India: In country of poverty, faith shines
Jasper — Forty-two years after working as a missionary in central India, Father John Boeglin of Holy Family Catholic Church returned to the country, this time as a sightseer.
“This was not a tourist trip,” Boeglin said. “This was a backroads trip.”
Boeglin presented a talk on his latest trip on a Sunday evening at Holy Family earlier this month. He spoke about reuniting with Indian friends from his days at seminary in Innsbruck, Austria, returning to the farm where he was on a mission with Father Jerry Ziliak during seminary and the challenges of living without toilet paper and running water — ”People just don’t know what we have in this country,” he said — and eating rice almost constantly, of which he is not a fan, as he toured the country. During the latest trip, he received more lessons in faithfulness from the Indian people all over the country. One of the most striking lessons, he said, was deep veneration. In India, worshipers remove their shoes outside the sanctuary before entering as a sign of respect. During the service, worshipers kneel on the ground, women on one side of the sanctuary, men on the other. Boeglin found himself kneeling on the floor shoeless and smiling as he celebrated Mass throughout the country. Each Mass was held in one of India’s 17 major languages, none of which he spoke a word of.
India can trace its history farther back than the Old Testament. Hinduism, the dominant religion in India, predates Biblical religions. Judaism came to India during the time of King Solomon, and Christianity traces its Indian roots back nearly 2,000 years to the Apostle Thomas, according to Boeglin’s research. Until the 1300s, Indian Christians celebrated Eastern Catholicism that spread from Antioch, Turkey and Baghdad, Iraq. Even now, the Eastern Rite dominates southern India, although Western Rite churches are becoming more common. Historically, the most obvious difference between the two rites is language. While the Western Rite adopted Latin as a universal language, the Eastern Rite began in Aramaic, but evolved to use all the vernacular languages, making it so that an Eastern Catholic couldn’t always understand the Mass at a different church. There are other differences as well, Boeglin said, but that’s a big one. The language barrier caused the two rites to clash when Jesuits brought the Western Rite to India in the 1300s because the two groups didn’t recognize each other as Catholics. The conflicts, however, have been resolved over the centuries.
“It was kind of miraculous that they found each other,” Boeglin said.
Beyond the two rites, Indian Catholicism had developed into its own unique sect. India is home to a variety of religions — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism and dominantly Hinduism. Indian Catholicism has taken on characteristics of Hindu practice. Alters and shrines are filled with bright colors, shrines to various saints (usually the Virgin Mary) sit outside the churches near the streets, and venerators pop in to place leis around the statues or leave offerings as they go about their days.
“This is almost like Hindu Catholicism,” Boeglin said.
Although there’s a lot of religious diversity in India, people coexist peacefully, and Boeglin called the country an example to the world in that regard. He recalled one church he visited that had a Hindu temple on one side and a mosque on the other. He also visited a Catholic school with 3,500 students — 15 of them Catholic. The rest were Muslim and Hindu. All the students attend Mass and love it, although the Muslims and Hindus don’t take Communion. The school is named after the Virgin Mary, which helps attract students of other religions. Muslims and Hindus both venerate Mary.
“They don’t have perfect peace,” Boeglin said. “But it’s an example of how people can live in peace.”
Boeglin thinks education is a barrier to peaceful coexistance among religions in the West. In the West, he said, we know more of the differences between religions, and that discourages us from worshipping together. In India, most people cannot read or write, much less learn the details of world religions.
Religious diversity wasn’t the only variety Boeglin saw in India. There was also a range of wealth diversity, with most of the people living in abject poverty. In the larger cities, computer software development has made some people rich, but most of India’s 1.3 billion people survive on less than $2 a day. Despite the poverty, Boeglin said, all the people dress cleanly and build shrines representing their religions at the entrances to their homes. They also build elaborate worship halls, regardless of religion.
“You know you’re in a country of poverty, but you see their faith,” Boeglin said.
His own faith, he said, was made deeper by witnessing their devotion.
Despite the vast income inequality, India is improving and growing, Boeglin said. Now, there’s an electrical grid running through the country and other infrastructure popping up. Not everyone can afford to use it, but it’s there.
And the people are trying to improve the quality of life throughout the country, Boeglin said. The Catholic churches have been a huge part of that, despite being in the minority. They’ve set up hospitals and schools to improve health care and education.
At the end of his presentation at Holy Family, Boeglin encouraged the audience to pray for India as the people fight to improve their country, and he offered a prayer of his own.
“Let us be thankful for what we have,” Boeglin prayed. “But also generous with what we have so that those people that have nothing have something from us.”