Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Pope’s Pre-Shivaratri Benediction

If anyone had it all worked out these bewildering past months, it surely was Pope Benedict XVI. Nine months after the secularization of the Nepali state, the pontiff has elevated the Apostolic Prefecture of Nepal to the rank of apostolic vicariate. This means Nepal will now have its very own bishop.
The Vatican press office announced over the weekend that the Pope had appointed Father Anthony Sharma, 69, as the first apostolic vicar of Nepal. He is currently the apostolic prefect of Nepal. Born in Katmandu in 1937, Father Sharma entered the Society of Jesus in 1956 and was ordained a priest in 1968. He spent years in India, teaching in the area of Darjeeling, and he was rector of St. Joseph's College.
He was appointed ecclesiastical superior of Nepal in 1984. When Pope John Paul II elevated the “sui iuris” mission of Nepal to the rank of apostolic prefecture, Father Sharma became its first apostolic prefect.
The Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal counts 6,600 Catholics in a population of 23.7 million. It has five parishes, two churches that are virtually parishes, six mission stations and 22 substations, served by 11 diocesan priests and 40 religious priests. There are five major seminarians and 112 women religious. In addition, the Church has 44 educational and 16 charitable institutions.
That’s the most complete account of the Roman Catholic Church’s presence in the country. Apart, of course, from the periodic updates the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies in India have been providing.
Many of our officially atheist Maoist leaders are actually Christians, the BJP mouthpiece, Organizer, notes. During the royal regime, the party sounded pretty confident that a republican Nepal would retain a Hindu identity. It was only after legions of Church-based news services rejoiced over the demolition of this Hindu theocracy that the saffron brigade came to its senses.
Yet the BJP should know better than to quibble over what it could not have controlled. Under Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, a Hindu rastra stood little chance of surviving. And not only because of the Congress president’s faith-based initiative.
Sonia probably still holds that grudge over having been disallowed into the Pashupatinath premises during the 1987 SAARC summit in Kathmandu. (She should have simply walked in. With her hair color and sari, who would have recognized her as a no-no? But, then, Nepal’s political transformation was to take precedence.)
Yet that no-entry stricture must pale in Sonia’s mind when juxtaposed with that religious ritual the world’s only Hindu monarch purportedly sponsored against her husband. Let’s not forget the disclosure emerged as part of the investigation on the conspiracy behind Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. With some viewing the European Union as a revival of the Holy Roman Empire, the question of faith is becoming relevant beyond conspiracy theorists in the most secular settings.
Admittedly, it would be pointless to play up the role of one woman, two Germans (the Pope and the EU current chief, Prime Minister Angela Merkel) or a band of former rebels as somehow defining the character and content of a new Nepal. Yet it is baffling how believers and atheists could come together in fellowship. Or perhaps not. It’s probably better to be an atheist – by definition amenable to faithfulness – than to be idolatrous in 330 million ways.
It took a Buddhist monk, Bhante Girivargyana, to point to a historical coincidence: The first Capuchin priests came to Nepal in 1740s when the Pope was Benedict XV. Just imagine how different things might have been had Captain Kinloch’s expeditionary force survived malaria and saved Jaya Prakash Malla from Prithvi Narayan Shah’s juggernaut. No wonder this Shivaratri is so full of political content.