Catholic beliefs and practices have been important factors in drawing tribal peoples to the Catholic Church in north-east India, where Christianity has grown phenomenally.
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Fr. Thomas Manjaly of Shiolong Diocese revealed how Catholic beliefs and practices such as praying for the dead have proved attractive to members of the old tribal religions. Fr. Manjaly said, “Their fundamental beliefs include a god who created everything… so they find Christianity closer to their beliefs and traditions than Hinduism….They do not believe in reincarnation like Hindus, they believe that when you die you go to God.”
The priest explained how the practice of praying for the dead was part of a long established practice among many of the tribes. “They have prayers for the dead person which have been handed down orally from one person to another,” said Fr. Manjaly “So our liturgy for the dead is very attractive.” Similarly, tribal people in India have a system of sacrifice – although it does not involve the slaughter of animals – so they understand the Catholic idea of the Eucharistic sacrifice.
Fr. Manjaly explained how sacrifice is an essential part of the tribes’ culture. He said, “After harvest they offer the first fruits as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and when the first rains come they also offer seeds for a good harvest.” Someone from the community is appointed to be a priest and makes these sacrifices on behalf of the tribe.
According to Fr. Manjaly, such tribal rituals cause local people to be drawn to similar practices in the Catholic Church. As he told ACN, “Eucharist as sacrifice, altar, priesthood, all these are very attractive to them….Catholicism is closer to them, and more attractive than Protestant Christianity which just emphasizes preaching the word.”
In three states of North East India – Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram – Christians are in the majority. In Nagaland, Christians make up 90 percent of the population, although Presbyterians and Baptists are more numerous than Catholics. Fr. Manjaly said, “These are the states where the tribes live – they are not Hindus nor do they have a caste system.”
Fr. Manjaly went on to explain how the Church is coming to the end of the first phase of evangelization in the region and that the new challenge is faith formation – “strengthening and building up the faith of first and second generation Christians.”
Books are needed for faith formation, and Fr. Thomas has been involved with the translation of the Bible in to Khasi – a major tribal language used throughout the Diocese of Shiolong. ACN’s Child’s Bible has also been translated into 10 languages in the region – “that is one great thing ACN has done for faith formation.”
Projects for training catechists – which Fr Manjaly described as “very important” – have also been funded by ACN. In many communities it is impossible for priests to reach more than once a month, so lay catechists lead the churches. Catechists undergo six months of training followed by annual follow-up sessions.
Fr. Manjaly concluded by saying: “I would like to thank ACN for the role it played in building up the Church in India. I wish you God’s blessing. We accompany with you in fellowship and keep you in our prayers.”
Catholic missionaries have been active in the north-east India for more than 120 years. Salvatorians from Germany first came in 1890, but left when World War I started, after that the Salesians came. The first diocese to be set up was Shiolong in 1934.