Father Matthew Kalathunkal SDB is a long-time friend in India. He wrote recently of a brief experience in a mission station in the modern-day state of Chattisgarh, in a remote part of India two hundred miles west of Calcutta. “It is a parish with 15,000 Catholics spread out in 35 villages. During Advent, priests usually visit the villages to prepare the people for the coming Christmas celebrations. Fr. Matthew was deeply impressed by the Catholic population he encountered.“Almost daily,” he wrote, “I was taken by Jeep or motor cycle to one of the villages where I heard confessions, then offered the Holy Mass and later gave Holy Communion to those who were old or sick. … The whole population is made up of local Adivasi tribe members and I witnessed some unusual customs. I noticed that when a person dies, the dead body is usually kept on the floor covered with white sheets from head to foot with no flowers or candles. Another unusual burial custom I noticed in one of the villages is that they carried the coffin with the dead body thrice around the grave before lowering it. They put into the coffin all the clothes used by the diseased including metallic utensils. Most of them bury their dead in the village cemetery. But they are allowed to bury on their own land too. So the countryside is often marked by white graves. In most of the families there are many pictures of the Holy Family and the Sacred Heart, a sign of their Christian faith.”
When I wrote to Father Matthew asking how it was that these these tribal peoples were Catholics, he replied that this was the result of the evangelizing work of Fr. Constant Lievens S. J. and other Belgian Jesuits in the late 19th century. It is a remarkable and unusual story.
In 1886 a 30-year old man by the name of Constant Lievens passed through the endless Chhotanagpur forests on horseback. A recently ordained Jesuit priest, he had been asked to visit the remote, roadless area to assess prospects of converting the tribal peoples to Catholicism.
In some ways the tribals [pronounced “tree-bels”] seemed ripe for conversion. Unlike the Hindus, they were monotheistic, worshipping a supreme deity whom they variously described as “Supreme Being, Great Spirit, the Great One, the Creator, or the Mighty Spirit.” They were also accustomed to approaching God through intermediary spirits, it was possible to draw parallels with Catholic devotion to saints and the Virgin Mary. The key obstacle to winning over converts was their sense of tribal community: Salvation was seen as a communal rather than a personal matter. Unless the elders of a village converted to Christianity, individuals would avoid taking this step.
While visiting the region, Lievens was befriended by a local policeman in whose home he had to spend the night. The Hindu officer suggested that the key to winning over villages was to address a centuries-old problem of land alienation. For hundreds of years, large landowners had kept the tribals in servitude. Because of their inability to pay the taxes on their small parcels of land, the tribals were required to provide 150 to as many as 300 days of labor each year for the benefit of the rich. Failure to meet this obligation, involving not only the father of the family but his wife and children, led to whippings or even prison.
In response, Lievens prepared to defend the native peoples in the court system. He consulted magistrates, hired lawyers, and met with tribal elders in an effort to understand their customs and land holding patterns. “From the beginning,” a writer later noted, he …established a special rapport with the people, touched their hearts, and the people themselves responded sympathetically to his endless enquiries and questions. He advised village leaders to have their people obtain written receipts for any work performed on behalf of landowners recording their payment of rents.
Hearing of Lievens’ activity nearly 90 villages converted en masse to Catholicism. On a single day in 1889, Lievens performed 205 baptisms. Within less than two years 16,000 were baptized, and more than twice that number were enrolled as catechumens.
Success abruptly halted in late 1889, when wealthy landowners and moneylenders falsely accused Lievens of promoting an insurgency against the British government. In response, the authorities sent two hundred native troops into the area. Widespread arrests and beatings occurred. Tribals were warned that unless they ceased associating with the Jesuits, the British Government “would have no mercy on them.” Lievens then requested a personal meeting with the British Viceroy of India. When this was not granted, he appealed to the Calcutta daily press. Favorable newspaper accounts eventually brought the persecution to an end. In the meantime, 35 villages had renounced Christianity. Many years would pass before confidence in the missionaries was restored.
Exhausted by his work, and suffering from tuberculosis contracted from the natives, Lievens was sent by his superiors back to Belgium where he died on November 7, 1893 at the age of 37. At the time of Lievens’ death, despite some criticism of his evangelizing methods, there were 73,000 Catholics in Chotanagpur region. Today Catholics number over 1.2 million.
Almost a century and a quarter after his death, the impact of Constant Lievens is still felt. In November 2015, the Constant Lievens Academy of Health Sciences and Hospital was dedicated in Chotanagpur to serve the tribals in what is still among the most impoverished regions in India. The cause of sainthood for the Belgian missionary, hailed as the native people’s “apostle and liberator of Chhotanagpur ” has been introduced in Rome.
[A word of appreciation for the scholarly help provided from India for this article by Fr. Matthew Katakunkal SDB and Fr. Varghese Palatty SDB. L.M.]