Abp Thomas Menamparampil
Archbishop Emeritus of Guwahati
What is the future of Jesus Christ in the Indian Sub-continent, with your experience of over 30 years as a missionary bishop in the Northeast?
I do not claim to be a prophet, but I take seriously Jesus’ promise to be with His disciples till the end of time. Where He is present, wonders continue to take place. Where He is least wanted, there He is most needed. Undoubtedly, there is a certain amount of pessimism in the air with a Majoritarian Government pushing it carefully planned agenda in every sphere of our collective existence. Many of us are uninformed of the details and unperceptive about the subtle ways the Saffron strategy is being advanced. But it is all pervasive and moves forward with a steady and sure step. Those who are immediately affected realize that the path to democratic solutions to their anxieties are growing narrower in a changed atmosphere: there is less and less possibility of timely intervention of the Administration, security arrangements, legal protection, Judicial assistance. The RSS effort is not merely to keep the BJP in power, but to make sure that whatever party comes to power, it cannot stay in power without maintaining a Saffron bias, and that the society itself is Saffron soaked. The RSS-VHP success so far has been beyond their wildest expectations.
A change of trend will come in due time, not through the brave resistance of a micro-minority called Christians, but primarily through fissures within the framework of ‘Hindu solidarity’ itself…along caste, community, region, leadership. For Hindutva’s key players, the undeclared foundation of their core beliefs is “fragmentation”: sharp division along caste lines. Further, provoking hostility is central to the agenda. Savarkar frankly admitted, they needed an “enemy” to keep them together: Pakistan, Muslims, Christian convert-makers, secularists! Apart from programmes of hostility and exclusion, they are not throwing up some soul-inspiring themes or launching some programmes of social action. After all, Sanatana Dharma cannot be imprisoned within the confines of mere cow-vigilantism and rabble-rousing.
It is over this matter that the “Thinking Element” in the Indian society needs to meet and ask themselves wherein India’s true greatness lies. A re-discovery of the inner resources of our civilization and the true nature of our collective “identity” at a deeper level… that is a pilgrimage to which all of us Indians are invited. In this endeavour, can we as Christians, throw a bit of light on the way? Jesus said, you are the ‘salt of the earth and the light of the world.’ This is not a qualification to make us feel proud, it is Mission in whose behalf we need to exert ourselves. Can this Mission come alive in our lives? Yes, there is a future for Jesus and His message on this sub-continent. It is He who has given us this Vocation: to open out a path to Greatness for India in an evangelical way. Let us be faithful.
What is your feeling about Christian missionary work in Northeast, when you look back?
There is one thing I must frankly confess: every day of my missionary life, 38 years as a bishop, 54 years as a priest, 64 years as a religious, has been an exciting experience. I’ll or well, malaria or malicious opposition, success or failure, there was never a dull day. I can only thank God and those who helped me all along the way. The young Church in Northeast India has grown: we have moved from primary schools to two Catholic Universities, from dispensaries to a network of hospitals, from being a mission to a Church that sends out missionaries to Mongolia, Mozambique, Hawai, Sudan, and Genoa.
There are a few things I have learnt over the long years as a missionary, often from my own mistakes: that your worst opponent can become your best supporter, if he only knows that you respect him as a friend; that every good work generates resources for its own sustenance, as long it remains truly a “good” work; that the moment you reach the point of despair is the moment just before your greatest achievement, if only you trust in the Lord and never give up; the dullest days are the most rewarding, the most painful days the most exciting; that you spoil a good work by making it a tool for self-promotion or self-projection, like the construction of showy buildings or the launching of even great initiatives. Every day I ought to look at my work as a beginner; I should remain a permanent learner. Even after I have retired, I should not lose a single minute in doing some beneficial work.
Why is that the caste mentality is so inbuilt in the Indian mind which stands against a humanism which Christ revealed to humanity?
For Ambedkar, the caste hierarchy is the greatest evil in the human order of things. For Mahatma Gandhi, all unfairness must be removed, but the caste system itself is a strength. For anthropologists, the caste-system gives everyone an identity and consequently a sense of belonging. For politicians, the caste-system is a tool for building up vote-banks. For many Indians, it is a way of locating an individual in society and assigning him the rank he deserves.
Fortunately today, the centuries old injustice associated with the caste-system is extremely clear to the world at large. In spite of that, why does it persist in the mind of Indians? To understand this we need to explore the “collective psyche of communities” more profoundly. Even experts in constitutional law and social sciences may not be equally at home addressing the “collective unconscious” (Carl Jung) of societies, civilizations. We need people who can come on that wavelength with a persuasive language. The reputed scholar Francis Fukuyama would argue that the Catholic Church has that ability, which she clearly manifested in the West in the post-Romantimes integrating various tribes and ethnic groups.
You have been continuously mediating between different ethnic groups, what is its relevance to the overall mission of the Church?
It is true that our Ecumenical peace-team helped different tribal communities in conflict at least 10-12 times during the last 25 years. We do not claim to have brought peace, but at least we were able to help. The Berlin-based Berghof Peace Foundation holds our Peace model as one of the 50 world models worthy of attention. During the Extraordinary Mission month of October this year, our peace effort was held up for attention in every Church in Germany with posters, hand-outs, and videos. I was asked to speak of it at dozens of places, to my own embarrassment. There was intense attention when I spoke of the need of trying to look at issues from our opponents’ point of view, the art of reducing collective anger, and healing of historic memories.
I am only a missionary. I was dragged into peace-making efforts by mere chance. Many of my communities were seriously affected by violence, and I was forced to venture into that field with my Ecumenical friends by the situation. Then I experientially discovered how central it is to our Christian message itself.
How important is inculturation in missionary activities of the Church, how did you practice it in your apostolate? Do you think the Church has forgotten inculturation? Should the Church rethink its missionary mandate?
Understanding at depth the culture of the community to which we are offering the Gospel is of the greatest importance to be an effective missionary. It does not consist merely in praising some expressions of the culture, like art, hand-products or symbolisms. It rather consists in understanding a community’s worldviews, mentality, attitudes, value-system from within. When I give a three-day conference on evangelization, I speak on evangelization itself for one day and on culture for two days. Our approach to culture is very decisive in communicating. It shows our respect for the identity and the genius of a community. It is less of a technique than a mental orientation.
The sooner the community feels that you have become one of them, that you “BELONG” to them, the earlier they respond to your initiatives. Christ became a human being, a Jew, a Galilean and a Nazarene. A missionary makes himself a Khasi, Garo, Bodo, Adivasi, Naga, Assamese as he/she feels called. It is ecstatic to be what you choose to be! It is not so much that we have forgotten Inculturation as we are busy in mutual accusation. We have chosen “not to belong” to each other even within the Church; hence the trouble, hence the danger of non-performance. That is the tragedy of the day;
As a believer from the St Thomas Christian heritage and a very successful bishop in the Northeast what is your assessment of the future of the Church in India, especially when India is in the grip of Hindu fundamentalism and internal fights in the traditional Church?
I am no more than an “Ordinary Missionary” (OM). That glory is sufficient for me. And referring to St Thomas heritage, I consider that it consists precisely in: i.) intense missionary zeal, ii.)and a “universal” outlook. Thomas emptied himself of his own culture and every form of confining outlook to reach out further than any other apostles. I am proud to have grown up in a very traditional St Thomas Christian family and among persons and Church leaders with similar convictions, and I never understood our heritage to be anything less than ‘Universal.” We “BELONG” to all and we have a mission to all. Every form of divisive thinking is extremely painful from this point of view, whether it be regional, laity-clergy, clergy-hierarchy, religious-hierarchy, one ritual form and another.
If we could be divided when we were mostly confined within a small area, think of what can happen when the same community is scattered over every Continent in increasing numbers…especially with the passage of time, and especially if we allow personality-clashes and vested interests decide issues! Unfortunately today, even Catholic media can’t resist populist views. Negative news, of course, win more attention…but the Christian community is not benefitted.
Churches that ‘emerge’ on the world scene for the first time, growing beyond the stage of mere self-preservation and practical isolation, will have to go through a process of maturing in order to establish its adulthood. There can be the temptation to a display of self-importance. Again, the agonies the Christian community went through in the period of Reformation and Enlightenment catch up with those Churches when the majority of the laity become educated. An Age of Questioning is inevitable. It creates a context when clerical and hierarchical prominence is challenged, their possessions questioned, their authority debated. Recent Secularisation trends have taken matters much further in certain parts of the world, where the basic tenets of Christian tradition are questioned, and not rarely religious Faith itself rejected.
If our younger generation has not reached such a point, increasing number of them will be living in societies that have done so, especially in the Western world. In such a context, mere ritual fervour holds out nothing inspiring. Where religious faith itself is being rejected, can we idolize a mere ritual tradition? Having said this, I would not like to over-press my point. I am likely to be misunderstood. However, I would like to suggest that this perspective cannot be ignored in our times when critics, dissenters and defaulters are on the rise and departures are increasing. The second and third generation Indians in the West belong totally to another world. Imposers of rigidity and archaisms may be pointing to a path of decline. Flexibility, adaptability and sensitivity to changing moods will help us to keep the flock together. Evangelical persuasion is different from ritual adherence.
As the advance of Hindutva is alarming today, there is a growing awareness among the top leaders that they will have to bend to a great extent if they wish to go beyond the Hindi belt. They are doing so in many places. Our dialogue skills taken to certain intellectual heights, with also a deep sense of BELONGING, will achieve much more than continuous contention. If a measure of divisive spirit run in their genes as it does in ours, so does a longing for national unity, collective pride and common achievement. Yes, the Lord will not abandon us if we work on the cause for togetherness.