Holy Thursday, Indian Style
Archbishop Emeritus of Nagpur, India
I think perhaps I need to give you some background so that you might understand my liturgical inculturation in the village of Peti Chua in central India where I now undertake pastoral ministry.
I was ordained bishop in 1964 at the Eucharistic Congress in Bombay (Mumbai). I was thirty-four and then the youngest bishop in the church. I was ordained priest in 1956 at Propaganda Fide in Rome where I did my theology studies. My classmates and I determined that we were going to be "peoples' priests" ["sacerdotus populi"] and that became our motto, somewhat to the consternation of our professors and mentors. That commitment to being for and with people at the grass roots has been the purpose of my life.
I was coadjutor bishop of Jabalpur in central India and then bishop there. In 1975 I went to Nagpur as archbishop. I continued to be concerned that all our resources be put into people not into traditional brick and mortar projects which are the progeny of so many priests and bishops. I worked hard at the establishment of basic human communities, which I saw as essential for our multi-religious country. In 1981 I helped to establish twelve village communities where priests and religious volunteered to be with the people, coming without any programmes or projects, available to help the people to help themselves.
In 1994, because of failing health, I received the help of an auxiliary bishop and gave over the administration of the archdiocese to him. I moved to the diocesan seminary where I began to teach church history, provide a pastoral workshop for deacons, and work with postulants, novices, and juniors in religious communities mostly in and around formation issues. My approach to these potential church leaders continues to be the participation of people in any projects undertaken, any causes they monitor.
I also determined to undertake weekend ministry as any priest in my situation would do and travelled to various parts of the diocese for Sundays and holydays. It was a great gift to be with these people who have been so much in my heart all the years I was required to be involved in international and national concerns, as well as my own diocese's needs, at administrative levels.
(In 1998, when I felt that even with the aid of an auxiliary I could not do the work I felt I should be doing as the resident bishop, I submitted my retirement papers to the Holy See and a new ordinary was subsequently installed. ) In 1995, after serving in several mission locations, I determined that I wanted to serve in just one. It seemed to me to make more sense to be present to one group of parishioners than be a kind of "deus ex machina" dropping into different areas of the archdiocese without any long term knowledge of the people. I chose Peti Chua, just an hour's drive from Nagpur. The name is probably a corruption of "petit chou", and indeed the village is a darling of a place, set on a bit of a plateau surrounded by the nearby hills. When I chose it I remembered my very first pastoral visitation there in 1975 when no one came out of their homes to greet me and my driver and I stood alone at the chapel door wondering what might happen next.
The village is completely Catholic, as is Thana, the home parish of Peti Chua, something rare in India. The residents are the descendants of orphans who were placed with the French fathers and sisters who were missionaries in Nagpur at the time of a terrible cholera epidemic. This was almost 175 years ago. The government provided the land for the orphans and money to care for them. Unfortunately, as has happened with most Catholics in mission compounds, the people have become completely dependent on the charity of the parish, have almost no work ethic, make a home brew which can make them blind, and have sold most of the land they were originally given to local entrepreneurs for whom they now work as day labourers, if they work at all. They also on occasion cut wood which is in violation of the forest act and are sometimes jailed for this. I wanted to be with them if with anyone at all.
And so for the past seven years, I am with them for most weekends and other holydays. I really have not done much but be present to them and that has made all the difference. From being totally ignored, a group of the men meet with me regularly on an informal basis, sharing hopes, dreams, problems, possibilities. For big feasts, is it now customary for villagers who make their homes in Nagpur to return to the village. Now they are talking about refurbishing the chapel. They have already built a paved road to the well behind the chapel which makes access to it much easier. There is also a community water tank which they are accessing via a minimal fee per household.
Perhaps it is in the offering of mass intentions in which I see the most change. The financial offering is usually in the vicinity of $1 US or fifty rupees. From having no mass intentions at all, there are now thanksgiving offerings for the successful completion of a teacher's examination, the birth of a child, a job found in a local massive industrial complex, acceptance to nursing school, and even one for the restoration to health of the woman's goat!
The parish priest at Thana continues to be amazed at the Sunday collection which has quadrupled in the past three years. I continue to be amazed at how much the people do and at how little I have to do by way of liturgical preparation. The people take care of singing, readers, and the variety of other ministries along with decorating the church.
We still have a long way to go. There are still suicides usually by swallowing some insecticide or pesticide. We need a pre-school and an actual elementary school on the premises rather than the five km trek to and from Thana which the children must now undertake and more than once a month visiting from a mobile dispensary. We need hope and we need dreams.
Both are in short supply but not so short as they were seven years ago. And we need work and a work ethic.
A friend and colleague who visits almost annually from North America has seen the change. The people, especially the children are better dressed, more enthusiastic, and smiling far more than during her first experiences in the village. She can see the change from year to year. It was she who asked me if I can credit this change to any one thing in particular and then I began to think it might just be part of the foot washing ceremony which I now use in the village each Holy Thursday. Foot washing is not something foreign to us in India. It is done often in the villages in particular in terms of an honoured guest. I have had my feet washed in milk, on occasion, by the senior woman in a village where I was visiting. One year as I was making my own preparations for the Triduum, it hit me like lightning that Jesus said we must "wash each others' feet." It isn't simply the case of a priest or a pope for that matter washing the feet of twelve men, but of washing each others' feet. I decided I wanted to do just that. It seemed somehow to symbolize all that I believe that I have been and am for in all these years and all that the church is supposed to be for all of us.
Twelve members of the congregation, including myself and my driver, now wash each other's feet. An aged husband and wife wash each other's feet. A brother and sister do the same, as do a younger married couple, and so on. Representatives of the whole community are among the twelve. This year my North American colleague witnessed it and was moved to tears. There are no sexual connotations in any of this in our rather puritanical Indian culture, and over the years there have been absolutely no snide comments or remarks.
This mutual foot washing has come to be the expeected way to celebrate this day and its special message.
So we say to each other in the context of Eucharist that we are there to serve and be served, to be ministers to and for each other. We welcome and applaud the person and personality of the other. We allow ourselves to be welcomed and applauded.
All of this takes place in a ceremony with which we are familiar and which we now incorporate into our Holy Thursday liturgy. It is a powerful moment and a powerful statement of meaning and purpose.
There is one other thing that I do regularly. I sit and read the gospel while simultaneously discussing it with the people. I relish using imagery from their everyday lives as I do this. We have good laughs together over the implications for a rural village of the Jesus way of life. We have very sober moments, too, along these same lines. The people tell me, frankly, and we do not do this easily in Indian society, that they miss me when I am not there, when the summer heat (which can reach 48 Celsius) forces me to find respite in other places.
I have one regret in all of this, that I am unable to live with the people on a permanent basis. My health and my teaching do not permit that. I am longing for a small group of religious, perhaps three all told, who will move into that village and be with and for the people, their genuine animators, who will help them to gain for themselves the abundant life that Jesus came to make possible. I need my people to understand, among other things, what they are entitled to under the constitution of India to begin with.
I want them to establish a Mahila Mandal, a women's association being promoted by the Indian government to assure that women's voices are being heard and their special needs met, which are usually involved with literacy and education issues. I want them to find dignity in meaningful work. In just a short time, Caritas India, hopes to use some 200 acres of the land into which Peti Chua is set for a watershed programme which will be a teaching centre for all of India and internationally. I hope that my people will be able to take their place in this monumental undertaking which I hope will be an additional source of authentic empowerment of them. In the interim, I hope to continue my small efforts at helping them to believe in themselves, in God's special love for them, and in my love for them as well.