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Seats at the table: Incorporating diverse identities in a global church

  • 11 November 2021
From my earliest years the primary lens through which I developed an appreciation of diverse identities was through my Catholic parish, St Thomas’, Calcutta. Situated in plush Middleton Row and centred upon a property allocated to Archbishop Carew by Governor Vansittart in 1827, the parish premises included a handsome Palladian church and convent school – Loreto House – both of them positioned within this once almost exclusively European enclave and within close proximity to my Jesuit school, St Xavier’s College.

This complex of institutions and buildings was intended to educate Catholic members of the European colonial establishment, who lived in the nearby Georgian villas and mansions of South Calcutta and Fort William. By the time of my birth a steady exodus of such people had begun. To the UK and Canada they went and also to Australasia and Southern Africa, where neo-colonial resistance to modernity had taken on a new lease of life through various race-restrictive immigration policies and, notably, apartheid.

Within Calcutta the nature of the clergy and laity had begun to change. The last European Jesuit archbishop was succeeded by an Anglo-Indian, Trevor Picachy, who later received the red hat. Our own parish clergy, once exclusively Anglo-Irish, followed by Anglophile Belgians, all of them Jesuits and accounting for India having the largest Jesuit province on the globe, began to register the leadership of Anglo-Indians. A measure of how closely this clerical cohort reflected the painfully slow pace of a newly emerging Indian Catholicism is that at one stage our Parish Priest was the brother of the Cardinal and the Mother Superior of the Loreto Order was the sister of the Vicar General.

As with church administration, so also was the congregation. Westernised Anglo-Indians began to take the place of Europeans. While the front pews, with names affixed to them, were technically reserved for the handful of colonials still ‘staying on’, our parish with a nearby club called The Grail, remained the centrepiece of a neo-colonial construction of Catholicism in this vast diocese. The children of Anglo-Indians soon exceeded the European component at both schools and the Latin Mass was sung with gusto by this hybridised cohort, who colonised the Grail Club with cultural and musical tastes drawn from Europe. Just imagine the revolutionary impact upon this stultifying and highly resistant cultural corner of Catholicism by Mother Teresa and her Missionaries of Charity!

In time, the mass of Anglo-Indians, who regarded an indigenised