Lalit Adolphus looks at the challenge faced by missionaries in India from the arrival of the Portuguese colonists to the recent legal wrangles over evangelisation.
WHILE the initial advent oi Christianity in India is linked with the name of St Thomas the Apostle, the Church believed to have been founded by him remained very small.
Until very recent times it also remained largely confined to the Malabar area of South India, The Thomas Christians were not conspicuous for carrying out missionary activity. It was left to European missionaries at the beginning of the colonial era to undertake the real task of evangelisation in India.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to attempt to colonise India. With them came the Jesuits, the most dynamic among them being St Francis Xavier (1506-52), who arrived in India in 1542 and whose zealous missionary activity earned him the title "Apostle of the Indies".
He is believed to huve converted some 700,000 souls during his missionary tours which were not confined to India but included Ceylon and Japan. St Francis is buried in Goa and his tomb is one of the most venerated Christian shrines in Asia.
Other Portuguese missionaries continued the work of proselytisation with the support of the Portuguese government in Goa, which became the headquarters of Roman Catholic missionary effort. Goa was created an archbishopric in 1557 and its incumbent was granted the title "Patriarch of the East".
The Portuguese government played a key role in the initial history of the Roman Catholic Church in India because of the padroado or royal patronage granted to Portugal at the beginning of the 16th century by Pope Alexander VI, who had more or less divided the world between Spain and Portugal, the former receiving the right to colonise all newly discovered countries in the western hemisphere and the latter in the eastern.
The rights conferred under the padroado. as interpreted by the Portuguese, included the right to nominate all bishops in the East.
It soon became obvious that it was beyond the resources of the Portuguese government to discharge such a heavy responsibility. Conflicts between Portugal and the Holy See were inevitable and led in the 19th century to the Goan Schism which lasted well into the present century.
In 1637 the Propaganda in Rome consecrated a Goan Indian as Vicar Apostolic for the nonPortuguese parts of India. Few of his successors were. however, Indian.
It was not until 1886 that Pope Leo XIII created a regular hierarchy for India. The first Indian bishops appointed by him were, however, those for the Uniat branch of the Thomas Christians.
Most of the Latin-rite bishops were initially European, though not confined to a single nationality. With the final conquest of most of India by the British and the spread of the English language which became the official language of India in the middle of the 19th century, it became necessary for most missionaries to be English-speaking. • This call was answered by Ireland which sent large numbers of priests, both secular and religious, and nuns to India. Many bishops in India in the first decades of the 20th century were Irish. Some were English, the best known among them being Thomas Roberts. Si, who was sent out to India as Archbishop of Bombay in 1937.
It was Archbishop Roberts who was responsible for negotiating the end of the padroado and who was instrumental in expediting the process of "Indianisation" of the hierarchy.
He saw clearly that the independence of India was only a few years off and he had no doubt about the need for the Church to be led by Indian bishops.
To set a good example he voluntarily vacated his own metropolitan see to make room for his Indian auxiliary Valerian Ciracias who became the first Asian Cardinal soon after becoming the first Indian Archbishop of Bombay.
Today almost all the 'bishops of India — totalling 101 and including many Archbishops and two Cardinals — are Indian. The present chairman of the Indian Bishops' Conference is the muchrespected Cardinal Lawrence Picachy, Archbishop of Calcutta.
The Roman Catholic Church is the largest Christian Church in India — but it only embraces some two per cent of India's population of 650 million.
In spite of its small size, it has played a key role in the life of the country. Its educational and medical work has won it great acclaim. Upper Class Hindus in India prefer to send their children to Catholic schools and convents.
Catholic colleges such as St Xavier's, Bombay, are among the most highly regarded educational institutions in the country. In works of charity the Catholics have always played a leading part. One only has to think of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her Missionaries of Charity.
And yet the Catholics — and Protestants — were the target of the recent Freedom of Religion Bills in India.
If the bill had been passed, the work of evangelisation would virtually have come to a standstill because technically every conversion could have become the object of police investigation — in order to ascertain whether or not it was the result of "force, fraud or inducement", phrases defined rather conveniently by the framers of the bill to embrace the threat of divine displeasure (force) or the promise of salvation (inducement) NEXT WEEK: the promise of the future for Indian Christians.