Divine Word Missionaries
History & Tradition
History & Tradition
SVD - 75 Years in India
The first SVD missionaries arrived on the Indian shores in 1932. The society in India is marking the platinum jubilee this year. The historical legacy left behind by the pioneers has certain salient missiological features. Their contribution in the fields of anthropology, Catholic Hindi literature and inculturation stand out. In subsequent years, especially after Vatican II the understanding of mission received so much of embellishment. Developmental works became an integral part of missionary activity. With the passage of time the era of missionaries coming from abroad is ended but the Indian branch that was started is growing. A visible dimension that is added to the understanding of mission is of direct preaching of the Word which is quite in keeping with the charism of the society. In the years to come though fundamentalism will be a serious challenge to mission fully trusting in the power of the Spirit we will be able to go ahead and hit the century.
India is said to be the seventh largest country in geographical area and second largest in population. It has such diverse cultures races and religions that it is difficult to speak of one single Indian mission. Due to the diversity of missionary approaches as well as various historical circumstances, methods vary. Also down through the centuries responses of people in India too have been different. Keeping these factors in mind the present work is a humble attempt to take a close look at SVD mission from a historico-missiological perspective. At the outset it is good for the reader to keep in mind that the scope of this little endeavour is quite limited. Obviously all the historical developments and personalities are not covered in this short article and for that purpose a volume on history is being brought out on the occasion of the platinum jubilee.
If one poses the question ‘Who will go down in history?’ perhaps there will be two SVDs whose work will be often referred to in some very special areas. One is Stanislaus Wald (1904-1968) as he is the first Catholic to translate Old Testament into Hindi. Any subsequent translation will of course refer to the original work of this unassuming man who would be seen as a man for all seasons in the early part of Indian SVD history. Then there is the contribution left behind by Stephen Fuchs (1908 - 2000). In the field of Anthropology and Ethnography he has 9000 published pages to his credit. He could be considered an institution by himself. Due to such a doyen’s work others expect from SVD to contribute more along these lines.5
George Proksch (1904 - 1986) too will not be completely forgotten in the field of liturgical music and inculturation. His devotional compositions in Hindi are considered classical in nature. Even after so many decades hardly anybody has measured up to his standards. All the liturgical singing till Vatican II was in Latin and there were practically no Hindi hymns then. Moreover impressed by Gandhi’s mass appeal he presented himself as a Guru communicating Biblical themes and ideas through dance drama for which he drew inspiration from the culture prevalent among the Hindus of North India.
In the post-Counciliar (Vatican II) era the contribution of Engelbert Zeitler (1909 - 1999) towards ecclesiastical renewal and organization of programmes at the national level stood out. He rose to the level of becoming the Secretary of Evangelization of FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences) in later years. The society in India is also now known as it has a few trail blazers in media, doing public-relations management and musical productions since audio-visual media has high visibility today. On this score sometimes the society carries an image larger than in actual fact.
Most of the missionaries of the first few batches were young and energetic. They were willing to take risks and they took some new initiatives. Besides maintaining the stations they took over from the Capuchins and Franciscan Missionary Brothers they started new centres. William Wuellner (1905 – 1987) immersed himself in the cultural milieu of the people with whom he was working. If their caste rules would not permit him to eat something he too would not take such items. He had made near total identification with them.6 So also Gerard Hofstee (1905-1999) had a soft corner for the Dalits with whom he worked for around four decades.7
It should be admitted that all their attempts of direct evangelization did not immediately yield positive results. Some of them saw failure literally as stepping stones towards success. In the case of Hermann Westermann (1905 – 1985), he had toiled hard in the vineyard and had catechized quite a number of people. On the appointed day of conferring baptism hardly any body turned up under the influence of money lenders, land lords and petty shop keepers of the area. He then left that place and started a new station where his labours bore more fruit. Another pioneer, Wilhelm Knopp (1906-1944), though he was getting good response from the people8 his untimely death was a set-back for that mission. Unfortunately there was no one to carry on with the lead he had given.
Any talent was pressed into the service of mission. One such avenue was the practice of medicine. Around half a dozen SVD brothers worked for alleviating the suffering of the people at the same time bringing them closer to the mission. It is said that besides dispensing medicine some of them also had a healing touch. With such a basic trust in the physician cure was faster. Some of the dreaded diseases like leprosy our medical practitioners freely treated whereas other doctors would not look at them. In the eyes of ordinary simple folks the brothers were greatly respected and held in high esteem.
The missionaries gradually recognized the fact that it was not easy for them to get into villages where people had a completely different way of thinking. They realized that a few influential people from their own kith and kin had a role to play for spreading the Good News. This realization prompted them to start catechists’ training schools in two places taking into account also the local cultural differences.
True to being an international family India received missionaries from the Americas, Europe and Australia. But ever since the country became independent in 1947 the government has been following a stringent policy of not allowing foreign missionaries. A few had got Indian citizenship. Renewal of residential permit was done rather grudgingly. One was sent back from Mumbai airport when he returned after home leave in Germany. Reading the writing on the wall quite many went back to their home country, of course against their own wish. Now altogether there are just two foreigners. An era has practically come to an end.
Providence guided the then man of destiny – Valentine Zimmermann (1907-1981)9 to think of taking Indians to the society. So just four years after India won freedom first candidates were recruited and by the end of 1951 novitiate was started in Indore.10 Looking back, one can feel that it was truly an inspiration of the Holy Spirit as this branch has grown over a few decades to be the second numerous group in the society and serving in all continents, the cause of international mission.
Post independence, SVD expanded its area of operation from Indore to what was then known as Gangpur Mission, presently in the state of Orissa. Very close to the time of partition of the country, the confreres had nicknamed this move as ‘going to Pakistan’. Our first men there inherited a well-oiled missionary ‘machinery’. The excellent pastoral traditions introduced by the Jesuits in this region were taken over and kept up. So there is a self-supporting local church there and also in later years supplying missionary personnel not only for the society but several congregations and dioceses. However this local church is going through a great transitional phase and SVD with its footing in cultural studies needs to play a more pro-active role towards guiding its further growth.
The new theology that emerged after Vatican II to some extent adversely affected the enthusiasm of missionaries in the field. The paradigm shift brought in questions like ‘if all are saved then why toil in the mission?’. For many modern theologians the old view was simply a ‘Colonial Hangover’. The earlier you exorcise this evil spirit the better. So then working towards conversion and getting people baptized, etc., became irrelevant, old-fashioned and even faced ridicule. Those who subscribed to the new thinking showed only scant regard, during table conversations, for these sacrosanct elements in mission work. Heated debates during Chapters, Missionary meetings, etc., were rather common in those days.
To add insult to injury there were other issues cropping up regarding uniqueness of Christ and He is one among many saviours. After Vatican II this question has come to stay in theological discourse. This has concurred with the West’s discovery of Eastern religiosity vis-à-vis oriental mysticism. With 1970s droves of Westerners started flocking to Masters/Gurus in Asia for instant experience of the Absolute or often named as nirvana.11 Thousands of Euro-Americans have joined Hindu and Buddhist sects. These god-men are really drying hay when the Sun is shining bright.
There are Catholic theologians who no more hold on to the doctrine of uniqueness of Christ or treat it only on the margins. They would like to satisfy themselves by saying that distinctiveness rather than uniqueness is better.12 To crown it all appreciation of other religions in a spirit of dialogue took its toll. Missionaries’ conviction was shaken; enthusiasm was flagging. No wonder two popes brought out one encyclical each13 to recover the lost ground of rationale for mission.
Despite the confusion regarding the ideology of mission no mission station was closed down. Together with increase in numbers of missionary personnel they were all looked after and new ones were added. So working for the uplift of the poor became the main source of inspiration for mission work. Hence at least for public consumption ‘saving souls’ was sent to the back seat though side by side some such missionary activities were going on in many places.14 Development became the catch word and poverty alleviation in rural areas was the set target.15 Digging wells, construction of ponds, building bridges and roads and other activities under food-for-work programmes received a major thrust in the list of missionaries’ activities.16
After a few years when this developmental model was evaluated it was found that doling out material things created dependency and did not bring about any tangible change with regard to quality of life. That was the time they introduced social analysis to build awareness of people’s problems.17 Missionary then began to see oneself as a catalyst for social change.18 There were some who were not satisfied with this idea as this too did not have anything to do with their religious-missionary identity.
It was then felt that it is not enough to become aware of the problems in the social milieu. People should be empowered to solve them. Solidarity, advocacy, fighting court cases particularly of the poor – all these were added on to mission work. Promotion of justice and peace became an integral part of it.19 To empower the women so many self-help groups have been started by missionaries in so many places. Until 1970s SVD in India has been primarily working among the rural poor. Now another added dimension is that some of the missionaries are taking care of the urban poor in cities like Mumbai, Pune, Rourkela, Indore, Bhopal, etc.
Catholic Charismatic Movement had come into India in late 1970s. Bishops, priests, religious and laity started attending their retreats and conventions. Many got caught on to it. The zeal of those who directly proclaimed the Gospel has been quite impressive. Quite a crop of lay men and women are doing it wonderfully well.20 Meanwhile some of the SVDs’ dormant desire to preach the Good News has come alive. A few centres have come up and they are doing proclamation to Christians as well as non-Christians fearlessly, marvelously.21 Though there was a lot of apprehension and criticism about such activities slowly many have begun to accept it as an SVD way of doing mission.
This is an interesting development in the congregation that has been praying to the Spirit which has its roots in the charism of the Founder. Although many other devotions were dropped after the General Chapter of 1967 this particular practice of praying to the Spirit has survived and being kept up. In a way SVD should have given the lead but though late at least some are wholeheartedly cooperating with the Spirit and preaching the Good News.
We as missionaries might be engaged in a variety of activities and keeping ourselves pretty busy, but evangelization is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. This is clearly spelt out in the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps due to the earlier animosity towards the Protestants the Spirit was kept away from the major line of Catholic Church’s thinking.22 Surprisingly as we look around there are enough signs to suggest that the Spirit is making up for the lost time.
We need to refer back to the insight of the founder much before Vatican II and draw inspiration from him. He started two congregations in the name of the Holy Spirit and to emphasize the vital link of mission with the power of prayer one congregation (SSpSAP) was exclusively dedicated to do that job. But praying should not be left to the Pink Sisters alone. Mission dynamics does not operate on funds and personnel only. More prayer by all of us to the spirit is needed and it will generate more enthusiasm; it will produce more energy in the missionaries to accomplish great things in the mission.
The official statistics supplied by the Central Government in the country states that from 1950 to 1998 there were only 50 recorded attacks on Christians. But in the year 2000 alone there were 100 incidents. Since 2001 there have been at least 200 attacks on an average per year.23 We are being sent as lambs among wolves. The martyrdom of Sr. Rani Maria in 1995 took place in a part of our mission. Prashant Lukose was about to be burned alive in the state of Rajasthan in 1999. In the whole of Jhabua diocese simple Catholics were terrorized, missionary personnel were assaulted24 and institutions attacked in 2004. The enumeration can go on and on.
For close to 60 years there was not any major problem. Now there is a virulent type of politico-religious ideology spreading which hardly anybody expected until early 1990s. There is no dearth of men and means for them.25 Web sites of these groups are pouring out venom across the globe. Despite all the talk on dialogue this is a hard reality that the missionary has to face in today’s India. Already Stephen Fuchs could read the writing on the wall almost two decades ago. He had said that missionary work would be confined more and more to cities and small towns.
The first missionaries took many new initiatives. For the later generations of SVDs they have set inspirational examples. There have been winds of change but everything has not been swept away. Without aping others the society need to make its own contribution towards the mission of the Incarnate Word. So where do we go from here?
There are several congregations and dioceses involved in missionary activity. It is here one has to ask what SVD identity is from a clear theological perspective. To put it in a rather simple and lucid way:
Incarnation + paschal mystery + Pentecost = SVD identity.
Often we speak about Gerhard Janssen, the father of St. Arnold, praying the Prologue daily which takes us back to the foundational charism and the love of the Divine Word. We interpret and translate this charism into our love for cultures, learning language, adapting to the food habits of various peoples, shedding of racial prejudice, promotion of the study of anthropology, etc. We say that our model for missionary inculturation is the life of Josef Freinademetz who wanted to be a Chinese even in heaven. But we can’t accomplish much in the mission without knowing the connection between incarnation and paschal mystery and also living it out in our lives.
Without living the mystery it is misery. Why?
We will be carried away by the allurements of the world. Our tendency will be to seek more and more comforts name and fame and wallow in a worldly life style. Naturally one can’t be effective as a missionary without the practice of a certain amount of austerity and simplicity of life which are characteristics of living out the paschal mystery. Without integrating these elements at a personal level one’s missionary life will be miserable.
Now the question is how can that integration take place? Traditional theology has equated Christ event with passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. But without the descent of the Spirit on the disciples the understanding of Christ event is incomplete. To understand the Spirit’s role here is the key - (Jn. 14:26). It is good that Jesus went away. The Spirit came and reminded them of the things Jesus had spoken earlier. What things? Prediction about his suffering and death about which he had spoken three times (Mk. 8:31-33, 9:30-32, 10: 32-34). They were not able to fathom this nor were willing to accept this hard fact. Only the Spirit made them understand this mystery. When that kind of enlightenment dawned on them they were willing to face persecution and thus live the paschal mystery.26
Very often SVD speaks about an incarnational model of mission and spirituality. Now and then there is also talk about the Spirit guiding our mision. But there is a vital connecting link between these two, i.e., the Paschal Mystery. And all three should be seen in one single perspective. Often the tendency today in some circles is to edit out the paschal mystery but in reality it is an inseparable aspect of the life of the Incarnate Word – Jesus. This is not sufficiently stressed in Chapter documents and other reflections on missionary praxis. We get carried away with incarnation and go off a tangent. Our vision mission statement should always refer to this understanding of the Word Incarnate. Otherwise it will be a partial vision and it will be confusing. Hence the identity of a Divine Word Missionary revolves around cultivating the consciousness that he is a companion of the Divine Word and a co-worker of the Holy Spirit.
The foundation of our internationality, inter-cultural living as well as working together is on Incarnation, Paschal Mystery and Pentecost. Father Arnold has left behind a great legacy in this regard. When Bishop John Baptist Anzer (1851-1903) died he strongly supported the candidature of Freinademetz to become bishop though he was not a German and there was much pressure from the German government to exclude from the list our first Chinese missionary’s name.27 Again the international family spirit was demonstrated in India during World War II. Americans and Germans were waging war in Europe but SVD missionaries from these countries lived as well as worked together.
To be able to retain this rich legacy we will have to check certain tendencies. There is ambivalence between the promptings of the Spirit and sociological theories. On the one hand we claim that that we are for inter-cultural living and working together. On the other, based on some of the theories we say that it is impossible for people of different ethnic groups to live like that. If we stretch the same argument then celibate life too is impossible because that too goes against our basic instincts. In case we overtly or covertly promote our own ethnic identity petty politicking will creep in like a virus and gradually eat into the vitals of our society. In fact our call as SVDs is intricately woven together with inter-cultural living.
It may not be easy as per our natural inclinations, but it is not impossible when we follow the promptings of the Spirit. In the case of Peter he too was caught up with ethnocentrism when he refused to eat anything unclean (Acts 10). Or again like the Judaisers who argued vehemently to perpetuate circumcision as a socio-religious practice (Acts 15). Our attention too will be going to smaller issues when we refuse to listen to the Spirit. On our part we need to be wary of such tendencies. We badly need the Spirit to make the breakthrough as in the case of the first Christian community. Our daily invocations to Spirit without fail will help us overcome such difficulties in our living together.
Many of the missionaries who came to India in the beginning were not that very gifted intellectuals, but they put their little talents into best use. They took to language learning pretty seriously and brought out publications whereas first generation of Indian SVD specialists were found wanting in this regard. It used to be said that doctoral dissertation was the last line they wrote. Nevertheless later on some took to writing and got their works published too. Yet more serious scholarship is needed in various mission-related fields. There is nothing to be apologetic about it as cultivation of intellectual capabilities is quite in keeping with the original vision of the Founder for our congregation.28
Missionaries in the field too need to nurture their intellectual curiosity through reading and reflection. It was fashionable to flaunt some kind of an anti-intellectual trend and some used to gloat over: “The last book I read was when I was in the seminary.” It is a fact that some of the foreign missionaries together with their regular work in the mission field also wrote books.29 It is a good example worthy of emulation.
Although SVDs have not contributed much to the development of Indian theology nor have written treatises on inculturation the missionaries who came from abroad have done pioneering work in adapting to local culture.30 They were well equipped to deal with this issue as they had already received good training in the basics of cultural anthropology during their formation for priesthood. In the interest of building up a truly indigenous Church such good initiatives should be carried forward.
9.1. Of late, there is an indiscriminate rush to start English medium schools with the argument of raising financial resources. Certain amount of circumspection, reflection and discernment are needed in this regard. There are congregations surviving without having such prestigious educational institutions. Providing English education especially to the upper strata of the Indian society is no more a mission field. Some of the former students from such Christian institutions have turned out to be vehemently anti-Christian.31
Besides, though it was almost a monopoly of the Church there are so many other agencies – Christians as well as non-Christians – running schools on a highly competitive basis and with definite commercial intent. It is hard to catch up with the facilities some of them are providing. Moreover the witness value of such institutions is in doubt.32 SVD in India could not be accused of catering to the elite class at least for more than half a century. As a veteran missiologist from the ASPAC zone made an observation a few years ago schools per force simply absorb our best personnel into them. He also added that in India there is a variety of missionary activity since SVD did not go for starting schools on a big scale. We need to ask if there is some wisdom in it.
9.2. Better Human resource management on the part of the administration will bring out more potential from the individuals. Continuity in ministry is an important component to achieve this end. On the part of the individual he should be quite convinced that no rolling stone gathers any moss. Rooted in spirituality and having a vision one will be able to bring out the best in one’s own self. It is only through perseverance one can leave behind a lasting contribution. There could be tensions and conflicts on the way. These should be sorted out from time to time applying checks and balances which should be the responsibility of both individual and the administration.
9.3. Society on the whole has followed a rather liberal policy with regard to taking up various activities in the pursuit of missionary goals and ideals. Individual initiatives have not been altogether smothered. A question that often comes up is if a particular activity fits into the structure of the province/society. If parameters of society’s charism, vision and missionary tradition are applied many such tensions can be resolved. Here again extremes are to be avoided. If too many individuals do their own thing there is the danger of losing focus and any activity under the sun will be projected as mission.
SVD Mission in India has gone through various bends, avenues and cross roads during the past 75 years. The sweat and toil of the pioneers have not only born fruits but also many of them have been inspiring examples. It was a road less traveled by others. They took many risks and that was the right to do for a good beginning. The variety of openings they created has become a sort of legacy to follow on. Mission ideology like a ship has passed through stormy waters but missionary activity has been navigated all these years without being rocked. For the times to come what is needed is not so much indoctrination but personal conviction on mission based primarily on touching, transforming experience.
The latest attempt to define mission as prophetic dialogue though popular among the academics there are very few takers for it among those who are in the field. In the Indian missionary situation frontier is a reality as our men in the field face direct threat from the fundamentalists, harassment from Government officials, surveillance of intelligence department, etc. Further, in the inhospitable Himalayan mountain ranges where our missionaries toil in Arunachal Pradesh (ING) mission has a geographical frontier too, very much like PNG. Despite all these problems still there are volunteers to face tough challenges. So the future of mission as of now is not so bleak.
Mission is not only a this-worldly secular enterprise; the life of the Incarnate Word had something more to offer. We need to cultivate this consciousness. The role played by the Spirit should be acknowledged, sustained and fostered as part of the personal spirituality of every SVD lest one becomes self-righteous and arrogant eventually landing up in a saviour complex. We shall avoid the temptation of being mercenaries of funding agencies rather brave foot soldiers of the Divine Word!
|******* Anthony Poruthur was involved in inter-religious dialogue for over a decade. He was ASPAC Zonal Coordinator from 1999 to 2005. At present he is National Formation Secretary.|
1 At that time India included the present Pakistan and Bangladesh. Partition of the country took place in 1947 and in 1971 Bangladesh became an independent country.
2 It is a fact of Indian mission history that during the World War I the Salvatorians closed down their mission in Assam and went back to Germany.
3 Pioneer Jesuit missionary of Chhotanagpur. Rourkela diocese where SVD has been active since 1948 is part of this Catholic belt.
4 Marian Zelazek (1918-2006) was that nominee who worked with leprosy patients for three decades.
5 Archbishop Thomas Meenamparabil, SDB, is one such person who for a long time was requesting SVD to take up a systematic study of tribes in North East India. Now lately some response is being made in this direction.
6 In hindsight it can be said that Wuellner’s work has born much fruit. From this tribal group there are five SVD priests today if that is any indicator of the success.
7 Whatever may be the shortcomings of the people he would not allow anyone to criticize them in his presence and if at all anyone did he would always defend them.
8 Korkus are a tribal group mostly living in West Central part of India.
9 He was the Regional Superior from 1948-1951.
10 The first name in the novitiate register became the first Indian SVD Bishop- George Anathil who is going to retire shortly.
11 Their weird methods sometimes included even violent sex therapies as in the case of god-man, Rajneesh in Pune.
12 Some of the papers presented during Silver Jubilee symposium of Ishavani Kendra, Pune, 2001went along this way of articulation.
13 Evangelii Nuntiandi of Pope Paul VI and Redemptoris Missio by Pope John Paul II
14 Proclamation through folk singing (Bhajan Mandali), starting of Catholic Enquiry centre at Indore, etc., were to keep up the mission of spreading Good News.
15 The encyclical Populorum Progrossio served as a boost to justify the new ideology.
16 Agencies like CRS, Carits, IGSSS have rendered tremendous service in the mission.
17 Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed became a handy tool for this purpose. An SVD translated it into Hindi too.
18 One SVD in Andhra Pradesh has put up over 500 shows of street play to raise awareness about evils prevailing in the society.
19 There are around a dozen SVD lawyers in India of which a few are regularly attending court.
20 For instance the work of Mani- a lay woman near Delhi where she preaches on every Sunday for four hours and there are a couple of thousand non-Christians coming to listen to her. At her home, the drawing room is converted into a chapel and round the clock prayer is going on there.
21 In the state of Andhra Pradesh where SVD missionaries have been working since 1972, starting of such a centre at Muthangi by Christuraj has given a fillip for the mission there. Now there are SVDs who undertake preaching mission in some of European countries, Middle East and lately Turkey too.
22 In Catholic theology until Vatican II, there was hardly a proper course taught on the Holy Spirit.
23 Indian Currents, Vol. XIX, No. 21, May 21-27, 2007, New Delhi, p.40.
24 For the first time, some of the violent women of a Hindu sect had descended on the scene and had the audacity to wallop some of the fathers.
25 There are a few thousand multi-millionaires in India. Besides Non-Resident Indians spread over several countries form a wealthy group. They are not only spreading the Hindu fundamentalist ideology abroad but also making plenty of financial contributions.
26 Acts of the Apostles have many incidents mentioned there – Ch. 5, 12, etc.
27 Cf. Joseph Alt, Journey in Faith, p. 504ff.
28 Arnold Janssen sent the best and the brightest member for higher studies within a few years after starting the mission seminary in Steyl. (Cf. Ibid. p.136.)
29 Fr. Joachim Mocha’s (1903-1981) translation of Imitation of Christ into Hindi is one such case in point.
30 This was the observation of the late Jesuit Scripture scholar, G. Soares-Prabhu (1929 – 1995).
31 It is indeed a painful realization that the high-voltage rhetoric against conversion that was unleashed in the media during the past few years was by the upper caste Hindus who have been beneficiaries of Church’s educational work.
32 An archbishop a few months before laying down office candidly admitted: “We have many institutions in the archdiocese, but very little witnessing.”.