"India, your children will be the ambassadors of your salvation," said Pope Leo XIII in 1886. Pope Leo's farsighted prediction reveals a deeper assumption that has proven true again and again: No Christian tradition can thrive in India until the Indian people make it their own.

Through the work of pioneering Jesuit missionaries such as Francis Xavier, Roberto de Nobili, and Constanzo Beschi, Catholic Christianity had begun to strike its roots in Tamil Nadu, the southern part of the country, from the 16th to the 18th century. But in the late 18th century, the church entered a period of severe decline almost to the point of extinction. It was a time of religious crisis in Europe, and the suppression of the Jesuit order in 1773 deprived the mission field of workers. Without adequate leadership by local pastors, some Christians in India relapsed into former ways and some others were forced to convert to Islam.

In addition, Catholic leaders abroad were locked in an ecclesiastical quarrel that had sapped the energies of the church for centuries. The Portuguese in India enjoyed the privileges of royal patronage. Called Padroado, these were rights granted by popes to kings of Portugal to look after church affairs and even to appoint bishops. Frustrated by the Padroado, the Vatican had tried to centralize its mission work in 1622 by establishing the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide). The conflict—often within the same village—between pastors, missionaries, and bishops of Padroado on the one side and those directly under Rome on the other revealed a church divided within itself and lacking singleness of purpose.

But with the strenuous labors of religious societies like the Foreign Missionaries of Paris, along with the restoration of the Jesuits and their return to India in the 1830s, the Catholic mission began to experience an awakening. The division of mission territories into Vicariates Apostolic in 1845 helped to give great cohesiveness to missionary work. And into the turmoil of Bombay came the peacemaking skills of Swiss missionary Anastasius Hartmann. A man renowned for gentle firmness, the new bishop worked to restore order and at one point refused to yield a church to those who perpetuated the schism, even when his opponents blockadedhim inside. In serving as a mediator between Catholic communities he was helped by British officials of the imperial government, who were employing Catholic military chaplains. The Examiner, a Catholic magazine Hartmann founded, served to alleviate confusion and build unity.

Catholicism in India was on the threshold of revival.

Reorganization and reform

In 1841 the French missionary Melchior de Marion Brésillac arrived in India determined "to direct all my own work and thought towards training a native clergy … which has hardly been thought about yet at all." But he encountered such frustration that he finally gave up and returned to France.

Brésillac was not the only one to realize this enormous weakness in the Catholic presence in India. Clément Bonnand, the gifted Bishop of Pondicherry, helped generate a spirit of renewal that prompted at least some Catholics to respond by trying to make Christianity truly Indian in its interpretation, symbols, theology, and leadership. With official backing from Rome, Bonnand strongly supported many reform efforts. In 1844 he convoked a groundbreaking synod that resolved to promote the ordination of indigenous priests and the founding of seminaries to better train them. Bonnand himself set up a printing press for the diffusion of Christian knowledge, established primary schools, trained catechists, and encouraged the founding of new indigenous congregations and religious orders to serve in the fields of education, charity work, and health care. What emerged from these multifarious initiatives was nothing less than a new vision for Catholicism in India

Pope Pius IX had such great trust in Bonnand that he appointed him Apostolic Vicar in 1858 and sent him on a visitation tour throughout India in order to report on the state of the Christian communities in various parts of the country. Bonnand's extensive report revealed that in six major Vicariates there was not a single Indian priest, and in six others there was no seminary. It was a wake-up call to the Catholic mission.

Trickle-down evangelism

Though some missionaries still resisted the idea, most agreed that the Indian Catholic community should be served by an indigenous clergy and hierarchy. But an indigenous clergy first required an educated laity from which potential priests could come.

In an effort to create a modern educational system that would teach local elites to speak English and serve the goals of the administration, British officials of the Raj offered to fund any group willing to establish and run schools. Protestants had already established school systems and colleges in this way. Beginning in the second half of the 19th century, the Catholics—particularly the Jesuits—launched networks of primary schools and colleges, including St. Joseph's College in Tamil Nadu, St. Xavier's College in Calcutta, and many other institutions.

The motivation behind such organized efforts in the field of higher education was the hope that Christian influence on elites studying at these institutions would trickle down to the rest of society. Only a small percentage of elites actually converted to Christianity, but the result of this missionary zeal was a widespread and high-caliber system of college and universities throughout the continent and the training of some of the country's foremost leaders in various fields.

Mission to the margins

Educating the elite did not, however, entail neglecting the marginalized. The spirit of social reform sweeping across Indian society awakened the need for more organized social involvement. Besides schools, Catholics established dispensaries, hospitals, and other centers of medical care, mostly in rural areas, and engaged in charitable work such as taking care of widows and orphans. Catholic support contributed to the enactment of legislation in 1856 that challenged the traditional Hindu stricture on remarriage of widows.

Outreach to "the least of these" owed much to the contributions of Catholic women. The entry of female missionaries into fields long dominated by men brought a new quality to Catholic mission activity in the 19th century. One of the earliest women's religious orders to set foot in India was the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. In 1827, women of this order reached Pondicherry and started schools for girls.

Most remarkable were the indigenous women who joined new religious orders founded in India itself, many of which deliberately aimed to serve poor, illiterate women, including widows. One of these female religious orders recruited candidates chiefly from among the "untouchables" in order to counter the general prejudice against and exclusion of such outcasts in Indian society. Rooted in the soil and fluent in the language, local Indian women were able to carry out missionary work more effectively than their European sisters.

Christianity gained the strongest foothold among the poorest and most remote communities. Huge numbers of untouchables joined the Catholic fold in the 19th century hoping to find not only spiritual nourishment but the human dignity and respect they had for so long been denied by the rest of society.

In the northern part of the country, Catholics, like Protestants, met with great success among the adivasis (aboriginal tribes) in the last decades of the century. Among the Mundas and Oraons of Jharkhand, for example, the Belgian priest Constant Lievens gained an enthusiastic following by defending the tribal people against the landlords and moneylenders who were oppressing them. In the Khasi Hills of Assam, the German Salvadorians and later the missionaries of the Society of Don Bosco ministered to the illiterate, the poor, and the young.

The conversion of so many outcaste peoples, however, sharpened the issue of caste hierarchy among Christians and divided the Catholic communities. Churches had long practiced separate seating for high-caste and low-caste members and even created separate cemeteries. Missionaries themselves disagreed over the correct response to the caste system. Some considered it diametrically opposed to Christianity. Others thought of it as a social practice that must be tolerated for the greater good of "saving souls." Repeated appeals to Rome for a clear directive were in vain, and the general rule was to compromise and to accommodate to the local social custom. To this day, caste division and prejudice continue to be a scandal in the church.

Catholic success

The caste system was one of many challenges faced by the Catholic church in India. Whereas 19th-century Protestants could boast many outstanding leaders, apart from a few exceptional personalities like Bishop Hartmann in Bombay and Bishop Bonnand in Pondicherry, there was a dearth of great leadership in the Catholic community. Moreover, missionaries of different religious orders and nationalities were often pitted against each other, sometimes to the point of public acrimony.

In 1886 Pope Leo XIII tried to resolve the conflicts between Padroado and Propaganda by establishing a centralized Catholic hierarchy for India. At that time, all the bishops were foreigners. But the pope's determination that Indian Christians would be the ambassadors of salvation to their own nation in time yielded rich fruits. In 1893 he founded the Papal Seminary in Kandy, Sri Lanka (later transferred to Pune) to train indigenous priests. In 1896 he appointed three Indian bishops. And in 1923 Tibertius Roche—one of the descendents of the fisher folk of southeast India whom Francis Xavier had evangelized in the 16th century—became the first Indian head of a Latin Rite diocese in India. The indigenization of the Catholic hierarchy had officially begun.

Buttressed by an increasingly native clergy, a widespread system of schools and universities, and an organized mission of social outreach, by the time of Indian independence the Catholic church stood poised to explode in growth and influence. Its success touches upon irony: Today, struggling Western parishes are importing Indian priests. Ambassadors indeed.

Felix Wilfred is professor and chair of the Department of Christian Studies at the State University of Madras, India.

When In India, Do As The Indians

The strategy of many 19th-century missionaries to spread the gospel among the elites had an early precedent in the extraordinary tradition set by Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656). Settling in the south Indian temple-city of Madurai in 1606, the Jesuit missionary was determined to reach Brahmans by becoming, at least in appearance and learning, a Brahman himself. He stopped eating meat, donned a long ochre garment and a turban, applied sandal paste to his forehead, and wore a sacred thread across his chest, just as the Brahmans did. His outward appearance was that of a true Hindu sannyasi (world-renouncer). Identifying himself as an Indian, he came to be known by his Indian name: Tattuwa-Bhodakar. Adept alike in Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit, he engaged in dialogues and debates with Brahman scholars. De Nobili reasoned that if Christianity was presented in a way the high-caste Hindus could relate to, they would realize its truth. In his view, when the upper castes converted, the conversion of the lower castes would then follow.

De Nobili's efforts to adapt Christianity to local thought patterns, customs, and manners scandalized other missionaries (including those of his own Jesuit order) and provoked censure and condemnation from Rome. But in the long run, he proved to be far ahead of his time. He is now recognized as a pioneer of the inculturation so ardently advocated by the Second Vatican Council.

—Felix Wilfred