Rishikesh Catholic Church

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 19 Oct 2008 14:12

The bronze relief at the front of the church depicted Jesus Christ standing to his waist in the Ganges, his arms outstretched. Peace and fervor lit his eyes, and a halo of flame surrounded his head. To his left stood John the Baptist, gesturing toward the Lord, to his right, pilgrims with heads bowed. Gentle mountains stood in the distance, little hermitages spilling down from them along the riverbanks. In the foreground, fish swam, and lotus flowers blossomed, silently animated by the presence of the Lord.

From above, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, exploding through a veil of color toward the bronze. This color continued on to the left and the right in the form of an abstract mosaic: the vibrant energies of the Holy Spirit shining through Jesus Christ flittered down majestically to the assembled congregation.

Before this fresco stood the altar, a low table the priests sat behind through the duration of the Qurbana, wrapped in brightly colored shawls. There were no flowers or offerings on the altar, only a microphone, the gifts, and the two white candles symbolizing the presence of Christ. Beside the altar was a small reading table, with the Bible open on it. At the edge of the Sanctuary, a crucifix stood on the left, and a statue of the Virgin with Child on the left.

There were no chairs or pews in the nave. A few cushions sat on the floor for the monks to use, and a few stools sat in the back for the weak and the elderly. The churches three doors (one on either side of the altar, and one in the back) were left open during the service, inviting the breezes to pass through the building, and allowing the distant sounds of Hindu temple bells (and immediate sounds of tourist traffic) to permeate the building.

The Catholic Church in Rishikesh
The Catholic Church in Rishikesh

Like other sacred places of India, in this church worshipers are expected to remove their shoes, and conduct themselves with general holiness in the presence of the Divine. In return, they are given general freedom to express their piety in whatever way they find most suitable.

Though the service was in Hindi too fast and too abstract for me to understand more than a few phrases at a time, it was beautiful. Most of the liturgy was sung or chanted. The lyrical, unison voice of two dozen white robed Indian men (who we later learned were monks who had come to the city for a short time to study Hindu philosophy) soared above the accompaniment of tublas and harmonium.

An old woman in an orange sari gave us a copy of the liturgy in English. It was not an exact translation so much as approximately the same service as is practiced by churches of the same traditional lineage in the US, but it gave us some idea of what was going on. The church was Syro-Malabar Catholic, a Catholic tradition whose roots run back through the indigenous Syrian church reportedly planted centuries ago by St. Thomas. Syro-Malabar means Catholic in communion, Syrian Orthodox in liturgy, and Hindi in language and mentality. It is a deeply beautiful example of contextual Christianity done well, done compassionately.

Above the nave, the ceiling displayed symbols of other world religions, until the solid structure gave way to a bright skylight. They too come to bask in the lifegiving presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Experiencing this church, praying, and worshiping there was a tremendous blessing. Sacred Heart Cathedral in Delhi was a little disappointing. I enjoyed praying there, but it was basically a church like any other Catholic church. Besides the oppressive heat, relegated only slightly by gigantic fans along the walls, and one or two signs in Devangari script, I had no real clues as to whether I was in India or Indiana.

This church was thoroughly Indian, and in this way, fairly new and unfamiliar to us. But it was also thoroughly Christian, and so a place comfortable and nourishing for our spirits. We have not experienced this for a while, not since we visited Jonathan Singh’s church in Delhi. Even then, his church is of a different tradition. Christian faith and Indian culture come together in Jonathan’s in a way that is far less visible. There, I could feel the presence of Christ in the melody of Hindi speech, but here I could see it expressed in generous Sacrament.

We are grateful that God led us there. According to the proprietors of our hotel, who just so happen to be Christian, it is the only church in the area. (This wouldn’t be surprising, given that the economy of the town tends to cater mostly to Hindu religious pilgrims and foreign yoga enthusiasts.) We look forward to seeing what other things God has in store for us during our time here.

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