the world’s largest democracy.

India’s poverty is also overwhelming and the government’s attempts to assuage this poverty, inadequate.

The church in India receives much of Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s energy, time, personnel and money. More than 300 of the Association’s 500 child-caring institutions are in India, as are the majority of the sponsored novices and seminarians. But the Catholic Church, in fact all Christian Churches, are missionary churches; a tiny though growing minority in a Hindu nation.

Last Fall, Mrs. Kamini Desai Sanghvi, Catholic Near East’s program coordinator for India, traveled to the missionary dioceses outside of Kerala, the heartland of Indian Christianity.

A Catholic-educated child of Hindu parents, Mrs. Sanghvi traveled to these mission Churches to improve communication between their bishops and the Association and to determine their needs. What she found was a Church finding new ways to adapt in a changing world, a Church clearly living the message of Vatican II.

Mrs. Sanghvi visited the missionary dioceses of Satna, Sagar, Ujjain and Jagdalpar located in the state of Madhya Pradesh, or Middle India; the dioceses of Bijnor and Gorakhpur located in Uttar Pradesh, or North India; the diocese of Chanda in south central India; and the Diocese of Rajkot in Gujarat, western India. Most of these dioceses cover an area larger than the state of Kerala, though with a very small Catholic population.

These Catholics are transplanted Keralites, members of the Syro-Malabar Church, a body that traces its foundation to the Apostle Thomas. Though immigrants, they are well educated; banking, insurance, industry and nursing brought them to these “foreign territories.”

These missionary dioceses were founded to administer to the spiritual needs of the immigrants. However, the Church’s work more often benefits the Hindu majority.

The standard of living in Madhya and Uttar Pradesh is below even that of Kerala, one of India’s poorest states. The villages, said Mrs. Sanghvi, are loosely formed. Families are grouped in several huts. Their lives revolve around seasonal agriculture. In some states, 14 hours of rain (or seven inches a year) is considered “a Godsend.”

“Most of these poor farmers do not own the land,” Ms. Sanghvi remarked. “They simply work the plots owned by the landlord. In certain areas where it has not rained in three years, they plow the fields anyhow – waiting for rain.”

As in the Middle East, water availability is the key to peace and prosperity. The undeveloped condition of Indian villages has its origins in water shortages, not over-population.

Several dioceses have sought funds to bore wells in these villages. Sometimes pipes must be placed 300 to 400 meters below the surface of the earth.

“When I entered a village, I saw only the elderly and a few toddlers. The families were in the fields harvesting. As soon as children learn to run about, they accompany their parents in the fields or tend cattle.

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Tags: India Education Poor/Poverty Village life Syro-Malabar Catholic Church