Successful Tribals Acknowledge Jubilee Diocese´s Help

2004-12-09 00:00:00

Tribal Catholics of Rourkela diocese, eastern India, acknowledge that the Church has improved their life.

"What I am today is the gift of the missionaries and the Church," says national hockey team captain Dilip Tirkey, who hails from the territory of the Orissa state diocese, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The official jubilee celebration in November drew more than 40,000 people. Events included a depiction of its history and activities through traditional cultural programs, a solemn Mass at which Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi presided, a Bible quiz and the release of a jubilee souvenir book.

At one function, federal bureaucrat Livnus Kindo said missioners have helped tribal groups such as the Kharia, Kisan, Munda, and Oraon to advance in many vocational spheres. Kindo, a Munda, was the first Catholic from the diocese to pass the Indian Administrative Service examination for the civil service.

The diocese is based in Rourkela city, 1,385 kilometers southeast of New Delhi. Three other dioceses -- Balasore, Berhampur, Sambalpur -- and Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese cover the rest of Orissa.

Lay leader Bijaya Kumar Soreng attributes the success of Catholics to the educational thrust the diocese has maintained since it was set up in the tribal region. The diocese has 217 primary, upper primary and high schools.

Soreng, president of Rourkela Diocesan Catholic Sabha (council), a lay organization, told UCA News that education has enhanced people´s financial and social status.

Laypeople underwrote the major part of the jubilee celebration expenses, which totaled 1 million rupees (US$22,220), and presented a gift of 100,000 rupees to Bishop Alphonse Bilung, the diocese´s first and only bishop, on the occasion of his silver jubilee. "This shows the power of the diocese´s vibrant Catholic community," council vice president Daya Kishore Xess told UCA News.

Bishop Bilung, 71, was appointed bishop of Rourkela when the diocese was created in July 1979. The Divine Word priest was ordained a bishop on Nov. 3 that year.

The prelate credits the Church´s commitment to tribal education with bringing overall development in the region. Catholics have made "significant contributions to society in various capacities," he told UCA News on Nov. 14.

Rourkela, the diocese with the largest Catholic population in Orissa state, is linked to the Catholic mission of Chotanagpur, which was established in 1869. Belgian Jesuit missioners introduced the faith in pockets of the tribal region known as Chotanagpur, now divided among several states. Territory then served by the Gangpur mission eventually became Rourkela diocese. Divine Word priests took over from Jesuits in 1948, a year after Indian independence.

The diocese covers an area of 9,675 square kilometers. Its 220,095 Catholics come from 26,075 families spread through 40 parishes served by 49 diocesan priests. They are assisted by 251 Religious priests and nuns from eight men´s and 15 women´s congregations. The diocese has focused on pastoral, educational and socioeconomic development.

However, Church officials pointed out that with the region´s socioeconomic development, inevitable problems and conflicts have arisen.

Rourkela is known as "Steel City" because of a steel plant -- Steel Authority of India Limited -- established in the 1960s. India´s premier steel plant has 16 Catholics in key positions today. Its former general manager, Louis Toppo, an Oraon Catholic, says the plant now employs many Catholics. Beyond the city, Rourkela district has several other factories, as well as mines from which coal, chromate iron, and manganese are extracted.

Father Albert Xess, diocesan secretary for the biblical apostolate, told UCA News increasing industrialization has brought an influx of people from other parts of India along with moral and social problems among local tribals.

It has alienated many from former agricultural lifestyles and disrupted the functioning of traditional village councils, apart from causing environmental pollution. Many tribals have been displaced after the government took over their ancestral lands for factories, mines and dams. Joblessness and poverty persist despite the overall progress in the area, Father Xess bemoaned.

Similarly, lay leader Zacharias Hasda blames urbanization and mass media for slowly replacing the tribals´ sense of fellowship with individualism and greed. Village elders are unable to monitor and guide the youth, or even villagers in general, adds Father Paul Kongadi, the diocese´s vicar general.

Other challenges to the Church, according to Bishop Bilung, come from right-wing Hindu groups that now try to convert tribal Christians to Hinduism. Such attempts might disintegrate tribal society, the prelate warned.

Government educational policy poses yet another challenge. Since 2000 the state has not allowed new teachers on its payroll, forcing the Church to hire teachers on its own. This is "becoming a great financial burden to the diocese," diocesan education secretary Father Anthony Tete told UCA News.

Bishop Bilung seemed confident the diocese would overcome the difficulties with the laity´s help. "Ever since the diocese´s creation, the Church has promoted lay leadership in the Church as well as in society," he said.


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