Superstition stops Indian priest's first Mass

After 11 relatives died in a bus crash, Father Digal found himself shunned by parishioners in Odisha state
Superstition stops Indian priest's first Mass

A file image of Mass being celebrated at St. Anthony's Church in Hyderabad. A newly ordained Catholic priest in eastern India has yet to celebrate his first Mass because local parishioners consider him to be a bad omen. (Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP)

A newly ordained Catholic priest faces social exclusion in his eastern Indian village as Catholics now consider him a “bad omen” after 11 of his close relatives died in a road accident on his ordination day.

Father Dibyaranjan Digal of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese was ordained on Jan. 22 but has yet to take his first Mass in his native St. Joseph Church Godapur parish in Odisha state’s Kandhamal district.

“The opposition comes from parishioners, most of them my own relatives … they consider me a bad omen,” the priest told ucanews.com.

He lost 11 of his relatives when a bus carrying 50 people to his ordination ceremony overturned and fell in a gorge.

The ordination of four deacons was conducted at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bamunigam, about 15 kilometers from Father Digal’s parish.

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The accident shocked the 29-year-old priest as he came to know about it just before the start of the ceremony.

“I rushed to the hospital immediately after the ordination,” he recalled. Two of his sisters were among those critically injured. His parents were saved because they arrived the day before the ordination.

Odisha villagers follow several superstitions, according to Catholic social worker Jugal Kishore Ranjit.

For example, villagers are disturbed by deaths in a family, especially accidental deaths, during a celebration such as marriage, and they look at the newlywed woman entering their family as a bad omen.

Many believe an accident during preparation of a sacrifice is an expression of anger of the deity to whom these offerings are made, Ranjit told ucanews.com. Villagers must believe that God is angry with Father Digal and that his taking Mass would bring danger to them.

The new priest’s parish has about 5,000 Catholics, mostly second-generation or third-generation Catholics as the parish was established only 50 years ago.

Parish priest Father Prabhul Sobhasundar confirmed that Father Digal was prevented from taking his first Mass. “That was because they believe his first Mass in the parish will not augur well for the parishioners,” he told ucanews.com.

Father Dibyaranjan Digal says that one day God will let his parishioners understand that he had no role in a tragic accident that killed 11 of his relatives. (Photo supplied)

 

Villagers continue to oppose his first Mass but opposition is fading away, the priest said on March 6.

Initially, they were opposed to Father Digal even entering the village but on Feb. 18 they allowed him to concelebrate a requiem Mass for the departed. However, they would not allow him to be the main celebrant at the Mass.

Church sources said they cannot force a decision about Father Digal’s Mass on people because it could mean hundreds leaving the parish in fear of their lives “because certain village beliefs are so strong.”

Most parishioners are daily wage workers and come from socially poor Dalit backgrounds. Church efforts to provide them with modern education are only beginning to find takers among younger people.

Father Digal is the second of eight children of Agnes and Santiago Digal, daily wage workers. One of his sisters is a Catholic nun, while two others are under training to become nuns. His younger brother is a seminarian in Berhampur Diocese, also in Odisha. Another brother who joined a Carmelite seminary died in a drowning accident a couple of years ago.

Father Digal said he had visited families “ignoring the opposition … I felt unwelcome but no one chased me away.” He said the behavior of his “dear ones did not pain” him “because most of them are unschooled and ignorant” and cannot think logically.

His friend Father Anant Uthan Singh, who was ordained with him, said they “can only pray that the parishioners see reason” and move away from superstitions. “It is quite painful when you are rejected by your own people,” he said.

Father Digal said he suffered much more pain as a seminarian when a frenzied Hindu mob attacked their St. Paul’s Minor Seminary in Balliguda in Kandhamal district during anti-Christian riots 11 years ago.

The seminarians ran away to a nearby forest to save their lives. He then had to walk for 10 long days through the forest to reach his home village, which was not affected by the riots. He survived only on forest berries and water.

He is positive about his parishioners. “I know some day God will let them understand that I had no role in what happened or it was not God’s anger against me that caused the accident,” he said.

Until that day, he will have to wait to take his first Mass in the village, he said.

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