Notes on Astrid Lobo Gajiwala’s presentation

“The challenge of an interfaith marriage begins with the decision to love,” says Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, founder member of Satyashodhak (Mumbai based Christian feminist group). Married to a Hindu for more than 18 years, according to Astrid, living out the interfaith marriage covenant demands a dialogue of life that can be more challenging than the Ashram experience. Unfortunately, few opportunities are provided for dialogue and little is done by the Church to aid these families in their efforts at inculturation.

Early on, she had to grapple with differences in culture, tradition, upbringing, etc. In Hindu households, for instance, the bahu (daughter-in-law) plays an important role many pujas (family worship of a deity) and the welfare of the family is seen to be dependent on her participation Is it okay to worship an alien God? What about religious festivals?

Because the sacramentality of marriage is linked to baptism, inter-faith marriages are not sacraments in the eyes of the Church. “Does this mean that Divine grace is reserved only for the baptized?” Astrid asks. “Christ has raised the marriage covenant to the dignity of a Sacrament (Canon 1055: 1) but did he say that he was doing this only for the baptised? Further, when speaking of the sacredness and indissolubility of the bond of marriage Christ refers to the ‘beginning’ (Mt 19:4-6), which precedes the birth of the Christian community. Can we then say with certainty that Christ seeks to enrich conjugal love by linking the love of the couple for each other with the source of all love only in the case of baptised Catholics? What of the sacredness of the marriage vows of other religious traditions some of which predate Christianity; are they too not signs of God’s love for God’s creation?”

“There is no place for inter-faith children in the Church,” says Astrid. For the children, “there is painful exclusion when the entire class is being prepared for and receiving First Holy Communion or Confirmation.” Teachings that ‘only Jesus is God’ stand in direct opposition to what her children learned at home. Baptism of desire is not stressed in Sunday school. “Tell them you are a Hindu who wants to know more about Christ,” she taught her children. But it was not a choice of her liking for it obliterated a faith they were born into and placed it second to their Hindu origins.

“The ability to get people out of their religious and cultural ghettos is a gift that interfaith families have to offer. The natural respect for family ties leads them into an inter-religious dialogue that brings with it an experience of a wider community and a new openness to another’s culture.” “I find it ironical that the Church spends so much energy and money to promote inter-religious dialogue and yet it neglects this, the most intimate of inter religious dialogues?” Married to a Hindu whose love for and faith in the Divine is unmistakable, Astrid finds her marriage rich with promise as both of them strive to make God the Ground of Being, irrespective of the names they give Her/Him. Their diversity has become their strength, and they have slowly progressed from voicing fears and struggling with opposing viewpoints to overcoming prejudices and finally celebrating differences.

Like any child, couples in interfaith marriages need love, acceptance, guidance, a listening ear, and support from the Church. Canon law insists that religious authorities have a responsibility “to see to it that the Catholic spouse and the children born of a mixed (or inter-faith) marriage are not without the spiritual help needed to fulfill their obligations; they are also to assist the spouse to foster the unity of conjugal and family life” (Canon 1128, 1129). Families should be accompanied pastorally both before and after marriage in a more sustained manner. A good starting point for bridge-building would be the initiation of Satsangs centred on the experience of their inter-faith marriage, spaces created within the Church structure for them to learn from each other.

“If the situation is to change, bishops and priests must be catechised so that they can encourage Catholics in inter-faith marriages “to assume their proper role ..as witnesses to Christ wherever they may find themselves” (EA, 44). As families that teach and give witness to the Christian faith they too qualify as domestic churches (AA, 11) and are entitled to the pastoral care of the Church.” If only the Church would grasp the opportunity presented by inter-faith couples, the Catholic partner would serve as an entry point for true evangelisation in these families, Astrid suggests. What we need to do is plant the seeds of the Gospel without the pressure of baptism. Tools needed for inter-religious dialogue should be provided, the well meaning other-faith partners should be embraced, recognising that they are bound to their Catholic spouses in love.

For the theologians the challenge is to review church policy on interfaith marriages in the light of the current thinking on inculturation and interfaith relations. Astrid looks forward to the day when the Church will have full fledged ministry to interfaith families, one that does not just support these families in their Christian witness but also serves as a listening ear for the universal church so that it may be enriched by the diversity of these inculturated domestic churches. Given the increasing number of inter-faith marriages , this may well be an important step in the Church’s mission “to live the Gospel in a spirit of fraternal love and service (with a view to being) a solid starting point for building a new society, the expression of a civilisation of love” (EA, 25).

Astrid concludes with her ‘8 Beatitudes of Interfaith Families,’ inspired by Matthew 5:3-12:

1. Blessed are the interfaith spouses who, aware of the limits of their individual spiritual experience, are open to the God-experience of their partners who belong to another religion; they shall reign with God.

2. Blessed are the interfaith families who mourn because there is no room for them in the religious traditions and families of their birth; they shall be comforted.

3. Blessed are the interfaith couples who in humility risk the darkness of moving with the Spirit; they shall inherit the Earth.

4. Blessed are the interfaith couples who hunger and thirst for a communion that respects and is enriched by the unique spiritual gifts each partner brings; they shall be satisfied.

5. Blessed are the merciful interfaith couples whose pain of their aloneness moves them to work with religious authorities to expand their understanding of God and our relationship with God through our ‘Kin-dom’; they shall know mercy.

6. Blessed are the interfaith parents who dare to teach their children to centre themselves on the ‘I AM’ who goes beyond all human boundaries and limitations; they shall see God.

7. Blessed are the peacemakers who offer support to interfaith couples and celebrate God’s gift of love to them, as part of reconciling the whole world to God; they shall be called daughters and sons of God.

8. Blessed are interfaith spouses when they insult you and persecute you and utter all kinds of slander against you because you have married a person of another religion; on you God’s favour rests. This is how the prophets who lived before you were persecuted.

Notes on the Discussion:

The presentation allowed us to journey with Astrid. said Metti. Sharon said she is able to resonate with Astrid and she asked about dealing with extended families Extended families learn to grow with us, was Astrid’s answer.

Baptism being a big issue in inter-faith marriages and for Astrid personally, Nonie pointed out that baptism as an immersion and she asked if it possible to have a dual faith belonging without baptism. Using prophetic imagination, what could be the form of baptism to ritualize this?

Angela appreciated the presentation and the difficulties Astrid encountered. Added to Astrid’s feminist sensibilities; where did she draw her strength? My husband and I discussed a lot of things, Astrid said. There were a lot of negotiations and compromises. The most important thing is the relationship of the couple. Also, children give a different perspective on things that one tends to neglect.

Interfaith marriage can be liberating because it frees the couple from the very constricting laws of the Church and gives opportunity for women to redefine themselves, Julia commented. Should we really desire to want to belong to this Church when it becomes too oppressive, Evelyn asked. I belong to the Church in my own terms, said Astrid.

Kuchurani: The word theology is very male; why would we draw distinction between theologian and non-theologian when theology can be done from one’s context? As a Christian and feminist, how does your extended family look at your feminism vis-à-vis being Christian? Astrid: It is very funny to realize that a lot of boundaries disappear when you really love the person.

Lieve: I had an ecumenical marriage to a Protestant. In the West, Catholics and Protestants have closed themselves off to each other. The effect is that both are losing their members.

Astrid: the challenge is to organize a group of interfaith families.

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