Seminary born of delegate's snide remark now backbone of Tribal Church
Sept 11, 2006
Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi credits a snide remark that a Polish prelate made on India's tribal Church more than a century ago for the development of the local seminary.
RANCHI, India (UCAN, August 11,2006) -- Toward the end of the 19th century, Archbishop Paul Goethals of Calcutta asked Archbishop Ladislao Zeleski, apostolic delegate of British India (1892-1916), to allow tribal students to enter a seminary in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.
That seminary in Kandy was also preparing priests for Burma, now Myanmar, and India, both then still under British rule.
Archbishop Zeleski reportedly told Archbishop Goethals the tribal Church in eastern India needed at least 100 years to produce its own Catholic priests.
The tribal Church at that time was under Calcutta archdiocese. Catholicism came to the region in 1868 and the first converts were baptized in 1885.
Cardinal Toppo told UCA News that the delegate's refusal to approve the request forced Archbishop Brice Meuleman, who succeeded Archbishop Goethals in 1902, to open St. Albert's Seminary in 1914 for tribal seminarians. It is in Ranchi, now the nerve center of the tribal Church and capital of Jharkhand state, 1,160 kilometers southeast of New Delhi.
Cardinal Toppo, a former student of the seminary and Asia's first tribal cardinal, says the Polish prelate's remark was "providential." Seminary officials say they do not know how many have studied at St. Albert's in the last 92 years, but hundreds of them now serve dioceses in India and abroad.
The cardinal is one of 25 students who have become bishops. The first was Bishop Stanislaus Tigga, who led Raigarh-Ambikapur diocese 1957-1970. The latest, Bishop Paul Toppo of Raigarh in neighboring Chhattisgarh state, was ordained bishop this past May 24.
Father C.R. Prabhu, the rector, told UCA News St. Albert's is northern India's oldest seminary and has trained priests for Bangladesh and Pakistan, besides central and eastern India. Father Prabhu also said the tribal Church's future depends on "the sincere efforts of its local clergy to involve itself in the missionary and pastoral life." He regards the episcopal ordination of Bishop Paul Toppo as "a landmark" for St. Albert's.
The seminary has philosophy and theology faculties and confers bachelor's, master's and doctorate degrees recognized by Rome's Urban University. In 1965, the Bihar government recognized its philosophy degree as equivalent to a bachelor's degree in education and humanities. Jharkhand was part of Bihar until November 2000.
The seminary degree is accepted for teaching jobs in Christian institutes in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh states, Father Prabhu said, and Bihar and Jharkhand accept the degree for such jobs in government schools.
With the new academic year that began in July, Madras University in southern India recognizes theology bachelor's degree from the seminary as a master's degree in humanities. As St. Albert's becomes more widely recognized, its officials say their main concern is to find competent staff to prepare students spiritually and intellectually to meet modern challenges.
Jesuit Father Jose De Cuyper, the oldest seminary faculty member, told UCA News the institute must train priests who are better qualified theologically and spiritually. "Our educated laity want pastors to lead them to a fuller Christian life and advise them on increasingly more intricate moral problems," said the Belgian missioner, who has taught at the seminary since 1957.
This year, the seminary admitted 295 students for philosophy and theology courses, and Father Prabhu observed, "It is unfortunate we had to refuse several other students from dioceses outside the region due to lack of space."
Cardinal Toppo says the seminary "definitely has a big role" in training priests of dioceses in eastern India who can help develop the Indian Church.
Father Hilarious Barla, a former student and now the college principal, told UCA News the seminary has already proven it is "important and relevant" for the region because its training is based on tribal culture,
This does not keep non-tribal students from studying in the seminary, Father Barla added. St. Albert's can serve in this way, he explained, because the Belgian Jesuit missioners who started the seminary and formed most of its staff were able to "shed their western culture and adopt" local culture.