Fr. Mignon: An Unsung Hero of the Bengali Bible

By Subhasis Chattopadhyay –

The late Fr. Christian Mignon SJ died unknown like Carthusians die in their Charterhouses. And like the Galilean, his Master, Fr. Mignon hardly moved out of Kolkata’s St. Xavier’s College at Park Street. There he excelled in one thing: the perfection of the interior life; both of his own life and of his community through what is known as the ‘Jesuit way of proceeding’.

St. Alphonsus Rodríguez S.J. (1532-1617) was a porter and did that apparently menial task so well that God made Alphonsus a sign of His Love for eternity. Later Brother Saint André Bessette (1845-1937) of the Holy Cross Congregation did his job as a porter as diligently as St. Alphonsus did, only at Canada and nearer to our times, so that we never forget the power of being known only to the Nazarene. Fr. Mignon SJ whom this writer knew well from childhood belongs to this tradition of becoming perfect in hiddenness. Dazzled by the beauty of God Fr. Mignon shut his doors to the world and made his room at St. Xavier’s a scholar’s hideout. The greatest contemporary linguist in Kolkata if not India was not to be found in highflying seminars which keep happening till date at both St. Xavier’s College and all over Calcutta.

Once the Jesuit Frederick Copleston (1907-1994) was asked how he could ever complete his multi-volume mammoth history of philosophy with unprecedented clarity: Father Copleston had humbly replied that he had all the time in the world! I once asked Fr. Mignon what made him keep writing and translating the entire Bible. He had smiled, a rare occurrence, and told me that he had all the time in the world since unlike me he was not with a girl-friend! But the heart of the matter is that it takes often inhuman (not superhuman) strength to fight acedia and dark nights of the soul in a celibate-room to plod on, one word at a time.

Fr. Mignon must be contextualized within two discourses: as an intellectual of the calibre of Umberto Eco (1932-2016) and as an Ignatian animator of Jesuits. It is not sufficient to assess him as a scholar of the Bible which I have done in my own blog. Biblical scholar he certainly was, as Copleston was a Jesuit philosopher; but Fr. Mignon’s understanding of the problematic poetics of translation ratifies not only Eco’s semiotics but also Walter Ong S.J.’s (1912-2003) understanding of language. Fr. Mignon could not have translated the Bible without knowing the usual Aramaic, Hebrew, Old and New Greeks and Latin. He must have turned to his own French Bibles and the many English Bibles in circulation. His target language is known, but the sources will have to be scrutinized by scholars in future decades to locate the definite originals.

Like other great Jesuit-intellectuals, Matteo Ricci S.J. (1552-1610) comes to mind, Fr. Mignon did not merely change the topography of Biblical Studies in India. His scholarship resists and reshapes the history of fields like semiotics and opens debates about transcreation. For instance, Fr. Mignon’s approach challenges some assumptions of P. Lal’s (1929-2010) hegemonic position in India as a transcreator of the Mahabharata. His translation of the Bible translates cultures into Bengali. I am stressing that he was a Bible scholar first and from that scholarship came forth his translations. For instance, Fr. Mignon’s oeuvre restores the Marginal Jew of John Meier (1942-) to the Man-God who hangs from the Cross lacerated with our acts of hate against each other. So, Fr. Mignon was a Christologist whose theological cultural act was that of a translator. Fr. Mignon’s legacy is equal to Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1895-1975) legacy in the humanities today. Like Bakhtin was unknown during his life time; Fr. Mignon was not much known beyond Kolkata-Jesuits. We must never lose sight of Fr. Mignon as a scholar since St. Ignatius of Loyola mandated his sons to be intellectuals. Fr. Mignon sacrificed himself (sic) from one boring day to another, fighting acedia and nihilism in his austere room at St. Xavier’s where only the Holy Ghost moulded him in silence and contemplation.

It says a lot about Fr. Mignon that he was the spiritual director of one of the greatest contemporary Jesuits who ever lived in Kolkata, the philosopher and physics whiz: Fr. Lawrence Abello S.J.  Fr. Abello in his entire stay in India, like his spiritual director, worked from his room at St. Xavier’s Kolkata. Fr. Abello was often ridiculed and castigated in public for being too orthodox regarding abortion. It was from Fr. Abello I got to know of the spirituality of Fr. Mignon. Fr. Mignon like Karl Rahner S.J. (1904-1984) was reticent about his own spiritual life. This connection with Rahner will one day be worked out by scholars in the future. Without Fr. Abello’s anecdotes I would not have known of the interior life of Fr. Mignon. Further, as is evident from my earlier post and this post, these two men should be spoken in one breathe. They even wore the same khaki coloured torn shirts and patched trousers.

Fr. Mignon stood as a rock behind Fr. Abello in the latter’s philosophical crusade against abortion. Night after late night when Fr. Abello was exhausted by attacks from lesser intellects on toning down his fight against abortion, Fr. Mignon reminded him of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s magis. If the Church holds abortion to be evil, then it was both their duties to not succumb to any human affable position that some abortions are necessary.

Further, Fr. Mignon helped Fr. Abello reassert repeatedly the truth of Satan in an intellectual atmosphere where some Catholic scholars have reduced Satan to an accretion from the Hittites and thus, to an uncomfortable metaphor. Lest non-Catholic intellectuals laugh at Catholicism, many Catholic thinkers go to great lengths to show that angels do not exist. Fr. Mignon through long sessions with Fr. Abello helped the latter contradict these false assumptions day after day in the latter’s pastoral and academic work. This too is important to note: two geniuses who lived hidden from public fame were convinced of the reality of evil while lesser intellects will shy away from exposing Satan in public. These two men refused to dumb down Catholic teachings on abortion, contraception and the reality of evil.

One last thing about both these men: these two priests were not Fathers to me. They were like my own grandparents. So powerful had been their love for me. When I dined and studied with them, I was already in love with my then girl-friend and now wife. It is only now when both have left me, I understand that YHWH is Love. What made Fr. Mignon and Fr. Abello so important to my life is their love for a waif of a boy who was then quite poor and lost.

The cover picture is courtesy Julian S. Das, Kolkata

Subhasis Chattopadhyay is a blogger and an Assistant Professor in English (UG & PG Departments of English) at Narasinha Dutt College affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He has additional qualifications in Biblical Studies and separately, Spiritual Psychology. He also studied the Minor Upanishads separately. He remains a staunch Hindu. He had written extensively for the Catholic Herald published from Calcutta. From 2010 he reviews books for the Ramakrishna Mission and his reviews have been showcased in Ivy League Press-websites.