“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13: 35).
The Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar teaching and practice of the Church invite all Christians to have a dialogue with persons of other faiths. Is martyrdom a challenge to the dialogue in India? Persecution, from the beginning of the Church, does happen because of a certain misunderstanding about Christian faith. Therefore, dialogue with other faiths would help to clear some such misunderstandings and would enrich our own faith by interaction with persons of other faiths. The life and martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai shed some light on some important and urgent aspects of dialogue today.
- Clarity of One’s Faith Identity in Dialogue
- A Dialogue of Love
- Dialogue in the Cave of the Heart
One temptation in the context of persecution would be to water down the content of faith or our doctrine. But watering down one’s faith would be in reality a disservice to dialogue and would be some sort of insincerity while moving with persons of other faiths. In the context of the murder of Pakistani Federal Minister for Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, Cardinal Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue said:
«(In inter-religious dialogue between concrete persons) each one agrees not to give up his convictions but to allow himself to be challenged, and to take into consideration matters that are different from those of his community, hoping to acquire further knowledge to see the other's religion with objectivity and to enrich his own spiritual life with the positive elements».104
The Cardinal further said,
«For a Christian, Jesus is the only Savior and Mediator between God and men. Without this spiritual identity, one cannot dialogue».
Pope Benedict XVI too has warned the Church in India about certain kind of syncretism. Addressing a group of Bishops in their Ad Limina Visit, the Holy Father said:
«With regard to interreligious dialogue, I am aware of the challenging circumstances many of you face as you develop a dialogue with those of other religious beliefs, all the while encouraging an atmosphere of tolerant interaction. Your dialogue should be characterized by a constant regard for that which is true, in order to foster mutual respect while avoiding semblances of syncretism.»105
This is a clear and timely message that also comes from the life and martyrdom of Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai. At the face of opposition he did not hesitate to proclaim himself a Christian. While meeting the Prime Minister, who was letting our his anger against the Christians and condemning them as vile and wretched, the Servant of God declared himself to be a Christian, even though the Minister pretended that he had not known that Nilakandan Pillai had become Devasahayam Pillai. His pretense was like giving an opportunity to the neophyte Devasahayam Pillai to hide his identity or to water down his Christian faith. But the martyr does not give in to his overtures and boldly asserts his identity as a Christian.106 This sincerity, combined with respect towards the faith of the others is one of the basic requirements for a genuine dialogue.
«In relation to the wider world, the Christian commitment to live and to bear witness to the Gospel offers distinct challenges in every time and place. This is certainly true of your country, which is home to various ancient religions, including Christianity. The Christian life in such societies always demands honesty and sincerity about one’s own beliefs, and respect for those of one’s neighbour.»107
It easily said, but it does often happen that when someone convincingly expresses her/his identity of her/his own faith, persons of other faiths may misunderstand her/him as conceited and proud and sometimes even arrogant. That is what happened to Devasahayam Pillai. His faith-based dissent to the King was understood as swamydroham (crime against God) and his refusal to participate in Hindu worship was taken as kuladroham (crime against family) and his violation of caste rules was interpreted as jhatidroham (crime against the caste). Therefore, it is necessary that in a dialogue both the sides should be equally open and humble. When the Christian alone is open but convinced of his Christian faith but those of the other faith remain in a state of prejudice and fanatical hatred of Christian faith and the Christians, dialogue is not possible. What will happen is persecution and martyrdom. Not giving up one’s faith and its practice and being ready also for the prophetic insecurities that it may bring about is in final analysis not a disservice, but a service to genuine dialogue.
One thing that clearly strikes any one about the three-year long tortures of Servant of God Devasahayam Pillai is the admiration that he wins everywhere from the those around him, including the soldiers and even his executioner. It is a striking feature of the Servant of God that even at the height of suffering, shame and pain, he showed to be a person of charity. When he was at the place of execution after the first condemnation to death, the executioner was delaying it, because he had not yet received the final orders. At that moment, as he was ready and willing to die, he is also thinking of the soldiers. He said,
«In this case, let these soldiers go back to their homes, as the sun is already behind the mountains and they are hungry: I shall await here at your leisure for my happy lot of dying for my God».108
Secondly, while at Peruvilai, he was refused his usual small portion of food. The people, especially the Christian fisher people, when they heard of it, they brought a lot of food. Devasahayam Pillai, then distributed the food also to the executioners and to the soldiers.109 There is nothing that will defeat love and if even in the midst of persecution and violence, love and forgiveness can enhance real and in-depth dialogue and understanding. Two touching examples in our times are Blessed John Paul II’s meeting his assailant going into his very prison cell and Ms Gladys, the wife of the Dr. Graham Stains, the Australian missionary, forgiving the killers of her husband and their two sons.110 The family members of the Servant of God Sr. Rani Maria, FCC (1954-1995), murdered by Hindu religious fanatics on 25 February 1995 have also forgiven the assailants which resulted in his conversion to Christian faith.111
At least twice during the three years of imprisonment of the Servant of God, we come across a Hindu sage, who is said to have been his friend. That the neophyte Devasahayam Pillai had such a deep friendship with a Hindu stage only underlines his capacity to relate to someone of another faith in a deep way. As both had God-experience, they could probably practice what Abhishiktanada advocates: the dialogue with persons of other faiths “in the cave of the heart.” He said that the Hindu-Christian meeting point can be only in the heart of everyone, in the intimacy of one’s own spiritual personal encounter of the Lord112. He said,
«A common ground has first to be found – that is, in this instance, the common thirst for union with God. It is only from such a real common ground that a dialogue can develop.»113