By Santosh Digal
The All India Catholic Union (AICU) represents more than 19.9 million Catholics in the country, representing around 1.55 percent of its total population. It has units nation-wide. They belong to three different ritual Churches — Latin Rite, Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara. The AICU, established in 1919, all set to celebrate the centenary.
Lancy D’Cunha, a noted lay leader was re-elected for a second two-year term as the AICU national president of at the recently concluded annual general meeting in Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu, southern India.
Santosh Digal of Matters India talked to him to find more.
MATTERS iNDIA: Please introduce yourself.
LANCY D’CUNHA: I am a farmer-engineer and has been re-elected the National President of the AICU. I was earlier the vice president.
I was born on October 24, 1966, in Bondel, Mangalore in South Canara. I am married to Lidwin, a teacher and have two sons and a daughter. I have been active at the grassroots in the Catholic community and in nurturing a dialogue with other faiths and working with them on the basic issues of the people. I was among those who led the movement for justice for the victims of the targeted violence in August 2008. Although Kandhamal in Odisha, eastern India, was the epicenter, Mangalore was also viciously hit.
AICU has completed 99 years. How do you assess its contribution to the Church and society?
Even half a century would be momentous in the life of any organization which is voluntary, active across the nation, and involving the social and political, or secular, activities of the faith. That we are 99 years of age now, have crossed watersheds such as the freedom struggle and Independence of India, the adoption of the Constitution by the young republic of India, and in the life of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council and the declaration of the sui juris Oriental Rites in the country – making three Catholic Churches with overlapping jurisdictions throughout the land – would have been incomprehensible and certainly unimaginable to the founding fathers of what today is the largest laity movement in India.
We cannot say we have achieved what was needed, but we can certainly say that have taken some important steps to help make the laity a healthy, vibrant partner with the hierarchy, the clergy, the women religious. We are not, and never have been, either in competition or a challenge to the hierarchy. But we are partners, which is the soul of the second Vatican and critical in an emerging economy and complex political and social diversity that India presents us. The hierarchy recognizes us as the voice of secular laity, no longer putting us in the same compartment as pious legions and groups. But perhaps more needs to be done from both sides, the bishops and clergy on the one hand, and the Catholic Union on the other, to make the laity stronger in every parish, in every diocese in every part of the country. I would say that is the goal for us, and the ultimate expectation we have from the hierarchy of the church.
For us, it all began the year 1919 when some lay leaders from Mangalore, Thrissur, and Chennai convened first Catholic laity conference at Chennai to organize the Catholic groups from different parts of Indian to face the difficulties of some outfits. After that they arranged some meetings in other parts of the country and in 1936 they formed All India Congress and which now functioning in the name of AICU. Now we have more than 90 associations functioning in different dioceses of India. That means we have reached our goal.
We are especially working for the social justice and uplift of our community and, to some extent we succeeded also. Political parties, social organizations and I may say the government does listen to our voice, even though it still sees the Bishops as the only face of the church.
What is your vision for future?
The AICU leadership’s vision is, as we have said, to be present in every parish as a Catholic association exercising our canonical right, different from but also complimenting the Parish Councils. If we are vibrant, as we want to be, the council and other bodies of the parish will also be impacted and strengthened, and so will the diocese. The laity must be strengthened if the church is to remain strong, on that we have no doubt. We would like to hope that by our presence, by our articulation of the problems, the demands, hopes, and aspirations of our faith community, we will be able to contribute in the formulation of government policy and influence its decisions on education, health, science, and the socio-economic development of the country. We do not want the government to mix politics and administration with religion, we oppose religious nationalism as is taking shape now, but we want to make sure that our point of view is well represented and voiced by us in the AICU.
How do you look at the Laity in India?
The recognition of the laity as a component and voice in the church is not more than 150 years old, after the turmoil of the 19th century. The laity has been active in the southern states of what was one the Madras Residency, and parts of the Bombay residency, and Goa (a former Portuguese colony). This means the Laity was visible in the five southern states and Maharashtra in a bigger way. In the north, its emergence has been stronger in the 20th century only. The partition of India disrupted Catholic strongholds in Punjab. But in northeast India, where Christianity is more than a century old and the Catholic Church strong, it has a very vibrant laity.
Our lay men and women are today more educated than they were a century ago, obviously. But the education of the laity in the Church’s social teachings of and theology has not brought the empowerment envisioned in the Vatican II. In most places, we are closely working with the church hierarchy in the formation of the laity and in training people in lay theology. This, in fact, is the centennial objective of the Catholic Union.
Is our laity empowered? If not, what more must be done?
Our founding fathers have had to struggle hard to keep the momentum alive, but by the Grace of God, every time the movement seemed to dim and weaken, a great lay leader would emerge to shoulder the burden. The last one was George Menezes of Bombay, a former air force officer and corporate sector leader. He reinvigorated the AICU, training a new generation of leaders who have put the union back on its feet. His deep search for future leaders has had a national reach. The last five presidents of the Catholic union are in some way or the other the finds of that momentum. This includes AICU’s first woman president, Dr. Maria Emelia Menezes of Goa, a teacher and prominent industrialist.
George Menezes introduced modern techniques for leadership training and enthused an entire generation of young people to work in the parishes and dioceses. The empowerment process continues but is still to cover every diocese. We do have regular training programs in all regions of the country.
Are the three rites in the Indian Church a help in lay empowerment or a hurdle?
The two Oriental Rites are part of Indian Christianity and part of the inheritance of the Catholic Church in the country. The Latin Rite, part of the universal church, was the first to cover the entire subcontinent, with the two Oriental Rites, Syro Malabar and Syro Malankara confined to overlapping jurisdictions in Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu. But with people migrating in search of employment, the Oriental rites have spread to almost all states of India to offer them pastoral care. The recognition of the three Rites as equal by Rome presents both opportunities and challenges. Some Rites are strong in resources, and some not. Because of language and regional affinity, the Oriental Rites are more cohesive with the community feeling knitting them closely. But the Latin Rite has greater diversity and can be the most vigorously vibrant. It is for the AICU leadership to see how we get strength from the individual strengths of the three rites.
AICU is a supra ritual organization and hopefully will see strong collaboration between the laity of the three rites to the benefit of the entire Catholic community, and through it, the entire Christian population in India.
AICU has been demanding dialogue with the bishops of India. What is the progress?
We have had some breakthrough in recent decades after the deadlock of the past, but perhaps more can be done. We are interacting with CBCI and other bishops. I started meeting bishops, discussing various issues. We invite them for our meetings in different levels we interact you might have seen In Bhopal even we addressed a joint press conference.
Is clericalism a big issue in the Church in India?
Clericalism is an issue in the global church. In a developing and varied society, such as India, where most people are poor, there is a greater dependence on the priest and the religious sisters who administer educational institutions which are the visible presence of the church on the ground. This is true in Dalit and tribal areas. But after Vatican II, there is a perceptible change.
The Indian Church recently witnessed controversies over property. How does AICU view them?
There can be nothing but zero tolerance for corruption, moral turpitude, and gender violence. That is not just the Church position and affirmation, but the national secular policy.
On gender, we are strongly supportive of women religious as well as the women in the laity that the hierarchy is ruthless in dealing with this malaise. The Church must set up redressal mechanisms and the bishops must listen when women, religious or lay, send them a complaint or reach out seeking help. The Catholic Union would like to collaborate in this. Perhaps there could be a helpline. But this is an evolving issue and we are sympathetic to the voice of women theologians and others.
On financial corruption and alienation of property which is not just signs of moral decay but also a crime under Indian law, we would want a transparent dispensation. There must be no cover-ups protecting the guilty. But we must also recognize that we do not fall victim to conspiracies that weaken the Church, or in any way undermine honest hierarchy.
But it must also be said that there is not sufficient dialogue within the Church. That hinders resolution of small differences and comes in the way of resolving issues that can be handled within the four walls of the church.
How does AICU treat women? What is the percentage of women among its members?
AICU had a woman president, Dr. Mara Emelia Menezes between 2000 and 2004. We have had women as secretary general and in various other capacities. Many of our state organizations are headed by women or have women in important positions. As a policy, AICU is for equal opportunity and participation of men and women. It may not be always reflected in our annual meetings, but that is our stated policy and we continue to work towards it.
Why doesn’t AICU play a greater role in the political scene?
Our main aim is to give political awareness to the laity. Our community members are involved in all parties. Choosing the political party is their right. But I feel we should have meetings with our political leaders at least once in a year even if they have their own party agenda while coming to community everybody should be united, and this I feel AICU should do, and we are trying our best in this also. AICU is not interested in becoming a political party.