– Fr Carlo Torriani, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), has been in India for more than 40 years. He was surprised a few weeks ago, when he “read that in Italy, in a town in Lombardy, someone thought that it would be best not to set up a crib in a school, so as not to offend non-Christians. Our kids in Swarga Dwar, almost all non-Christians, compete to prepare the crib following to their imagination.”
He spoke to AsiaNews about religious co-existence, and the relevance of Christmas to the lepers who come to Swarga Dwar, (Heavenly Gate), an ashram he founded in Taloja, not far from Mumbai. The latter is near a medical dispensary he set up in 1984 for lepers and their children, who are often turned away from state facilities. The kids waited most anxiously for the arrival of Christmas
Christmas is the most anticipated festivity in Swarga Dwar.
Swarga Dwar is an ashram for the rehabilitation of healed but deformed lepers through farming. It is also a home for their children to make it easier for them to get a public education and a better future than that of their parents. The 40 or so kids who study here are the ones who are keenest for Christmas.
Christmas is a national holiday in India. The state recognises the feast days of every religion like Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. Christianity has two statutory holidays: the birth and death of Jesus, Christmas and Good Friday. There is also, of course, New Year.
At Swarga Dwar, religious coexistence is made easier by the existence, in addition to a Catholic chapel, of a prayer hall with the symbols of the twelve largest religions.
Every morning, we celebrate the Holy Mass in the Catholic chapel; in the evening, half an hour before dinner, we are in the other, let's say, ecumenical chapel.
We sing bhajans (Hindu devotional songs) for 20 minutes, then we read a passage from one of the scriptures (Bible, Qur‘an, Gita, Dhammapada, Granth Sahib).
This is followed by a short prayer from one of these religious traditions and we finish by singing a question, "What shall we do Lord in memory of you?” Everyone answers, "We will share our food, time and lives until you come to share your glory."
In such a pluralistic atmosphere (in India they call it "secular"), it is natural that everyone should celebrate Christmas.
I was surprised a few weeks ago, when I read that in Italy, in a town in Lombardy, someone thought that it would be best not to set up a crib in a school, so as not to offend non-Christians. Our kids in Swarga Dwar, almost all non-Christians, compete to prepare the crib according to their imagination.
One year they set up a cave with the figurines of Joseph, Mary and Jesus that we had given them. Then they went to look, I do not know where, for the statues of Indian deities – Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Saraswati – and put them in front of the cave as we do with the three Wise Men.
When I asked them why they put Hindu statues, they said, "Today is the birthday of the Blessed Jesus and all the other gods have come to congratulate him."
In my heart, I made a prayer: "Jesus, you deal with it! Now that you have entered their hearts, make them understand the difference. You are the only one who died for all men."
As for me, I said to myself, "If I want them to respect and love Jesus and my religion I must begin to respect theirs."
At the start of Advent, always in the evening chapel, we briefly read the beginnings of the four Gospels in order to arrive at Christmas with the birth of Jesus according to the Gospel of Luke.
We shall continue reading one of the Gospels until Holy Week with the passion and death of Jesus. That is when Iwill tell them, "The Jesus born in Bethlehem died on the cross for all of us. What can we do for him?"
* Missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions