Catholics Raise Eyebrows as Bishop Dons Saffron Robes!

By Verghese V Joseph –

Belagavi: Pictures of Belagavi diocese Bishop Derek Fernandes, wearing saffron robes and with a vermilion tilak (mark) on his forehead, doing the rounds on social media has taken the Catholic community in India by surprise.

These pictures tweeted by journalist-activist Savio Rodrigues show unidentified men wearing the saffron robe and ‘rudraksha malas’ ((a prayer bead in Hinduism) ) on their neck accompanying the bishop as co-celebrants while offering the Eucharist in a temple-styled church.

Some accused Bishop Fernandes, whom Pope Francis appointed as the sixth bishop of Belgaum on May 1, of trying to mislead Hindus and described it as a ploy to convert them. Several Christians on Twitter warned the bishop against such activities and charged him with blasphemy. Bishop Fernandes, currently in Rome, is attending the ‘Ad Limina’ event.

Fr Philip Kutty Joseph, vicar general of the Belgaum diocese, said the photographs were taken on August 29 on a visit by Bishop Fernandes to a church in Deshnur, 28km from Belagavi. “The church was earlier called Virakta mutt,” he said. “Jesuit priests first went there more than 40 years ago and adopted Indian practices such as donning saffron robes. In fact, the tabernacle is in the form of a Shiva linga.” These photographs were supposedly taken on August 29 as per the information given by Fr Joseph.

Father Nelson Pinto, a priest explained that when the first Jesuit priests went to Deshnur, in a predominantly Lingayat region, they adopted the local culture.

“The Jesuit priests became vegetarians and embraced other local practices,” Pinto was quoted as saying. “They did not do it to convert the people who lived there.”

Metropolitan Archbishop of Goa & Daman and Patriarch of the East Indies Most Rev Filipe Neri Ferrão said he was unaware of the incident involving Bishop Fernandes, but said it appeared to be part of a practice that the Catholic Church calls inculturation.

Archbishop Filipe said, “The photographs show that the Eurcharistic ceremony in the church appears to be the assimilation of local culture, which is called inculturation. It can be seen in the attire they are wearing and also the liturgy.”

In May 2003, when Indian bishops met Pope John Paul II before concluding their ‘ad limina’ visit to Rome, the Holy Father said, “India, blessed with so many different cultures, is a land in which the people yearn for God; this makes the Indian liturgy very distinct.”

Though the Roman Catholic Church did not take this incident seriously, the activist cum journalist Rodrigues, who posted the pictures on Twitter has received several threat messages. One of the message says, “Savio Rodrigues, Judas in the name of Catholic. Reward of Rs 50,000, if anyone makes his face black and garlands him with shoes.”

Some other Catholics have felt offended by this post of Savio Rodrigues. One such person said, in reply to the tweet of Rodrigues, “Hey Savio or whoever you may be. Please do not speak against our Catholic religion. You have no right to talk against our religion.”

To add a bit more on the belief system of both cultures, here are similarities between Catholicism and Hinduism:

  • Hindus worship many gods and Catholics pray to many saints, both with the burning of candles and incense before statues. Both use images, icons, music, and ritual prayers as means to create an atmosphere of worship. While Hindus chant ritual “mantras,” Catholics chant rosary prayers.
  • Both have a priesthood that acts as an intermediary between the people and God.
  • Both believe in the effectiveness of “holy water” in various cleansing rites.
  • Both believe everyone needs “perfecting” before going to the ultimate reward. Catholics see time in purgatory as necessary to perfection of character, while Hindus believe that reincarnation will give the necessary steps towards perfection.
  • Both believe in the effectiveness of repeated offerings and sacrifices. Catholics believe the mass will effectively offer Christ again and again as a sacrifice for sins, while Hindus will present their gods with sacrifices and offerings of flowers.
  • Both religions have a strong belief that spiritual exercises will lift the worshiper out of the usual round of daily living, and will promote a mystic and superior understanding of existence. St. Ignatius is not really very different in his outlook on “spiritual exercises” than the Hindu mystic in his concentration on escaping this physical world and entering nirvana.
  • Both religions worship a mother goddess. Hindus worship the Goddess Durga as the Supreme Mother, while Catholics venerate Mother Mary .
  • Of course it can be pointed out that Hinduism is polytheistic (worshiping many gods) while Catholicism is monotheistic (worshiping only one God). In practice, Catholicism encourages worshipers to see Mary and the saints as interceders between God and humanity.
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