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Christianity in India: difficulties for the Divine Retreat Centre, Kerala.

The Catholic Church in Kerala, India, has been in the news in the past two years with unsubstantiated charges being brought against the Vincentian Congregation and the Catholic Divine Retreat Centre in Kerala. Following is background information to help the reader understand the situation in Kerala followed by a resume of the legal difficulties which ended up in the Supreme Court of India. The writer, Janice Glover, is the sponsor of a seminarian in the Vincentian Order in Kerala, and takes a personal interest in the situation.

When we think about India, we usually do not think of Christianity. However, about 2.5% of India's population, or thirty million Indians, are Christian, of which about 73% (or 22 million) are Catholic. This number is slightly more than the combined population of Australia and New Zealand, or slightly below the population of Canada. The Catholic Church in India is composed of three individual rites--Latin, Malabar, and Malankara, and Catholics occupy professional, legislative and judicial positions throughout the country. They have also been prominent contributors to the social and educational needs of India.



Christianity arrived in India almost about the same period as it arrived in Europe, about 2000 years ago. That's right--2000 years ago! The Apostle Thomas, a carpenter by trade and one of the Twelve, went to 52 A.D. and succeeded in converting local Indians to Christianity. His converts are called Syrian Christians. He preached the Gospel to the Brahmin families in Kerala, many of whom received the faith. Later, he moved to the east coast of India, and was martyred in 72 A.D. His body was taken to Mylapore (near Madras) for burial. His tomb is venerated to this day.

But it was not until missionaries arrived in the 15th century, accompanying explorers from England, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal that large-scale conversions to Christianity began to happen. Of these, the Portuguese were the most enthusiastic missionaries who, under the leadership of Vasco Da Gama, and inspired by Pope Alexander VI's (1492-1503) request to baptize people around the world, arrived in south India in 1498. Unfortunately, after many wars with local Indian rulers, and some not-so-gentle persuasions to convert the Indians, the Portuguese were defeated and retained only one large pocket of control in India--Goa. In Kerala, many Portuguese churches became the property of Protestant missionaries.

Centres of Christianity today

The major centres of Christianity in India are Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Manipur and Mizoram. There is also a large community of Christians in Mumbai (formerly Bombay). On the occasion of the 19th century celebrations of the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in India, Pope Plus XII recorded a radio message on 31 December, 1952, in which he said: "Nineteen hundred he years have passed since the Apostle came to India [...] During the centuries that India was cut off from the West and despite many trying vicissitudes, the Christian communities formed by the Apostle conserved intact the legacy he left them [...] This apostolic lineage, beloved sons and daughters, is the proud privilege of the many among you who glory in the name of Thomas Christians and we are happy on this occasion to acknowledge and bear witness to it."

Kerala: the cradle of Christianity in India

There are over 40 million people in the state of Kerala, in southern India, of whom around 9 million are Christians, with Catholics forming the majority at 5 million (about 11% of the population of Kerala). There, Catholics play a decisive role in the fields of education, social work, and even politics. There is 100% literacy, free education and free medical assistance. Unfortunately, Kerala has the lowest birth rate in India and it is the first place where Communists came to power through the ballot box, and the land where the great philosophical tradition of "Advaita" or extreme Pantheism was born.

Three major religions--Hinduism, Christianity and Islam--coexist of which fifty-eight percent are Hindus; Muslims forming the remaining forty percent. Kerala also has a Jewish past and a beautiful synagogue situated in Kochi, the port city which is known as the Jewel of the Arabian Sea.



The Vincentian Congregation , a clerical society of priests and brothers in the Syro-Malabar Church, comes under the category of 'Societies of Common Life' ad instar religiosorum. It was established in 1904 in Kerala by Very Rev. Fr. Varkey Kattarath, who led a group of diocesan priests to found a congregation on the model of the Congregation of the Mission (C.M.), founded by St. Vincent de Paul in France. After an unstable beginning, the group was officially called the Vincentian Congregation in 1938, and raised to diocesan status in 1977.


Purpose and Charism

The Congregation draws its spirit and distinctive character from the life, works, and Common Rules of St. Vincent de Paul. The Congregation in Kerala has taken as its motto "He has sent me to proclaim the Good News to the poor" (Luke. 4:18). The two main aims of the Vincentian Congregation are:

1) Preaching the Good News to the poor. All retreats held in Divine Retreat Centre are aimed at renewing the lives of the people in a deep and living experience of the Sacraments of the Church. The seven Sacraments are holy means of supernatural life instituted by Christ through which the saving power of God is bestowed upon everyone. It is through the power of anointing of the Holy Spirit that the Sacraments become effective signs of salvation.

2) Caring for the welfare of the poor and afflicted. In the different Homes attached to the Divine Retreat Centre, the Vincentians share their love and resources with more than 3,000 permanent residents. The St. Vincent's Home cares for AIDS patients.The Divine Care Centre is home to the mentally ill. The Divine De-Addiction Centre looks after those addicted to alcohol and drugs. The Divine Mercy Home has elderly men and women abandoned by their families. The Maria Santhi Bhavan Home for the Aged cares for elderly women. St. Mary's Home cares for destitute mothers and children.

The specific purpose of the Congregation to preach the Gospel to the poor is accomplished through popular mission retreats, charismatic retreats, and retreats for priests and religious. Almost 25% of the Vincentian community is engaged in full-time preaching, and a number of retreat centres have been established. It has been found that about 15% of those who attend the retreats are non-Christian.

Divine Retreat Centre, Kerala

The Centre began as a preaching ministry by the Vincentian fathers in 1990, and has become the largest Catholic retreat centre in the world. Over 10 million pilgrims from all over the world have attended retreats there since 1990. Retreats are conducted in English, Hindi, Konkani, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, and Telugu, and are back-to-back, non-stop every week of the year. The retreat fee, which is very modest, includes accommodation and all meals.

Criminal investigation of the Retreat Centre

Two years ago it seemed that the Retreat Centre would be destroyed, not by natural forces, but by an anonymous letter that contained allegations of criminal activity (including murder) against the Vincentian Congregation at the Centre. The High Court of Kerala, took up the case suo motu (on its own initiative) and ordered an inquiry into the affairs of the Retreat Centre. A special investigation team was formed for this purpose, and according to the Vincentians, there ensued two years of continued harassment by the police, scurrilous media coverage, and fundamentalist propaganda The Congregation has reported on its web site that they were especially shocked by the humiliating manner in which the police raids were carried out in the Centre on 30 September and 01 October 2006: the way the sick, including the mentally challenged were subjected to torturous harassment.

After 21 months of rigorous investigation, but with no evidence against the Retreat Centre, the Vincentians took their complaints to the Supreme Court. On 11 March 2008, the Division bench of the Supreme Court, after closely examining the report of the police investigation team, verified that the allegations levelled against the Retreat Centre in the anonymous letter were totally without fact.


The Supreme Court also ruled that High Court judges cannot treat anonymous letters containing allegations against individuals or institutions as Public Interest Litigation and order suo motu investigations. The judges further noted that "setting criminal law in motion is fraught with serious consequences, which cannot be taken lightly by the High Court ... The High Court may not direct an investigation by constituting a special investigation team on the strength of anonymous petitions. The High Court cannot be converted into Station Houses."

The judges noted, "No judicial order can even be passed by any Court without providing a reasonable opportunity of being heard to the person likely to be affected by such order and particularly when such order results in drastic consequences of affecting one's own reputation." They stated, "An institution's own reputation is a priceless treasure. History teaches us that the independence of the judiciary is jeopardized when courts become embroiled in the passions of the day and assume primary responsibility to resolve the issues which are otherwise not entrusted to it."

Hence the Supreme Court ruled that the High Court judge ought not to have entertained the anonymous petition and ordered the police inquiry, without first making sure that it was "not for any personal gain or private profit or of the political motivation or other oblique consideration."

The Press as well as the religious and political leaders have hailed the verdict and celebrated it as a triumph of truth. Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese and President of Kerala's Catholic Bishops' Conference, in welcoming the verdict, said that the ruling of the Supreme Court has brought spiritual and mental solace to the faithful and to all right-thinking people.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops' Conference stated, in its press release, that "the Supreme Court verdict is the triumph of truth and justice." The bishops further pointed out that "it is folly to imagine that lies and false allegations would succeed for long. The verdict helped to bring to light the true facts about the great humanitarian service carried out by the Retreat Centre bringing great peace of mind and spiritual consolation to millions, especially the sick and the suffering. The verdict is welcomed as recognition of the charitable works of the Catholic Church as a whole."

Today, Divine Retreat Centre continues to minister to the millions who come through its doors searching for the Way, the Truth and the Light.

Additional information on the Divine Retreat Centre and the Supreme Court decision is available by searching the web under Divine Retreat Centre, Kerala. Information on how to sponsor a seminarian in Kerala is also available at the Retreat Centre site, or by contacting the author at Catholic Insight. The cost per year is very low, while the rewards are inestimable.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Glover, Janice
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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