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New French venerable tussled with India's caste system

Missionary bishop resigned after facing opposition to his reformist ideas in Tamil Nadu

Eglises d'Asie reporter, Paris

Eglises d'Asie reporter, Paris

Published: June 15, 2020 10:09 AM GMT

Updated: June 15, 2020 11:17 AM GMT

New French venerable tussled with India's caste system

French missionary Melchior de Marion-Brésillac was made a venerable by Pope Francis on May 26. (Photo: sma.ie)

The missionary life of French-born Melchior de Marion-Brésillac, whose process of canonization passed a crucial step last month, is marked by his struggle with the caste system in southern India.

Pope Francis signed documents recognizing "heroic virtues" of the missionary priest on May 26, making him Venerable Melchior, the step before beatification and canonization.

Born on Dec. 2, 1813, in Castelnaudary in France, the missionary who advocated modern ideas lived for 12 tumultuous years in India. He then moved to Africa, where he founded the Society of African Missions before dying of yellow fever in 1859 in Sierra Leone.
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Venerable Melchior's missionary journey started with a three-month sea voyage to India from the port of Nantes on April 12, 1842. He was 29 years old when he landed in the then French colony of Pondicherry on the southeastern coast of India.

Pondicherry at the time was the primary French settlement in India after the French East India Company established a trading center on the coast of the Bay of Bengal in 1674. It continued to be part of French India until India incorporated it in 1954.

Venerable Melchior was resolute about his mission. He chose to serve in distant Asia even without discussing his choice with his engineer father. When leaving for India, he sent a simple letter to his father informing him of his departure.

He had studied philosophy and theology at the seminary of Carcassonne and was ordained a priest on Dec. 22, 1838. He was then appointed vicar at Castelnaudary.

It was during a retreat in 1940 with the Jesuits in Avignon that he decided to become a missionary. His diocese refused his request three times. His father, who had lost another son in the war in Algeria, was also against him leaving the family home.

"At the time missionary work in Asia even had the possibility of being killed, but this ultimate sacrifice was considered sacred. Missionaries who went to distant lands in this way were admired for their courage and faith," said Father Maria Valan Kulandaisamy, a member of the Society of African Missions who is based in Karumathampatti in Tamil Nadu in southern India.

To prepare for the project, Venerable Melchior went to the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) in 1941 and was trained for his Asian mission for a few months. 

Four resolutions

During his MEP training days, he favored the idea of training local clergy abroad. During a retreat, Venerable Melchior formulated four resolutions: to be a missionary with all his heart, not to neglect detail in his service to God, seize every opportunity to preach the word of God, and to encourage the formation of local clergy.

For several months, Bishop Clément Bonnand introduced the young priest to his new environment and the culture of southern India and helped practice the local Tamil language, Father Kulandaisamy said.

In January 1843, he was sent to Salem's mission in the heart of Tamil Nadu, where he visited the various Christian communities and began his project to form Tamil clergy.

He soon understood that only Indians from high castes could be tolerated in seminaries, and he discovered that his fellow missionaries were not convinced of the importance of his project.

A year later, he and 23 other priests attended a synod in Pondicherry where Venerable Melchior stressed the need for developing "indigenous clergy" for the mission.

Church authorities then put him in charge of a seminary-college that was not very active. In that institution, Venerable Melchior "refused the idea of a seminary where the Indians were treated as subordinates," Father Kulandaisamy said.

"He wanted to set up a center where Tamil priests are on an equal footing, learning Latin, mathematics or theology. He believes deeply in education" with others from overseas.

In May 1845, he was appointed bishop of Coimbatore and on Oct. 4, 1846, he was ordained.

When he began construction of the Cathedral of St. Michael in Coimbatore, he was unable to obtain a site in the city "because his entire team came from the lower castes," Father Kulandaisamy said.

In those days, when the caste system discriminated against people, lower-caste people were not supposed to buy land within the city where higher-caste people lived. Venerable Melchior had to fall back on a place outside Coimbatore.

Challenging caste system

In the missions in Tamil Nadu, Venerable Melchior's reformist ideas met with much resistance. Much of the difficulties came from assimilating certain Indian customs based in Hindu culture.

"But the first problem was of the castes," Father Kulandaisamy said. His first impression of the caste system was that it was a social hierarchy that separated the rich from the poor, as in Europe.

But later he discovered that Tamil Christians, who came from lower castes, were perceived as outcasts, no matter how rich they were. He realized the limitations of local clergy who were seen as second-class priests.

"While he seeks liberating and innovative solutions, he is also afraid of violating Rome's directives. Within the Church, the tendency was then to tolerate the caste system and not to offend the local culture," Father Kulandaisamy said.

On several occasions, Venerable Melchior shared his doubts and questions with his congregation. In June 1851, he signed a document in which he set out the difficulties he encountered in authorizing Malabar rites. His position against the caste system made his work more difficult and faced opposition. He resigned in 1852.

"While I desire as much and more tolerance as we have had for the customs of the Indians, my conscience is absolutely reluctant to walk the path I have taken until the Holy See declares that it is perfectly aware of all that is being practiced and that this practice is tolerable. This is the real reason for my resignation," he later explained to Bishop Etienne-Louis Charbonnaux, the first vicar apostolic of Mysore

Venerable Melchior could have stayed longer in India if circumstances had been a little different," says historian Siddhartha Sarma, author of Carpenters and Kings: Western Christianity and the Idea of India.

"His stand against the prevalence of the caste system and his desire to ordain local priests was commendable. But his ideas were ahead of his time and caused tensions with his fellow men. In particular, he believed in the possibility of harmonization with Malabar rites, which had been a contentious debate for two centuries in the Vatican and in India," Sarma says.

A missionary ahead of his time

After 12 years in India, at the age of 41, Venerable Melchior left Coimbatore in November 1853 and arrived in Rome on April 19, 1854. He then wrote reports on the difficulties encountered in southern India. His resignation was not accepted until March 18, 1855.

"The main question was the following: why did he have to resign? Why not stay to continue the work he had begun?" said Father Kulandaisamy.

"But his conviction was that he was not in a position to accomplish God's mission and that he had no other choice but to resign," the priest said.

However, Venerable Melchior would continue on his missionary journey, this time towards Africa. For months, he crisscrossed France to raise funds and set up teams to found the Society of African Missions (SMA).

He was able to send the first team of two priests and a lay brother to go to Freetown, Sierra Leone. They arrived there on Jan. 13, 1859. Venerable Melchior arrived there on May 14. But the raging yellow fever in the following month killed all the missionaries.

On June 25, 1859, at the age of 45, Venerable Melchior died.

His work bore fruit in India. "After his departure, some progress was immediate," Father Kulandaisamy said. "The seminary in Bangalore was strengthened, and founders of four congregations of sisters, in Chennai, Pondicherry, Coimbatore and Madurai, were greatly influenced by his values and ideas." 

Venerable Melchior was "a reformer at heart. He was meticulous and very erudite. He studied all his life and knew the history of southern India very well. He led a simple life and wanted neither riches nor favors. He had many ideas and plans, but his modernity isolated him from his fellow men," Father Kulandaisamy added.

"His contemporaries had difficulty understanding him, and he did not want to make any concessions. Even today, some of his ideas, especially the fight against the caste system, are still relevant." 

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society.

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