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The harvest is rich and the workers are plentiful in the Diocese of Jashpur, India.
So plentiful that Bishop Emmanuel Kerketta allows two of his priests to help offset the priest shortage in the Diocese of Jefferson City, half a world away.
“We feel proud that the diocese of Jashpur is blessed with a good number of young men being drawn to the Priesthood to support and build up not only the local church but also the Universal Church,” he said during a recent visit to central and northeastern Missouri.
Father Angelus Minj, who recently became administrator of six parishes and missions in Lewis and Clark counties; and Father Alex Ekka, administrator of St. Ann parish in Warsaw and Ss. Peter and Paul parish in Cole Camp, are priests on loan from the Jashpur diocese.
The late Father Gregory Tigga, a priest of Jashpur who died in April, served in Marceline, Brookfield, Owensville and Belle before returning to India last year.
The area that comprises the Jashpur diocese is about 23 percent Catholic, which is more than 10 times India’s national average of only 2.3 percent.
“Exceptionally and by God’s grace, it is also blessed with many vocations to Priesthood and religious life,” Bishop Kerketta noted.
About 15 priests are ordained in the Jashpur diocese each year for different dioceses and religious orders throughout the world.
There are currently 67 college seminarians, as well as 200 students in the diocese’s three high school seminaries.
After graduation, the high school seminarians are free to continue their studies for any of India’s 171 dioceses or any religious order in the world.
In addition, religious orders of men and women visit the Jashpur diocese’s 25 high schools to invite students to be candidates for their orders.
“Hence, sons and daughters of our diocese could be found all over the world working as priests and nuns and serving the universal Church,” said Bishop Kerketta.
The Jashpur diocese, carved out of the geographically larger Raigarh diocese in 2006, is a mostly poor rural area whose indigenous people — commonly known as Tribals — were outcasts for centuries and carried little status in Indian society.
Bishop Kerketta is working to sustain the growth that began when Jesuit missionaries from Belgium first introduced Catholic Christianity in the area just over a century ago.
“The Church is very vibrant here,” he said.
His goal has been to open two new mission stations per year in villages within his diocese. Most of these stations eventually become full-fledged parishes.
The diocese’s network of Catholic schools has helped thousands escape the poverty of subsistence farming.
But even those who relocate to more pluralistic locales retain their Tribal customs, many of which date back to the time of Christ or earlier, and which have been “baptized” in the waters of Christian revelation.
House of God
The people of the Jashpur diocese use the same family rituals to celebrate a priestly ordination as they use for a wedding.
The festivities take place under a canopy of tree branches that represent the home a newly married couple makes for themselves.
The new priest “will also make his home in the House of God, where he can continue to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ,” a local priest noted.
That house is getting very large. Bishop Kerketta pointed out that he currently has enough priests to serve the needs of the people, even as more young men actively discern their priestly calling.
“And since the beginning of my episcopate, I have been open to sharing my priests at the service of the Universal Church,” he said. “Whenever my brother bishops in India and abroad ask me for priests I have willingly helped them.”
In addition to the two serving here, two other priests of his diocese are working in Austria, and three are in other parts of India.
Where to begin
Just as the early Belgian missionaries gained people’s trust and confidence by educating children, caring for the sick and advocating for human rights, present-day Catholics in and around the Jashpur diocese preach the Word with action.
Most of the people there make a living by farming or in farming-related professions.
Weather patterns and farming practices limit the amount of money people can make, trapping generation after generation in poverty.
Quality schools run by the Church help children, regardless of their family’s religion, prepare for a better future.
The Jefferson City diocese has helped open parishes and village chapels and contributed to the construction of several Catholic schools.
Because of strictly enforced anti-proselytizing laws in some Indian states, along with the fact that Christians in the area are often looked upon with suspicion by some antisocial elements, the Church must work cautiously and prudently for the all-around development of the people.
In the past two years, the Jashpur diocese has opened elementary schools in the villages of Lodam and Sardih.
A priest and three sisters apiece have arrived at the Sardih community. Two sisters will teach classes, while the other is assigned to the Village Family Apostolate, making home visits to the families who send their children to the school.
These efforts have done wonders for the Church’s relationship with the neighbors. The priests have begun offering Mass in the villages.
“So the schools have been a very powerful ministry of evangelization,” said Bishop Kerketta.
“We can reach out to families because of the children,” Fr. Minj added. “The priest and sisters are welcomed because of the children.”
Human dignity, self-respect
Many Tribals and their ancestors were outcasts and practically slaves when missionaries arrived in the early 1900s, and were the first in the area to receive the Gospel.
Bishop Kerketta said they’re drawn to the Good News by people who offer them freedom, equality and respect.
The bishop recently met with a priest in a village with a Catholic elementary school, high school, and a hostel for girls, where some of the students have begun asking for baptism.
“I told him to go slow and let them wait until they reach the age of reason,” said Bishop Kerketta.
Sisters from several religious congregations, including the Daughters of St. Ann, have arrived at several fledgling parishes, espousing the causes of the poor and the needy.
In the meantime, support from the Jefferson City diocese is going toward helping seminarians become priests.
Year of the Family
The Jashpur diocese is part of the Catholic Council of Chhattisgarh, which is observing a Year of the Family this year.
The theme is: “Christ centered families, strong families.”
All dioceses in the region are carrying-out a comprehensive plan to promote family life and draw families more actively into the life of the Church.
“In our diocese, our main focus is on visiting all the families, without exception,” said Bishop Kerketta.
Each of the diocese’s 50 parishes encompasses several towns and villages.
“The priests and sisters in each parish has been directed to go from door-to-door, meeting the family members, praying with them, spending a holiday with them,” he said.
They either begin or end each visit with Mass in the home.
Bishop Kerketta is visiting two villages from each of the 50 parishes this year, spending a day with the priests and sisters in each village.
He has already visited 10 villages.
“It’s so rewarding to meet the families and come to know their day-to-day problems,” he said. “It’s really rewarding and people know that we are there for them.”
Entire villages — men, women, young and old — move with him from door-to-door, as do the two priests and the sisters of each parish.
He offers Mass in each village, beginning with a penitential service.
“And of course, everyone is inspired to make their confessions,” he said. “So the priests help me hear the confessions.”
This time of prayer and fellowship is giving him new insight into the joys and sufferings of the people in his diocese.
“Sometimes when you go meet the families, some of them start weeping and crying while you’re praying with them,” he said.
In one village, it took almost 12 hours for him to meet with all of the families.
“With one family, when I was praying, the husband just started crying,” he said. “Later, the villagers told me that his wife had recently moved away and left the whole family behind. He was devastated.”
Security and solidarity
Fr. Minj and Bishop Kerketta grew up in nearby villages. Their ancestors entered the Church as part of a mass conversion in the early 1900s.
Entire villages were becoming Catholic. Hundreds of people came to the missionaries for baptism.
“There was no time to pour the holy water,” Fr. Minj noted.
“Just a bucket of holy water and a branch of trees, and you just sprinkle it!” said Bishop Kerketta.
Since then, the Church’s gift of solidarity and compassion, embodied in healthcare and education, has built up the local economy and helped solidify families.
Many are gradually turning to Christ, while Christians and Hindus continue to learn from each other and set aside old suspicions.
Educated and aware of their inherent dignity, they stand together against some policies of the government and multinational corporations that would displace them from their land and their livelihoods.
To the city and the world
Bishop Kerketta noted that Catholics from the rural Tribal areas take their piety, ardor and devotion with them when they spread out or move on to accept jobs in larger cities.
“Most of the Catholics in the neighboring dioceses are from Jashpur,” he noted. “Even in the big cities, in Mumbai and Delhi, you find people from our diocese.”
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of the Bombay archdiocese is very positive about the Tribal influence from the Church in Jashpur.
“He told me, ‘The Church in Bombay will be stronger tomorrow because of your people,’” said Bishop Kerketta.
Call to prayer
Fr. Minj asked for prayers for India’s Catholics to remain strong in their faith, especially in the face of persecution and harassment.
“There are a lot of people who want to break us,” he said.
Bishop Kerketta also highlighted the need for mutual prayer in the continued collaboration of the Jashpur and Jefferson City dioceses.
“We need to pray for our country,” he said. “We need to pray for all the citizens of India irrespective of caste, creed and religion.”