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THE ANNIVERSARY OF THE...
from issue no. 10 - 2006

THE HUNDREDTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE SALESIANS IN INDIA

The Indian countenance of Don Bosco


A meeting with Don Pascual Chávez Villanueva, Rector Superior of the Salesians, on the life and work of the disciples of the saint from Valdocco in the Indian subcontinent: 196 schools, 85 professional institutes, 2,400 religious, a significant role in services for street children recognized even by the government authorities


Interview with Don Pascual Chávez Villanueva by Gianni Cardinale


The postage stamp issued 
by the New Delhi authorities for the centenary of the Salesian presence 
in India

The postage stamp issued by the New Delhi authorities for the centenary of the Salesian presence in India

«In effects it’s an extraordinary business. Already in the past more than a few countries have devoted issues of stamps to Saint John Bosco, but it’s the first time that a large nation in which the Catholics don’t even come to two percent has done so». Don Pascual Chávez Villanueva, Rector Superior of the Salesians, is particularly content with the initiative taken by the New Delhi authorities to celebrate the first centenary of the presence of the followers of Don Bosco on the Indian subcontinent. But Don Pascual is still more content with the fact that India is the region in which the Salesian presence has grown in substantial fashion in recent years. So much so that his last circular Letter, dated 21 September 2006, was devoted to the presentation of the South Asia region of the Salesian Congregation, that has its epicenter on the Indian subcontinent.
To speak about Don Bosco and India we meet Don Chávez, 59 years old, Mexican, Rector Superior since April 2002, in the offices of the General Curia of the Salesians, on Via della Pisana in Rome.

Don Chávez, you were surprised by the issue of this postage stamp in honor of Don Bosco…
DON PASCUAL CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: Pleasantly surprized. Not least because our presence in India is relatively recent compared with that of other religious orders. We have been there barely a century, and it was precisely at the end of the celebrations of the first centenary, that went on from February 2005 to February 2006, that we had this splendid recognition, in my view very significant. But the appreciation of the Indian authorities had already been shown at the beginning of the celebrations when the prime minister Manmohan Singh attended the inauguration of an educational complex in Guwahati.
When did the first Salesian missionaries arrive in India?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: In 1875 Don Bosco was already speaking about India as one of the possible future countries to which to send his missionaries. But because of various vicissitudes it was only on 5 January 1906 that the first group of five Salesians, led by Don Giorgio Tomatis, arrived in Thanjavur, then part of the diocese of Mylapore, in the southeast of India. The beginnings were, however, a little difficult, our presence didn’t manage to be very incisive. Until in the ’twenties of last century two very great of Salesian missionary figures came to India.
Who were they?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: The Frenchman Louis Mathias, the most illustrious Salesian, and the Spaniard José Carreno, the best loved Salesian missionary of last century. With them the Salesian sbegan to expand their mission above all in Assam, in the far north-east of the country, but also in Calcutta, Bombay and elsewhere. Don Carreno was a truly multifaceted and fascinating individual: it’s said that when he and his were hungry because there was nothing to eat, he’d pick up the accordion and, given that their stomachs were empty, he filled their heart at least with music and songs. Mathias was also archbishop of Madras, and is buried in the cathedral of that city, where the tomb of Saint Thomas the apostle, the first evangelist to the Indies, is also to be found. A highly significant closeness.
Faithful in the church of Nagapattinam, 
in Tamil Nadu state

Faithful in the church of Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu state

How many Salesians are there in India today?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: We are already around 2,400, of whom only fifty or so are not natives of India. The average age is very low, 35-40, and the novitiates are always full of new candidates. We have ten inspectorates but I believe that in future others will be set up. One can truly say that Don Bosco has an Indian countenance today!
How do you explain this boom?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: When the Lord wants to he performs miracles. The increase in the Salesian presence in India is not the outcome of a particular strategy or of a particular missionary plan. Of course it’s also the outcome of a great pastoral commitment by many Salesians, but in this development, overwhelming in certain aspects, the hand of God has been decisive.
In what fields do the Indian Salesians work?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: Following the charism of Don Bosco our main concern obviously is young people, and their education. We have 196 schools and universities, colleges with an overall number of more than 230,000 students. We also run 85 professional institutes and two agricultural institutes, serving a total of more than 14,000 young people. These are large numbers, but they become small when compared to the totality of India, which by now numbers more than a billion inhabitants. Where instead the Salesian play a significant role, amply recognized also by the government authorities, is in dealing with so-called street children. We have inspectorates that devote more than a hundred priests to this mission. A mission that is at the heart of the Salesian charism. Don Bosco wanted and wants us to deal above all with the weaker and most unfortunate young people.
Is the government appreciative of your work?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: Today substantially yes. I’ve visited India three times – a fourth visit is already planned for next February – and on these occasions I’ve had the chance to meet members of the central government and of the local governments who have shown themselves happy with our work. At bottom, following Don Bosco, we also commit ourselves to training honest citizens. And that is also to the advantage of the civic authorities.
In past years there was no lack of problems with the authorities...
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: Up to 2004 there was a government dominated by Hindu nationalist extremists that tolerated and in certain ways fomented forms of intolerance and hatred of Christians. And some of our brethren fell victim to that hatred. Luckily today there is a more tolerant secular government, even if here and there there are areas and local governments in which problems remain. On our side the position is clear: we don’t impose our faith on anybody, but if someone freely wants to convert there shouldn’t be laws to prevent it. Without taking into consideration that in India there are still around a hundred million members of indigenous tribes without religion towards whom there should be full liberty to engage with in missionary activity.
 The Rector Superior Don Pascual Chávez Villanueva among Indian children

The Rector Superior Don Pascual Chávez Villanueva among Indian children

Has such tumultuous growth in such a short period brought new prospects but also problems?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: All growth poses questions that necessitate a response. In my last Letter devoted precisely to the Salesians of southern Asia I pointed some of them out.
I imagine that the first question is that of inculturation.
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: In effect it is. There is no doubt that throughout Asia Christianity is perceived as a western religion, even if in reality its cradle is the Middle East. To maintain a Christian identity and an Indian identity at the same time is problematic. Not least because India has a millennial history and culture, more ancient than Christianity. A culture that creates a mentality, a deeply rooted form of thinking. As a result there’s the danger of wanting to preserve a mentality, a way of thinking that in reality is incompatible with what is proper to Christianity. I’m thinking, for example – but not only of that – of the salvific singularity of Jesus which at times seems to get questioned even within ourselves out of a mistaken sense of respect towards other religious forms.
That is the first problematic area; and the others?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: First of all we must manage to understand how to go along with the extraordinary economic and social development that is leading India, immediately after China, to play a unique role on the world stage. And since I believe that a crucial point in India’s development will be that of education, then I believe and I hope that the Salesians can have an important role in this field. Always having at heart the destiny of the poor and always operating according to the motto of Don Bosco: give more to those whom life has given less to. And in this field in India there’s a lot of work to do, also on some structural elements in society…
«Since I believe that a crucial point in India’s development will be that of education, then I believe and I hope that the Salesians can have an important role in this field. Always having at heart the destiny of the poor and always operating according to the motto of Don Bosco: give more to those whom life has given less to»
What are you referring to?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: To the social offshoot of the Buddhist mentality, whereby those who are wretched, those who are poor, those who are troubled, those who are sick, at bottom deserve their lot because in some previous life they had something that has caused their present situation, which is therefore considered irredeemable… Or of the phenomenon of castes. In India a considerable number of the population are defined as “dalit”, outcast. They are treated like pariahs by others and they manage to survive thanks to government subsidies and the charity of the Churches and the Christian communities. Now, this mentality of contempt towards the “dalits” – and 70% of the Christians in India are “dalits” – is present also in our religious communities, in our local Churches, even in the episcopal college. How can we demand that society change if we are not the first to set the example?
Is this perhaps the source of the invitation in your last Letter «to fortify the shared life» of the Salesians?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: In the Letter I wrote: «Encouragement, then, should be given in the communities, be they local or in the inspectorates, where there is a marked presence of different cultures, ethnic groups and castes, to investigating and putting into operation processes and initiatives to help our fellow brethren face and appreciate differences and to overcome possible awkwardness or misapprehensions». With God’s help I hope that problems of this sort may be resolved as soon as possible. Even if they are deeply engrained attitudes…
« In India a considerable number of the population are defined as “dalit”, outcast. This mentality of contempt towards the “dalits” – and 70% of the Christians in India are “dalits” – is present also in our religious communities, in our local Churches, even in the episcopal college. How can we demand that society change if we are not the first to set the example?»
Don Chávez, in your Letter of introduction of the Salesians of southern Asia you launch an appeal «to live passionately the missio ad gentes»…
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: In effect, earlier you asked me the reason for the boom in our religious vocations. It is first of all God’s work, I answered, but also of the indefatigable missionary activity of our brethren. Who in India have found fertile ground, given that there are so many young people, so much poverty and a strong religious feeling that pervades the whole of society: three elements that help a great deal. But if there are no brethren impassioned about the missio ad gentes everything could be futile. In India the Salesians have converted many so-called “tribals” – I am thinking of the extraordinary development in the Assam – and now we find ourselves with an extraordinary number of priests. And this offers the Church in India, the Salesians in India, a new prospect, a great historical responsibility.
What do you have in mind?
CHÁVEZ VILLANUEVA: The priests, the Indian Salesians have much to do in the country. But they have much to do for the Church in other parts of the world also. And this missionary expansion, that in certain aspects recalls that of the European Church in past centuries, is already taking place. Indian Salesians are already to be found in Africa, in Papua New Guinea, in Mongolia, in the Middle East – Kuwait and Yemen – and even on the Old Continent. I was very happy that in the closing ceremony of the centenary of the Salesians in India, on 7 February 2006, there was the sending of 25 missionaries to all parts of the world. We hope that with His help and the intercession of Don Bosco India continues to be ever generous in supplying new labourers in the vineyard of the Lord!


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