‘Spirituality lies in working against injustices, for truth. Without this emphasis what use is ritualistic faith alone?’

Father Hugh Fonseca

One of six children from Mumbai, I have been a priest for 33 years now. For all the years that I have been a priest, I have believed in getting involved with the problems of the people, in the real life issues that matter.

From 1975 until 1983, I was at the St Pius seminary, Goregaon (Mumbai), with Fr Raymond, his brother, Fr Alvyn and Fr. Alex Carvalho. It was while we worked there that ideas began to take shape and move in a particular direction. In 1980, when we had the consultation for priests, we started the social justice cells.

This work continued as we went into the parishes. I was in the Kurla parish for six years but I lived and worked in Saki Naka. Saki Naka was a very important experience for me as the parish was being controlled by a group of people, Catholics, who were under the sway of slumlords. Over a five-year period, we managed to get it out of the hands of the vested interests. Ultimately people began to take charge of their own lives. 

We were, the four of us, idealistic, with strong notions of what faith should be and the role it should play in people’s lives. This churning and reflection within us was against the solely ritualistic faith that was prevalent at the time. The result of this reflection was a paper that we came out with to nudge the Church in the direction that we were going. It was titled, ‘The Faith that has Justice’.

We then took up two parishes, the Jeri Meri and Saki Naka parishes, as experiments; the result was the Jagruti Kendra established in 1989. All four of us worked as a team. There was the handa morcha that we took out to the ward office to protest on the question of water; we protested the shabby collection and depositing of garbage. Each protest sent out a deep inner message to people to take charge of their lives, not to feel helpless and insecure and empower themselves to get what is their due.

In the beginning there was resistance, too, to such a novel approach. At one meeting in Saki Naka where parish counsellors were present, vested interests who had controlled affairs for too long tried to show their strength. They threatened to attack me. That was a real test for the local population. When all of them stood up refused to be cowed down, stood around to protect me, that was the first public show of our victory. 

Until then, no one had publicly challenged the authority of the vested interests. This was during 1992 and 1993. Thereafter, I was in Orlem, Malad, another suburb where I spent six years. There, too, a powerful local group, VOTE (Voice of the People Exploited), emerged. 

The incident that initially motivated people was the demolition of a chapel at Srilankapada. This became an incident to rally against the local corporation officials, the Shiv Sena corporators and to establish healthy links with the police. The local people took up the initial mobilisation and what we see now is the existence of a strong voice of the laity in Malad. There is the VOTE group, there is also the Lourdes Community Centre that contributes to community service and health works in the area.

Now at Borivli, we are, laity and church together, involved in firming up yet another group, HELP. Here also the aim is to work together on issues that concern all of us, be it attacks on minorities or broader human rights issues. 

As a priest, I have always believed that we must guide persons to take control of their lives and to fight for justice. When we began as priests, there was more emphasis on the spiritual and the ritualistic. Today, I see that spirituality lies in working against injustices, for truth. Without this emphasis what use is ritualistic faith alone?

The Church has played a historic role in this country providing education, health and other services. But it is a huge institution that gets tired and lumbers along. It, too needs to be nudged with new ideas, new pushes. We need to look beyond formal education, look at the question of values, civic values, values concerning justice, becoming good and responsive citizens.

In the broadest possible sense, following as we are the work of Christ, we must be prepared to think beyond ourselves, look at the misery and poverty around and do something about it. Like other institutions, the Church here and elsewhere has had aberrations, reflecting the concerns of only the powerful and the rich, the influential, echoing the caste biases that prevail. Yes, we have had our share of aberrations.

There were parts of India where only upper caste priests were accepted, in another case we have had a history of different castes being buried separately. This is something that violates the basic tenets of Christianity. We had one instance, in Goa, of the body of a person callously removed after burial, simply because he belonged to the ‘lower’ caste.

This happened because when the Portuguese came, there were actually mass conversions without any real change in attitude on questions of caste. In other words, your conversion did not change your attitudes. 

But having said that, there are people within the church hierarchy and the laity who are trying to make a difference.

Under the theme, “He came to set us free” (the first sermon of Christ in the synagogue) we have recently begun a movement for civic and political cells in each parish within the Mumbai diocese. Through this the conscientisation of people will happen.              

(As told to Teesta Setalvad).



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