ROME – During the first two weeks of the Oct. 3-28 summit of bishops in Rome, some 200 people have shared four-minute reflections about what life is like in their countries, giving voice to their concerns and priorities.
But on Thursday, there was one speaker who was quoted almost in full by Pope Francis during his daily morning Mass.
“Yesterday, in the synod hall a bishop from one of these countries where there is persecution spoke about a Catholic boy taken by a group who hated the Church, fundamentalists. He was beaten and then thrown into a cistern with mud thrown on him until it came up to his neck [and they asked]: ‘Say for the last time: do you give up Jesus Christ?’ – ‘No!’ They threw a stone and killed him,” Francis said.
He was referring to the remarks given by Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, India, on Wednesday, as he was addressing the general assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment.
Barwa told the story of Rajesh Digal, a young catechist who was murdered by a mob of Hindu fundamentalists on Aug. 26, 2008, in the region of Kandhamal in eastern India as he was returning home.
Barwa’s archdiocese contains a large population of Dalits, the “untouchables” in India’s ancient caste system, as well as Tribals, meaning members of the country’s long-marginalized indigenous populations. Barwa is himself a Tribal, one of just a handful from the two groups in the Indian hierarchy.
In 2008, a Hindu religious leader was murdered in the area and Christians were blamed, leading to the worst outbreak of violence directed at Christians to that point in the 21st century. The manner in which many lost their lives was almost unimaginably grotesque – violence more at home in the Bible or early Christian martyrology, seemingly, than the here-and-now.
“Though most Hindus are wonderful, peaceful people, radical fundamentalists harbored this violence and hatred. They killed us, gang-raped women and young girls, one of them was my own niece, and killed the young people,” Barwa told Crux in an interview on Friday.
Barwa’s niece is a Catholic nun who was gang-raped during the violence.
Retelling the story of Digal, Barwa said that the fundamentalists tried to force him to convert and, when he was buried in mud up to his neck, asked if he’d give up Jesus Christ.
“He closed his eyes, looked up at him and said ‘No!’ And the man dumped the stone on his head,” Barwa said. “He silently gave witness of the God of life. And this is only one story. There are so many powerful stories of faith.”
Yet that oppression, he said, has failed to arrest the growth of the faith. The community is “growing,” he said, with the number of people joining Christianity increasing, as well as the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Barwa was there when the pope delivered his homily on Thursday, which came more than halfway through the month-long synod.
“It’s like in the bestseller book The Little Prince, that says, ‘It’s the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.’ It’s the time that we ‘waste’ for God that makes God important, and it’ll be by the time that we ‘waste’ with young people that will make young people become important for us,” he said.
“Now in this synod, are we willing to spend, waste time with young people so that they become roses in the garden of the Church?” Barwa asked.
In total, 101 Christians were killed in those days of violence, and many more died as they had to find refuge for months in a nearby forest. Since they belonged to the Dalits and the Tribals, many didn’t even have birth certificates, so the government has steadily refused to acknowledge they were murdered. In many cases family members were forced to witness while their loved ones were at times chopped to pieces or set on fire while still alive.
Yet the Church and Barwa have not forgotten. He’s assigned a team to collect their stories and has opened a cause for the Church to recognize them as martyrs, meaning, that they were killed in hatred of the faith. He believes the process of collecting the information will be over by December, and once it’s done, he’ll send it to the Vatican, with the idea of seeing them one day declared saints.
“But it’s not up to me … God has his time. I will do my work, and then God will decide,” he said.
Francis has long expressed his interest in visiting India and it’s something the local bishops’ conference desires, but the political climate to this point has not made it possible.
However, if the day ever comes, Barwa hopes the pontiff’s trip will include a stop in Kandhamal, where the violence erupted in 2008.
“If he comes, it would be the largest and biggest blessing for us, but I don’t think that he will come,” he said, citing security concerns among other logistical obstacles.
Yet if the pontiff came, he said, “it would be unimaginable, heavenly.”