"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 ...

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