Theologian Gets International Theological Award

2007-06-12 00:00:00

An international theological foundation has recognized an Indian priest for promoting interreligious dialogue.

Father John Fernandes of Mangalore diocese in southern India has been selected for the 2007 Herbert Haag Prize. The award ceremony is scheduled for June 24 in Lucerne, Switzerland.

The Herbert Haag Foundation periodically awards people who work to restore freedom within the Church. Herbert Haag, a theology professor at the University of Tubingen, Germany, set up the foundation. The Catholic theologian died in 2001.

The prize comprises a medal and cash to help the winner´s activities. One side of the medal shows a bird flying into freedom and the other has these words: "The net is torn, and we are free."

The foundation says the "cause of today´s crises in the Church is its constitution, that leads, without fail, to a lack of freedom of its believers." It is an "open contradiction to the message of Jesus who preached a gospel of freedom."

The foundation said it chose Father Fernandes for his grassroots work building "a just and peaceful society, for his involvement in environmental issues and, mostly, for his active involvement in interreligious dialogue in Mangalore."

Mangalore diocese´s vicar general, Father Denis Prabhu, announced the news in the diocese. The second-highest official after the bishop lauded Father Fernandes for his theological contributions, social work and "relentless" efforts to dialogue.

Father Fernandes, 71, is professor of Christian studies at Mangalore University. He is credited with initiating a number of Church reform movements.

One, the Catholic Priests´ Conference of India, is a forum of diocesan priests that the Indian bishops have not recognized.

He also started Mangala Jyothi (auspicious light), a biblical, catechetical and liturgical center in Mangalore, which forms priests, Religious and laity on faith matters.

His Dharma Samanvaya (religious equality) brings together people from different religions to work for harmony. It restored peace in sensitive areas during recent Hindu-Muslim riots. The forum has units in schools and colleges to help students from various religions understand and respect each other.

Vinaya Hegde, a local Hindu academician, told UCA News June 10 that Father Fernandes "truly deserves the award" for having shown how a "religious guru should be."

Hegde said the best way to reduce sectarian tension is togetherness: get together, learn about each other, celebrate festivals together, pray and eat together. Father Fernandes "promoted all this through Dharma Samanvaya."

Father John D´Souza, a parish priest, says Father Fernandes has helped many Hindus, Muslims and Jains to understand Christianity and know other religions.

"He has brought Hindu and Muslim leaders to our seminary and churches, and showed them what we teach and what we believe," Father D´Souza told UCA News. He echoed Hegde´s observation in saying that Father Fernandes insists "the best way to improve relations" is to get involved with others.

On several occasions Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (national volunteer corps), the umbrella organization of Hindu radical groups, invited Father Fernandes to address them.

Father Fernandes, who was ordained in 1963, told UCA News he believes in dialogue, freedom and liberation of the oppressed.

"First, we need to establish freedom and dignity for each Christian within our own Church, before we preach of equality outside," he added.


(Accompanying photos available at here)

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