A people in a remote part of India who barely knew Christ a hundred years ago now make up a thriving local Church, one that is vibrant because of its lay leadership.
Bishop George Pallipparambil, who heads the Diocese of Miao, came to the mountainous area of India’s northeast in 1970 as a young Salesian seminarian, desirous to work in what was then known as the Assam Missions. He has seen the nascent Church grow exponentially. Catholicism was considered an “underground Church” barely 50 years ago. Enduring various periods of persecution from local governments and Hindu extremists, the Diocese of Miao now has some 90,000 adherents and sponsors many schools and the only hospital in the area.
But now Bishop Pallipparambil’s mission is to protect that Church from complacency and clericalism, which often plague more established local Churches around the world.
The state in which the Diocese of Miao is situated is Arunachal Pradesh, which translates as “land of dawn-lit mountains.” Bordering Bhutan, Tibet, China, and Burma, it is territory claimed by both China and India. There are refugee camps in the region for Tibetans who have escaped Chinese rule.
German and French missionaries had tried unsuccessfully to evangelize the tribal region in the 19th century, but were largely unsuccessful. The Vatican asked the Salesians to take over the Assam Missions in the 1920s.
The native people of the area, predominantly of Mongolian origin, “could never register abstract things. They believed what they saw. Experience was their learning,” said Bishop Pallipparambil, 64.
What the Salesian missionaries brought “was not science and math but band instruments, footballs, table soccer,” he said. “This caught the imagination of the children and the parents. The people are very musical by nature, so band became a popular attraction. In that way they’d be learning and a kind of building up of familiarity began.”
Bishop Pallipparambil spoke with Aleteia during a recent visit to New York. He was was visiting under the auspices of Aid to the Church in Need-USA.
The traditional religion in the area covered by the Diocese of Miao is animism. People worship the powers of nature, the sun, the moon and the wind.
“Their universe consists of good spirits or evil spirits,” the bishop said. “Things like sickness and all that are by the evil spirits. Good crops and good weather are from the good spirits. Their whole time is spent appeasing the evil spirit or pleasing the good spirit. So Christianity is a natural recourse for them, because they don’t need to go into these animal sacrifices in order to propitiate the evil spirit, nor other sacrifices in order to please the good spirit. The animal sacrifices were really destroying them, because the village priest, according to his pleasure, would prescribe that maybe this animal could be sacrificed—maybe a buffalo, maybe a cow, maybe a pig, maybe a cock, whatever it is. For poor people it was very difficult. Christianity did away with all these things.
“Secondly, the tribals are very independent people,” he continued. “They were illiterate, they were poor and in most cases they were naked. … But they would never admit they are inferior to anybody else, and Christianity gave them that respect.”
They were friendly and receptive, and the early missionaries lived among them, started schools, and took the sick to faraway hospitals when needed. “It became an exercise in familiarity, more than the preaching message,” the bishop said. “It’s more by relating than by preaching.”
Bishop Pallipparambil is reluctant to speak of “conversions,” a word which in India has a bad connotation.
“Some people understand that I converted somebody, or the missionaries converted somebody. But we believe conversion is not our job at all. Conversion is the call of God. Just as Saul of Tarsus was called, and until God calls a person, any amount of machinations will not cause a conversion. … Only when God touches a person conversion really takes place.
“There are people who choose to be Christians because they feel there is something attractive about Jesus Christ. They’ve had an experience of him. I always say: we will not stop doing that. If somebody has chosen to follow Christ, I have to encourage him.”
Also what attracts people is the universality of the Church. “When I speak at a service where there are baptisms, I tell them ‘Today you are becoming members of the biggest human family on earth. The Gospel we’re reading today in this remote village is the same that is read in New York and Tokyo. If you go anywhere in the world you will not be lost. You will find the same Mass. Whatever language they use, you know what is going on.’
“This is what attracts them the most. When they belong to small ethnic groups and to know that they belong to a big family where they are equal to anyone else is the most attractive thing for them.”
In a culture where girls were subjected to arranged marriages, the Salesians began training centers where girls would learn reading and writing in addition to perfecting skills such as weaving and tailoring. Many were able to translate those skills into small businesses, giving them independence as young women. When, in the 1990s, a new national law required that 33 percent of the local government be reserved for women, many of the alumna of the Salesian training centers were in a position to participate in the political system.
Bishop Pallipparambil grew up in Kerala, in the southwest of India, where Christianity is much more common. When he first went to the far northeast, he found that very few people had heard the Gospel. “The local government wanted to protect them from outside evangelization, to preserve their culture,” he said.
Even after a village leader and 900 of his people agreed to be baptized in August 1979, missionaries had to be discreet.
“It was literally an underground Church. We could never have churches,” the bishop recalled.
As a seminarian, he and a priest spent Christmas Day 1980 in a police station, being interrogated because they had tried to offer Mass for a group of 500 or 600 local Christians. Even after his ordination, when he became the first resident priest in Arunachal Pradesh, in June 1992, missionaries were not allowed to live there. But the villagers, who wanted him there, “found an exception to the law.”
The first church in Arunachal Pradesh was consecrated in August 1993, with 5,000 people in attendance. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who had tried unsuccessfully for years to get permission to visit the area, was finally able to visit. It was so important to her to be there, Bishop Pallipparambil said, that she cancelled plans to attend a conflicting event—World Youth Day in Denver.
And the local government, which had fought to keep missionaries out, finally realized that they had fought a losing battle. “The government machinery, the police, the army, all who opposed it til the last moment, finally [helped with] the organization of the event. “They realized there was no way, but just let these people do what they want.”
Today, the Diocese of Miao, which was formally established by the Vatican in 2005, boasts of a long list of accomplishments, including these statistics:
- 26 parishes with 156 substations.
- 28 diocesan priests, 68 religious order priests, and 165 women religious.
- Where there were no viable schools and illiteracy rates of over 80 percent, today there are 44 schools and 13 high-schools; one higher secondary school, and one college.
- A minor seminary was started in 2006. Today there are 18 young men doing their initial formation and 13 others at various levels of formation, from philosophy to theology.
- The Church has built and staffs the only hospital in an area of some 17,000 square miles; it is dedicated to St. Teresa of Calcutta. The hospital opened two years ago, and infant mortality rates have declined by 80 percent in the area of the hospital.
It is a Church of the laity, with 156 trained lay catechists, the bishop likes to point out.
“My greatest joy is to see how the Church has grown in this state and that we have a very committed and well informed laity,” he said. “Today, they represent every walk of life and proudly proclaim their faith.
And while it hasn’t lost the fervor of a young Church, the bishop is well aware that other Churches around the world have become comfortable and lost their zeal: “The greatest challenge I see is clericalization. As long as there were no or few priests and more lay leaders, the Church grew rapidly. With the growing number of priests and religious, the stress slowly shifts to institutions. These institutions eventually begin to give importance to laws and regulations and this brings exclusion and alienation. The focus changes from growth to maintenance; closeness to the people becomes ‘discipline.’ I might even say that, slowly, canon law replaces the Gospel. That would be the beginning of the end.
“When we place the system above the Gospel, this tiredness will set in,” he said. “The ‘system’ is ‘My buildings, my rules and regulations.’ If the Gospel is the priority, if the Gospel is the first principle, then it will be like the Acts of the Apostles. … It will always be a Church on the move, where there’s a place for every person.”
Those who are members of the Church, especially her leaders, need to give people “the freedom and growth that comes from the Gospel.” Bishop Pallipparambil keeps St. Irenaeus’s saying in mind: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
“I might teach him all the commandments or whatever it is, but if he’s sick or illiterate or literally starving, it’s not going to glorify God in any way at all. Whatever we do we have to glorify God through being a fully alive man. In all our outreach programs, whether it be in the field of health, education, or economic development, whatever it is, should lead to that, that is, this person must be fully a human person, so that he or she represents and relates to God.”