Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge recently visited India to meet with leaders of two religious congregations with priests ministering in Brisbane archdiocese. This is a reflection he wrote about his journey.
I DOUBT that I will ever get used to India.
I’d been there before, a few years back, but my recent visit was so full of surprises that it felt like the first time I’d entered this land which is one of the world’s great essences.
India is like nowhere else on earth; it resembles only itself.
Nothing there is quite as you expect it to be and nothing happens quite as you think it will. That’s one of the reasons I thought often during the visit that you might die of many things in India but you’d never die of boredom.
The original purpose of my visit was to meet with the new superiors of the two religious congregations we have links with in Brisbane – the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI) and the Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament (MCBS).
Their priests are by now a well-loved and indispensable part of archdiocesan life.
Both congregations have new superiors general and provincials, and I thought I should make my first visit to India as Archbishop of Brisbane to greet them and to talk a bit of business.
All bar one of them was at home for my visit, and it was wonderful to meet them on their own ground.
I urged them all to visit Australia, and some of them will in the not too distant future.
The hospitality was spectacular everywhere I went.
Another thought I had while there is that you might die of many things in India but you’d never die of hunger.
I like Indian food anywhere at any time, but I was served a feast during this visit.
Yet that was only part of an extravagant hospitality which took many other forms.
In fact, extravagance strikes me as one of India’s distinguishing marks.
Everything has about it a quality of extravagance, profusion, super-abundance – the land, the vegetation, the wildlife, the population, the traffic, the architecture, the décor, and so on it goes.
One key element of India’s profusion is religion, signs of which are everywhere.
This is striking, coming from a culture like ours where the signs of religion are few and muted.
In India, religion is the air you breathe; and it’s hard to see how you could be atheistic or even agnostic in such a place.
You’d be struggling not to believe in something.
During the visit, a text message I received spoke of my “pilgrimage”.
It seemed an odd way to describe my visit; but I thought that perhaps pilgrimage is the only way you can make your way through India.
You can’t just make a visit or journey; you can’t just do a tour.
India somehow insists on pilgrimage; and all the great religions there are pilgrimage-religions.
In the one city, Hindus, Christians and Muslims rub shoulders – and do so in comparative harmony by world standards.
Things may be changing at the moment, but India has for long shown an unusual capacity to absorb and assimilate difference, allowing and encouraging people to take the road together.
After my itinerary had been settled, I thought it would be good to meet with the families of the Indian priests working here, as I did in Nigeria last year.
What began as an addition to the program became almost as important as meeting with the superiors.
This was another of India’s surprises for me.
In each of the places I visited, parents, brothers, sisters, in-laws, nephews and nieces came to meet me.
Often they came long distances and had spent hours driving to get there.
I was touched by that.
Not many of them knew much English and I know virtually no Malayalam, but it didn’t matter.
These were meetings of the heart, whose language reaches beyond all the tongues we speak.
I thanked them for coming and thanked them too for the gift of their sons and brothers.
I said that I was keen to meet with them because the priests working in Brisbane belonged not just to a religious congregation but also to a family.
I assured them that we would care for their sons and brothers as if they were our own sons and brothers.
Many photos were taken and of course I invited them to visit Brisbane which for most of them was like an invitation to visit Mars.
There were many highlights of the visit, but it would be hard to surpass these meetings if I had to choose one in particular.
They were unforgettable.
Meeting up in Kochi with my old mate from student days in Rome who’s now the superior general of the MCBS; lunching in Kochi with the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church; sailing in a house-boat on the backwaters near Kottayam; praying at the tomb of the recently canonised founder of the CMI, St Chavara; visiting the various seminaries of both congregations, full of students; calling in on a house for mentally handicapped young men run by the MCBS; my first overnight journey on an Indian train; attending an extraordinary Annual Day (i.e. speech night) celebration at a CMI school in Calicut; visiting a CMI hospital in Kalpetta on the way from Calicut to Mysore; visiting the Maharaja’s Palace and a Hindu ashram in Mysore (with a very large bonsai collection and aviary); celebrating Mass before the Graduation at the CMI Theological College in Bangalore; visiting the campuses of the enormous Christ University in Bangalore, run by the CMIs.
These were some of the highlights; and as I jot them down, it’s hard to believe that all this happened in just nine days.
Here again is the profusion of India.
The visit was so rich and various that, when I left, I felt I’d been there at least a month; and when I see (some of) the huge number of photographs taken of me by others, I’m left feeling that I must have been there at least a year.
The Indians are seriously devoted to both their mobile phones and their cameras.
At the end of this pilgrimage, I found myself thinking that the land of surprises is also a land of contradictions.
The place seems chaotic, but it works; it is in many ways very spiritual, but also very sensuous; it is very old, but very much of this time.
The people are enormously resourceful but at the same time somehow fatalistic.
They often have about them an almost child-like unselfconsciousness, but there’s also theatricality about them.
Indians, especially the children, love to perform – to dress up, to sing, to dance.
As in Italy, you feel a certain theatricality simmering just beneath the surface all the time.
But whatever of surprises and contradictions, the deepest sense I had was that India is irresistible because of its intense humanity.
Not all that you see there is good, but overall there is a rare quality of humanity, the roots of which are very old but the vibrancy of which is unmistakeable.
That’s one of the chief reasons why I look back on my visit with overflowing gratitude; it became so much more than a time “to do business”.
It’s also one of the reasons why I thank God for the CMI and MCBS priests whom India has given to the Archdiocese of Brisbane.