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Bishops, Religious Discuss Church Policy To Educate Poor Catholics


February 15 2006

The Indian bishops´ conference and major superiors´ association propose to set up hostels in remote villages and vocational training centers in every diocese to ensure education of all Catholic children.

The diocesan and congregational leaders also want Church educational institutions to focus special attention on Catholic children from dalit and tribal groups, and to see them through their studies. Dalit, at the bottom of India´s traditional caste system, once were called "untouchables." More than 60 percent of Christians in India come from dalit and tribal groups.

These proposals and some others came from a joint meeting of the Catholic Bishops´ and the Conference of Religious India. The meeting was part of the bishops´ Feb. 8-15 plenary in Bangalore, 2,060 kilometers south of New Delhi. The biennial assembly was organized around the theme, "Catholic education: The Church´s concern for the marginalized."

About 160 of the 210 members of the bishops´ conference and 25 delegates from the 785-member Conference of Religious India took part in the joint meeting, held on the first three days of the plenary.

At the beginning of the plenary, Church sources said the proposals would come in the form of a national "pastoral education policy statement and action plan" that the bishops would finalize during the meeting.

Briefing the press Feb. 13, Jesuit Bishop Charles Soreng of Hazaribag, chairperson of the bishops´ commission for education, said bishops and major superiors agreed on "collective" action while discussing a national education policy for the Church.

Bishop Soreng said the Church would focus more on vocational education of dalit and tribal students. Until now, the tribal prelate added, the Church focused mostly on general education, which he said has produced educated jobless youth. The new focus aims to impart skill-based training to help students find proper jobs.

There was a move to announce the new policy was as a joint statement from the two Church bodies on Feb. 10, at the conclusion of their meeting. However, it was delayed because the bishops insisted that they alone have the right to speak for the Church. The major Religious superiors had wanted the statement to go in the name of both bodies since Religious congregations manage 57 percent of Church educational institutions in the country.

However, the bishops decided to delay the announcement and instead issue a message at the end of their meeting.

Nonetheless, it is understood that the joint meeting reaffirmed the Church´s "evangelical commitment" to the poor, whom the bishops and major superiors described as God´s "chosen people."

The two top Church bodies proposed to provide the poor with educational and employment opportunities while reiterating that Church institutions would continue to serve people of "all castes, creed, race, region and religion." However, their "priority target group" would be dalit and tribal Catholics.

Other proposals from the joint meeting included the need to prepare talented children from poor and marginalized groups for higher and professional education, and to train select groups of youth for social and political leadership.

The Church bodies also want their educational institutions to focus on girls and women, and formulate specific programs to educate and empower domestic workers and other workers with no organized representation.

The meeting also called for special programs for school dropouts, slow learners and people with disabilities.

The joint meeting noted that Catholic education aims at "the total, integral and holistic development of the individual" and promotion of a Gospel-based just society.

The bishops and Religious superiors agreed that if the Church educates and empowers Catholics, the Catholics would in turn collaborate with others for nation building and social transformation.

According to a Church survey conducted in October 2005, India´s 157 dioceses and 321 Religious congregations together manage 20,370 educational institutions. They teach more than 10 million students, among whom 54.4 percent are girls. Only 23 percent of these students are Catholics. Hindus top the list of beneficiaries at 52.9 percent.

The meeting helped the Church leaders become "acutely aware" that the caste system, exclusion, displacement, forced migration, child labor and other factors discriminate against and marginalize India´s poor. At the same time, the Church bodies noted that poor people are making efforts to free themselves from such marginalization.

The joint meeting promised to help in that struggle. For this, the Church leaders propose to invest all their "human, organizational and financial resources" to eradicate illiteracy and provide quality education. They also promised to engage only people with faith, integrity, vision and commitment in the Church´s educational services.

The bishops and Religious superiors suggested setting up a committee in each diocese under its bishop to monitor the implementation of the proposals. Clergy, Religious and laity would form the committee´s members.


(Accompanying photos available at here)