MUMBAI, India — A leading Indian theologian, Father Augustine Kanjamala, SVD, was laid to rest on July 6, after dying two days earlier in Mumbai at the age of 78.

Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop Syro-Malabar Church, described Kanjamala “as a zealous missionary, who worked hard to spread the Gospel.”

Kanjamala entered the seminary of the Society of the Divine Word when he was seventeen, and was ordained as a priest in 1970.

In many ways, he was a “Pope Francis priest” decades before anyone had heard of such a thing.

He worked for three years among tribal Catholics in the eastern Indian state of Orissa [now Odisha] – which in India, was on the peripheries of the peripheries.

He was later one of the first priests to minister to the migrants who flooded Mumbai to work as maids and domestic workers, both by offering Mass in Hindi, and by informing them of how to secure their rights and lobby for fair labor practices.

Bishop of Indore, Chacko Thottumarickal, SVD, said Kanjamala “inspired everyone” during the homily at the priest’s funeral.

“He was encouraging and motivating team spirit and promoting harmony and dialogue in community life,” the bishop said.  “Evangelization was his priority as an SVD, and he served the Church in India through his visionary leadership in evangelization.”

Kanjamala’s expertise in the subject was in demand, and he taught mission theology in several seminaries in India and was a scholar-in-residence at the Chicago-based Catholic Theological Union.

Among his books are 1981’s Religion and Modernization of India and 2014’s The Future of Christian Mission in India.

Kanjamala conducted the first ever national survey on the mission for the India bishops’ conference.

He later explained to Crux that one of the major findings was that “for nearly 85 percent of priests and nuns, unlike in the past, the primary goal of the mission is not ecclesio-centric conversion,” due to the teaching of the possibility of salvation outside the visible Church.

“Only 2.5 percent of the population is Christian,” Kanjamala said. “97 percent of Indians are finding their salvation outside the Christian economy of salvation.”

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The priest was also a strong proponent of protecting the rights of women in society, and supported the Women Reservations Bill, which ensure a third of the seats in parliament for women.

“Father Augustine was a pioneer for gender justice and equality in the Church,” said Sister Meena Barwa.

She told Crux the priest “loved the poor, and served tirelessly for the uplift to give them self-reliance and dignity, he was concerned especially for girls and women and even women religious; he wanted them to have a greater role in the Church.”

The Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, John Barwa, SVD, [Sister Meena’s uncle] told Crux Kanjamala “lived a convinced, committed life of a true religious with truth and sincerity.”

Barwa, also a member of the Society of the Divine Word, said his confrere was always seeking God’s plans for His people with the mindset of a visionary and a true religious missionary.

“His simplicity, hard work, dedicated sincere search for God’s plans in situations, persons, existing realities, events and in different writings manifested his true love for the Church’s mission,” the archbishop said.