Despite criticism, major superiors of India working for the country

Triennial assembly was held in Chennai (27-30 May) centred on the “Church going forth” to meet the material and spiritual needs of people living on the margins of society. Participants reiterated their unity at a difficult time in India’s political life. Media turn a pastoral letter by the archbishop of Delhi into a Vatican plot.

Chennai (AsiaNews) – The Conference of Religious India held a meeting in Chennai (Tamil Nadu) from 27 to 30 May. Participants agreed that, despite criticism of Christians, they will continue to work together for the good of the country.

Speaking at the event, Mgr Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI), reiterated the importance of Church unity, stressing the need for everyone – bishops, Caritas, religious and laity – to work together.

Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Rayarala Vijay Kumar, regional superior of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), said that that the meeting provided an opportunity to talk about the country’s political situation, ahead of next year’s general elections.

The venue also gave participants a chance to reiterate “the commitment of the Catholic Church to the needy people of India,” Fr Kumar said, “not only their material needs,” he added, “but spiritual ones as well."

The general assembly of superiors of religious – male and female – congregations is held every three years. About 550 superiors and representatives of Church hierarchies were present at this year’s meeting, including Mgr Giambattista Diquattro, apostolic nuncio to India and Nepal.

"One thing we greatly appreciated was the fact that the nuncio stayed for all four days,” Fr Kumar said. “He spoke to at least with 250 men and women religious. This shows the Vatican's interest in India."

Taking a cue from a topic dear to Pope Francis, the Assembly discussed "the Church going forth", i.e. "the Church going out to the edges (or peripheries) of society,” Fr Kumar explained. “It means finding the Lord in those who thirst for him, the marginalised, and lend a helping hand to those in need."

With the term edge (or periphery), "we mean being on the margins – the needy, the poor, the sick – but also spiritual, that is, those who live in the misery of the spirit, whether rich or poor".

Fr V. M. Thomas, a former CRI president, was one of the first to speak. He highlighted the challenges the Indian Church has to face at a very delicate moment in the country's political life.

"With my address I wanted to raise awareness about the issues we are facing,” Fr Thomas said. “Many are afraid of the lack of freedom of expression. The problem is that anyone who criticises the government is accused of being anti-national, not only Christians, but Muslims and even Hindus."

For him, India has "one the most beautiful democratic institutions in the world and we must respect the values ​​contained in the Constitution".

The meeting coincided with a pastoral letter from the archbishop of Delhi, Mgr Anil JT Couto that is still sending ripples across the country.

In it, the prelate addresses the faithful of his diocese, asking them to pray and fast for a year ahead of the 2019 general elections because of the "turbulent political climate". This sparked a debate inside the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Some of his prominent members, including President Amit Shah, told the prelate to stay away from political issues and accused him of trying to divide the electorate over sectarian issues.

Others, including BJP members, reiterated the principle of freedom of expression. One of them is Francis D'Souza, Goa's Minister for Urban Development, who said that the Church has every right to lead her people.

Some sources warn though that “the country is increasingly polarised. The nationalist party is asking everyone to be loyal to the government and Hinduism. This is means drifting towards a dictatorial government.”

State media also seem to be supporting the attempt to split society by manipulating information. On television and in newspapers, the letter of the archbishop of Delhi was presented as a Vatican initiative against the Hindu majority, or even worse that Pope Francis was against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“In so doing, the whole issue is manipulated, turning the appeal to pray into a plot by the pontiff, thus undermining the foundations of Christianity and increasing hatred against Christians. The goal is to drive out all Christians and create a Hindu nation.”