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Updated: March 03, 2003 05:00 PM GMT
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Indian Church workers who have come to realize that something more than Catholic theology is needed for effective ministry in their country are turning to a Catholic theological institute for help.

The Church workers say they need a deeper understanding of Indian tradition, and a good place to develop that kind of wisdom is the Indian Institute of Spirituality (IIS) in Bangalore, 2,060 kilometers south of New Delhi.

Salesian Father George Vettukattil, one of 13 people doing doctoral studies there, has learned that Indian philosophy views everything as manifestations of God and that Indian tradition presents God through nature.

The priest from Guwahati archdiocese in northeastern India told UCA News that while doing a thesis on "eco-spirituality in the Indian context" as part of his studies, he has found a "close affinity" between "eco-spirituality" and Hinduism. "This respect for nature makes man essentially spiritual," he said.

IIS combines Catholic theology and indigenous spirituality to train Church workers for India, according to Father Antony Kolenchery, founder and director of the Fransalian-run center. Fransalians is the popular name of Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, a society of priests and brothers founded in 1838 in Annecy, France. The missioners in India are engaged in education but also active in parish work and known for retreat preaching.

Father Kolenchery told UCA News that a combination of Catholic theology and indigenous spirituality is needed because Christianity can survive in India only if it learns to value local traditions. What Indian priests and Religious lack is not spirituality but Indian-ness, the Fransalian asserted. Even though India has a deeply rooted philosophy, the 54-year-old priest observed, the current Church system of pastoral formation inadequately trains "inculturated" Church workers. Co-operation, not competition, is the best approach to missionary work in India, he added.

The priest also explained that IIS aims to integrate Christian theology with the Indian systems of bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge) and karma (work), ways for union with God. In bhakti, one achieves an intimate relation with "the supreme" through love and devotion, while knowledge helps one attain the same in jnana. In karma, a person realizes God through duty or work.

"Harmony of devotion, knowledge and work," Father Kolenchery said, help form "a holistic person who is deeply spiritual and socially constructive." In his view, a Church worker cannot present Christ properly without understanding local systems and traditions.

The academic program of IIS is conducted in collaboration with and according to the norms of Bangalore University. Father Kolenchery explained that IIS is incorporated as part of the faculty of St. Peter´s Pontifical Institute, a major seminary in Bangalore, which confers the academic degrees.

The institute, opened four years ago, now has 76 students -- priests, nuns, laypeople -- who take various courses in theology and spirituality. The basic program is a diploma course in theology and spirituality. More advanced students can pursue a master´s and a doctorate in spirituality. However, IIS also offers "extension/certificate" courses, such as "Enneagram, Counselling and Spiritual Direction," "Prayer and Mysticism" and "Salesian Spirituality."

Father Francis Xavier, a masters´ degree student from Allahabad diocese in northern India, told UCA News that the institute "commendably and innovatively synthesizes the spiritual wealth of the East and of the West."

Father Ramon Pereira from Sri Lanka affirmed this, saying he has learned that the Buddhist system and the Gospel have similarities since both aim to foster peace through ahimsa (non-violence). For his doctorate, the diocesan priest is studying the Gospel and Buddhism´s "noble eight-fold path." St. Joseph´s Sister Zeena says she appreciates the institute for offering "an integral formation conducive to personal and human development."

Montfort Brother Philip Claude, a former student, said he found the IIS academic program "rich in concept and contents." More than that, he noted, his experience of living there with people from different Indian states and countries allowed him to better appreciate various cultures and philosophies.


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