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Creating space for inculturation

Story by Kaelanne Jordan
Twitter: @kaelanne1

Fr Martin Sirju in his presentation on inculturation said there are Indians who would like to see more Hindu cultural elements in a Catholic Mass. He said that his 25th anniversary Mass in Siparia which incorporated Hindu elements was an “excellent example” of this as many of those who attended commented that it was the “best Mass” they had experienced.

“…I think things like this will go forward because as Msgr [Patrick ‘Paba’ Anthony] showed on that screen on Monday [June 24] night, the future happens no matter how much we scream (artist Derek Walcott) and once we scream with faith, and labour with hope, I think we will get somewhere,” the Vicar General said during his presentation at the Caribbean Theology Today Conference Wednesday June 26.

Fr Sirju’s presentation was titled ‘Ecclesial/religion response to Vatican II – Inculturation of the Hindu funeral rite as done by Sanatanist Hindus in Trinidad’.

At the beginning of his presentation, Fr Sirju outlined that papers on inculturation and indigenisation were explored during past and present conferences. He mentioned Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Harris’ talk at this year’s conference, Fr Gerard Paul on mourning (Spiritual Baptists), Fr Michel Francis on funerals in St Lucia and Fr Esteban Kross’ on funerals in Suriname. Fr Sirju also mentioned his presentation on Indo Culturation at the first conference in 1994.

He highlighted that the Vatican requested recommendations for inculturation in funerals and weddings as contained in the liturgical ordos of the 1990s. He recalled many years ago, the late Bishop Benedict Singh who studied canon law and comparative religion had formulated a rite in which a Catholic and a Hindu could get married in the presence of the pundit without any dispensation from canonical form. “But Fr John [Persaud] hasn’t been able to locate that document for me,” he said.

Interreligious Dialogue

Fr Sirju acknowledged that the “space” is opening to impact bishops. He gave the example of Archbishop Emeritus Edward Gilbert allowing him to use malas — garlands of flowers—for the dedication of the Princes Town Church. He said he also heard from a parish priest that the late Fr Michel de Verteuil CSSp had done a wedding jointly with a pundit many years ago. “…I’m glad to see some episcopal opening to inculturation from an Indian/ Hindu point of view,” he said.

He recalled when he and Archbishop Harris went to India in 2015, Archbishop Harris was garlanded several times with malas. He acknowledged another instance when Fr Anthony Baskar Jayaseelan MSFS had introduced Indo inculturation in Point Fortin and it caused some amount of “conflict” in the parish.

On another occasion he mentioned that Archbishop Harris encouraged the showing of Madonna Murti in the northern vicariate—an initiative that came to a “premature” and “hostile” end with 45 per cent of persons against it. “The 45 against were louder than the 55 for and their language was very vitriolic as well,” he said.

Fr Sirju noted Archbishop Harris was the first sitting archbishop to refer to La Divina Pastora as “Siparee Mai”. Fr Sirju highlighted that Archbishop Jason Gordon gave him permission to incorporate elements of the Hindu funeral rite as performed by Sanatanist Hindus—the largest arm in Trinidad—for his mother’s funeral. To this end, Fr Sirju said that people often assume he is a Hindu convert but he is not.

“I’m not a convert. My father wasn’t a convert either. My mother was a non- practising Hindu when she married my father and the priest refused to marry them because she was Hindu.” They got married in the Red House in Port of Spain. Fr Sirju added that when his mother converted, they got married in a Catholic Church. “So we are from the Catholic tradition,” he asserted.

Hindu style ritual

Fr Sirju shared a video of the final commendation of his mother’s funeral which evoked a sombre mood from those present. The video showed Fr Sirju giving an explanation of what he was going to do in imitating a Hindu style ritual that was invested with Christian meaning (inculturation).

Four open malas were placed around the neck of Fr Sirju’s mother, open to indicate that she is no longer with them; the thread of life broken. A taria, a plate containing flowers and incense, was used for aartiing (venerating) his mother’s body in three motions in a clockwise direction.

In the video, Fr Sirju symbolically touched his mother’s feet when he was finished aartiing her body as a sign of humility and respect. Msgr Patrick Anthony said this example of liturgical inculturation is one of the fruits of 25 years of Caribbean theology.

In sharing some responses from his mother’s funeral, Fr Sirju recalled that most people “enjoyed” the service. “They said they found it very moving,” he said, adding that Hindus present were “thrilled” and did not think something like that could be done in the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, Fr Sirju mentioned some saw it as syncretism. “…So you will always have that aspect…. I’ve been dealing with that for 28 years, so it’s nothing new,” he said.

Continuing the discourse, Fr Sirju said that there is plenty anecdotal evidence that suggests many Catholics think Hinduism is pagan. He opined that the suspicion was aggravated by a United National Congress/Hindu government that was seen as nothing but corrupt because Hinduism is “corrupt and pagan and evil.”