Family ties a thorny issue for Nepal's Catholics

With 10,000 Catholics in this patriarchal country and mixed marriages on the rise, parental guidance needed to keep the faith
Family ties a thorny issue for Nepal's Catholics

Nepalese Christians light candles at the Catholic Assumption Church in Lalitpur on the outskirts of Kathmandu on Christmas eve in this 2011 file photo. Less than one percent of Nepal's 29 million people identify as Christian. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)

I was born a Hindu but raised myself as a Catholic. I did feel gaps and obstacles due to not having come from a Catholic family while guiding myself into the Catholic faith.

But I was able to fill some of those gaps with the aid of my godparents and parish associations, especially church youth groups.

Being a good parent is not just about showing up — it's about being truly present and engaged in such a way that your children are inspired and learn to do things habitually.

Not long ago, this realization dawned on me after I became a father, and of course my child was born a Catholic.

When it comes to questions of faith, children look to their parents or guardians to set an example for them to follow.

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As well as needing our attention, love, time, guidance and discipline, they look to us to learn about ethical values and virtues. Most of all, perhaps, they need to be taught about God.

When discussing the Catholic faith in Nepal, the first footprints were laid by missionaries who arrived before the country was fully formed. Indeed, Catholicism is still very young here, having only had a real presence for the last few decades.

 

According to the latest census in 2011, Nepal's Christian population numbered 390,000, or 1.4 percent of this Himalayan country of 29 million people.

Some Christian leaders claim the number has now grown beyond 3 million, however there are still barely 10,000 Catholics.

This fledgling community lives among over 125 castes and ethnic groups who speak as many as 123 languages. Most of these are spoken by indigenous groups who show a diverse range of cultural practices.

The majority of Nepal's Christians are newly converted from socially excluded, economically poor indigenous and ethnic communities. For example, I can see many Catholics among the Tamang hill tribes and the Santhal tribal community in the Terai lowland region of southern Nepal.

Cultural assimilation remains a pressing challenge, however, as in many families only some of the members have converted to Christianity. This means a range of cultural backgrounds must find a way to harmoniously co-exist, and that Christians must try harder to practice their faith on a regular basis.

 

Obstacles at every turn

Converting to Christianity does not magically resolve all forms of suffering. On the contrary, in countries like Nepal it can mean those who embrace the faith may have to face more hardship and obstacles than they bargained for.

Legal and cultural issues can put even more pressure on Christian families who are trying to raise their children to be good Catholics as Nepal still tends to discriminate against religious minorities while not fully respecting people's religious freedom and beliefs.

To highlight this, in October 2017 the nation enacted a law criminalizing religious conversion, joining neighbors India and Pakistan in a regional bloc in which small Christian minorities face increasing government threats to their faith and beliefs. 

Moreover, some of the most powerful media in the country, along with other influential social actors, continue to perpetuate a negative view of religious minority communities.

As Nepal continues its political transition in the wake of a long Maoist insurgency (1996-2005) followed by a peace process and the election of seven provincial assemblies and the lower house of federal parliament from May to December of last year, new sets of laws have sown both doubt and fear among religious leaders of all religions, who wonder what lies in store.

When I speak to Christian parents, many express concern about the risk of "mixed marriages" that may separate them from their children, or their offspring from regular church activities.

In Nepal's heavily patriarchal society, mixed marriages arguably pose the biggest threat to Christian women, who are doubly disadvantaged by their gender and the small size of their religious community in the country.

This is even more true for Catholic children, whose diminutive numbers mean they have scant chance to socialize with kids from the same faith and are more likely to mingle those who belong to other religions at school.

For us Catholics, our children struggle to find opportunities to meet and know one another. As a result, many marry non-Catholics.

Another challenge is that many Catholic parents are still "newcomers" to the religion. They still have a lot to learn about the sacramental culture of the church. Moreover, establishing a culture of family prayers amid a shared household composed of multiple religions is no mean feat.

In many cases, the parents are not even practicing Catholics. That's one reason why our parish now mandates that Catholic parents who wish to have their children baptized should attend catechism classes with their kids. This is aimed at strengthening their faith and sacramental knowledge to they can be good Catholic mentors.

On the other hand, parishioners in rural areas generally attend church services more regularly and actively encourage their children to participate in parish-run activities.

One of my Catholic friends who hails from a Santhal tribal group in eastern Nepal said his family feels duty-bound to attend Sunday Mass each week. The parents may be impoverished but they have established a healthy family culture that will leave their children spiritually nourished and able to flourish as mature Catholics.

 

Lack of exposure

In Nepal, children are more exposed to non-Catholic cultures in their families, social circles and at school or college, so they don't get what many would consider to be adequate exposure to the Catholic faith.

As such, it's important that Christian and Catholic parents teach them about the importance of prayer and to value all life with dignity, charity and love. This is especially important for children from poor families, who have less access to a well-rounded education and tend to rely more on what they see and hear from their friends or on Facebook and other social media.

Unfortunately, not everyone can win a place at a Catholic missionary school, where they can learn about catechism and other value-based forms of education.

When I think about my own childhood, life was simpler. But nowadays children face many different pressures. Yet we must not forget that children are a blessing from God, and that they deserved our love and guidance.

Whether it seems like it or not, they are always listening to what we say and watching what we do. Parents need to be practicing Catholics so their children can follow in their footsteps and fully embrace the power of their faith.

Godparents also have a great role to play in this respect, and shirking such responsibilities or delegating the job to others is not an option.

Arguably the toughest road awaits youngsters who convert to the Catholic faith without having any Catholic roots in their family, as they must completely adapt their lifestyle in the face of considerable obstacles.

However, this can be overcome by organizing regular meetings of young Catholics, which can serve as a platform for them to share their stories and learn and understand more from their peers.

Other church groups can play a supportive role, like a supplementary family with the Lord at the head of the table.

Since most of Nepal's converted Christians come from marginalized and economically poor sectors of society, the parish can help to integrate them more closely into the social fabric and forward their development.

Communities of Catholics can open their arms and satisfy their needs. The gospel, which preaches about liberating the poor from structural injustices, should be able to create a more vibrant church of and for the poor.

Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.

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