Cardinal Oswald Gracias has expressed “anguish” over rising intolerance in India. Speaking after his election as president of the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of India last week, he said that efforts to divide citizens along religious lines were “harmful for the nation”.
It is, perhaps, tempting to dismiss his comments as the kind of thing leaders of religious minorities routinely say. Yet the Archbishop of Bombay is an unusually authoritative figure. He is the first churchman to be president of both the Indian bishops’ conference (the world’s fourth largest) and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. He is also the only Asian on the Council of Cardinals (C9) which advises Pope Francis.
It’s not hard to find evidence supporting Cardinal Gracias’s concerns. India is rising up the World Watch List, the annual ranking of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians compiled by Open Doors. In 2017, India was 15th. This year it’s 11th, sandwiched between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
This matters because while Christians account for only 2.3 per cent of India’s population, they number roughly 28 million. Recently, 32 priests and seminarians were held overnight in a police cell in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, after a mob attacked them simply for singing Christmas carols. The United Christian Forum recorded 216 such incidents in 2017. Police registered complaints in fewer than a quarter of cases. In the vast majority, no one was arrested, let alone charged. More than half the attacks took place in four flash-point states: Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Many argue that the climate changed after the election of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014. While he publicly defends religious pluralism, Modi is an advocate of Hindutva, the belief that India’s culture and institutions should be based on Hinduism. The author Dhirendra K Jha argues that Modi’s ascent empowered Hindu nationalist “shadow armies”. “After Modi became prime minister,” he contends, “these groups started thinking they have assumed power, it is their government. So they have gone amok. They don’t fear law and order or any democratic institution. They are on a rampage.” Christians are not the only victims. Muslims, India’s largest religious minority, are arguably the primary targets.
The pressures of minority life are pushing Indian Christians abroad. The Syro-Malabar community in England is large enough to have its own cathedral, in Preston, and its own bishop. Indians are active in Catholic parishes up and down the country. This is one more reason for us to care about the plight of Christians who trace their community’s origins back to Thomas the Apostle.
As Indian politicians position themselves ahead of a general election in May 2019, attacks on minorities may increase further. There is little that leaders like Cardinal Gracias can do, apart from appeal to the country’s tradition of religious pluralism. Ever since his election, Pope Francis has hoped to make a trip to India. A papal visit would shine a timely global spotlight on the country’s religious minorities. Is that why the Indian government has been so slow to welcome him?
The age of miracles
A French bishop has declared that the healing of Sister Bernadette Moriau, which took place 10 years ago after a trip to Lourdes, was, in fact, a miracle. It is now the 70th officially recognised miracle which has been attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The formerly paralysed nun described her experience in these words: “I felt a [surge of] well-being throughout my body, a relaxation, warmth… I returned to my room and, there, a voice told me to ‘take off your braces’.”
The International Medical Committee at Lourdes found that her cure was full, immediate and lasting, and that it had no medical explanation, which are the criteria for a miracle.
While many graces and spiritual favours have been received at the shrine, and millions of pilgrims have come away from it enriched by the experience of visiting it, miracles have been relatively rare in the years since the apparitions in 1858, 160 years ago. One reason for this is that the criteria for judging miracles is, and must be, very exacting. The Church must avoid the impression that it is advancing scientifically dubious claims in order to win over the gullible.
However, given the need of so many sick people, their faith and the faith of those who pray for them, why are miracles not more common? Why has Sister Bernadette, who says she did not ask for a miracle, been cured when so many are not?
These are indeed hard questions. Quite often God answers prayer in ways that we do not look for. Sister Bernadette received a miracle without asking; the rest of us, who have prayed for miracles, have been answered in different ways, perhaps, often with the strength to carry whatever burden we have been given. A miracle is only one form of the outpouring of God’s love, for which the shrine at Lourdes is well known.