ASIA/INDIA - Between villages and 'marine mission stations', the synodal path of the Church in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Saturday, 30 September 2023 synod of bishops   missionaries   mission   evangelization  

Port Blair (Agenzia Fides) - The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the Indian Ocean, are a Catholic community that has lived the synodal style since its birth. The only diocese which embraces the entire territory, Port Blair, has 500 islands, 40 of which are inhabited, with the presence of approximately 40,000 Catholic faithful, out of a population of nearly 500,000 inhabitants, mostly Hindus, as well as animist and Muslim groups. To overcome the risks of isolation, the local Church is clearly called to "walk together" as a community and to provide, with the contribution of all, to the needs of the Church, starting with the sustenance of staff members and ecclesial structures. As is often the case in dioceses made up of archipelagos, priests, religious and catechists also have to face long crossings to reach the most isolated parishes and villages. "Already on the island of South Andaman, where Port Blair is located, it takes up to two days to go to the north of the same island", explains to Fides Bishop Visuvasam Selvaraj. "The most used means of transport is by boat, but with the different stops, the journey can take even longer", he adds with a smile.
In the diocese of 18 parishes scattered across the islands, 51 priests work (9 diocesan priests, as many religious priests) but in the numerous villages, all fishing villages, there are often small chapels, more than 150 in total, real "marine mission stations", around which a few families of baptized people gather. The islands were evangelized by Belgian Jesuit missionaries who arrived in the early 1900s from Northern India: "Taking note of the fragmented reality of the islands, the missionaries were very careful, from the beginning, to create a system in which the laity participate fully in the life of the Church. They borrowed "democratic" practices and methods for community management from the tribal populations, mainly coming from the Chhota Nagpur belt, in the region of the present-day states of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh "We can say that, even before the Second Vatican Council, the participation of the laity in the life of the Church in the Andamans was very broad, even at the level of responsibilities," notes the bishop.
This specificity, which characterizes the life of the local Church, facilitated participation in the work of the Synod convened by the Holy See, thanks to the full involvement of the community: "We had consultations in the 18 parishes, explains the "bishop, and in 90% of the 159 villages of the diocese, the faithful participated in dialogue and discussion. The life of our Church is divided into many small communities. There are 552 small Christian communities which live the faith as one gift and responsibility. This also translates into massive participation in the practice of faith: more than 70% of the baptized go regularly to church on Sunday.
The synodal approach normally prevails in pastoral life, "where the bishop is not 'one man in charge', but always listens to the community because the Holy Spirit manifests itself in the community", he remarks.
This is, according to the Pastor of Port Blair, "the secret of having a community that walks joyfully towards the Kingdom of God. We live, by the grace of God, a spirit of unity between priests, religious, lay organizations. In the structural condition of a Church dispersed among distant communities, there is a strong intention of communion, of cooperation, of solidarity. This is the gift to which we can witness in society. This is also felt in the financial support provided to the Church. A monthly offering is decided by the people of God, who responsibly take care of the needs of each parish. The bishop and priests lead a simple lifestyle. We try to be close to people", he notes. And he recounts his experience: "As a Bishop, for example, I visited in two years, traveling continuously, a total of 89 villages, even small ones, with ten Catholic families each. I spent 24 hours with them, I visit families, I listen, I share, I administer the sacraments. I eat with them, I celebrate Mass. This sharing is very appreciated by the faithful. In addition, my bishopric is open to everyone. Everyone can come and speak, the doors are open. And the faithful know it".
Bishop Visuvasam Selvaraj concludes: "Harmony reigns in the community. I can say, with joy and gratitude, that we are a happy community, a community that lives the faith and bears witness to the love of God. As the Gospel says: “You will be recognized by the love you have for one another”. Brotherly love is therefore a form of evangelization and a missionary trait".
In the early 1900s, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were British territory, also used as a place of detention. It was then that the first visits by Jesuits from Calcutta and missionaries from the Burma region began. After India's independence (1947), Catholic missionaries from Ranchi (now the seat of the Metropolitan Archdiocese) began traveling to the Andaman islands. In 1965, the mission in the archipelago was entrusted to the Society of the Missionaries of Saint Francis Xavier (SFX) the so-called "Pilar Fathers", based in Goa. The Diocese of Port Blair was established in 1985. Administratively, the archipelago is a territory of the Indian Union, an administrative division under the federal government. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 30/9/2023)