NEPAL: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
Interview With Bishop Anthony Francis Sharma
KATHMANDU, Nepal, MARCH 21, 2010 (Zenit.org).- In Nepal, 75 % of the population is Hindu. Christians number only 2.5%, and Catholics number only 7,000.
In 2007, Benedict XVI elevated Nepal to the status of an Apostolic Vicariate and appointed its first bishop, Bishop Anthony Francis Sharma.
Bishop Sharma is a born Nepali and was born in Gurkha, in the central part of Nepal called the Mid-Western region. He was born and raised in a Hindu family, as a Brahmin.
It was his mother who entered the Catholic Church when he was barely about 4 or 5 years old and he became also Catholic at the same time.
Bishop Sharma spoke of the situation of the Church in Nepal with the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need.
Q: Who or what was decisive in you're decision to become a priest?
Bishop Sharma: My contact with the then Jesuits working in the Northern part of India called Darjeeling was decisive. I saw them serving our people with so much love and care and when I was asked why I wanted to become a Jesuit, the answer I gave was: "I see you doing this for my people why can't I join you in the same venture?" That was what made me decide, and being in contact with the mostly Canadian Jesuits with the young people coming to Darjeeling was also what challenged me.
Q: The Catholic population in Nepal is very small numbering only 7,000. What would have been the biggest obstacle for you in pursuing your dream to become a priest?
Bishop Sharma: I worked in Darjeeling after my studies. I joined the Jesuits there after my high school studies, and I worked there for a while, almost 25 years, and then, while I was a rector of an institution of ours and principal of St. Joseph's School, I was appointed to Nepal as the first Ecclesiastical Superior in 1984. So I didn't come to Nepal of my own volition. I was sent there. I was appointed to Nepal from Darjeeling.
Being of Nepali origin, I suppose was the primary reason. Secondly, because, I also belong to a Brahmin Caste and the caste is of importance in Nepal. Nepali society is ruled by a small minority of Hindus. You said 75%, but that's debated today, but the Brahmins were the ones ruling the country then so appointing a Brahmin probably had something to do with my being assigned in Nepal.
Q: The fact that your are a Brahmin is as important for the Catholic community as it is for the Hindus, that is, you can look -- at least the ruling Hindus -- in the eyes as being a Brahmin. Was this a factor?
Bishop Sharma: It was a factor then, I think, and I was always know being a Principal for a reputable school where the kings -- the present, past and immediate past king -- had gone to school was, I think a factor. I was known to the Nepali community there. They knew I hailed from Nepal and they had no difficulty accepting me back into Nepal.
Q: You are the country's first bishop. What was your feeling when you were called and appointed?
Bishop Sharma: I wasn't quite happy with that. I've been resisting this appointment for a long time because, I felt, the rightful people that should be honored with this appointment should be coming from the ethnic community, a person from the ethnic community. And this because the majority of our people belong to the ethnic communities in Nepal.
You said earlier on that 75% -- that's debatable I said -- because 70% of our population are ethnic and 20% are only strictly Hindus. But Hindus being the ruling class, they have embraced the 70% and made it 90%. These ethnic communities belong to various caste groups; they have their own rituals, own priests, own rites, everything their own. And they don't like being counted among the Hindus, but they had no choice being under the ruling class.
So they were embraced together, and when the tourists come they are told that 90% are Hindus, 7% Buddhist and 2% Muslims and 1% Christians, which is not true. Of this 70% ethnic community, 60% would have more affinity toward Buddhism than Hinduism, so in effect Nepal should have been regarded as a Buddhist country not only because Buddha was born there but also that's a fact of life.
Q: You said that your mother was the one that led you into Church at a young age. What was her reaction when you were appointed Bishop?
Bishop Sharma: She never wanted me to be a priest first of all because I was the only male child in the family and she felt that I had an obligation. My mother was brought up in Hindu tradition. She knew Hindu traditions very well. She, though illiterate, she could recite the book of Ramayana from cover to cover by memory. And she was very gifted, though illiterate she was. So she felt that I had to continue the family line -- so my becoming a priest was the end of the line and she never gave me permission for it. This Canadian Jesuit who was my principal, told me that I had to be a priest, my objection to him was: "No way Father, I have a duty to look after my mother," and this Canadian Jesuits' reaction was: "God will take care of her."
Q: Has God taken care of her?
Bishop Sharma: Very well, very well, and so I became a priest, but before I went and joined the Jesuits, I took this Canadian principal of mine to see my mother. I let her know that I was going and my mother prostrated herself in front of me: "Walk over me if you want to go."
Later on when I became a priest, a son is always a son no matter how bad you are, to a mother you are always a good son, so on the day after my ordination, I came down to bless my mother but it was awkward to bless her so instead I asked for a blessing and turned to her and said: "So how do you feel granny that your son is a priest, something you never wanted?"
She looked up at me and she says: "You know what I told God today? I lost, you won." That was her final resignation and the acceptance of God's will in her life. And this was, all her life, the attitude she had, she couldn't change Gods' determination so she had to accept. She never saw me as a bishop. My mother died before I was made bishop. She died at the age of 89 in 1989, and I was made bishop only in 2007 but she would have been happy, no doubt, and proud of that.
Q: You having been born and grown up in Nepal, you've seen the country change in many ways. Can you tell us how have you seen the country change in both positive and negative way?
Bishop Sharma: Initially before 1990 it was a Hindu country totally. The Christians could not be known by name. They lived a hidden life.
Q: Was there persecution of the Christians at that time -- would you call it persecution or discrimination?
Bishop Sharma: Discrimination probably, and lot of Protestant Christians were arrested for preaching Christianity because being a Hindu country, preaching a non-Hindu religion was forbidden under the law. If it was done by a Nepali, the Nepali would be behind bars for six months, and if it was a non-Nepali, the non-Nepali would be sent out of the country. So there was very little preaching, but still there were lots of fundamental groups around. The Church entered Nepal in 1951 on the invitation of the grandfather of the late King.
Q: Why did he do that, if Nepal was a Hindu State?
Bishop Sharma: Because he wanted education to be made available to the people of Nepal. Because a number of them had gone to our schools, both in India, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Patna, there were Nepali students there. So the Patna Jesuits, American Jesuits were invited to open and run schools. And they made their own, the Rana Prime Ministers Summer Palace [Singha Durbar Palace] available for this purpose. It is still there. So they can use that palace as long as they are serving in the educational field.
So the Church then, despite the anti-preaching law, received a certain status or ability to be present in Nepalese soil to teach.
To teach, but they were told, in no uncertain terms, that they were not to preach to the Nepalese. They could serve the Catholics, but no preaching Christianity to the Nepalese. Even though they were asked to sign it, the fathers did not sign it, but somehow they followed that understanding, acted on that understanding and that has been the mode of our behaviour all along.
Q: There has been a monumental shift in the history of Nepal. Recently, Nepal has been declared a secular state, and the Hindu Kings, which have ruled the country for centuries, have been put out. Is this a positive step for the country of Nepal?
Bishop Sharma: I think, it is a positive step. Nepal is coming into the international arena that way and hopefully … for example … even now Saturdays and Sundays are working days, so we have Sunday service on Saturday. So hopefully Nepal will follow the international calendar, so that way we will follow the same.
And also, I think, there will be recognition that way. The secular state has not been declared in a written form. All that was done two years ago was when this proposal was made; there was a desk banging approval by the parliamentarians, they banged the desk in front of them, and said "yes" that is what we want. But this effort was by the Maoist and the Communist party. The Congress and the other parties were not quite in favor of this but they followed suit. They saw the banging and so they followed.
Q: But you think it will happen?
Bishop Sharma: It will happen with the writing of the new constitution. This will give us, I suppose, certain freedom that we can preach freely, no obstacles in any way, but this question has been asked of me quite often and my answer has been: whether Nepal remains a Hindu country or becomes a secular country will make no difference for us. We will continue doing what we have been doing, serving the people through our social programs and educational endeavors.
Q: But you will have greater freedom?
Bishop Sharma: We have more freedom. We will not be challenged; in the past before 1990 when you opened schools, I had invariably to appear to the civil authority to explain my presence because they thought I was just making efforts to spread Christianity in the country.
Q: In 2007, Benedict XVI elevated Nepal to the status as an Apostolic Vicariate. Why did he choose this particular moment after the overthrow of the government? Is it a strategic or a political move, if you wish to anchor the Church more deeply by elevating it to the status of an Apostolic Vicariate?
Bishop Sharma: The Catholic Church entered into the political arena as it were of Nepal not in 2007 but in 1984. In 1982, King Birendra, before he and his family was massacred, went to see the Pope with his wife and entourage. The purpose of his visit with the Pope was to ask the Pope to recognize Nepal as a zone of peace. You know Nepal is a tiny country with about 147,000 sq. km. of land, and sandwiched between China in the North and India in the South, West and East. So there was the threat that any one of these countries would swallow Nepal.
By being recognized as a zone of peace, Nepal would be protected by the international community and Rome's Papal and Holy Sees' recognition of the country as a zone of peace would have allowed Nepal to be recognized as a zone of peace by other countries without any problem. And the Kings' guess happened and Nepal was recognized as a zone of peace. The second thing was when the King requested for this recognition; the Pope realized that there was no Church present in the country in a recognized form. So they had to create a Church which was "Missio sui iuris" and so I was appointed as the first Ecclesiastical Superior in 1984.
Q: The creation of an Apostolic Vicariate, certainly had symbolic if not legal implication for the Church as it deepens its roots within the country?
Bishop Sharma: Definitely it has given recognition of our presence. It has been an honor bestowed upon our people. And also, I think, recognition of the efforts of our pioneers. The pioneers who came in 1750, the Capuchins, so all their efforts, all their dreams have just been realize. Second thing is: The Vatican s' policy is proceeding in upgrading of Nepal in a manner that should be done, first as an Ecclesiastical Mission, "Missio sui iuris " -- Mission in its own right, then it became an Apostolic Prefecture in 1997, 2007 Vicariate, the next step, my successor will have the joy of having Nepal as a diocese in its own right.
Q: In Orissa State, Bangalore, and other states in India, we see Hindu fundamentalism on the rise. Are you not afraid that this will cross over into the border of Nepal?
Bishop Sharma: It has already crossed over. There are some small indications, but these particular groups of people who are known as NDA (Nepal Defense Army), who claim to be the Hindu Militant group, but they are not. They are criminals. They extort money from people for their own enrichment, for their own purpose. It has nothing to do with Hinduism. I think we in Nepal have to expect some kind of aggressive behavior from our Hindu community.
You know for 240 years, Nepal was a Hindu Kingdom, and suddenly now is declared a secular state. So there is a big threat. The King has lost his empire. He was crowned emperor of the Hindu kingdom, but it does not exist anymore. Hinduness has been removed so this has been a big threat to the Hindu community, so we are going to expect some kind of trouble like this, fundamentalist coming to rise.
Q: The fact that you are saying that it is a group of extremists, nonetheless you did take the step of saying to the government that if they did not intervene, you threatened to close the schools, which would appear to be a pretty dramatic step in light of the importance of the schools in Nepal, as a public statement?
Bishop Sharma: I had to write that letter to the government. At that time there was no government functioning in Nepal. There was infighting going on with various parties so no government was being formed. So I went to the Home Secretary with a three-paragraph letter. First paragraph describing the situation and the killing that happened and took place, second paragraph, what was the result of it and the threatening calls we have received. And third paragraph is that if we are not given any protection against these threats and threatening calls, we may have to go to the parents, tell the parents that we will not be able to provide and run the services that we have been taking care of unless you [government] do something about it. That was the purpose of the letter.
The work of the Church is highly esteemed and this way probably compelled the government to do something about it. That letter produced results. As a result members of this group were arrested; the main man who gave me threatening calls is hiding somewhere. The police know who he is. His picture is on their mobile and there is a movement, but this gave us good results.
Q: What would be your hope for Nepal? What would be your hope for the Church in Nepal?
Bishop Sharma: I suppose you mean our dreams or challenges? The Church would like to go to the least developed areas of Nepal. The Capuchins of 17th and 18th century are coming back. The Capuchins who were the pioneers of the missionary endeavors in Nepal are returning. As of today, there is one Capuchin who is learning Nepali in a Nepali village. The community is moving in, and so we are moving westward to the least developed parts of Nepal where people don't even have grass to eat.
Q: They don't have food? Why?
Bishop Sharma: Because of food scarcity. I do not know whether you have heard of the nettle bush? It is a little plant that has a lot of nettles. It is cooked and fed to the pigs. It is very nourishing and has lots of protein in it. This is what I mean by the grass; even that is not available to these hungry people. In the distant places, rice is becoming a problem now. One time Nepal use to grow enough rice to take care of its population, now we have to import rice from India.
Some places are still so far and cut off, there are no roads and trails only and takes days to reach. Places you can only drop food by helicopter, but helicopters cannot go every time. Some of these places they are suffering from lack of food particularly rice. Rice is our staple food. You know people eat rice to fill their belly, it may not be enough nourishment in it, but it fills the belly.
So our choice in going westward is to animate the people, help people to cultivate, start kitchen gardening, do things on their own, so Caritas is involved in this, and also providing education for people who have not been given opportunity by the government. Our government depends heavily from foreign aid and the distant places do not get that.
Q: On the side of the Church, from the needs of the Church, what will be your appeal to the Catholics?
Bishop Sharma: We would like to carry on with our educational endeavors. We would like to start a health program, because health facilities are not available. We would like to go and approach the ethnic and tribal communities who are dying out like the Raute, Bhote, or Chepangs; these are people who live in the forest and eat roots. They never had the opportunity for education. We would like to go and work among them. Bring them into the mainstream of our country s' life.
* * *
This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.