A Salute to the laity in India

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Dr. John Dayal

Aug 18, 2008, 2:47:31 PM8/18/08
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A Salute to the Indian Laity
I write this, possibly my last missive as the National President of
the All India Catholic Union in its 89th Year, on 9th July 2008 from
the Pastoral Centre in Kanjimendi in the Kandhamal forest plateau of
Orissa’s Cuttack Bhubaneswar Diocese. I had come here to help train
the Laity to depose before the Justice Basudev Panigrahi Commission
which is probing the anti Christian violence that shook the region
during Christmas 2007, leaving in its wake over a hundred Churches
and institutions destroyed, women raped and molested, several thousand
rendered homeless and at least five persons dead of wounds inflicted
by the marauding gangs of the Hindutva Sangh Parivar that displaced
Constitutional governance with the rule of the mob between 24 and 27
December 2007. I was sort of trapped in the pastoral centre as a round
of fresh violence broke out with followers of Vishwa Hindu Parishad
man Lakshmanananda Saraswati, a man with murder on his police
record, once again attacking three Church institutions, including an
orphanage and the blocking all roads in this hill terrain to show they
are the real rulers.
It could be traumatic, and not many Church or lay leaders even from
Orissa want to come to the hills where their brothers and sisters had
sought shelter in the biting chill that December, and where in fact
two baby boys were born in charismatic re-enactment of modern
nativity. Among the exception is Archbishop Raphael Cheenath who has
shown a rare and legendary love for his Laity, in fact for Christians
of all denominations, and several of his priests and nuns and
catechists. The biggest exceptions are the Catholics, amongst the
poorest of the poor, Dalits most of them who refuse to disown their
faith, and have stood up to privations and threats not known to
Christians elsewhere in the country.
This is a Laity which is not known to many in the world’s Catholic
Leadership, and perhaps not even to many in the Indian hierarchy
outside of the central tribal belt of the country. This is a Laity far
removed from the one we are familiar with in New Delhi, Calcutta,
Jaipur, Kanpur, Gorakhpur, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai, Goa, Pondicherry,
Madurai, Hyderabad, Shillong and Bangalore.
This is the Laity it has been my privilege to know and to get to love
in the twelve years I have been in a position of some leadership in
the venerable Catholic Union and some other Church structures, first
as the National Secretary for Public affairs in the presidency of the
lovable Railways engineer and trainer Norbert D Souza, then four years
as National Vice President to India’s first woman Catholic Leader, the
scholar and entrepreneur Dr Maria Emelia Menezes, and for four years
as the National President of the AICU with the venerable George
Menezes ever present as a precept and Guru at a most tumultuous time
in the life of the nation, the Church and the community. I had
travelled for almost four decades as a Journalist and writer across
the nation and around the globe, but my travels these twelve years in
the interiors of the Indian Church, literally and figuratively, opened
my eyes to a universe which perhaps the Church Fathers who went from
India to Rome for the Second Vatican Council, and came back perhaps
not fully acquainted with the momentous decisions taken there, were
not ready to acknowledge. This was a world beyond the struggle of
Rites, though that issue too raises many important questions for the
Catholic Union, among them the critical one of how to harness the
tremendous energies not just of the Syro Malankara Catholic
Association in Kerala and the Syro Malabar Dioceses, but of the Syro
Catholic Diaspora in north India and in the Gulf and the United
states. Questions in Kandhamal and Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and
Udaipur, Jhabua and Indore range from issues of food and employment to
scholarships and human dignity, the prevention of exploitation of
migrant women, to understanding an acculturated Church that is far
away from the brahminical trappings which many Priests and a few
bishops confuse for an `Indian Church.’ Similarly travels in the north
east, a few of them with Dr Menezes, introduced us to the complexity
of Identity and Ethnicity, and a Church that must grapple with
conflicting identities that often sunder one of the most beautiful
people on the planet. Questions are posed of deep canonical
interpretation of the boundaries of race and ethnicity and the
confines of Dioceses and political. In Jammu one comes across
untouchability in society so deep as to still harbor two sets of tea
cups in the roadside stall and an uncaring bureaucracy and political
leadership that use terms of hate which are immoral and illegal in
free India. In deep south, in Madurai, the historic People’s Tribunal
on Dalit Christians brings home the age old chasm that still wounds
the Church – and which burst forth with such ugly outpouring of venom
and blood in Eravayur which is all Tamil despite its French buildings,
and which harbours the south’s most heinous secret – that caste still
persists in the Church, in the Catholic Church, in the Catholic clergy
and the Catholic Laity and will not be expurgated in haste.
These are traumatic experiences and wounded memories in the real
sense, even as the stories of individual courage and struggles across
the nation recur to remind me of the innate strength of the human
spirit in which really resides the power of the Holy Spirit which
guides us in our most nightmarish moment.
How do we as Church and as India’s, perhaps Asia’s, most powerful and
certainly the largest, Lay organisation grope and grapple with it in
coming years is the question that faces us and challenges our moral
fibre, our intellect and our human strength, as it strains our limited
resources. Quoting Canon law will not do, and selective borrowing from
Vatican Council Documents will not be forgiven. Their spirit will have
to be imbued, and the battle for Civil Society waged with vigour. We
need to understand that this is a world beyond the Seven Steps
teachings of many Laity Commissions of the Church, or even the
pedestrian management skills sought maybe some others to be paraded as
training. This requires a holistic approach, and multi discipline
training of Laity in which the Word of God is seen and interpreted in
management and leadership formation, in Human resource development,
personal skills, courage, humanity and compassion, and in an
understanding the Constitution of India and of the real fruits of
globalization, not just employment potential, but the possibility of
tapping universal resources in the defence, protection and nurturing
of human dignity and of the freedom of faith which must always
underpin the building of a modern India. All India Catholic Union must
play its critical part in this Pentecost.
As I demit office as National President, I do so in the understanding
of my own failures in meeting even a little of this vast challenge. It
does generate humility. I did try. None the less, I take solace that
the experiences and understanding, the learning curve were
opportunities God gave me. I thank the Lord for that.
I also thank the Lord for the many in the Hierarchy who have inspired
me and helped me keep my faith in the overall leadership of the
Church, brave Sisters and Brothers and Fathers. It was as a Catholic
Union functionary that it was my privilege to meet two saints of our
times, John Paul II and Teresa of Calcutta. I cherish that memory.
Al this was possible because of the love of leaders of the Catholic
Union across the country, and of the many office-bearers with whom I
had the honour to work all these twelve years and more. In not naming
them individually, I honour them all. God bless them and their
families and keep them in the palm of his hand. Of course I thank
Mercy, my wife, whose prayers, support and, I daresay, love, upheld me
at all times.
God bless the all India Catholic Union

God bless India
John Dayal
National President 2004-2008, AICU
Kandhamal, Orissa, 10th July 2008

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