Interview with Father Bruno Barnhardt Emmaculate Heart Hermitage
Father Barnhardt is a member of the same Catholic order-the Camaldolese Monks-as Father Bede Griffiths and has spent time at the Shantivanam Ashram. He shared some of his observations with Hinduism Today:
Q. What is your observation on how Shantivanam has been successful as a means of conveying the Catholic message to the Indian people? A. For a long while for Catholicism to go into another country it would mean to bring some kind of European culture and implant it on top of the indigenous culture. Ideally Christianity can become incarnate in any different culture Father Bede’s experiment is a courageous experiment in that direction and there has been quite a bit of resistance to it throughout the Catholic Church within the Indian Episcopy of the church but it is gaining favor because, effectively, the central authorities have endorsed it. Actually on one level, it is not that far out, not that advanced. On the liturgy, for instance, there are no radical alternations of the Eucharist. He’s added on some readings at the beginning which can come from Buddhist texts, Hindu texts, and others and then it proceeds. The only thing that is different in the sacramental gestures, there is use of flowers, fires, smoke, which is very impressive. He rightly perceives that there is no problem, no contamination of the Christian form by doing that.
Q. Is there any reaction from the local Hindu community that you are aware of?
A. There is quite a complacency in a sense, if not a resistance, a kind of indifference to interreligious dialogue on the part of educated Hindus. However, the local people see the ashram as a genuine spiritual center and especially they admire Father Bede and esteem him as a spiritual leader.
Q. On Father Bede himself, we understand that he looks and lives like a Hindu swami wearing orange robes, practicing vegetarianism yoga, etc. How does the Roman Catholic Church view this? A. I think some of the local clergy are probably turned off by it. You know some of the Catholic clergy in India are somewhat defensive, so anything that looks like a reversion to what they might consider paganism would be dangerous and threatening to them. However, there is an enlighted, broad and opened Catholic consciousness also there among the theologians and some of the Bishops.
Q. One Catholic nun, Ishapriya, claims to have actually taken the rites of initiation of a sannyasin from a Hindu swami. A. That’s a little unusual. Father Bede confers the rite of Sannyasin himself upon some of the people who stay at this ashram or who have become students, but for it to be received directly from a Hindu guru is unusual. One has to work that out in his own conscience, work out the way in which it relates to his Christian commitment. They see the sannyasin as a legitimate development of Christian spirituality. Consequently, Father Bede is able to ordain Christian sannyasins. I think that the Sannyasis that he has ordained are westerners who return to their western world and try to work out that commitment in their own context. They are not people who are going to infiltrate into Hinduism.
Q. The accusation is made that these priests take up the sannyas garb and ways as a means of infiltrating into Hindu society, claiming the place of religious authority within Hindu society which the Hindu Sannyasin holds and then using it as a means to make converts to Catholicism. A. That could be. That has two sides of it, one is proselytism directly and a deceptive or improper use of the garb; however if a person really feels that his spiritual journey has carried him to that point and if he also has in mind that he is a witness to the gospel and really doesn’t necessarily want to convert people but wants in some way to communicate Christianity in the form that makes sense to Hindus.
Q. Does he actually have a conversion program as far as bringing people into Catholicism from the Indian community? A. Oh, no I don’t know if there is any effort at all of that kind. I think he would not approve of that. What he feels is that what is needed more is a marriage of Hinduism and Christianity rather than bringing people over from one to the other. The conversion thing is not part of his style.