Historical Background

India was one of the first countries touched by the Gospel. The Apostle Thomas is believed to have arrived on the Malabar Coast (Kerala) in 52 A.D., where he converted many. Around 72 A.D. Thomas suffered martyrdom in Mylapore (today Chennai, which until 1996 was named Madras) on the east coast of southern India.

In the late 5th century Portuguese missionaries reached the Malabar Coast and sought to introduce the Roman (Latin) rites to Indian Christians. During the 6th century, Goa was the centre of Christianisation in western India since it was under Portuguese governance, which encouraged the Catholic mission. The most famous missionary, St. Francis Xavier, who co-founded of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), arrived in Goa in 1542. He revitalized the Catholic faith among the Portuguese colonial officers and began his mission among the poor pearl fishers in South India.

In the north and northeast of India, on the other hand, the Church is quite young. In 2016 the Catholic Church celebrated its 120th anniversary in this region. However, in many places the Church was only able to build a presence in the second half of the 20th century.

Current situation of the Church

Today, around 2.3% (just fewer than 30 million people) of the Indian population are Christians, the majority of whom are Catholic (including those who follow the Eastern rites, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara). The so-called Dalits (the lowest caste in the Indian system) represent the largest group (60%) within the Catholic population. In some northern states this percentage is even higher. Dalits – formerly known as “untouchables” – rank so low in the social hierarchy that they are considered “outcasts”.

In northern India, the presence of the Catholic Church is changing the lives of the population. The majority here live in great poverty. Many small towns and villages lie in the jungle, with many cut off from the outside world during the monsoon season. Most ordinary people struggle to feed their families. They eke out a miserable existence as day labourers and are entirely at the mercy of their masters and employers. Most can neither read nor write, and their living conditions are frequently primitive at best. If the Church were not there to help, many children would have no opportunity to go to school, many ill people would go without treatment and the population generally would have no way to escape desperate poverty. But the Good News of the Gospel enables the Dalits to appreciate and understand that they, too, have human dignity and are invited to be members of a loving community.

Faith can make a difference in the Dalits’ lives, despite their material poverty. It makes a significant difference in the way people can cope with the difficulties and struggles of daily life. They are oppressed and the conditions they live in are so abject that they become sick in body as well as in soul. The pastoral care and dedication of the Church heals people. The Bible provides guidance and motivation to overcome the harshness of life. The good news of the Gospel frees them of feeling worthless and outcast. Reading the Gospel heals their hearts.

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding. ACN – Aid to the Church in Need gGmbH, HRB 8446 is non-profit organization officially registered in Germany and audited internationally by KPMG.