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Catholic Traditions in India

By Damita Menezes
The above photo is of the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni, India. The basilica is named for the first Marian apparition in India.
Photo Credit: Sajanjs, Wikipedia Commons

“Catholicism in India? Where do I begin!”

That was my initial reaction when I was asked to write this article because I could probably write a book on this topic if I had a historian by my side.

To give you some perspective, there are over 19.9 million Catholics in India, but we only make up 1.55% of the population. Even though there are a lot of us, we are a minority.

Catholicism came to India with Saint Thomas the Apostle and with Saint Francis Xavier and the Portuguese, which is why many Indian Catholics have Latin last names. Almost all Hispanic people I meet wonder and ask about my very Latin name, but my strong Indian accent inevitably assures them that I’m a desi girl.

Even though Catholic traditions are very straightforward, every culture has their own twist on them. Indian Catholic traditions are the result of the marriage between the Hindu way of praying and venerating and many of the Catholic traditions of the west. To make things simple, I will talk about Mother Mary, Christmas & Easter Mass, Altars, and All Souls Day.

Mother Mary

Like Catholics in the west, we are also often misunderstood to be worshipping Mother Mary; however, we simply venerate her deeply. Very deeply. I have noticed that, when compared to Western Catholicism, Indians have a very strong connection to ‘Mamma Mary’. She is more than the mother of God to us. She is our mother as well. She prays for us and acts as a nurturing figure for us.

Just as Mexico has Our Lady of Guadalupe, India has Our Lady of Velankanni, or Our Lady of Good Health. She is depicted wearing a beautiful Saree while holding baby Jesus. She is given that title because she is believed to have appeared twice in Velankanni, a town in India.  And almost every Indian Catholic household has been to Velankanni at least once.

Christmas & Easter Masses

When I came to the United States, the first difference I noticed about how Catholicism is practiced here has to do with the excitement and celebration of mass. For my first Christmas mass in the United States, I was all dressed up for the midnight Mass.

But when I arrived at the church, I felt outcasted. Almost everyone was in their casual or regular formal clothing.

In India, we dress up like we’re going to a royal wedding for Christmas and Easter midnight masses. I had painted my face heavy with color and had worn a beautiful dress that I specifically purchased a month ago for Christmas (and so I could take an infinite number of photos for the perfect profile picture). You get what I’m saying? I felt outcasted.

Altars

Every so often, my grandmother will buy Mogra flower (Arabian Jasmine) garlands to put on the statue or picture of Jesus or Mamma Mary. This I realized only recently is a very Hindu tradition. Hindus in India decorate their statues with garlands and flowers and a whole lot more.

And for the record, India is the country of Hinduism (remember: Catholics are a religious minority in India). A Hindu is a person who practices Hinduism (religion), and Hindi is the national language of India. This is for if you ever ask a brown person if they speak Hindu. There’s no way that’s possible.

All Souls Day

To celebrate All Souls Day. Indian Catholics go to Mass and offer prayers for the souls of our dead family members, and we cook their favorite dishes in hopes that they come to visit us. It’s a big day for us because we believe that God opens the gates of Purgatory for 24 hours so that our departed ancestors can come back to Earth. It’s not really a celebrational day. It’s a day of remembering and praying. This tradition is very similar to Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, though that tradition is, unlike ours, more celebratory in nature.

All this being said, this is not a scholarly article, but it is based on my experiences and realizations from living as part of a minority for all my life in Dubai and India. Now that I have lived in the United States for 1.5 years, I have learned more about my Catholicism beyond the East and I implore you to seek more information and insight about your religion beyond the West.