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The bishop who reaped a hundred-fold

.- Many bishops spend their days carefully making plans to lead and manage the dioceses entrusted to them.

Bishop George Pallipparambil of the Indian diocese of Miao is different. He says that in his diocese, the planning is done by God. His job, he says, is to listen and respond.

Officially, his diocese has only existed since 2005. But Bishop Pallipparambil has been tending a flock in rural northeastern India for nearly four decades, watching it grow from 900 baptized Catholics in 1979 to more than 90,000 today, nearly 20 percent of the local population.

When he arrived, he had no plan, no church, no rectory. When asked how it happened, he told CNA simply “God did it.”

Early years

Until very recently, the diocese of Miao, situated along the Chinese border in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, was considered remote, nearly inaccessible.

When Pallipparambil arrived 40 years ago, the region was run by the Indian military as a kind of “state within a state.” Populated by ethnically Mongolian tribes often in violent conflict, it was, Pallipparambil recalls, “in a way forbidden for the Church.”

Originally from Kerala, in southern India, Pallipparambil assisted in setting up a school for tribal children who had migrated south, long before he ever thought of dedicating his ministry to India’s northeastern region.

As students from his school returned home well-fed, able to read and write, and Christian, the elders of warring tribes called a truce, and sent a message south with returning students.

Pallipparambil remembers the children delivering the message, which they had memorized: “Dear Father George, please come to us and tell us more about this God Jesus, who has done so much for our children.” He smuggled himself north in 1979, and has remained there ever since.

Pallipparambil’s first years were marked by trial. Priests were banned in the region, as was evangelizing.

One day, as he walked from village to village preaching the gospel with a lay man, he was arrested and held in the regional police headquarters. It was Christmas, 1980.

“We were not welcome,” he recounted with a smile. “We were picked up around 10:30 in the morning and detained and questioned for hours.”

Word of their arrest made it back to a nearby village in which he had been preaching.

“They finished their Christmas celebrations, and then all the men – a few hundred of them – came with swords and torches to the police station.”

The tribal elder confronted the police superintendent, telling him “Give me back my father.”

“Finally,” Pallipparambil recalled, “at about one-thirty in the night, we were taken back to our mission.”

Freedom in the Gospel

Pallipparambil found the people hungry for the Gospel. “They were living at the level of animism,” he said.

“For them, the Gospel was something very meaningful; it brings liberation in a larger sense but particularly it gave them a dignity they had not known before.”

Conversion to Christianity was and remains a contentious issue in India, but for Pallipparambil it is not a question of “making” converts, but allowing the transformative message of the Gospel to speak for itself.

“Conversion properly understood, especially in India, is like a child growing up – it’s natural. For them it was as simple as this: they were born, were living a primitive kind of religion and then they found something better.”

“Religion is a part of every person’s life, and they were enslaved by these animistic beliefs, which were all they knew,” he told CNA.

The “slavery” to their natural religion was practical, not only theological, Pallipparambil said. The only worship the tribal people knew was ritual animal sacrifice, the cost of which kept them in literal poverty.

“Christianity, the freedom of the Gospel, was also an economic liberation for them,” Pallipparambil explained. Suddenly it opened the communities up to medicine, education, all things that before they simply could not have.

Social development and the spreading of the gospel go hand-in-hand, according to Pallipparambil.

“We never concentrated on pushing the Gospel down anyone’s throat,” he said.

“Our primary goal was to help them, whatever was needed – education, medicine, whatever. These were the works that we did, but they understood. They saw we were there, living with them, staying with them, they saw the witness. Accepting the Gospel was a fruit of our work of love, freely given.”

Human dignity is key to the change, according to the bishop, who has opened 40 schools in the region over the last 30 years. But a literally biblical hundred-fold increase of baptisms cannot be attributed to a few schools.

Achieved without any formal plan for “Christianizing” the people, the results have been nothing short of staggering.

“It is an actual, direct intervention of the Holy Spirit in their lives, it’s not us,” Pallipparambil told CNA.

While the growth of the local Church itself is large, the bishop said that it is its effect on the wider local community which has been most important, comparing it to the gospel metaphors of salt, light, and leaven.

He said that compared to religious tensions which characterize much of the country an atmosphere of tolerance exists in the region. He told CNA this is a fruit of the Church’s presence.

“The reason for this is that among the tribal communities there is equality. The caste system is not there, and for this reason they see the dignity in the Gospel but have rejected Hinduism.”

Dignity of women

One thing Christianity has brought to the tribal communities is advancement for women, Pallipparambil told CNA .

“This was their society, that the women were for housework and for children.”

In many places polygamy was common, Pallipparambil said, noting that child-brides and selling daughters into marriage was also normal.

That is not the case anymore. But like the conversion from animism to Christianity, the change came from example and witness, not by insistence.

“We did not fight that directly, or insist on telling them it is wrong,” the bishop said. “Instead, we started educating these younger girls, organizing training courses for them, teaching literacy and trade skills to young women who really blossomed.”

As the young men left to pursue work or education elsewhere, these women stayed. In short order, the bishop said, they became the leaders of the village, supported by Catholic women’s groups, fostering community and common life where previously they had been totally dependent upon men.

“It was a little thing that completely transformed the entire world of these women.”

Today, in an inversion of generations of practice, these women select their husbands from eligible men of the community. What they always insist on, Pallipparambil told CNA, is that they marry a Christian, or a man who will become a Christian.

“Christianity is a marriage of equals, based on love. This was transformative for the tribes, but it has now spread across the whole state.”

Universal call to holiness

The spread of the Gospel has not just yielded social change or economic improvement, it has also brought about vocations.

When the diocese was founded in 2005 and Pallipparambil made its first bishop, a minor seminary was erected with it. At the same time, many of the young women educated by the Church choose to enter religious life.

While these vocations are welcome, the diocese remains committed to its evangelizing mission, and that includes its approach to vocations.

“They are really committed to the mission, because their parents were lay missionaries; they are the ones who brought the Church here, planted the Church, suffered for the Church.”

The emphasis on the local faithful as lay missionaries is at the root of the diocese’s origin, and its growth.

“When I came here, no missionaries were allowed to even enter. That is how I ended up in jail over Christmas. Everything had to be done by lay people. At first it was the village people themselves, then it was the children, students coming home twice a year from the school in the south.”

“They preached, they converted people, they baptized, and – since Mass was impossible and no priests were allowed – one of them would gather them together in the villages once a week and they would pray together, read the readings of the day, and sing hymns.”

Today, the diocese has 28 priests, with another 68 from religious orders. They serve the 90,000 Catholics spread across the 17 thousand square miles of the diocese, much of it unreachable by car. While another bishop might view this as an intolerable shortage of priests, almost an impossible situation, Bishop Pallipparambil sees it as the key to continued growth in the diocese.

“No one leaves anything for the priest,” he told CNA. “They are the Church, they have to bring the gospel; they know this because they built it.”

When a new community begins in a village, it starts with meetings in the home of a lay catechist, when they grow to the point of needing a church, they physically build it themselves.

“The priests are essential, or course, for hearing confessions and saying Mass. But it is the lay people who evangelize, who form the Church.

In the remote villages, lay missionaries are not bringing the people into a church somewhere else, they are staying there, building the Church.”

The model is a stark contrast to the reality facing many dioceses in the West, where churches are closing. Asked if he thinks the near-total reliance on lay evangelization can be a lesson for the Church elsewhere, Pallipparambil has no doubts.

“Absolutely. We have to give more room to the Holy Spirit and his operation, and less to the ‘heavy machinery’ that generally as Catholics we rely on.”

Formation, the bishop told CNA, is a crucial part of a Church in which the laity truly live the faith and are the Church.

“For me, the biggest fallacy is that we begin formation [at a certain age] and end formation with the reception of the sacraments. Actually we never start and we can never end it. Our entire life has to be an experience of God.”

“Yes, the catechists have to attend certain courses and complete certain credits, but that is pure theory. How does it help to spread the gospel? For this it has to have a real experience of God in your life, and bring this into contact with another.”

When this is done, the bishop said, the Church grows.

Missionary priesthood

Pallipparambil said that while it is difficult for priests to reach all diocesan communities as often as they would like, the important thing is that the faith is alive in them.

Next year, the Synod of Bishops will meet in Rome to discuss the Church in the Amazon. Already, several bishops have suggested that a crucial topic will be the ordination of married men for service in remote communities – very much like the communities in Miao.  

But Pallipparambil says Catholics have no interest in the idea of married priests in his diocese.

“I don’t like to discuss the topic at all, it is a never-ending discussion,” he told CNA.

“One thing I know is this, whenever I have a meeting with a number of young people, university age, I always ask them ‘Do you think more of you would become priests if you were allowed to get married?’ They always say very clearly, ‘we do not want married priests.’”

“One thing I am sure of is this: by baptism all of us are priests, let us enhance this ‘priesthood’ in the laity and let there be less insistence on this clerical solution to everything.”

The lesson of Maio seem especially relevant even for dioceses in the United States, where priests now find themselves stretched across several different parishes.

“Priests have to become a little more available so they can reach out to many more with fewer numbers. We have to change certain things with our thinking, our scheduling of priestly life, and become much more elastic.”

“We grow by interaction. We can all of us spend our lives locked in libraries or on websites reading everything, becoming an expert – a giant – but on our own. Will I not become much more useful to God if I know half of it, but live my whole life sharing it with others?”

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