Register columnist Father Raymond J. de Souza was in India for the installation of the Mumbai Archbishop Oswald Gracias. He reports his reflections from his first visit to Mumbai and Goa, his ancestral homeland.

A Religious People

At the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount in Bandra, a district of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), there is a steady stream of pilgrims who stop in to pray.

That is impressive enough, but more striking still is that many are not Catholic.

The sight of a chador-clad Muslim woman bent low in homage before the Mother of God is quite unremarkable here. During the patronal feast on Sept. 8, a week-long celebration brings hundreds of thousands to the shrine, the majority not Catholic.

India has a secular constitution and a popular culture that is as superficial as anything in Hollywood — or “Bollywood” as the huge local film industry is called — but the culture is profoundly religious.

Even in the cities, the natural religiosity of the people is evident with people incorporating prayer into their daily routine while going about their business. Religion is not relegated to a purely private sphere. It is taken seriously as part of common life. No generic holiday season in Mumbai — they celebrate Diwali, Eid and Christmas, respecting that religious feasts are primarily religious. The potential for evangelization — 975 million non-Christians in a country with a natural piety — is immense.

Catechists and Evangelization

They call it a subcontinent for a reason. Across the vastness of India, almost as far from Mumbai as it is possible to get, is the area of Nagaland, farther east than Bangladesh. The people look more like Nepalese or Tibetans than the majority of Indians.

After morning Mass one day, I met a group of about 20 young people from that region, along with their chaplain. They had made a three-day train trek to attend a retreat marking the end of their 10-month intensive training program as catechists. Musically gifted, they offered to sing a song in their native dialect. Impressed, I asked them for an encore. My jaw hit the floor when the 4 followed it up with an a cappella version of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.

Not only in the remote regions, but even the cities, catechists and youth ministers are far advanced in terms of lay evangelization and youth ministry.

Well-trained, committed full-time and with what can only be called missionary zeal, there are thousands who understand that the apostolate of the laity is truly evangelical. The continuing evangelization of Asia will be distinctive in that it will be largely led by lay missionaries. It makes our endless lay empowerment documents and seminars in North America seem rather timid and narrow by comparison.

A Church of Global Influence

Mumbai needed a new archbishop because the last one, Cardinal Ivan Dias, was appointed this year to be the “Red Pope” — the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Responsible for the missionary territories, the congregation appoints bishops in about a third of the world, and is responsible for many of the areas where the Church’s growth is most explosive.

Cardinal Dias is the first Asian to hold the post, and he is no token appointment; he was thought by many to be a serious option for pope — white, not red — in 2005.

Cardinal Dias’ elevation signaled that India has a vibrant Church with global influence. New Archbishop Oswald Gracias is a leading member of Vox Clara, the select group of bishops overseeing the English translation of the missal. He is a widely admired figure who has already emerged as a key figure consulted by Rome; he will ensure the prominent voice Mumbai had under Cardinal Dias.

The size of the Indian Church is deceptive.

At only 1.8% of the population, India’s Catholics would seem to be a tiny flock, until it is considered that they are 18 million strong — more Catholics than you would find in Canada and England combined. And the Catholics have a disproportionate cultural influence through their network of schools and colleges, entrance to which is highly sought after by leading Hindus and Muslims.

The Archdiocese of Mumbai has only 500,000 Catholics — a midsize diocese by European or North American standards. But factor in 80% Mass attendance, 300 diocesan priests plus scores more religious, religious sisters in abundance, including those under 40, and a naturally religious culture, and the vibrancy of Catholic life would put to shame much larger dioceses abroad.

That’s the reason behind the increasing number of Indians present in Rome, in the leadership of religious orders, and as pastors of North American parishes.

Faith and Culture — Goa

In Goa, the faith was brought the old-fashioned way, by Jesuit missionaries. St. Francis Xavier arrived in 1542, on a journey that would eventually take him to Japan and to the threshold of China.

Nowhere did he have more success than in Goa, where the encounter between native religiosity and Portuguese colonial presence fused a Goan culture that is deeply Catholic to this day.

Goa has long produced a large share of India’s clergy, but the shape of its Catholic culture still bears the marks of its Mediterranean heritage.

As the faith spreads in India, and meets more profoundly Eastern religious cultures, the challenge to maintain Christian orthodoxy is ever-present. At the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa, where the relics of St. Francis Xavier are kept, there is an elaborate life-size diorama that tells the story of three holy men: Jesus, St. Francis Xavier and Blessed Joseph Vaz, a Goan missionary in Sri Lanka.

To Western eyes, it is odd to tell the story of Jesus alongside any saint, no matter how prominent. While the presentation is careful not to deny the divinity of Christ, it clearly attempts to present Jesus within the Eastern tradition of a great holy man or guru.

The danger is that such presentations risk precisely downplaying the central proclamation of the Gospel — that Jesus is Lord. The correct balance is difficult is achieve; it remains the principal theological and pastoral challenge for the Church’s missionary work in Asia.

The Church in India will play a leading role in that task — the evangelical challenge of the third millennium.

Father Raymond J. de Souza

served as the Register’s Rome

correspondent from 1999 to 2003.