Sunday, May 28, 2023

Locating Goan Difference


Decades ago, I immersed myself in Advaita philosophy, and ran into the term “neti neti”. The two words are rejections, emerging from the word na iti, not this. The Advaitic philosopher, or the practitioner, who seeks to know the nature of the divine, observes the things of this world, and rejects them, indicating that this is not it, until, having negated all things of this world, they eventually emerge at an understanding of the one thing that is divine.

The search for Goan difference in my own life, and indeed by many other Goans, has to an extent been of a similar nature. As we sought to determine what makes Goans distinct from others in the country, we have identified one feature, then discarded it, after we realised that the particular element was not the key to Goan-ness.

Starting from the 1960s, alongside the trauma of integration into India, it was Konkani that emerged as the definitive marker of Goan-ness. But, as time has shown us, Konkani is not a complete marker of Goan-ness. This incapacity of Konkani to capture Goan-ness becomes embarrassingly obvious when we look at the way in which, through the Official Language Act, the state-supported Konkani language establishment promotes just one artificially contrived version of the language, and in fact suffocates all other forms, especially the popular version scripted in the Roman alphabet.

But not just that, the insistence on Konkani as the marker of Goan identity also negates the life experiences of Goans who for historically Goan reasons are not comfortable in the language. Their complex identity – some of whom have grown and lived in Africa, the Gulf, or in the UK, or parts of Anglophone America – is also a part of the Goan identity. They understand the language, speak it even, but it is not the language in which they express affection, or indeed social intimacy.

Thus, the font of Goan-ness needs to be located elsewhere. Of course, the fact that people are not united around it does not have to be the only basis to ignore it as a reason for Goan difference. Konkani cannot claim to be the source of Goan difference simply because Konkani is spoken outside of Goa as well, and these Konkani speakers most certainly do not embody the distinctiveness that a Goan so often does.

Others, myself included, have located this other font of Goan difference in the Portuguese heritage of this territory and the people in it. But, if Konkani can be excluded on the basis that it does not unite Goans, we could surely exclude Portuguese heritage.

However, the fact that Goa has had a Portuguese sovereign for so many centuries does in fact make Portugalidade or Portuguese-ness – a good candidate in which to locate Goan difference. But this is still unsatisfactory because, to my mind, it hides the dynamo that makes Portugal what it is, a dynamo that Goa shares with Portugal, and which it received from Portugal. This dynamo is the living Catholic faith.

There is now, after so many years of searching, no doubt in my mind that it is Catholicism that makes Portugal distinctive, and Goa different.

In Goa, Catholicism manifests itself in both what is seen as Catholic, and what is not. Thus, it is found not just in Catholic edifices but also in non-Catholic buildings, like the famous temples of Goa. As the architectural historian Amita Kanekar has demonstrated, so many features of the Goan temples are, in fact, elements borrowed from the architectural form known as the Goan church – which, it needs to be said, is not merely a copy of Portuguese churches, but a manifestation of the inculturation of the faith brought here by the metropolitan Portuguese. This is to say, the Goans involved in these projects took the Catholic elements brought from Europe and decided to articulate them in a way that was uniquely theirs. Thus, they created a form that was recognizable as Catholic, and European, but also distinctly Goan. So Goan, in fact, that it then gets replicated in temples within Goa, which are then recognised as dramatically different and distinct from temples in the rest of the subcontinent.

But it isn’t just century-old temples that manifest the latent Christianity within Goan-ness. I have often remarked on how non-Catholic Goan artists often display a surprising intimacy with Christianity that manifests in profound ways in their art. The work of Vijay Bhandre at the recently concluded temporary exhibition Engraved Treasures, at the Museum of Christian Art is just one, but powerful, example.

Another example of the relationship between the Church and Goans can be gleaned in the location of the Corona Quilt Project initiated by the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts. This quilt was draped over the walls of the monumental staircase of the Panjim church. Further, it was said to symbolise hope, love, trust, friendship and community; virtues that the Catholic church has systematically embodied. Perhaps for this reason non-Catholic sites weren’t seen as an appropriate site for the installation.

The reason I have come to reject Portuguese-ness, or Portugalidade, as the singular marker of Goan difference is that very often it erases the impact of Catholicism per se in the formation of the Goan psyche. Catholicism, has trained the minds, hearts and souls of the people in Goa, to be gentle, to be forgiving, to accept the will of God. And, even if so many Catholics in Goa have never embodied these virtues, they remain consecrated in the Goan – and not just Catholic – imagination as something worth having, as a necessary moral normative order.  Thus, when someone violates this moral order, they can be castigated, or they themselves know that they have done wrong.

It was, of course, possible for this moral order, an order so dramatically different from what was extant in the region, to take root because for more than a couple of centuries it was enforced by a Catholic sovereign. So many of the ugly practices prevalent before the arrival of the Cross, such as Sati, were suppressed without so much as a by-your-leave, because they were repugnant to Catholic morality.

I never tire of drawing to attention to the insight brought by Prof. Peter Ronald de Souza, who points out that the reason for the low numbers of Dalits in Goa is simply that so many of them moved from the New Conquests to the Old Conquests, and simply changed their identity. And so an overwhelmingly Catholic territory – such as the Old Conquests were – governed by a Catholic prince who did not care about enforcing caste rules became a location of escape and a site of refuge – despite, please note, being marked by the apparently dreaded Inquisition. This defiance of the caste order would most certainly not have been tolerated in a territory governed by a prince committed to upholding the laws of Manu. And so it is, that the bahujan samaj in Goa can thank Catholicism for its existence.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 10 May 2023)

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Embrace the gifts of the Spirit: Homily for Pentecost Sunday 2023


Detail from "Francis Xavier",    
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1670.

My dear brothers and sisters, two things struck me while reading from the days's lectionary the segment from the Acts of the Apostles, the reading which details for us what happened on Pentecost Sunday. Allow me to read out the two phrases:

And suddenly there came from the sky
a noise like a strong driving wind

Please note, the noise is not that of a strong driving wind, it is like that of a strong driving wind.

The second phrase is also a description of what happened when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles:

Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire

Once again, note the words as of.

This is to say my dear brothers and sisters, that what happened when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles was not the sound of wind, nor the appearance of tongues of fire, but something like these things. In other words, the appearance of the Holy Spirit was in effect indescribable, and those in the room, and St. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, were at a loss to describe what it was like.

This is a good reminder for us my dear brothers and sisters, that the Holy Spirit is in fact indescribable. Artists over the years have used various images to represent the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire, a dove, but remember that these are merely attempts to describe something that is so powerful that it sweeps us off of our feet. Words cannot contain its glory, and we can only grasp at material realities to describe it.

But if the appearance of the Holy Spirit cannot be described, what can most certainly be described are its effects, the way it manifests in the lives of those gifted with the Holy Spirit.

In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul tells us that “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts”, and helpfully, the sequence that was read out this morning tells us that the gifts of the Spirit are seven-fold. What are these seven gifts? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, a resource that is readily available online, and one which I urge you to check out from time to time indicates: “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.” Let me repeat that again: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.

As the Gospel for today indicates at the very end of the selection for today, the apostles were given the spirit, and through this apostolic tradition, we are also given the Spirit, at Baptism, which is confirmed more wholly at our Chrismation, or Confirmation. However, as I preached some Sundays ago, while the Holy Spirit is all powerful, it requires that we cooperate with it.  We need to train our bodies so that we may cooperate with it. I had suggested consciousness of the way we dress, and care to the way in which we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord, whether in the hand, or on the tongue, my personal preference being for reception on the tongue.

I had also recommended genuflection, not a simply bow, before the Blessed Sacrament. All of these are acts of piety. Act piously, with a desire to be pious, and in time, you will become pious. This has been the tradition of Catholics for centuries. With one gift of the Holy Spirit, namely piety, we can hope to acquire other gifts of the Spirit.

Another way in which the body is trained to be cooperative with the Holy Spirit is evidenced by our brothers and sisters involved with the charismatic movement. You may have witnessed them babble, as they “speak in tongues” and wondered at them. However, there is a method to their madness. The logic associated with cultivating the virtues relies on habituation. You do acts which are virtuous so often, that at some point you stop being conscious about it, and you simply do virtuous acts out of habit. Thus, our charismatic brethren may be consciously babbling today, but at some point it will become an unconscious activity. And that is when the Spirit can kick in. By babbling nonsensically, they are giving up the ego, and self-regard and opening themselves up to the Holy Spirit. They may speak nonsense today, but there may be a point, where if they have been genuinely cultivating virtues, and are genuinely desirous of vehicles of the Holy Spirit, then at some points the Holy Spirit will lift them up and make use of them. At this point, their babbling will in fact make sense – perhaps not to all, though this is also possible, but at the very least to a single person for whom the message is meant.

And also, pay attention to this detail from the Acts of the Apostles, that the Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem, and could hear the apostles speaking in their languages were "devout". We must be devout if we are to hear the Holy Spirit speak to us.

There is another way in which we can appreciate the gift of tongues in our Goan context.

Thanks to the way in which we received the faith, the Goan is the recipient of four languages which would easily be called Goan. We have Konkani, Portuguese, English, and most importantly, Latin. All four of these are languages that we can, and must, pray in. This to us, is our gift of tongues. What we have received through the Holy Spirit we must not despise, or reject, and thus it is my recommendation to you that regardless of your personal preferences, you learn to sing hymns, and pray in this language, even if the prayer is repetitive prayer – like the rosary. It has been my experience that when one prays in an unfamiliar language, as one starts to understand what one is praying, different aspects of the prayer manifest themselves. These aspects are not necessarily grasped intellectually, but are experienced affectively, in the heart. I have been urging for some time now, that regardless of the language that the Mass is prayed in, Goans should easily be able to sing hymns in any of these four tongues which have been gifted to us by the Holy Spirit.

In his teaching today, St. Paul, through his first letter to the Corinthians, stresses on the fact that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”. The response to the psalm today was “send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth”. The Catholic faith is not about a narrow, focus on the self, nor about nativism, or nationalism, but about a spirit that goes out into the world and embraces it, the spirit of universal inclusion under Christ.

Let us, therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, in this spirit of Pentecost, embrace the gift of tongues that the Holy Spirit has given us and actively take up the four languages that are the heritage of Goans, perhaps singing in these different languages at our regular Masses.

(A version of this homily was first preached at the parish church of St. Thomas the Apostle, on 28 May 2023.)

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Make disciples of all the nations: Homily for the feast of the Ascension 2023

St Paul preaching the Good News, former church of St Paul's, Jericho in Oxford, 


“God mounts his throne to shouts of joy.”

This phrase, the response in our psalm today, psalm 47, was, according to some commentators originally sung in connection with a cultic procession in the Temple in Jerusalem honouring the Ark of the Covenant. It is appropriate, therefore, that we should sing this psalm today, the feast of the Ascension, when Jesus, our Covenant, ascends to heaven to be seated at the right hand of God the Father. That is to say, he has ascended to mount his throne which is in the Temple not made by human hands.

A few weeks ago, however, in the course of a Lenten homily I had suggested to you that the cross was the throne of Christ, His throne of glory. How then do we reconcile these two possibilities?

One way to reconcile both cross and heaven as being the thrones of Christ, is to introduce you to a very Catholic response to theological questions. Not ‘either or’, but ‘both and’. Thus, it is not that it is either the cross or heaven which is the throne of Christ, but both the cross and heaven. Jesus is not either man or God, but both man and God. I could go on with piling examples one over the other, but I am sure you get the point. The formula of both and is typical of the Catholic because like our Lord in heaven we try to hold things together, in communion, recognising the complexity of matters, rather than settling for the binary solution which is so often the response to any difference of opinion, and indeed theological and liturgical disputes. To pull a thread from my homiletical engagement with you over the past few weeks, it is not either communion on the hand or on the tongue, but both are acceptable ways of receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord, as long as they are both done properly – though of course, one does have benefits over the other. In this context I might add, that whenever you are worried by conflicting positions taken by priests, or indeed upstart deacons, remember that both positions might be valid and legitimate within the Catholic tradition. When you hear priests preach conflicting messages, remember that they may be preaching their preferred liturgical fashion, and that both fashions are acceptable and legitimate within the tradition of Holy Mother Church, though one may certainly be better.

This is not to say that the Catholic faith has no certitudes, of course there are certitudes, and it is important to bear these certitudes in mind  but it would be a spiritually rewarding way to live our lives when we resist the temptation to assert an either or position, and recognise the value of the formula both and.

Thus, the Cross is the true throne of Our Lord, just as His place in Heaven is His true throne. Indeed, He has his throne in heaven because He accepted His throne on earth. In doing so he offered us a lesson we cannot afford to forget, accept our crosses here on earth, so that we may be welcomed in triumph into heaven when we die and at the Final Judgement. In other words, there is no heaven without the Cross.

This brings me to another line that jumped out at me when I was reading the lectionary for this great feast. This particular line comes from today’s gospel:

When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.

They, i.e., the apostles, worshipped, but they, or at least some of them, doubted. They doubted and it was also to settle this doubt that Christ ascended in glory into heaven.

It occurred to me that this line could very well describe the state of the hearts of so many of us in this congregation today – we worship, which is why we are all here, of course, but sometimes, perhaps often, we also doubt. We doubt, not consciously, but unconsciously, we hedge our bets by placing them with the powers of this earth, by stocking up money (often at the cost of the good of others), by accumulating power, or worse ingratiating ourselves to power (even when we know that we ought to be challenging the way in which power is being exercised unjustly).

After Adam and Eve had sinned by disobeying God, God comes to them in the garden and asks Adam “where are you?” Now God wasn’t asking Adam (and Eve) for their physical location. It wasn’t as if He, the omniscient, the all-seeing, could not find them or see them. No; He was asking them, where are you in your lives. What have you done with your lives? How far have you fallen from me? It seems to me that this is a good question to ask ourselves, especially when we doubt, and especially on this great feast of the Ascension, when so much is given to us, “where are you?” “where am I?”

The Gospel reading today, and in particular the address by Jesus to the apostles within this reading, allows us a way to figure out where we are:

“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

This is how we plot our location vis-à-vis God. We recognise that all power in heaven and on earth has been given to God the Son and therefore we do not need to bother about any other earthly power, because as He promised us, He is with us always, even until the end of time.

After Jesus had been taken up into heaven, the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, tells us that the apostles saw two men dressed in white garments who said to them:

“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?

I often think to myself that had this scene been crafted by a tiatrist the same dialogue might have been phrased as: Aré, tumi tond ugdon kitem poitat ré! Vos, ani kaam começ korat!!”

And this is precisely what the Gospel we read today asks us to do. We have been asked to make disciples of all the nations, and baptise them, teaching them all that Jesus taught, and continues to teach, us.

So, this is how we need to figure out where we are vis-à-vis God.  Are we making disciples of all the nations? Are we responsible for baptizing them? Are we teaching the nations to observe all that Jesus commanded us?  Or as in Jesus’ address to the apostles in the first reading are we being his witnesses “in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and [more pertinently to us] to the ends of the earth”?

For those who think that I am being impractical, remember that I am not saying that all of us should be preachers. As we will hear in the Gospel next Sunday, to each a charisma has been given, and this we must fulfill fully, completely, wholly. Do I run my business in a way so that people look at me and say “look at the honest way in which he runs his business! These Catholics are like that! You can rely on their honesty” Or if I am a teacher in a school, is the way I operate calling attention to the way my faith nurtures my daily life? If I were a government servant, in these times of moral turpitude, would my faith be front and central in the way I function? If not, then like the disciples who worshiped and doubted, we too are physically here, in apparent worship, but our worship is not true, and we are guilty of doubt.

Let me conclude this homily with the beautiful prayer of blessing contained in the second reading that we pray to God the Father to send us the promised Spirit so that we may shed our doubt and actively work to proclaim the Gospel to all people.

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,

give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation

resulting in knowledge of him.

May the eyes of your hearts be enlightened,

that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call,

what are the riches of glory

in his inheritance among the holy ones,

and what is the surpassing greatness of his power

for us who believe.


(A version of this homily was first preached in the parish church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Aldona on 21 May 2023).