Bishop Bhai Interviews

An interview with Leobard D'Souza, Archbishop of Nagpur, India,
Vice President of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India,
Chairman of Caritas India, member of the Office of Human Development of the
Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences  
December 31, 1990, Nagpur, India
by Catherine Berry Stidsen

The Archdiocese of Nagpur is one of the mission dioceses which receives an annual grant from the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. The grant makes it possible for them to maintain traditional services and investigate new ways to work with persons on the margins of Indian economic, political, and social life. This interview focuses on the pastoral thrust of the Archdiocese of Nagpur and of the needs of the people of Asia, especially of India, in terms of the West. Archbishop D'Souza's work has brought him to Canada four times in the past five years. Caritas India is the Indian version of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.

Catherine Stidsen is a Canadian religious studies educator who has visited and studied in Nagpur on three successive occasions. She is currently completing her doctorate in religious studies at McMaster University working on issues connected with the revitalization and reconstruction of contemporary Christianity. The work in the Archdiocese of Nagpur is part of her research in contemporary programs of Catholic evangelization.


STIDSEN: You ask your people to call you Bishop Bhai. Would you explain that, please?

D'SOUZA: My people are by and large English and Hindi speaking, thus the English word and the Hindi word. The title literally means Bishop Brother. This is how I see my role in the archdiocese. I want to work shoulder to shoulder with my brothers and sisters in the diocese, to effect the abundant life for all peoples that our God asks us to help make happen. In a country like India, the hierarchical thing usually results in expecting persons in positions of responsibility to make things happen and they are given uncritical adulation in the process. This must stop. I constantly preach collaboration and work hard to practice it. My great hope is that this name for me will help people to remember that each of us is responsible for bringing about the reign of God. Together we can do more than any of us can do separately. I do not want to tell people what to do. I want us to come together, laity, priests, vowed religious, bishop, to decide what to do. This is for me authentic community, authentic communion.

STIDSEN: Tell us something about your archdiocese, Bishop Bhai.

D'SOUZA: The Archdiocese of Nagpur is geographically the size of Ireland. There are nine million people in the area and l5,000 of them are Catholics. Hindus and Muslims are the two major communities while Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Parsees are found in small fractions concentrated in specific areas. The archdiocese was l00 years old in 1987, but mission work began here as early as 1832. About 80% of all the people live in villages. Many of our Catholics are from what used to be called untouchables and worker castes. Some are expatriates from Goa and they are western in their dress and mannerisms due to the Portuguese influence. I have 5l diocesan priests, 30 religious priests, 29 brothers and 240 sisters working with me in the diocese. There are seven men in training for the priesthood.

STIDSEN: In 1981 you produced a pastoral plan for the archdiocese in which you emphasized people's participation in all its works. You also determined to change dependence on foreign sources for the financing of your projects. Will you give us the rationale for this, please?

D'SOUZA: We have a National Biblical, Catechetical, and Liturgical Centre in Bangalore. In 1981 a team from Nagpur travelled there to hear Father Jose Marins and his team from Latin America explain the thrust of liberation theology and its application to basic Christian communities. It became clear to us in Nagpur that we are not suffering from the dearth of priests that is the case in Latin America. Our seminaries and convents are full, especially those in the south of the India. We are a minority in India. Christians are 2.6% of the total population of 800 million. Again, this is not the Latin American scene where most are baptized Christians. We concluded that what we need in India is basic human communities more than basic ecclessial ones. So we set about to effect this in Nagpur.

The silver anniversary of my sacerdotal ordination occurred in 1981. I decided to put into the form of a pastoral letter the conclusions that our team had reached. I asked for a re-evaluation of every established religious institution. Our medical work for example, must move in the direction of preventative health care and the use of herbal remedies which are human needs in India. We have homeopathic, ayurvedic, and unani medications here, all highly effective. I also asked for mother and child health care programs, again of a preventative nature. I asked for a reaching out on the part of medical personnel to provide total health care to all.

I explained that I would no longer allow the establishment of schools in the traditional sense. I asked for an emphasis on non-formal education and for adult literacy efforts on the part of our educators. I asked them to work with school drop-outs in new and different ways. Our schools in India often maintain and reinforce the inequalities in the country rather than dispel them. I insisted on a program of values education in all our secondary schools. I asked our personnel to get out of the mentality of brick and mortar Catholicism as you would call it in Canada and put the energy they would often put into constructing buildings into the construction of persons, of people's organizations, and of effective personal relationships.

I asked for one more thing. I wanted people to volunteer to go to live in the villages, with people on the economic, political, and social margins of Indian life. I asked them to look, listen, learn, love, live among these people and once the people identified their needs, to work with them to achieve their basic human rights. I asked my people not to do things for the tribal people and villagers but to do things with them. In effect, I want my people to work themselves out of jobs in the process of training our villagers to be self-reliant. Many of our Indian people in villages do not know what they are entitled to under the Constitution of India much less the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. I asked that these volunteers in the villages establish basic human communities there.

STIDSEN: And the finances?

D'SOUZA: What does it do to any person or any organization to be constantly getting hand-outs? What happens to personal initiative? I have refused, for example, to participate in your Canadian Save-A-Family effort in India. We have got to do these things on our own now.

But the major difficulty I see is that the monies usually come for brick and mortar kinds of projects. Most people want to see what has happened to their money. What we need in India now are monies for social analyses of why the kinds of conditions that we have in India exist. Why do mothers abandon their babies so that a Mother Theresa picks them up? Why are mentally handicapped children hidden from sight and not cared for? Why are mentally ill people sometimes put into the middle of a road in the hope that a huge truck will run over them?

Occasionally I take seed money for projects which we simply cannot afford and for which there is a crying need. I am currently establishing a school, not a residential setting, for about l00 mentally handicapped persons. We have that many in the vicinity right around the Cathedral. We have two social workers on the staff of the school who reach out to the parents and guardians of these children as well and incorporate them into the learning process which the child requires. I am hoping to establish a public lending library in the area of the Cathedral because this kind of facility is by and large unknown in India. I will need money for this and to get books here to the library. I already have the promise of three Canadian collections for the library.

But I want the energy of my personnel going into the building up of people, not of physical facilities. We have a system in the villages called a panchayat. I want energy put into helping people to learn how to use this. I want the villagers and their representatives in the panchayat to learn how to push the Indian government into providing the services to which people are entitled. I don't want Catholics duplicating those services and in that often taking the heat off the government for providing them. All our growth must be centred on people.

STIDSEN: To talk about success and failure in a renovative and innovative program such as yours is exceedingly difficult, I know, but could you tell us a few things that have happened since 1981 that really please you?

D'SOUZA: In the city of Nagpur itself I am delighted that we have 188 neighborhood groups functioning now. They usually meet at least once weekly and they work to meet the needs of that particular neighborhood. Again, we have convinced all the Catholics involved not to do things for people but to do things with them and to press the government agencies for the water, social services, medical care to which the people are entitled. These meetings usually involve some kind of shared prayer across religious traditions.

As as result of our neighborhood groups our sacramental celebrations now are often authentically communitarian. The whole neighborhood will come to a wedding, a baptism, a funeral. There is a special kind of consociation of work and worship in the neighborhoods that really pleases me. In 1990 despite the turmoil in the rest of India, Nagpur was free of violence of that sort. I feel sure that some of this can be attributed to our neighborhood efforts and to a staunch citizens' committee at the municipal level determined to assure peaceful relationships.

In the villages, the outstanding success for me is in the village of Thala to which I took you in 1987. I explained then that the people themselves had collected the money -- about $l500 Canadian -- to bring a well there into existence. What I did not tell you then was that an unscrupulous landlord had planned to flood those people's lands in the guise of providing the villagers with water. When our village personnel found out about this, they helped the people to see the implications of the flooding. The villagers made 200 trips of 20 kilometers in each direction to the authorities to make that well happen. I know now that those villagers understand how the system works.

You will remember, too, that the leader at Thala is a catechumen. His life was threatened in the process but he persisted. I also remember explaining to you that the catechumens there will not be baptized until they have the understanding of the entire village about why they wish to do so. The catechumens fear one more divisive element in a community already too divided by creed and caste. I look at those catechumens and see the baptism of desire enfleshed. They almost suffered baptism by blood.

STIDSEN: What about successes in your more traditional ministries like schools, parishes, child care facilities? Anything there that pleases you?

D'SOUZA: Let me start with the last first. I have convinced the Missionaries of Charity that apart from genuine orphans they must have a training program in nutrition and hygiene for the mothers who bring their suffering babies to the sisters. The mothers must visit the babies every day and learn how to end malnutrition and diseases like scabies. They are doing this. I didn't want the child care facilities to become dumping grounds for unwanted children and to encourage irresponsibility.

In schools I am hopeful about the values education programs which we have in place. Only 10% of the children in our schools are Catholics. So we are focussing on what we need as a country across religious and communal lines. I think eventually this can make a vital difference for India.

In our parishes we now have four days that involve adult catechesis; Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, Youth Day, Family Day. I know you probably think I ought to have a Singles' Day, too, to be fair. The people involved are to prepare a catechesis for the whole parish. The best thing I have seen so far was a Family Day catechesis a year ago when all the neighborhood groups in that parish identified family needs. These were then brought to the parish council and on Holy Family Sunday, after a liturgy planned by the liturgy committee which reflected these needs, there was parish wide discussion on how to improve relationships within the family. A picnic followed with family sports activities. I was greatly encouraged by this kind of effort.

Vowed religious in our schools and other more traditional institutions are increasingly spending time visiting all the persons in the neighborhoods where their buildings are. In one area we have established a very positive presence in a place where the R.S.S., a radical fundamentalist Hindu group, is firmly entrenched. This pleases me, too. These are the people whose motto is that only Hindus belong in India.

STIDSEN: There must surely be some who question what any of this has to do with evangelization, and wonder how many conversions you have made, and so forth.

D'SOUZA: Surely. But there are conversions galore. People are changing their minds, leaving fatalism behind them, taking responsibility for their own lives. My over-riding request to my people is to "Celebrate life." We could as well be saying, "Celebrate Life." I firmly believe that what we are doing is evangelization. The questionings of the people we serve will lead to further questionings and yearnings that only Christ can complete. When this will happen I cannot say. But it will happen in God's own good time. That I believe.

STIDSEN: So, in general how would you say your people have received your pastoral plan?

D'SOUZA: The results are mixed. But more and more of our religious personnel are opting to live in the villages. They appreciate the simplicity of the life style. They experience real needs to be met. But meeting those needs creatively and imaginatively comes hard for my personnel. They are not used to doing this. And the reason for this lack of imagination and creativity has to be laid smack at the feet of our educational system.

Our educational system in India has its roots in the Macauley Minute put into place during the British Raj. The system trains people to carry out low-level decisions which have been made for them. This was what the Raj needed. Our educators still need to do much work to enhance the critical thinking skills of our people. A recent survey in India says that only about 2-5% of our people are real thinkers, inveterate learners. Divergent thinking comes hard to our people.

I am soon going to make a study of the critical thinking skills programs in place in Germany and Canada in particular. I understand that they begin with students in Grade 3. I want to see what we might adapt here from those kinds of programs.

We have some western-style leadership and training programs in place here now mostly under the auspices of religious communities. But in many ways they are thirty years too late. Our children are taught to conform from their mother's wombs. The trick is how to keep the valuable dimensions of the extended family which is so much a part of Indian society while not discouraging the entrepreneurial in the child.

STIDSEN: Bishop Bhai, what can we in the West do to help? You know that we are by and large a generous people although sometimes our projects seem to be mis-directed. You also probably know that there is something being called "donor fatigue" going on now in North America. People there are tired of feeling their monies are going into a bottomless well in terms of all sorts of projects. What do you think about this?

D'SOUZA: Frankly, in many ways, I think this donor fatigue is a good thing. Forgive me if this sounds harsh but in many ways you have taken to simply shelling out money in the West and this is really a cop-out for you. I know that other bishops do not feel this way but I do. What we need from the West is understanding. And that comes much, much harder than simply giving us money. In the era in which we were establishing the church in a country like mine that work was usually being done by European expatriates who appealed to their home bodies for financial assistance. But we cannot continue this in India if we are to be authentically Indian. We must use our own resources.

STIDSEN: You need understanding from the West more than anything else?

D'SOUZA: Yes. And I don't mean some kind of simplistic understanding. I think it's fair to say that you are discovering that material affluence is not the answer that many in the West thought it would be. There is a meaninglessness, an apathy, an ennui which I experience when I am in the West and which dear friends there tell me is indeed the case. In India we have known for centuries, that material things are not enough. Hindus have promoted right actions, Buddhists right thought, to get out of the human quagmire. They can perhaps be faulted for not making a frontal attack on poverty but we have some answers here that the West does not and vice versa. When you are in a country like India the initiative good will at the heart of the Jesus way of life makes such a vital difference. We need an understanding that will result in an amalgamation of the best of the East and of the West.

There is one more thing that we can use from you now and again when you are asked for it. We need your expertise on a short-term basis. We need you to come and be among us and share your knowledge based on our local needs. Your Canadian Executive Service Overseas seems to me to be moving in the right direction along this line. But we also need you to be patient with us. Our ways are not your ways.

Let me try to illustrate this for you. In one of our villages a bright young Catholic from Bombay appeared with a surplus milk collection plan. He gave the whole idea to the village and there was nothing in return but silence.

When my people investigated they found that all surplus milk was put out for the poorer villagers by the richer ones. In return when that time came for the erection of a tent for a wedding, or for some work in fields of the wealthier people, the recipients of the milk stuffs would appear and provide the donors with the necessary services. The Bombay boy's plan would have ruined that very delicate balance in which so many needs were met and with such dignity for the persons involved.

Come, share, but don't be disappointed in us if we ponder long and hard and make happen in our own way what it is that you invite us to do. And don't lose hope if we do not take your advice at all. And come prepared to learn from us, too, please. I think this kind of bartering with dignity, for example, has some applications for your Canadian situation.

STIDSEN: What specifically ought we to try to learn?

D'SOUZA: We need you to study the religions of India which are at the heart of our problems and possibilities. As increasing numbers of Asians come to your metropolitan cities, this is as important for you at home as well as to understand us. But we also need you to come and see. I have a dream of authentic tours of this country and of other Asian countries, by peoples of good will. We need more than to have you come and ride the trains our maharajahs rode. I understand that in Ontario there are now programs for students to go to places like Haiti and the Dominican Republic and work with the Missionaries of Charity there so that young people see the other side of the coin of what tourists living in five star hotels see. The U.S. Catholic Relief Services has done some of this in India with educators from that country. I understand that CCODP has done it with some persons in terms of Africa. I would like to see that happening in India as well. But good preparation needs to be in place for such experiences. The Judaeo-Christian thing is in the lifeblood of most westerners. They have no idea of what it means to be in a minority as we Christians are in India.

STIDSEN: And for those who cannot come?

D'SOUZA: Police your own governments! Western hegemony cannot be continued at the expense of non-western peoples. We need people with a global vision in both East and West. We need a world faith. We need faith in world community. In India, for example, we operate in a mixed economy. We are so labor intensive we must. With 30 million people unemployed, not to mention those underemployed, I do not see how we can become part of a free trade economy. This is not my particular field but it seems to me that for years we are going to have a planned economy along with entrepreneurial possibilities.

I must say, for example, that I learned with some sadness that the Canadian people are comfortable with pouring more money into your own health projects at the expense of monies that have previously gone into international aid and development projects. This may seem like a contradiction to what I have said previously but it is not. It seems to me that this means a xenophobic mentality is being encouraged at the expense of a global one in a country as good as Canada. That is not going to help countries like mine.

STIDSEN: I think I am hearing you promote dialogue of a special sort, a kind of reflective observation across geographical, economic, political, religious divisions.

D'SOUZA: Precisely. I keep trying to get my people in Nagpur to understand that dialogue and inculturation are the natural processes not exceptional ones to be of service to the peoples of our archdiocese. The same is to be said for the service of our world community. We need to become learners, we need to become seekers, discoverors. And then as we take into ourselves the best that other ways of doing things offer us, we can reconceive our own traditions. Somewhere in this meeting of East and West, North and South, we have the making of a renewed Christianity and of a better world. That I know.

STIDSEN: Bishop Bhai, I can assure you that there are people in North America who would kill to have you as their extraordinary ordinary. Are you typical of the Indian Catholic bishops?

D'SOUZA: All I think I should say on that one is that it takes more than one Indian to make an India. We bishops run the whole gamut much as your bishops do. But I am eminently hopeful that the servant leadership which Jesus demonstrated in his person will eventually become the norm for management of our ecclessial communities.

STIDSEN: Thank you, Bishop Bhai.


Contact Web Editor | Site Contents | content ©2005 Leobard D'Souza | electronic edition ©2005-2010 Ingrid Shafer