Monday, June 26, 2023

Writing Goa for the future: words at a book launch

 Excellentissimo Senhor Paulo Gomes, Delegado da Fundação Oriente em Goa, estimados senhoras e senhores, boa tarde.

The single word that repeatedly popped into my head as I read Celine de Almeida’s Feasts and Fests of Goa: The flavour of a unique culture, was performance. Now this word will need some context if you are not to think that I am insulting Professora Celine.

Among anthropologists and cultural studies scholars, there is a recognition that things do not simply exist, they must be acted, or performed, for them to exist. We need to act out, with our bodies, a concept, or idea, in our head for that concept, or idea, to actually be tangible to other persons. We need to speak, or perform, our language, for the language community to exist. We have to perform politeness, for a polite society to exist, else, as we all well know, it will cease to exist. Or, for example, I wear a clerical habit to manifest a Catholic moral and social order. Without my wearing of the habit, or rather without a number of us doing so, the Catholic moral and social order may exist, but it does so only in my/ our head, and this way it is easier to dismiss, or even destroy. Performance, therefore, is at the heart of social activity.

So that is it that Celine Almeida is performing through her opus primus, Feasts and Fests of Goa: The flavour of a unique culture.

What exactly is she performing through this book, however, and does this performance have any value?

I would argue that there are a number of performances here and all of them are of great value, especially in the imperiled times we live in, and for this reason, her performance is virtuous.

To begin with, Professora Celine is continuing a performance that first began in the 18th century, which is that of the literary elite. The literary worlds of the 18th century laid the foundation for the republics and democracies that we have today, when people with opinions expressed them, in writing, as books, for an audience. In doing so, they created a public sphere of ideas and debate.

This modus vivendi found expression in Portugal as well, and through Portugal in Goa too, where we had a flourishing public sphere of debate, discussion and polemics. This is the other performance effected by this book, it continues a grand Goan tradition of public discussion. Professora Celine has an opinion on Goa, and what could be done to make it better, and she expresses this in the book, fulfilling the task of a public intellectual. This performance is even more critical because it comes at a difficult time, when public discussion is under threat and people are afraid to express their opinions.

So thus far we have the performance of the literary elite, of the public intellectual, and there is another performance that this book effects, which is also important. This book also performs Goa. It maps out Goa, in terms of places, regions, communities. And this is critical because it is through such mappings that places are produced and persist! More importantly, Professora Celine performs a Goa where communities live in harmony, unaffected by the wickedness of Hindu nationalism. I have to confess that I was initially irritated, or annoyed, by this book, and its focus on these feasts for which I often have little time. I thought it was too backward looking, too full of nostalgia, saudades, and I’d like to stride into the future. I thought all of this, annoyedly turning pages, until I realised that while we need to stride into the future, we also need to do so from a past and present that is harmonious. Celina Almeida’s books fulfills this necessary task, by having done the work of an amateur ethnographer, she captures a time 2022 when this harmonious Goa still existed, and it tells us that there was a value to this time and in the future, we might like to look back and emulate it.

For all of these performances, therefore, I thank you Professora, most sincerely, as I am sure your readers and future generations will thank you as well.

But simple nostalgia is not sufficient for us to save Goa from the evil that threatens it. We need to also need to develop new tools which can secure the Goa we love from destruction. New tools need to be built not in laboratories or ivory towers, but from an experience from the ground, and this is something else that marks this book. As I have already indicated, Professora Almeida has actually visited many, if not all, of the sites of the feasts, and her work is thus the work of an amateur ethnographer – another feature of a past generation of the literary elite of our land – and it yields us details that we can now use to build the tools that will correct the mistakes of the past.

Take, for example, her reference to the practice associated with the feast of the three kings in Cuelim where the flags accompanying the kings are waved in a circular motion at each of the standing or fallen megaliths. I was struck by this description, because this is so similar to a practice I witnessed in the Italian city of Siena last year. I was there for the feast of Corpus Christi, and when the procession concludes in the Cathedral of the city a number of fabulously dressed flag bearers come before the Blessed Sacrament and wave the flags in circular motions before they exit the Cathedral.

Then there are the details she provides about the same feast where people pass under the horses used by the three kings. Now so often we assume that many of the Catholic practices that don’t obtain in Europe but are found here are the result of “Hindu” customs, but in fact this practice of passing under the horse seems to be similar to that of the custom of passing through the horse Duldul in the Muharram processions. The Islamic base of Goan society is a topic that needs to get more attention.

There is something that I wish this book had done, I wish it had been more critical of – perhaps even attack and debunk – older forms of presenting Goa, forms which were established in the 19th century, continued in the 20th, and are now reaping their harvest of hate. We must not forget that much of Goan popular history, and I stress that much of it is popular and not academic and therefore rigorous history, is the result of the Portuguese anti-clericalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Added to this was the desire of local dominant castes – brahmins and chardos both – to try and fit in their caste and family histories to work with Indian nationalism. Thus, we have the silly tales of demolished temples, and churches built over them, of idols retrieved and reestablished in villages outside the control of the Portuguese. These are all myths and we need to contest them, and this is a task I wish this book had also taken up.

I also wish that the book had been more assertive of the goodness that Catholicism has brought to Goa. Indeed, Goa was produced because of the Catholicism that came with the Portuguese. There was no Goa, as we understand it today, before the Portuguese. In her discussion of the handi fest of Curtorim, Professora Celina once again gives us important details that will prove helpful to future scholars. She points out that:

in pre-Portuguese times, this ceremony of constructing the handi was preceded by a ritual in conformity with the religious beliefs of those times – a cockerel was slaughtered and its blood was smeared on the spot where the handi was to be built.

Professora Almeida is very demure about this detail, but the fact is that pre-Portuguese Goa, which we often assume was this lyrical land of peace and love, was a very violent and blood-thirsty space. Ritual blood-letting, which today, thanks to our Catholic sensibilities, a sensibility shared even by Hindus, we are horrified by, was in fact quite common. Indeed, importing knowledge from other parts of the subcontinent we know that the blood of the cockerel would have been used to satisfy the spirit of a person who had originally been killed to protect the handi. When cockerel blood was not sufficient, once again persons could be offered. And perhaps it is to the credit of the Islamic heritage of pre-Portuguese Goa that we do not have records of human sacrifice when the missionaries came in. Islamic rule may have prohibited human sacrifice, but it did nothing to prevent the sacrifice of animals. This was put to an end by the adoption of Catholicismby the local populace, who would have realised with relief that they did not any more need to offer repeated blood sacrifices, because the one sacrifice that saves all, and can be represented day in and day out had been made for them. I speak of course, of the great sacrifice made at Calvary. It is because of this logic that you have crosses in so many places in Goa – like at manos gates – where earlier blood sacrifice would have been demanded annually. Catholicism made Goa better.

Among all the nice things that I have to say about this book, however, I also have a significant complaint to make. This book is in English, and while it is welcome, I believe that this book should have been in Portuguese. It would have reached a more diverse audience, and would have, above all, effected the performance that is so, SO, important in our times. To assert that Portuguese is our language, a Goan language, that it is still alive, and must be if we are to also be alive. I trust that having now published this book, Professora Celina Almeida will make sure her next opus is to translate the book into Portuguese, a task for which I wish her well.

(A version of this text was delivered at the launch of Feasts and Fests of Goa: The flavour of a unique culture, at the Delegação da Fundação Oriente in Panjim on 24 June 2023.)

Saturday, June 24, 2023

The form of prophetic witness: Homily for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Saint John the Baptist Admonishing Herod, Mattia Preti, c. 1688

Dear brothers and sisters,

The readings last Sunday called us to reflect on the priesthood to which all of us who are baptised are called. Today, the readings clearly lay out the form of what it means to give prophetic witness to Christ, who is the Truth. Don’t forget that the prophet is the second of the three offices – that of priest, prophet, and king – that Christ holds, and into which all of us are baptised.

In the acclamation to the Gospel Christ tells us:

The Spirit of truth will testify to me, says the Lord; and you also will testify

Christ can confidently tell us that you will testify because he promised the Holy Spirit to us, given to us at baptism and confirmed at chrismation. His grace, therefore, is always with us.

Later, in the reading from the Gospel according to Mathew we hear Christ command us to proclaim:

What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.

What we hear, what we have been taught, we must proclaim, and proclaim it loud. We have to scream it even, perhaps not necessarily at the top of our voices, but most certainly in our daily lives, in all the little things that we do. This proclamation is not, however, without its consequences as the reading from the Prophet Jeremiah informs us:

I hear the whisperings of many:

'Terror on every side!

Denounce! let us denounce him!'

All those who were my friends

are on the watch for any misstep of mine.

'Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,

and take our vengeance on him.’

Speak the truth, stand up for it, and you are most often the lone voice. On the contrary, the persons you counted as friends may be the very ones willing to denounce you!

The first verse of the psalm today offers us in unpleasant detail the fate that meets most prophets:

For your sake I bear insult, and shame covers my face.

I have become an outcast to my brothers,

a stranger to my mother's children

Because zeal for your house consumes me,

and the insults of those who blaspheme you fall upon me.

While it may be possible to go against one’s friends and stand against them, it is not easy to rupture oneself from one’s own family for the sake of the truth, and God knows, how often we have to compromise ourselves because are called to stand with our family members in the name of familial solidarity even while they are engaged in the most unconscionable of acts. I can think of the way in which so many Goan families will justify the way in which they appropriate the property of others, whether their relatives, or sometimes their landlords. Or the way in which they prevent reconciliation in a marital disagreement because to do so would be to fall on the wrong side of their family.

But the psalm also communicates quite clearly what impels the prophet: zeal for the house of God.

To those of us who, for zeal of His house, suffer insults and shame for the sake of the truth, Christ has words of encouragement for us:

Fear no one

Jesus can tell us not to fear, because as the psalm reminds us:

…the LORD hears the poor, and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.

Jesus, does not shy away from telling us that we may die. On the contrary, he tells us not only that we may die, but suggests that we may have our bones broken in the process:

do not be afraid of those who kill the body

These men and institutions may kill our body, but they cannot kill our soul, because it is God who is the master of both body and soul, and he will salvage our soul and return to us our bodies on the day of judgement. And it is this terrible day of judgement, the day of the wrath of the Lord that the princes of the earth will have to watch out for, for this is the day when they will lose both soul and body. From the first reading we hear:

my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.

In their failure they will be put to utter shame, to lasting, unforgettable confusion.

As an aside I might point out, that this is what hell is, my dear brothers and sisters, a lasting, unforgettable confusion. When we are separated from God, by our own choices, and we do not now know where to turn, this results only in confusion, as we turn from one false god to another: money, power, pleasure. This is hell, brothers and sisters, to not know God intimately, and to be divorced from Him, whether now on earth, or eternally in the life hereafter.

To return to my main point, however. It is to prophetic witness that we are called. Each and every one of us who have been saved by Christ. Not one of us is exempt from this call. We are all called to testify, to shout loudly in the marketplace and be witness to the truth, and do so regardless of the costs to our bodies because what we should really be concerned about is our souls.

The question is, how many of us, and how often do we give prophetic witness? I can assure you that if we do not keep Christ at the centre of our lives, and trust completely in him, then we will be simply unable to give prophetic witness. believe you me, it is because this prophetic witness has been missing for so many decades that Goa – but not just Goa – has been turned into the putrid mess that it is. There is a stink in the air, and it is not only because of the way in which the Smart City processes have messed up the city!

Despite his warnings about the sufferings the prophet faces, I do not believe that Christ is asking us to make any large, or imprudent, gestures. He is asking us to be prophets in our own little ways in the small actions of our lives. Start small, protest and call attention to the truth, in the daily decisions we may take. Call for your families to return properties that they may have unjustly taken, to reconcile with a spouse unfairly rejected, correct your parents and friends when they disobey traffic rules. Instead of watching, or worse recording on your smart phones, stand up for the man being assaulted in the street. Be willing to risk the wrath and anger, the discomfort, of your families, and friends, in these small matters, and I assure you that when the time comes you will begin to get the strength to take on larger risks and not feel the pinch.

To be a prophet we require to do two things: first we need to develop intellectually, to be able to see what is just and unjust. Once we are done with this mental activity, of determining what is just in any given situation, we now need to act on our realisation physically. Fail to do either of these tasks, and we are not prophets, and if we are not prophets, then my dear brothers and sisters, I doubt we are Catholics, and I wonder about the judgement we will receive on the last day. I will leave you with this caution from Our Lord Jesus Christ

do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

(A version of this homily was first preached at the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosario, parish of Caranzalem on 25 June 2023.)

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Priests of our God: Homily for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time 2023

The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (The Ghent Altarpiece), Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, St Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium.

My dearest brothers and sisters,

Having celebrated the feasts of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, and Mary, we are now firmly within the Ordinary time of the Church, and I for one welcome this low. This cycle of homilies to the faithful in Aldona began with my first homily on the first Sunday of Lent and concludes today, as I proceed to end today my diaconal ministry in Aldona and proceed for my final year of priestly formation.

The readings today seem to direct us toward contemplating the priesthood, both of the people of God as well as their ordained ministers.

In the Gospel we hear:

Then he said to his disciples,

“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;

so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.”

There are at least two ways in which we can read this command of Our Lord that we ask the master to send out labourers for his harvest. First, it could be read as a plea for ordained ministers, and for vocations to religious life; and secondly it could be read as a command to all of us to take up the triple offices into which we were baptized, that of priest, prophet and kings. Recollect Moses’ words from the first reading today, from the book of Exodus:

You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.

Over the past few months, while I have been in Aldona, I have been speaking to a number of people who I thought were special. “Think of the priesthood, or religious life”, I urged them. A number of them would respond to me: “I don’t think I have a vocation!” they would tell me. And I would disagree with them, and this is why.

I often think that this talk of a “vocation” and “Jesus is calling me” is nineteenth century sentimentalism. The way I see it, the question of discerning a vocation is this; First, do I – in the course of my prayer life – see a need crying out to be fulfilled in our holy Mother the Church; and second, am I willing to step up and fill this need and with the grace of the Holy Spirit be committed till the end of my life? If you do, then God is calling you through the gifts of the intellect that He has given you, or through the person who suggests to you that perhaps you have a calling to the priesthood or religious life. It is that simple.

The resistance to this idea, is, I believe, that idea that was dominant until some time ago, the tendency to assume that marriage is a necessity for everyone. Perhaps this was the result of the growing affluence of our communities, and the possibilities to delight in the garden of earthly delights that we can so easily access now. The result is that vocations to the priesthood and religious life have dropped.

But the fact is, that not everyone is called to married life, and in such a case, one is most certainly called to live in a religious community and I urge people, especially those who are close to their forties and still not married to actively consider that perhaps God has called you to live in a religious community, or perhaps as a priest.

There are many who believe, even within the Church, that there is a vocation to be single. But I disagree. Man was not called to live alone, but always in a community. God Himself, as I pointed out a few weeks ago in my homily on the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, lives in a community. Thus, if we are single, and not living our lives in a loving community and for others, then we are living contrary to the wishes of God.

What of those who are married, or who will marry? You too have been called to be a part of this holy nation of a kingdom of priests. We are often told that when we are baptised in Christ, we are also baptised into his offices of priest, prophet, and king. And this is now our obligation. As God told us through Moses: “keep my covenant”.

What does it mean though, for all of us to be priests? Clearly not all of us are called to the ordained priesthood. If so, then how do we play our priesthood?

By doing what priests do. The first job of the priest is to worship God. For this task they have been set apart. This applies to the ordained minister as much as to the people baptized into Christ. While the job of the priest is to lead the people in liturgical action, St. Paul in his letter to the Romans tells us what the job of the Christian people as priests of their God are: reconciliation. Jesus Christ, our High Priest, reconciled us with His Father, and now asks that we do unto others as He has done for us. Thus, as part of the priesthood of Christ, we are called to actively reconcile this fallen world to God the Father.

And how do we do this? Rejoice my dear brothers and sisters for in the failed state that is Goa under Indian rule – the Egypt that God drew us from – there are plenty of opportunities. Start following the rules when driving. Yes, I know that it is at times impossible to follow the rules, but try. Start making the fact that you drive aggressively or fail to follow the rules part of the sins that you confess. If you have broken the rules, and someone corrects you, accept their correction in the spirit of meekness and humility. Let them know who we are through the way in which we behave on the roads. This is one great way in which we bring Christ’s healing into the world.

Another thing we could do is to challenge the evil that is spreading actively. Stand up to it. Too many think that they cannot do anything and sit by quietly and in doing so allow it to spread. I am reminded of the words from the first letter of St. Peter (5: 8-9)

Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith

And remember that no one is asking you to do this by yourself, you are called to resist in community. Find the people who will support you in righteousness and virtuous living, and work with them.

On the day of my ordination to the diaconate a friend of mine from school and I were chatting and she confessed to me “I learned long ago that if you can’t fight the system you just have to learn to live and accept it for your own mental health.” I don’t disagree with this, after a point we must recognise that we are not the Messiah and are only His priests and prophets. However, I wondered if she had made any attempts to work with people and actively build a consensus against the madness of this collapsing state. Remember the words of the psalm, “we are his people; the sheep of his flock.”  Therefore, flock together we must.

And so, my dear brothers and sisters, as I wind up my time in Aldona with you, a time in which I have benefited immensely, I leave you with just one message that we can draw from the well of eternal life which is the Gospel of Our Lord. You have one life, use it above all to worship God in everything that you do. Nothing matters more than worshiping God. Worship God properly and even the necessary, mundane acts you undertake – taking your children to school, shopping in the market – will become acts of worship that testify to God and reconcile the world to Him. Worship God, and in so doing, you will become a holy nation, drawn from this Egypt that we are all in today, and in the process draw more people to Him, for this indeed is your only task in life.

May God bless you all.

(A version of this homily was first preached at the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, parish of Aldona on 18 June 2023)