‘Lay persons increasingly feel that the Church should get involved in politics, in civic issues’

Father Alwyn D’Silva 

I am an MA in politics. My first appointment when I became a priest in 1975 I was in Vakola, Santacruz (E). Initially I was caught up in traditional priestly work. But slowly, faced with the realities of the world outside, I began to realise that faith has to be linked with justice. Especially, because there was little relation between what happened within the Church to was happening in society. 

I remember, for example, that while I was vice-principal of a school at Vakola, I noticed that during the first period itself, students would be trooping out of class and roaming about in the school. Two years later, when I began some community work in the slums where the youngsters lived, I realised that there were no toilets there and so, naturally, they spent the first period releasing themselves. 

A cloistered approach from the priest and parish need not get you involved in issues like these but if people are suffering outside, how can we not get involved?

This was also about the time that some four-six priests like us began reflecting on the role of the Church in the community. We used to call it a think tank. Slowly we evolved into an inspirational group concerned with making faith more relevant. This then slowly evolved into the social justice cell of Archdiocese of Bombay in 1981. Finally, a decade later, the official body of the Church accepted it and it now exists as the justice and peace commission.

The guiding principle of this mini-movement inside the Church was that people’s lives, rather than merely ritualistic faith, needs to be stressed. We got inspiration and guidance from Dominque and Nafisa, professors in social work from Andhra Pradesh –- from whom we evolved the idea of working within a community – the idea being to link faith with justice. There were four of us in this movement. My brother, Hugh Fonseca, Alex Carvalho and myself.

Initially there was scepticism from the Church, there was also resistance to work with other communities. But we were clear. That, when we are dealing with social and justice issues we have to get involved with all communities. Jeri Meri, one of our experimental parishes, was where we had a children’s group, a women’s group, a youth group. The main thrust was on the organisation of people, encouraging them to solve their own problems.

There were also difficulties with the hierarchy; but it was a new understanding of faith and action so there were bound to be questions and some friction. I recall an incident when a bishop, Bishop Bosco Pena, was quite supportive. He actually challenged me to begin work with other communities. 

So we took up this challenge, managed to work out the dynamics and succeeded. Within Mumbai we had some type of community organisations like Seva Niketan and Bandra East Community Centre. But they were not linked to the parish, they were individual centres. Here the idea was to link each parish with such a cell. 

Today this sort of idea has become part of the official mandate; it took us 10-15 years to convince the hierarchy that we need to move with the times. Now we have 35 centres all over Mumbai. (Mumbai has about 80-odd parishes).

In the recent past, with increasing attacks on democratic freedoms of different communities, it becomes even more pertinent that the Church and its units are alert to questions of justice. During the 1992-1993 communal violence in Mumbai, many men and women of the Church opened their church doors for relief and rehabilitation. Now that nuns and priests are also under consistent attack, we need to mobilise on the issue as a threat to democratic freedoms.

The fact that Christian institutions are working in education, health and other areas, with the most marginalised sections and in the context of our country this means oppressed castes, it is inevitable that our work itself comes under attack. However, these women and men of faith are not dithered; at the Seminary I meet them from all parts of the country and they are unshakeable in resolve, determined to complete their life’s mission.

A true Christian believes that it is only under threat, martyrdom and pressure that the church grows –- not necessarily quantitatively but qualitatively. So we have to carry on.

The Church, both as a link with faith and as a physical presence in the parish, has tremendous potential to be a genuine link with the people who live there. To show compassion and caring for their problems. While acceptance to this approach is not 100 per cent, it is slowly growing as the centres become successful, identify with people’s problems and attract young and fresh talent. 

Basically it boils down to this. What should faith stand for? Justice issues, real life issues or should we only concentrate on the ritualistic dimension of faith.

While this is a positive development, as in other faiths, the conservative and inward-looking traditions within Christianity are also visible. These persons with a narrow definition of faith and worship don’t see their involvement or the involvement of the Church in politics and civic life. It is growing everywhere; it is a type of spirituality, which is only concerned with personal salvation.

However all said and done, I feel that partly because of the community centres started by some of us, partly because of other pulls and pressures, lay persons increasingly feel that the Church should get involved in politics, in civic issues. These lay persons are taking the initiative. The first step is get people involved. 

(As told to Teesta Setalvad).



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