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“Four Jesuits woke up in India and found their way”

  • 20 December 2017

Stephanie Beech is our Communications Officer and has written about a lecture she attended at Heythrop College that has inspired her to start learning a new language.

Professor Clooney, a Jesuit priest who teaches at Harvard University, began his career teaching in Nepal and has since then conducted a lot of research on Christian engagement with Hinduism. He has written on the Jesuit missionary tradition in India and theological commentarial writings in Sanskrit and Tamil. He spoke about four Jesuit Missionaries from past centuries who spent time in India, and how they engaged with a new culture by learning the language so fluently that some are still known for their famous literature.

“Whatever bears more fruit is the Magis. The Magis is the fire, the fervour that rouses us from slumber”

Robert de Nobili (1577-1656)

De Nobili spent over 50 years living in Tamil Nadu, South India, using adaptation method of preaching Christianity through adopting many of the local customs. When he first arrived in India as an Italian Jesuit Missionary he found that the Portuguese, who had already settled in Goa, lived a very comfortable life. They were still very much living out their western lifestyles. Their approach on arrival into this new country had been to knock down temples and replace them with churches. He didn’t agree with this method of forced conversion and wanted to distance himself from his previous way of life to live like the poor. He moved to Madras (Chennai) in Tamil Nadu and learned the local language of Tamil. He didn’t want to strip Hindu’s of their practises or culture but tried to adapt Christianity to fit in with their culture and create a new Indian form of Christianity. To do this he reasoned with Hindu scholars and learned everything there was to know about Hinduism. He wanted to challenge that 1%, not try and convert everybody.

Constantine Beschi (1680-1742)

An Italian Jesuit missionary, Beschi spent 30 years in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He adopted the Tamil lifestyle and learned the language of Tamil very well. So well in fact he wrote the first Tamil-Latin dictionaries! He is still well known in India for his classic writing of Tamil literature, particularly Thembavani a re-telling of the nativity through an extraordinary poem. He had a very positive approach to Hinduism and admiration for the Tamil culture which led him to translate into Latin many famous pieces of Tamil literature for the first time and to build churches inspired by Hindu temples.

William Wallace (1863-1922)

Wallace was born in Dublin and brought up in a traditional Anglican family. He first went to India in 1889 as a protestant missionary but through a dissatisfaction of the mission and the British Raj and in depth learning of Hinduism came to become a Catholic Jesuit priest. His life is summed up in the title of his autobiography ‘From Evangelical to Catholic-by way of the East’. His mission took him to Bengal and he decided to move to small village to force him to learn Bengali. He knew that the only way to fully understand a culture was to learn their language and to live their life. His life of simplicity and seeking the truth was how he created relationships with his neighbours. Through this village life, he was surprised to find how devout, moral and holy Hindu’s were. If he had stuck with his church mission in the cities, he wouldn’t have had this realisation or discovery. He saw a need to let go of traditional missionary and to reenvisage new way and said the “need was a lover to come and fulfil, not a foe coming to destroy.”

Ignatius Hindayam (1910-1995)

Ignatius was slightly different to the other three Jesuit missionaries in that he grew up in Tamil Nadu. However, he found that being a Christian, he felt like a foreigner in his own country. The church had clearly done something wrong to this country. His goal was to overcome this alienation and to deepen his own roots in the culture. The second Vatican Council gave him the chance to be innovative with his teachings. He saw that, for example instead of using traditional western hymns and organ music, he trained young Indians in traditional music and dance to teach the gospel message. He built an ashram as a place of learning and study.

Looking to the Future Professor Clooney said;

“It’s important to think outside the box, as these four Jesuits did. There is a need to tell the gospel story in fresh ways, but without abandoning gospel ideals. Learning the local language, as they did, now might mean learning the language of young people and how they interact on social media. It is important to discard any myths or stereotypes we may have of other cultures and religions but find an acceptance of how other people do things. There is a need for a freedom for culture and tradition. India has the largest number of Jesuits in world, but Christians are still a minority.”

I was truly inspired by this lecture, if not only to learn an Indian language to fulfil my love of Indian culture, but also to learn about these four Jesuits who I believe were well ahead of their time and as Clooney said;

“We certainly can learn from these four figures in the East.”