Belgian Jesuit martyr inspires Ranchi theology students

By Jose Kavi

New Delhi, Feb. 11, 2019: Students of a regional theology center in Jharkhand state say their recent visit to the tomb of a Belgian Jesuit martyr has helped them understand the cost of engaging in interfaith dialogue.

“I went to the pilgrimage without much enthusiasm, but felt an ocean of compassion welling up in me at the missionary’s mazar (tomb),” Brother Samir Bhawnra, one of the students of Tarunoday (Dawn), the Regional Theology Centre, Ranchi, told Matters India after the pilgrimage to Father Herman Rasschaert’s tomb.

Bhawnra was in the group of 16 Jesuit students and two teachers, who on January 27 visited Father Rasschaert’s tomb in Katungia, some 180 km southwest of Ranchi, the state capital. Some Catholic nuns also joined them.

Father Rasschaert was the parish priest of the Immaculate Conception Church in Katungia parish of Simdega diocese (then under Ranchi archdiocese).

A tribal mob killed the Flemish missionary on March 24, 1964, when he went to save Muslim refugees from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) who had taken refuge in a mosque in Gerda, a village under his parish territory. He was then 42.

The Ranchi Jesuit province and the diocese of Simdega have initiated a process to canonize the missionary now being hailed as the martyr of interreligious harmony.

Jesuit Father Victor Edwin, a scholar of Islam who organized the visit, said they spent “quiet prayerful moments at the place where he fell as a martyr and the burnt down mosque at Gerda, and his tomb in Kutungia.”

He noted that their pilgrimage assumed significance as it had taken place just a week before Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United Arab Emirates, an Islamic nation.

“It’s very important to give attention to the Holy Father’s message. He invites all to work together to uphold the values of peace, justice and coexistence,” the Jesuit priest who teaches in several theology colleges, including Tarunodaya, told Matters India on February 7.

The Pope’s ”peaceful and relentless advocacy for promoting culture of dialogue rooted on the culture of respect for one another and for all is recognized and appreciated by people of diverse religious traditions,” said the priest, who is also the secretary of the Islamic Studies Association.

Father Victor said the message the group got from the martyr’s tomb and the Pope’s exhortations “is the same: Uphold the human dignity of all, find a brother and sister in the other, and coexist in peace with all.”

Father Rasschaert, he noted, had upheld the values of peace, compassion, justice and coexistence on the day of his martyrdom. In his efforts to protect human fraternity he laid his life. He became a martyr for love and continues to live in the hearts of many Muslims and Christians,” he added.

Brother Bhawnra, who comes from a Jharkhand village where Christians maintain an uneasy relation with their Muslim neighbors, said he was struck deeply with the realization that “living in communion with the Triune God had led Father Rasschaert to lay his life for the poor Muslim refugees.”

“Father Rasschaert lived up to the demands of the Gospel — make anyone in need your neighbor. This lesson got etched in my heart. At that moment my prejudices began to collapse. I started a new page. I feel that I should cooperate with the grace of transformation by prudently and generously building relationships with Muslims,” he added.

A number of students told Matters India that they drew inspiration and strength from the pilgrimage to serve effectively in the Chotanagpur region that has become communally divisive and intolerant.

Father Jainas Kullu, one of the priests serving the Gerda parish, noted that Father Rasschaert had served the people of Chotanagpur from 1947 until his death

Narrating the missionary’s death, Father Kullu said the parishioners had informed the missionary that several hundreds of Muslim refugees had taken asylum in a small mosque in Gerda. “He rushed to the spot to save hapless Muslims. The mobs killed him and later killed a number of Muslims and burnt the mosque,” Father Kullu explained.

Jesuit Father Francis Minj, Tarunoday director, told Matters India that they have obtained from the Simdega bishop permission to start the process for Father Rasschaert’s beatification. “Preliminary work has already started with the formation of the commission. Efforts are being made to gather evidences,” he told Matters India.

Father Kullu said the diocese has recorded statements of both Christians and Muslims who had witnessed the killing and submitted them to the commission. He expressed the hope that the missionary would be declared a Servant of God, the first stage in canonization, in early this year.

Father Rasschaert was born in The Netherlands in a family of Belgian immigrants on September 13, 1922. He joined the Society of Jesus in 1941 and arrived in India in November 1947.

From 1949 to 1950, he headed St John’s School, Ranchi. From 1951 to 1954, he studied theology at St Mary’s College, Kurseong, near Darjeeling. He was ordained a priest on November 21, 1953.

Father Rasschaert was transferred to south Bihar (now Jharkhand). A widely respected man, he helped everyone regardless of caste or creed. Legend goes that as a priest in Karra in the late 1950s, he once cycled a wounded man for 40 km to a Ranchi hospital.

In 1960, he was made the parish priest in Kutungia. Communal tension began from January 1964, when thousands of refugees from East Pakistan came to India. Their tales of horror and deaths inflamed riots in Jamshedpur, Ranchi, Rourkela and other places.

Father Rasschaert was pained to see Hindus and Muslims of nearby villages turn hostile toward each other.

On March 24, 1964, when communal violence boiled over in Gerda village, Kutungia, the missionary cycled 12 km from his church to dissuade warring groups from harming one another. He was killed in the process.

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