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An Indian Catholic priest with alternate vision, values

Father Varghese Alengaden, who was called the ‘prophet’ of peace and nation-building, died on March 26
Father Varghese Alengaden

Father Varghese Alengaden. (Photo: UCAN files)

Published: March 29, 2023 08:52 AM GMT
Updated: March 29, 2023 10:27 AM GMT

An Indian Catholic priest who adopted new ways to spread the universal teachings of Christ while also founding a holistic spiritual movement to transform India on the principles espoused by Mahatma Gandhi died on March 26.

Father Varghese Alengaden who was based in Indore, a city in the central Madhya Pradesh state, was 70 and a priest for 41 years.

He founded the Universal Solidarity Movement (USM) of Value Education for Peace in 1993, inspired by Gandhian principles to live and work among rural people as a proactive response to the corrupt, violent, fundamentalist culture that prevailed in the country.

He also foresaw an alternative vision for the Church in India and was unafraid of criticizing the institutionalization of the Catholic Church.

Alengaden argued that it was time to “put the new wine in new wineskin” to make the universal teachings of Christ known and establish “a civilization of love.”

A voracious reader and deep thinker, the priest wrote a series of 10 books titled “God in Flesh and Blood” intended to make the church hierarchy introspect and take time-bound action to become relevant in the changing times.

Alengaden in his autobiography, "Ho Jayega" (It will be done), outlined his own paradigm shift from religiosity to spirituality, providing an account of his journey from being an orthodox ‘priest of rituals’ to helping people of all faiths to worship God in truth and spirit as told by Christ to the Samaritan Woman at the well.

He wrote: “Now I understand the viewpoints of those who are opposed to organized religions, their hierarchy, rituals, and corruption of their priests. I can now see why institutional religions silence and even kill prophets and welcome traditional preachers with reverence. I resolve to help people of all faiths to worship God in Truth and Spirit.”

Not surprisingly, he had a dedicated band of Hindu and Muslim supporters, among them top bureaucrats, police and government officers, who backed his USM movement as a way of life for ushering in peace and interfaith harmony in the country.

He strongly believed in the providence of God and recounted innumerable instances of donations coming in from different corners of India, especially from non-Christians during the Covid-19 pandemic, just in time to pay the rent and salaries of his staff.

Alengaden stood out from the Church, refusing any foreign donations or grants from the government to ensure the independence of his movement.

He did not believe in owning any property, saying his life was for the people.

“Christ never owned any property, why should I?"

He was not worried about the movement he built up. "If it has to survive, it will survive and if it has to perish, it will perish,” he said.

The priest also challenged the church in India to be open to any scrutiny, especially its finances, and made sure the USM published its annual accounts every year and kept them open for anyone who wished to see them.

His critical writings on unusual themes include “A religion without priests,” “Bishops, speak up before you die,” and “Daily Mass, an outdated opium,” which are to be published in a forthcoming book, “Building Church: By Returning to the Way of Christ” and meant to serve as an eye opener for the ordinary seekers of truth and meaning in life.

Born in 1952 in the southern state of Kerala, Alengaden, who sold newspapers on a bicycle in his school days, was ordained a priest in 1981 and joined Sagar diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church in Madhya Pradesh.

After a stint as a parish priest and a director of youth for the Madhya Pradesh region, he felt an inner calling to work for interfaith harmony and unity in India and with permission and support from the then Bishop George Anathil of Indore started the USM movement.

Alengaden urged Christian educational institutions to promote a truly secular India. He advocated interfaith prayers and display of the preamble of the Indian constitution since the majority of teachers and students were Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.

He wanted the students to become collaborators in the mission of love, compassion and forgiveness and build a society based on love and brotherhood.

He wrote: “Unfortunately, many who are leading the campaign against the missionaries are those who were empowered by Catholic institutions. The Church personnel failed to train them to protect the Indian ethos enshrined in our Constitution.”

Alegaden believed that Christ had envisaged these troubles 2,000 years ago.

“He had also given solutions to face all kinds of troubles at all ages,” he would say but regret that few retreat preachers or theologians found practical ways of applying the method of “putting new wine in new wineskins” in their ministries.

The priest noted that “without fear and favor, sadly the bishops, priests and religious have failed to make use of the new wineskin methodologies. On the contrary, they continued to follow their ‘old wineskin’ ways. Now the old wineskin [old ways of working] is getting broken and wine is wasted. In other words, all their efforts based on the old ways are met with failure and opposition.”

Alengaden felt the root of the anti-Christian propaganda and hatred witnessed in India had their origin in the aggressive and forced ways of evangelization followed in the past with the support of colonial rulers.

The priest invited criticism for having adopted a negative approach toward the Church and its leadership but took it in his stride.

However, many cardinals, archbishops, bishops and provincials, men and women in congregations, who had firsthand experienced his work in Indore, did endorse his path.

His voice will not remain a cry in the wilderness.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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4 Comments on this Story
FRANCIS LOBO
May his soul rest in peace .Today’s many Church leaders including Bishops are not living to the values of Jesus Christ . They have become purely business men to grab vast land from my parents secretly shifting them to Home for the aged and later neglecting them . Land is transferred from Church to Fr Muller Institute for 2.26 crores while legal dispute procedures are pending in court . Mere lies by Church leaders
DOROTHY
Truly a man who walked the talk, a visionary, a person who wax trulh patrioticand followed Jesus' way of life...a challenge for us... Rest in thr loving g Embrace ofbour God, Varghese
A.A.LOGANATHAN
BEING IN CHRIST TO BE IN CHRIST. HE HAS LIVED IN PEACE AS SUCH HE WOULD INDEED REAT IN PEACE FOR BEING THE SOLDIERS OF JESUS CHRIST. LIKE CHRIST TO BE CHRISTLIKE.
GARY FRASE
I am sorry that I never met this brother
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