VOLUME IX, Number 2
July - December 2019

A Month of Working Sundays

[This report was edited and adapted from a longer version.]
I wish to begin by acknowledging all that my friend Father Yann Vagneux did to make it possible for me to witness the culture of the Catholic world of Rome and to do so in the company of Shishu Kumar Tiwari, a student of Sanskrit who is also a Hindu priest. Through my interactions with him, I was able to learn about the intra-Hindu world in greater detail. Our coming together was a matter of chance, but the meticulous planning and dedicated effort of Father Yann turned it into a reality. As if that were not enough, Father Yann came to Rome and spent a week introducing us to the city. On one day during that first week he took us on pilgrimage to the major Roman basilicas and with great fondness introduced us to his favourite frescos and mosaics. I found the places we visited so magical that in each subsequent week of that first month I would visit one of them again when I could do so more leisurely. Each visit rekindled the spirit of our friendship and the moments we had spent there together.
With this as the affectionate background, I offer this report on our first month in Rome.
Tiwari extends his heartfelt thankfulness to all the individuals and organisations that enabled him to come to Rome and provided him this opportunity to learn about Christian religion and culture. Witnessing the place and its people over the course of a month, he says, changed the conception of Christians and Christianity he had formed when he was in India. He was especially happy to be able to walk around the city alongside people of different nationalities. The sight of so many different pilgrims and tourists enthralls him, and he is also growing in his appreciation of the sincere and monastic lifestyle of Christian priests. He finds them to be imbued with a piety that he had previously only associated with Hindu ascetics. He also appreciates the hymns and chanted prayers that are part of our weekly masses in the chapel of the Lay Centre, the place where we are living during our stay in Rome. The expressive character of prayers in chapel and the solemnity with which the services are conducted affect him in the same way as does a Hindu puja. He wants to use this positive experience to learn more about the religious lives of Christians back in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi in India.
I begin this account of my own experience in Rome by recalling that my exposure to Christianity goes back to my childhood days. My first school was a Catholic convent school, conducted and run by sisters who placed great emphasis on discipline. A flurry of memories returned to me when I saw groups of sisters in different habits on my first day in Rome. I was back at my first school in my small north-Indian town, surrounded by sisters in their unusual dress but also surrounded by Hindus and Muslims with their own traditional styles of dress.
Another memory came back to me, a vivid but buried recollection of going to the school chapel and seeing Jesus on cross for the first time. The sight affected me greatly and has never left me. The cross was of wood, and on it was the brightly coloured and sharply defined plastic body of Christ. His head was leaning to one side. That leaning head signified something terrible to me, something that I knew about because of the death of my little sister. My personal understanding of the meaning of the position of Jesus’ head—which I kept secret—would recur as a poignant image throughout my childhood and adolescence. Much later, I purchased a Bible and began reading it on my own. I was then able to connect the image of Jesus on the cross with the biblical account of his death.
When I began to concentrate on the social sciences and do research in that discipline as a university student, I lost a certain innocence with regard to religion in general. However, as paradoxical as it may seem, religious images became a constant backdrop to my intellectual quest. Since most of my higher research has been about death and religion, I was invariably pulled back to the image of Jesus on the cross. I speak of all this to highlight the fact that coming to Rome has been a powerful and forceful invitation to let these significant moments in my life become present to me.
During the first month of my fellowship, one of my courses at the Angelicum Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas was on the Synoptic Gospels. Sometimes a statement, a word, an image from those Gospels takes me back to my fascination with the image of crucifixion. I realise that new ground is being  broken in the study of the Synoptics, and my teacher is constantly making us aware of the genius of Saint Luke, which we are now beginning to recognize and understand after two millennia. My teacher is a teacher who loves his teachers, and that is the kind of teacher I love.
The teacher at the Ang (as the Angelicum is called by everyone) whom I love the most is  a Dominican, Father Paul Murray. Professor Murray teaches spiritual theology, a subject for which I have great personal and academic interest. However, that’s not why I love this particular teacher. It is because of the twinkle in his ageing eyes, a twinkle that conveys the ‘found’ gleaned from the meditation of nuns, theologians, writers, poets, and, yes, extraordinary bums.
Then there is the ‘Christian Contribution to Art’ class by a distinguished professor who is a fan of Caravaggio. He never tires of telling his class about the chiaroscuro techniques of this master, who used light in his religious paintings to make a theological statement. For me, this feature of Caravaggio's art was only a theoretical point until I had an occasion to meditate on a particular work of his. During a retreat at a Capuchin sanctuary in Frascati, we were given a reproduction of Caravaggio’s Conversion of Saint Paul and asked to reflect on it in conjunction with selected texts from the New Testament. It was during this retreat that I understood the meaning of the theological character of light.
During the same retreat, we also meditated on the crucifixion paintings of the Polish artist Jerzy Duda-Gracz. Memories of the first time I saw a crucifix came back to me, but this time my emotional reaction was much more intense. My journey to Rome made me realize that I am the container of both of these experiences and that they are an essential part of the interreligious dialogue that has been a part of my life since I was a child.
I must not omit mentioning the lessons given us at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue by the Rev. Fr. Markus Solo and the Rev. Fr. Michael Santiago. An image became significant again: the curious creation called ‘Followers of God’ by Dolores Puthod. The familiar figure of Gandhi in an imaginary meeting with the pope is stirring, but it is sad that his political twin, Baba Saheb, is missing from this painting. I raise this image here because it shows how interreligious dialogue began. It seems to me that there are two versions of the document Nostra ætate. One is Puthod’s image-text; the other is the text-image of the actual document.
This brings me to another joyous aspect of my experience in Rome: being in such close contact with fellow residents at the Lay Centre, most of whom are Christian students of theology, philosophy, and social sciences. Our common meals, conversations, and prayers created a comfortable space of mutual gratitude. It is thus fitting that I conclude this report by expressing my gratitude to the people in India, the Vatican, Italy, and France who made possible the many opportunities for interreligious and inter-cultural dialogue that have come my way.
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