Wow. This is an incredible country.
Before coming here I didn’t know India. It was far, strange. They played cricket. And I wasn’t quite sure what language they spoke.
Well it has taken me some time to try to put things straight and understand the incredible differences this country has from anything I know.
First for a few facts. Hinduism is the main religion in India (and not a language). It has 33 million gods.
One of the main languages is Hindi and it has a weird alphabet. But other places in the country have not only another languages but also a totally different alphabet. Telugu for example is the first and often the only language for over 80 million people. Their bubbly looking alphabet is composed of 54 letters. Then if you move down south there are again different languages and alphabets.
English is considered as the lingua franca that anybody who wants a future will have to learn. So is Hindi.
Therefore educated people will most probably talk and write in at least three languages, with possibly 3 different alphabets. I tried learning Russian for one year. Different alphabets are a nightmare. In India it is part of their culture.
But I think that one of the most striking differences is religion.
We are fortunate to be able to spend a few weeks in India. And we have the blessing to stay a full month in a little village with 250 families.
The first thing which strikes the traveller is the multitude of temples and places of prayer. Some are no bigger than a shoe box. Others are impressive architectural feats. Each shop has a little oratory to some god or other. When someone goes by a temple he will show a sigh of respect. In Udaipur it seemed as if every other house was an temple to some god. All had bright colours, flowers, incense.
In the roads there always was some sort of procession. Dancing, chanting, always very loud.
But as time went by I realised that is was not just some show, it is a way of living. Religion is part of every day life, of every moment. I saw a shop owner perform a complicated ritual, stick the incense sticks in the wall, and then proceed to open his little shop.
It seems that if you don’t understand religiosity in India you don’t understand India.
Now what is Catholicism in India? We found out in the little village of Bhinamapally.
This village has 250 families which settled in 1919. They were all Catholics from the same caste. Today they are all still Catholics. And they live their faith in the Indian way. It permeates everything. Their houses, their attitudes, their feasts, the rhythm of their day, everything.
Living here is like going on a trip through time and landing in French Vendée prior to the French revolution, or in England prior to King Henry VIII. When we drive or walk through these places in France and England today we see shrines, churches, statues. But they are old and too often only part in history. Today new buildings are shopping malls and billboards.
But here in Bhinamapally we can live today what it was like back then in Europe. Not a house is built without heavy references to religion. Crosses are engraved in the walls, statues are there, pictures of Jesus, Mary or other saints are everywhere to be seen.
But faith is also expressed through prayers. Every evening at 5:30 pm there is the children’s rosary. Over a hundred people attend. In the evenings at 7:30 pm some villagers meet somewhere in the village, different every time, and will recite a rosary all together. A good 50 people attend.
Morning is early. Before 5:30 am, the bells send their call in the dark. Then religious music booms through the whole village and it is followed on the same loudspeakers by the gospel reading of the day and some morning prayers. In this country the Muslims are not the only ones to wake their brethren in the morning! Mass is at 6:30 am.
Prayers are also part of every project and aspect of life. During our stay new bore wells were being dug. The priest was called upon to bless the drilling equipment, the hole and the whole project. Coconuts were broken, incense burnt, everything was put in the hands of God
This village alone, over the last 90 years, has seen 20 priestly vocations and has provided 40 nuns.
The level of religiosity you find in this village every day is what you would find during a retreat or some great catholic gathering back where I come from. But here it never ends. It is life.
One village close by has a small Catholic community. The village is largely Hindu, there is a little mosque, but there are also 5 Catholic families. They have converted recently through the example of a lone family, the first Catholics in the village. Now the priest from Bhinamapally comes on Saturdays to celebrate mass, he also comes to teach catechism when the field work is less intense. A son of one of the families is in the seminary, training to be a priest.
This community, though small, is building their own church, to have a place to worship and celebrate mass. They are building the Church with their own hands, donating their time and labour. The only investment is for the materials. Today the Church is nearly standing. They have paused for lack of funds, and all they need is roughly 3000 euros.
Catholics have also a very practical impact. They run the school, the dispensary, invite a doctor to come twice a month, provide filtered water and many other things we discover as time goes by.
Here I have discovered and touched the real work that missionaries have carried out and still carry out. They care first and foremost for the poor of God. They help all those they can. The school in this village is relatively cheap and considered as one of the best in these areas. Though run by nuns and teaching the Catholic faith it is sought after by the Hindus of the surrounding villages. All are welcome. There is no discrimination on religious grounds and this is most common in all the schools, colleges, hospitals run by Catholics all round the country.
Does the Church try to convert everyone? No. It tries to serve the poor. But people see how missionaries live, seek where their joy comes from. Some will ask to join the Church. After two years of teaching, if they wish they will be baptised.
But what does Catholicism bring to the people? It brings freedom from the world, which Buddhism proposes, a sense of the divine which Hinduism excels at, but with joy, hope and a personal relationship with Christ. For Indian spirituality it is, when understood as here in Bhinamapally, a glimpse into the fulfilment of religion.
Hundreds of years ago Catholic missionaries have brought to India the joy of the Catholic faith, the freshness of the Good News, the love for the poor and the sense of service pushed to heroic levels.
In return India has preserved the vibrant faith of our forefathers, and through its many vocations is bringing it back to the world.