May 21, 2008
It may seem quite strange to many to know about the link between a Bishop of the Roman Catholic faith and Sant Tukaram, the seventeenth century poet-saint of Maharashtra, revered as the foremost proponent of the Bhakti Movement in Western India and a contemporary of Chatrapati Shivaji. However, in this multi-religious and multi-cultural land, realizing the need to promote inter-religious dialogue and harmony, Bishop Thomas Dabreof Vasai, chose the life and teachings of Sant Tukaram as his doctoral research and acquired Ph.D degree for his thesis titled “The God Experience of Tukaram-A Study in Religious Symbolism” from the Jnana Deepa Vidypeeth, Pune in 1979.
Sant Tukaram (1608-1650), born and brought up in a lower Shudra family residing at Dehu near Pune became immersed in the devotion to God following a turbulent family life and dedicated himself to the service of God and humanity. His devotional hymns in Marathi language known as ‘abhangas’ express his deep feelings towards God and his philosophical outlook. To Sant Tukaram spirituality was not mythical but grounded in the reality of day-to-day existence. He stressed that orthodox religion was just a formality. According to him the real expression of religion was love and affection in actual life. His ‘abhangas’, which are more than 5,000 in number, became popular with the masses of the common people.
When asked for the reason of choosing Sant Tukaram’s life and teachings for his doctoral thesis, Bishop Thomas Dabre mentioned that his family background, his deep roots in Marathi language and culture and the influence of the Vatican II Council during his student days influenced him to choose Sant Tukaram as a subject for his doctoral research.
Bishop Thomas Dabre read the voluminous collection of Sant Tukaram’s devotional hymns in original Marathi as well as their English translation. Initially he found it quite difficult to get into the right ethos of Sant Tukaram’s ‘abhangas’. But he persisted and gradually he could grasp the real meaning of his devotional hymns.
Sant Tukaram’s reference to God as his ‘food’ which unites him with the Almighty as well as his fellow beings and the ultimate surrender to God and the extreme humility that he manifests throughout the ‘abhangas’ made a great impact on the thought process of Bishop Dabre. He found a parallel between the symbol of ‘food’ in the Old Testament and Jesus Christ offering his body and blood as the food and drink to his disciples to have eternal life in the New Testament and Sant Tukaram using the symbolism of ‘food’ to be one with God.
After the publication of his thesis on Sant Tukaram in 1983, Bishop Thomas Dabre has become a well-known personality not only among the Christians but also among the non-Christians, especially among the Hindus. He has been invited by various Hindu and other non-Christian organizations to deliver lectures in seminars and write articles in various Marathi and English language newspapers on various socio-religious issues, especially on inter-religious dialogue.
Bishop Thomas Dabre's deep understanding of the Indian religions and their philosophies prompted Pope Benedict XVI to appoint him as one of the members of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue on November 21, 2007. Soon after his appointment to this important position, Bishop Dabre said that inter-faith dialogue is ‘an urgent priority for the Church’. According to him such a dialogue is important due to the fact that in Asia where 95 per cent of the population is non-Christian, the Church plays and important role in the areas of health care and education. Bishop Dabre is also the chairperson of the Doctrinal Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
Born in a humble family on October 23, 1945 at Bhuigaon in Vasai, Bishop Thomas Dabre as a young boy attended municipal and church schools, being a single Christian student in municipal schools. Thus, his upbringing was in a multi-religious environment. Later, he joined St Pius Seminary at Goregaon and completed his theological and doctoral studies in Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune. He was ordained a priest on October 31, 1971 for the Bombay Archdiocese. Realizing his potential for higher responsibilities, he was appointed as an Auxiliary Bishop of Bombay on April 2, 1990 and received his Episcopal ordination on May 27, 1998.
Being the ‘son of the soil’, Bishop Thomas Dabre had the distinction of being appointed as the first Bishop of the Diocese of Vasai following its creation on May 22 1998 by Pope John Paul II. However, officially Dr Dabre was installed as the Bishop of the newly-created diocese in a solemn ceremony on August 15, 1998 at the Church of Our Lady of Grace at Papdy, founded in 1574, which has been designated as the new Cathedral of the Diocese of Vasai.
May 22, 2008 marks the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Diocese of Vasai. However, Bishop Dabre informed that the decennial celebration of the constitution of the Diocese of Vasai will take place on August 15, 2008, the day on which he was officially installed as the first Bishop of the diocese. On May 27, 2008, Bishop Dabre will be completing 18 years of his Episcopal ordination.
The Diocese of Vasai includes nine civil taluks of the Thane district. These are - Vasai, Bhiwandi, Shahapur, Wada, Jawahar, Palghar, Mokhada, Dahanu and Talasari. The neighbouring dioceses include the diocese of Baroda to the North, the diocese of Nasik to the East, the Arabian Sea to the West and the Thane Creek and the Archdiocese of Mumbai to the South.
Though the diocese of Vasai is ten years old, the history of Vasai also known as Bassein is as old as the Christianity itself. It has been commonly believed that one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, St Bartholomew brought Christianity to Kalyan and surrounding areas which are parts of the Thane district in which the Diocese of Vasai is situated. According to tradition a bishop was sent from Persia to Kalyan during the 6th century. Later, a Dominican priest named Jordenus served as a missionary for a brief period in a church at Sopara in 1321 before being appointed as the first Bishop of Quilon in Kerala.
Christianity began to spread with great vigour in Vasai and the surrounding areas with the arrival of the Portuguese in 1534. Besides building a fort, the Portuguese also built a number of churches within and outside the fort. The parish church dedicated to St Joseph was known as ‘Se’ or ‘Seat of the Bishop’. Whenever the Bishop of Goa visited Vasai, he used this church as his official residence.
As the Portuguese promoted Roman Catholic faith in the territories under their control, missionaries belonging to various religious orders such as Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians and Jesuits arrived in Vasai. The greatest Jesuit missionary, St Francis Xavier had also visited Vasai. St Gonsalo Garcia, a native of Vasai and the first Indian missionary who was martyred along with 26 of his companions at Nagasaki in Japan in 1597 is the patron saint of the Diocese of Vasai.
Following the defeat of the Portuguese by the Marathas in 1739 and the occupation of the region first by the Marathas and later by the British led to the changing fortunes of Christianity in this area. As the British disliked any kind of missionary activity so as not to annoy the native Hindu population, the European missionaries were driven out of Vasai. Under these circumstances the priests who came from Goa kept up the Roman Catholic faith. Besides, the local priests coming from the East Indian Community helped the priests from Goa in preserving the faith and attending to the spiritual and temporal needs of the Catholics in and around Vasai.
With the establishment of the Indian Episcopal hierarchy in 1886, Vasai was placed under Goa. Later, it was made a part of the Diocese of Daman and from 1928 it was under the Archdiocese of Bombay till it was given the independent status of the diocese in 1998.
The Catholic population of the Vasai Diocese is approximately 1, 25,000. The diocese today has 5 deaneries, 38 Parishes, 20 Mission centers and sub-centers and a number of primary and secondary schools and two degree colleges. As a vast area of the diocese is inhabited by the tribal community, a number of social welfare centers such as dispensaries, health centers, homes for the children, etc. have been opened to uplift their socio-economic conditions. Number religious congregations of men and women render services in various social welfare institutions and mission centers.
In order to promote higher and professional education, especially for the benefit of the Christians of the Vasai Diocese, Bishop Thomas Dabre has roped in the Aldel Education Trust led by Albert W D’Souza, a Mangalorean and proprietor of ‘Printania’ to run two professional institutions-St John Engineering and St John Pharmacy Colleges at Palghar. These Colleges are expected to start functioning from the academic year 2008-2009.
During one and half hour interaction with Bishop Thomas Dabre for daijiworld, my wife Benny and myself found him to be articulate, simple, warm, courteous and firm in his convictions. There is no doubt that under his dedicated leadership, the young Diocese of Vasai will see much more progress in spiritual as well socio-cultural aspects.
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