Tuesday , 24 April 2018

Responsibility of religion

Frederick Noronha


It’s ironic the way the grass usually appears greener on the other side of the fence. As a youngster growing up in post-colonial Goa, one tended to be apologetic about our traditions and religion. To be a Catholic in the Goa of the 1960s or 1970s appeared to be like a wrong person living in a wrong place at the wrong time.

From my conservative Catholic past, I moved on to being (one would like to believe) more tolerant of other people, of their views, and of diversity. Today, it does seem surprising to encounter among others a defensive demeanour about religion, which I feel is oftentimes misplaced.

Five centuries after it took root in Goa, Christianity is a mix of many things, both good and not so good. (Some would like to trace the roots of Christianity here to way beyond that, but even if true, it would have had only minor impact earlier.) While the positives need to be consolidated on, the problem areas need to be acknowledged and worked upon.

They say there can be strength in weakness. The Goa Church’s loss of power, post 1960s is arguably something that has helped the institution. Its disconnect from Portuguese State power (particularly in the controversial early-to-mid 20th century), had challenged it to cope in trying times, and perhaps become stronger on its own.

Rather than have a controversial set of supporters, an independent identity can do more on its own. By the 1970s and the 1980s itself, the Church in Goa was boldly speaking out on environmental issues, whether it was the ramponkars movement or on the impact of mass tourism. For a change, its concerns were not focussed entirely on moral concerns, but on economics and even human rights violations.

In our younger days, some of our thinking was shaped by a liberal Catholic magazine, called On the Move. Like all innovative experiments, it was put together by a small group of people, maybe half a dozen or less. Over time, I got to know many involved with this small effort, some of whom are going strong (and contributing in whatever way they can) while even in their eighties. If you can locate a copy, which is doubtful, it’s worth reading and getting to know. Even if purely to remind ourselves that religion too can have its own, small liberal and tolerant voices even in trying times.

Around the 1980s, national students’ movements like the All India Catholic Universities’ Federation (AICUF) played an active role in shaping a generation of students. Many people of a certain generation who still contribute to Goan life in some way belong to that movement.

Contrary to what its name might suggest, it was not a sectarian or communal body. It inculcated in the youth values of concern for others, a form of patriotism that went beyond just hating a neighbouring country or disliking people of another religion.

Even before that, students from the 1960s could tell you the impact of groups like the YCS (Young Christian Students) on their approach to life. This may have been active more in places outside Goa, like Bombay, where youngsters encountered natural problems aggravated by human attitudes like drought and famine. Many became activists for a large part of their life.

If not mistaken, even individuals like Matanhy Saldanha, Claude Alvares and Christopher Fonseca were influenced by such movements. Others, who might have worked behind the limelight, like a group of nurses volunteering in Pernem with the Redemptorist Fr Desmond De Souza, also were shaped by similar influences. They lived their Christianity in practice rather than just making a ritual out of it. The feminist movement in Goa had some of its leaders shaped by such trends, and so did a section of the students’ movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Elsewhere in the country, such developments also brought about impacts among other youth, including those of Goan origin living elsewhere in the country. The NGO movement was given a fillip by some of them. It is another matter that NGOs can sometimes end up being ineffective, unable to bring scalable change or just act as self-serving enterprises. But at least part of the reason why they are treated with suspicion by those in power is because they can sometimes play an (even if small) oppositional role in a world where ruling parties can otherwise get away unchallenged.

The documentation movement – based on the belief that information when strategically used can itself help to bring about positive change – was built by priests like the Jesuit Paul G, a legend in his own right, who passed away recently.

In times like ours, when Christianity is sometimes equated solely with processes like Inquisitions, Crusades and conversions, we need to remind ourselves that there’s another world out there too. That any religion (or even secular ideology) has its share of positives and negatives.

At the same time, the shortcomings can’t be overlooked. In a place like Goa, the Church may have done a lot in terms of primary and high school education, and music too (more so in an earlier era). But it has not played its role sufficiently in higher education, particularly in an India where the Jesuits can have a university in Orissa and the Salesians in Assam.

Very little has been done in the field of healthcare in Goa, apart from the labour of love reflected in a chain of homes for the aged, and a handful of hospitals (which could grow into at least nursing colleges, if not medical colleges).

Lot remains to be done by way of building an intellectual space, one based on the values of the 21st century. I sometimes half-jokingly tell my Jesuit friends that they are excellent builders in mortar, but not so good today in building men (and women, of course). Keep in mind that Goa was one of the first places in the world where the Jesuits had their institutions, not long after they were founded, in the 1540s. And that India Jesuits today comprise almost a quarter of the order worldwide.

With so many Goans involved in out-migration, this is a section very little has been done for, apart from the occasional ministry for seafarers and initiatives by religious of the Pilar network. Much work remains undone in caring for in-migrants too.

There was a time when Christians debated on whether their youth efforts should be focussed on building leadership skills, or conscientising the youngsters about the harsh social realities around them, and the need for social, economic and political justice. Today, neither the first nor the second category of initiatives seems to be getting undertaken.

There are a range of other issues, right from taking care of community assets to building tolerance within the community, and taking a stance in favour of the less privileged. No religion can evolve if it merely responds to pressures, and does not have some plan for where it would like to reach. This will not happen if left to work out on autopilot.

In a way, the growth of intolerance worldwide (from Trump downwards) only compels influential institutions to work out practical solutions for our times. The growth of communalism should not be an excuse to withdraw into one’s shell and claim helplessness in moving ahead.

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