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 Global Perspective

September 17, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 25

global perspective
Janina Gomes is a freelance contributer to an Italian news agency and works for chambers of commerce and other business organizations. She also contributes regularly to the "Speaking Tree", a column of philosophy and religion in the national daily, The Times of India.



None of the people I spoke with suggested Catholics retreat into enclaves behind religious walls. They see a need to live their Catholicism actively, engaged with India, the nation and culture.

India's Christian identity

By Janina Gomes

MUMBAI, India -- Conversations I have had among Catholic friends and acquaintances convinces me that Indian Catholics want to live their Catholicism more effectively. Though they differ in specifics, all seem to agree that means Catholics need to insert themselves into the life of our nation and society.

Even though some would like to claim that Christianity is a relatively new entrant into India, which has a long tradition of ancient religious history, in fact, Christianity has been in India nearly as long has there has been Christianity. Tradition tells us St. Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity here almost 2000 years ago.

Christians in India constitute just 2 per cent of the population, and through their educational, health and social service work, they have contributed to the development of post-independent India significantly. In the last 15 years, the rise of fundamentalist groups, especially among the Hindu majority, would seem to threaten Christians and their sense of identity in India. But as many Catholics in urban India explain, this is not the case. They are quite comfortable and feel that no matter what religion one belongs to one can feel quite at home in the country.

Ernest Fernandes, a professor of business ethics in several leading management institutes, says that in cosmopolitan Mumbai, he has never felt that he was from a minority community. Though, he says he cannot speak for the Catholics who live in small towns, like Akola in Maharahstra or Bhatinda in Punjab, by and large he has felt the same sense of being accepted no matter what part of India he has traveled to.

Robin D'Souza, cost accountant for the shipping agency J.N. Baxi, faults some Catholics for clinging to a separate identity. In Goa, for instance, that had 450 years of colonization by the Portuguese, Catholics constitute about 30 percent of the population and have more distinct style of dress, language and way of life. Catholics in many other urban settings would have similar experiences. People in these groups who clinging to their separate identity could pose problems with the rise of fundamentalist forces in the country.

This is why, he said, many Catholics who think they would feel more at home in countries like Canada, New Zealand and Australia, want to flee the country rather than stay back and do something about it.

Larry D'Souza, executive director of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which represents large and medium industry as well as multinationals in Mumbai, points out that there are different streams of Christianity. One he calls the rural stream, which has recently emerged. It has indigenous forms of worship and language, and in it more Indian cultural roots find expression.

The urbanized stream, on the other hand, is to a large extent influenced by European traditions. Given this, he believes that in the business environment of urban India, being a Christian could be an advantage. In business circles, he said, people find Christians more honest, less parochial and therefore more trustworthy. That is why there are so many Catholic professionals in Mumbai. Most Catholics shy away from civil leadership and politics, Larry D'Souza said, because of the difficulties involved campaigning as a minority candidate.

He adds, however that the large number of people who do hold positions of civil and political power were educated in Catholic institutions and thus are imbued with Christian values. This he sees as positive for Catholics.

Ernest Fernandes said he would like to see the Christian community integrate itself much more into political, business and professional life. "If Christians do not witness to their faith in public life, to whom would they witnessing? They cannot witness to themselves," he said.

Fernandes said that though Catholics are by and large law abiding, the image they project is as a community that does not involve itself in public causes easily. The problem is compounded by the fact that the representation of Catholics in the civil services is falling as the younger generation of Catholics aim for careers in private professions.

He finds some encouraging developments. India's Chief Election Commissioner, Lyngdoh, who has recently been awarded the Magsaysay award for public service, is an admiriable Christian role model, he said. He also likes the idea of encouraging Catholic candidates not to compete against each other, and he applauded efforts to conscientize Christians about their public duties by inviting candidates before elections to address through the Basic Christian Communities.

But, he acknowledges that these instances are still too rare.

Robin D'Souza, too, thinks it is important that Catholics get over their ghetto mentality. He suggests that the forming of Basic Christian Communities might be perceived by some Hindus as a threat and as a ganging up of Christians. It would be more advisable, he said, to form Basic Human Communities that are inclusive.

Larry D'Souza believes that as it is, in an urban conglomeration, with the constant flow and movement of people, it is difficult to create a community, even in a parish. In a city like Mumbai, the large scale movement of Catholics out from certain suburbs like Bandra and Dadar to the north is dissolving old community bonds. He also feels that the present structure of Basic Christian Communities, which are organized by geography, are trying to create community in very unnatural circumstances. People who live in close proximity may actually have little in common. It would be better, he thinks, to organize communities around objectives, interests and ideas: for instance, bible study groups for those interested in deepening their knowledge of scripture, or action groups for those interested in helping the poor.

While Fernandes said one important way of strengthening the Catholic Community in India is for the laity to be more proactive and take more initiative, Robin D'Souza emphasized the importance of building relationships that sustain a community.

None of the people I spoke with suggested Catholics retreat into enclaves behind religious walls. They see a need to live their Catholicism actively, engaged with India, the nation and culture.

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