The first indigenous missionary clerical congregation of north India, the Indian Missionary Society, is all set to celebrate its platinum jubilee, in the holy and eternal city, Varanasi, on November 3, 2016. In response to a long felt need for indigenous labourers for the spread of the Good News and to share in the mission of the Church in a pioneering way, Father Gasper Arsenius Pinto arrived in the sacred city where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon some 2500 years back.
Varanasi, also known as Kashi and Benares, is situated on the bank of the most sacred river Ganges. It is a confluence of world religions and several religious sects. Over the centuries the city has grown as a seat of knowledge, culture and spirituality and is considered the cultural and religious capital of India. It is also called the city of light. Knowing the significance of Varanasi, Fr. Pinto chose this city for the foundation of the society for pioneering evangelization.
The Historical and Political Context
The founding of the Indian Missionary Society took place at a time of widespread awakening of Quit Indian Movement and the demand for swaraj (self-rule, independence) and swadeshi (produced in one’s own country) goods. On the other hand, the entire country was badly affected by the Second World War. Consequently, most of the foreign missionaries were either restricted or were under house arrest.
Need for Indigenous Missionaries
The richness and diversity of Indian Religions and their spirituality, cultures, languages,customs, climates, etc., made the mission work in India a difficult task even for the most dedicated foreign missionaries. They felt that the above mentioned difficulties could be more easily overcome by the sons and daughters of the soil who have better chance of acquainting themselves with the culture and psyche of Indians, learning different languages and coping with the extremes of weather. Fr. Pinto responded to this call.
Fr. Pinto: A Visionary and a Man of Courage
Fr. Pinto was born on 29. 12. 1905 in Thudam village, in the parish of Kirem of the Diocese of Mangalore. While accepting the priestly call, Gaspar Pinto had no other motive than the mission, and he opted for priesthood to do the missionary apostolate among the people of other faith. Deacon Pinto walked the aisles of the church to be ordained a priest on 2 April 1938 by Rt. Rev. John Peter Leonard SJ, the Bishop of Trichy.
Fr. Pinto was a great visionary. His classmate Jerome D’Souza had noticed in young Gasper his dream for the evangelization of India as early as 1925. By then, he founded a Students’ Society which was called, ‘The Indian Missionary Society.’ He even dreamt of a Catholic University . He was a man with real missionary zeal; before becoming a priest, he joined Fr. Corti, SJ of Naravi mission in his native town to help the poor and the marginalized.
Fr. Pinto was a man of courage. According to late Fr. Veerendra IMS, the earliest student to follow Fr. Pinto in the Society: "With undaunted courage far away from Benares town in a non suitable climate he planted the IMS depriving himself even the minimum comforts and undergoing all sorts of difficulties to look after it for the few years.” He continued, “Fr. Pinto was a man of some rare character. He was bold, enduring and was able to face all the difficulties that came on his way. He never thought of running away from difficulties.”
As a person of indomitable courage he would not easily accept defeat. He was a valiant fighter. Due to the Second World War, the British Government had put a seal on new constructions and, as a consequence the building materials were not easily available.
Fr. Pinto neither had money in hand to buy the building materials nor any proper road to transport the materials to the site in Christnagar where the Mother House of IMS is situated now. Since no bricks were available nearby, Fr. Pinto decided to start a country brick kiln.
Foundation of the IMS
The evangelization of India had been a long felt need among many mission minded persons, both Indian and foreign, even before the beginning of the Second World War. In responding to the maxim of Pope Leo XIII “Filii tui O India administri tibi salutis,” (O India, thy salvation is in thy children) Fr. Pinto obtained consent from Bishop Angelo Poli, OFM Cap of the diocese of Allahabad, to establish an indigenous missionary society on October 15, 1941.
He reached his missionary destination Varanasi on November 3, 1941 to found the Indian Missionary Society. One of his early collaborators put it, ‘The IMS is a Miracle of Divine Providence.’ Ever since the society has steadily grown. At present the IMS has two Provinces and a Region – Delhi, Varanasi and Ranchi respectively.
IMS and its contribution to North Indian Church In the second half of the 19 th and in the beginning of the 20 th century there was a great missionary interest and revival all over the world. Revolutionary changes were taking place both in the mission theories and techniques. The idea of inculturation and indigenization was given greater importance. It was in this context of missionary revival, increase in indigenous vocations, and national independence that the divine providence raised up the Indian Missionary Society.
The diversity of mission-initiatives in the Society is shown from time to time by reflecting and praying over and reinterpreting its charism of ‘pioneering evangelization’ according to the signs of the times in the light of the needs of the people and the changing scenario. Soon the IMS began to practice inculturation.
With the permission of the Prefect Apostolic, the IMS missionaries began to celebrate the Eucharist according to local culture. The host used for the Holy Mass was misunderstood by the people as Bilayati roti (foreign bread) but when chappati was used for the Mass, people easily understood the meaning of the Eucharist. New liturgical vestments were prepared in saffron colour, tailored to look totally Indian. This later paved way for liturgical adaptation all over Varanasi diocese and neighbouring dioceses. And there was a general acceptance of these missionary methods by the local people.
The members of the IMS initiated Ashram way of life in the diocese of Varanasi. Late prelate Rt. Rev. Patrick D’ Souza encouraged Ashram way of life in the diocese. Late Fr. Iswar Prasad, one of the doyens of inculturation, started Khrist Panthi Ashram near Nagwa to promote Indian spirituality and inculturation. It paved way for opening up many more ashrams in north India. Matridham Ashram, an oasis of spiritual revival for north India, needs to be specially noted.
A portrait of Christ the Sat Guru (True teacher) in accordance with the Indian religious tradition was the third major contribution to inculturation which became very popular in north India. Spread over sixteen states and thirty one dioceses, 241 members reach out to people so extensively serving the Church in India in multifarious ways.
A few members are rendering their services in twelve dioceses in four countries. The IMS ministries consist of traditional mission stations and parish ministries, Inculturation and Dialogue, the Ashrams way of life, Charistmatic renewal movements, Khristbhakta (devotees of Christ) movements, prayer and counselling, Social Animations for the empowerment of the weaker sections especially dalits (subaltern), women and the migrants, Cancer and HIV affected patients, mentally challenged, deaf and dumb and Railway Platform children.
The missionaries reach out to people through Mass media-communication, boardings for boys and girls, Child-line, Mary’s Meal and Mother’s care projects, caring for differently-abled children and formal education. Ensuring association and collaboration of the laity – both Christian and people of other faiths, they show a good blend of traditional as well as frontline ministries in the IMS.
Most of these ministries got developed after 1971. The IMS also forms students for the mission. Faculties of philosophy and theology enlighten and orient future missionaries from the IMS and over twenty four dioceses. In this context Students’ Missionary League (SML) is a unique platform provided by the seminary to launch themselves out as missionaries during their formation period.
The vision with which Fr. Pinto launched the Society is really praise worthy, and valid even after 75 years and for the most part it still remains a dream yet to be realized in full measure and calls for self-sacrificing, committed and hardworking missionaries.
Former Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio in his message said, “Seventy five years of successful existence is a fruit of your hard work and devoted service to the Lord and to the Church.” He exhorted the IMS members to reach out the existential peripheries where the poor, the downtrodden, the uneducated and the unemployed live.
IMS Superior G Mahendra Paul in a statement said, “The IMS came into existence to bring the Good News of God’s love for his people to our country. I consider it a divine providence that the IMS not only survived difficult period in its early life but more importantly carries on the salvific mission of God entrusted to it by the Church. Pioneering evangelization is the soul of the IMS and its raison d’être.”
Fr. Stany D’Souza the senior most priest of the diocese of Varanasi who knew the Founder and the only priest to attend his funeral in Bombay told that the IMS is known for its hard and for arduous work and for being pioneers in the mission work of the Church at large. ” Ever since its inception the IMS has performed marvelously well. With hardly any financial resources and depending totally on providence it has performed excellently wherever the members happen to work and in which ever work they were entrusted with.”, he said.