Johnson Digal, 29, comes from a village of 20 families, mostly Hindus. During the 2008 pogroms, his home was burnt down, forcing him to live in a refugee camp. Since he started to visit his neighbours, they began “changing their negative attitudes towards the Catholic Church”.
Bhubaneshwar (AsiaNews) – Kandhamal, a district in the Indian state of Odisha (Orissa), scene of an anti-Christian pogrom by Hindu radicals in 2008, will have its first Carmelite priest.
Johnson Digal, a 29-year-old deacon, is set to take his vows on 22 April at a ceremony led by Mgr John Barwa, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, in Bhubaneshwar’s St Vincent's Church.
Speaking to AsiaNews, Deacon Digal said that one of his goals in life as a seminarian and soon as priest is to help his villagers and relatives who are Hindus to develop healthy and friendly perceptions, attitudes and understanding towards the Catholic faith.
The deacon belongs to the Order of Friars of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel (usually called Carmelites). He is originally from the village of Lujuramunda and is a member of Shonkrakhole parish in Kandhamal.
In 2008, the district became the epicentre of a series of pogroms unleashed by Hindu extremists that claimed the lives of about a hundred Christians and forced 65,000 people to flee their homes.
Deacon Digal remembers that during the violence even his home was burnt down and that he and his family were forced to live as displaced people in a government refugee camp.
Some 20 families (about 400 people) live in the village where he was born. Most are Hindu, some are Protestant and only two are Catholic. Digal’s family is one of them.
"Most often, Hindu and Protestant villagers and my own relatives do not understand much about the Catholic faith and the value of priesthood. I wish to change this through my interaction and filial relations with them," he explained.
"During my seminary training, I often visited the villagers' homes and explained to them different aspects of the Catholic faith and how to value the celibate life as minister of the Church.
“I have noticed that over the years, they began gradually changing their negative attitudes towards the Catholic Church into positive ones. This is some a good sign," he added.
Johnson was born in 1987 and attended the village elementary school. Later he enrolled in the Assembly of God Mission high school in Bhubaneshwar and took a pre-university course at Biju Pattnaik College.
In 2007 he entered the Carmelite Order and studied for two years at Lisieux Bhavan, in Kannur, Kerala. He them moved to the Sacred Heart seminary in Aluva (Kerala) where he studied philosophy.
He did his one-year novitiate at Karmel Niketan, in Katikulam, Mananthavady (Kerala), and finally completed his education with a theology degree at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome.
After his ordination, he will train young seminarians in the Diocese of Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, where the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recently won the state election.
As a testimony of the violence that he himself experienced, Deacon Digal’s goal now is to build friendly relations between various religious communities and "make sure that Hindus develop positive attitudes towards the Catholic Church, which is involved with all sectors of society, irrespective of creed, class or caste, through social, educational and pastoral activities."
"All suffered on account of the  violence,” he explained. “People have overcome the trauma and suffering over the years. Reconciliation is gradually taking place among people of different faiths in Kandhamal district, though more needs to be done on the path of peace."