Kolkata has a very special place in the hearts of many of the Taizé brothers. Thirty years ago, when the city was still called Calcutta, Brother Roger first came and lived for a time in a poor district close by Mother Teresa. He was back again in 1997 for the funeral of Mother Teresa, and, in spite of the sadness of the occasion, he was filled with joy to be there once again.
Over the past months, brothers of the Taizé Community have been organising a young adult meeting, together with around twenty different parishes and local church communities in Kolkata. The Community was invited by the CBCI Youth Commission and has been working in close collaboration with the Catholic Archdiocese of Kolkata and the Church of North India. The meeting brought together 6000 young adults from throughout India and from 37 Asian countries. It was intended to support young people in their search for God and their desire to commit themselves in the Church and in society. The theme was: “On the road of trust, towards a future of peace.”
Here are some day-by-day echoes of the meeting:
Wednesday 4 October: Getting Ready
The festivities of Durga Puja, the Hindu celebration observed especially in Bengal and Kolkata, linger on in this huge metropolis. On Monday evening, the statues of the goddess were transported to the river Hoogli and thrown into the waters. As night falls each day, music and dancing can be heard and seen throughout the city at makeshift temples, some simple, some very elaborate, constructed for the feast so that each neighbourhood can share in the rituals.
In the Muslim quarters, families eat together every evening at sundown to mark the end of the daily fast which continues throughout Ramadan. A sense of celebration far from Western images of fasting can be felt. Joy is palpable as the monsoon season finally draws to a close.
On the playing field of Don Bosco School, near Park Circus, another makeshift prayer tent, or shamiana, has been built. It will be the central place of prayer and meeting for the pilgrimage of trust meeting between October 5 and 9. Using traditional methods, with bamboo poles covered by coloured tarpaulins, the shamiana will be big enough to hold the several thousand young adults arriving in the city to take part in the meeting.
Last evening, the young people who have already arrived gathered together with the brothers and volunteers for prayer at Bishop’s College, the Church of North India theological college. The familiar tunes of the Taizé songs were sung in Hindi and Bengali. Groups from Pakistan and Bangladesh, from Singapore and the Philippines took part, as well as Indians from many states including Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Manipur and Haryana. Also present were young Europeans from Latvia and Spain, from Luxembourg and Italy.
Brother Alois, who has just arrived in Kolkata after visiting the Taizé brothers who live in Bangladesh, spoke of his joy to meet and pray together in this city where Christians are a minority, but where they have always borne witness in a very clear and visible manner to the heart of the Gospel.
Thursday 5 October: Arrival
Early this morning, amongst the usual hustle and bustle of Howrah Station’s human throng, groups of young people arrived in Kolkata on the overnight sleeper trains. From Karnataka and Kerala, from Assam and Andhra Pradesh, it seemed as if every corner of India was represented. Teams of young volunteers from Kolkata met them as they got off the train and guided them towards St Aloysius Parish, where others were waiting to welcome them.
So many smiling faces, so many pilgrims happy to reach their destination. The meeting program was clearly explained – “this is not a conference, but a time for spiritual searching and prayer”, as one young volunteer put it. After breakfast – an egg, chapattis and hot tea – the groups were split into smaller sub-groups and sent off to one of the twelve welcome centres, consisting of several parishes and church communities, for the second part of the welcome. Buses were at hand to ferry them through the busy traffic of Kolkata’s city centre.
Once at the welcome centre, the preparation team found places in families for some, places in nearby schools for others. At Christ the King Parish, near Park Circus, a group of Thais had just arrived from Sealdah Station; most of the young people from outside of India had been asked to come here. This welcome centre was also receiving youth from Spain, Poland and Italy, as well as from several states of India. To see “welcome” written in so many languages and so many scripts was a marvellous sign of the universality of what we are about to experience during these days.
At Don Bosco School, the final preparations were taking place in the shamiana for the evening prayer. A choir consisting of young people from Bangladesh and various parts of India were practicing bhajans, traditional repetitive songs used often by Christians in South Asia, as well as the more familiar Taizé chants sung in Hindi and Bengali. How different they sound accompanied by the tabla (a pair of small drums played with the hands) and small cymbals!
This evening, Brother Alois will speak briefly during the evening prayer. “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it,” will be his opening words. Yes, there’s a joy here in knowing that Christ unites us all as part of one human family in him.
Friday 6 October: Trust
Yesterday 800 people more than expected arrived! Some came very late, which meant a long day for the welcomers, but room was found for everyone.
At Don Bosco School this morning there was such a festive mood as young people came back after their first sessions in the welcome centres throughout the city. It really is incredible to see the joy on people’s faces! Though most of the participants are from India, the diversity of languages and appearances reinforces the understanding that in prayer and in seeking our common roots in the Gospel, we are one human family. All of a sudden, everyone is on the same level. There’s no longer East or West, North or South.
Everyone comments on the beauty of the prayers. Even last night people were already joining in freely in the bhajans and Taizé songs. The simple structure of the shamiana was filled with beauty, expressing our longing for God and at the same time our celebration of his presence among us. To the European ear, there is something so enticing in the Indian way of singing which enables you to enter so easily into prayer. It’s not just the novelty of what you’re hearing, but the clear comprehension of an act of worship that rises up from the soul.
Lunch was served after midday prayer. All the food is cooked and prepared on site by a whole team of cooks, in large steel pots over gas burners. Rice with a not overly spicy sauce and either an egg or vegetables were distributed on plastic plates, together with a banana or an apple. And it really was very good! There are no cellophane wrappings to battle with. There are no knives or forks, though spoons are given for those who wish, but most eat simply with their fingers after having washed them well, like most Indians. Watching young Europeans attempting this was quite a sight! Afterwards, the plates are all washed up, ready for use again at supper. Nothing goes to waste.
At 5pm, there were different workshops for people to attend. Under the shamiana, young people from West Bengal shared something of their traditions and culture with us. In the assembly hall, two Taizé brothers led a reflection on prayer. In the auditorium, many people came to the meeting about the “Dialogue of life among people of different religions.” Different people spoke about meeting together, acting together and reflecting together. You could sense how in India, this really is a way of life. For most people, daily contact with people of another religion is a reality. Barriers do exist, but the great tradition is one of tolerance, respect and working together.
Saturday 7 October: Peace
It really is difficult to express in words the beauty of the common prayer here in Kolkata: a silent heartbeat in the midst of the tumult of city life. “Prabhu hamari vinati sun”, we all sing in Hindi – Lord, hear our prayer – as the response to the intercessions, which seem like a pillar of fire rising towards God.
Last night’s prayer around the cross went on for a very long time. Even the fact that supper came immediately afterwards didn’t deter people from waiting patiently for their turn to place their forehead on the icon as a way of entrusting themselves and their burdens to Christ. For so many young people taking part in the meeting, this is their first contact with Taizé, but it’s striking how simply and easily they have entered into the worship.
Sister Nirmala, Mother General of the Missionaries of Charity was also present and came to pray around the cross – every evening a large number of her sisters come to the prayer – and Brother Alois spoke of the link that united Brother Roger and Mother Teresa, and of his gratitude that that link continues.
As you walk across the grounds of Don Bosco School, you meet so many different people. One young man from the Andaman Islands told how on Christmas day, 2004, he left his village to go and spend the festive season with his parents in Port Blair, the capital. The next day, the tsunami hit the islands. On returning to his village, many of his friends had been swept away. A sister from Nepal tells of the group of 35 youth she has brought with her for the meeting. Only two of them had ever left their home villages before. The four young people from Laos are all smiles! A young woman from Switzerland speaks of the welcome she received in a village to the north of Kolkata where she was sent as part of the pre-meeting program. The shyness of the first days has disappeared – now people are mingling freely, sharing their stories, their questions and their joys.
Today’s theme is peace and the text chosen for the small group sharing in the afternoon is from Jeremiah 29:11-14, “I know what plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for peace, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope”. Our meeting together during these days seems to embody those words. How is it that we’re all so different, but yet we can be as one? How can we keep that vision alive in our hearts?
One of the workshops this afternoon will be about the legacy of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Bengali poet of the last century, and his trust in humanity. He is revered by many in India and Bangladesh, irrespective of their religion or background. His poetry touches the seeking and sense of wonder present in every human being.
This evening the shamiana will be lit up by 6,000 candles as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. That’s why we’re here.
Sunday 8 October: Hope
One very important aspect of the Kolkata meeting is the visits to the places of hope. Ankur Kala is a cooperative for women from very poor backgrounds and who often have to raise their children alone. In their first year, the women are given a small salary and are taught a skill, such as weaving or sewing. During the second year, their salary increases and what they make is sold by the cooperative. In the third year, they no longer receive a fixed salary, but are paid according to what they make and sell. Many of the women reach the third year and even manage to open their own retail outlets. The cooperative is run by Christian women, but most of the members are Hindu. It’s a fine example of how serving the poor can help overcome the barriers which all too often exist between different religions.
The Loreto sisters run a shelter for street children near to Sealdah Station. They also organise schooling for the children. In that way, children who have nothing stand a better chance of finding their way in life. Poverty and misery are very visible in Kolkata. It’s not unusual to walk along the pavement and then suddenly to realize that you’re walking through the space that serves as someone’s bedroom, living room and kitchen… To see how some people are doing everything that they can to alleviate the suffering of their fellow human beings is both humbling and a call to do what little we can ourselves.
At evening prayer, Brother Alois will speak about the icon of friendship, which comes from Egypt, and how it shows us the friendship of God for each one of us. The icon, well known in Taizé, shows Jesus with his hand on the shoulder of a friend. Both are looking ahead. It’s a beautiful image of Christ who walks with each one of us, offering us his friendship.
Copies of the icon will be given to young people from each region of India and then to someone from each of the countries represented, with the idea that this will help a pilgrimage of trust to continue back at home. The icon can be taken to an old people’s home, or to a hospital to pray with people who normally can’t get out to church, or else to a gathering of young people from the area, or simply to a parish on the other side of the town that we don’t visit too often… How marvellous it would be if those returning from Kolkata were able to share this spirit of pilgrimage with others!
Monday 9 October: Continuing at Home
This has been a remarkable time spent together. Everyone seems to be so thankful for the hospitality received, the careful planning of the morning program in the welcome centres and the workshops and prayers at Don Bosco School.
It was interesting yesterday to listen to the young Europeans during the meetings by country. Many of them had arrived in Kolkata a week or so before the meeting began and were sent out to villages in the surrounding area to stay with families and participate in the life of the church. One girl told how she fell sick but felt so touched by the care given by her hosts, even if it took her a little while to accept their traditional remedies! “You have to learn again and again to trust people, and although this experience wasn’t easy, it helped me remember that people are fundamentally kind, caring and good-hearted.”
Two Pakistanis from the State of Sind told of their joy during the small group sharing in the afternoon common sessions. They suddenly found themselves in the same group as Indian Punjabis. When India was partitioned, the Punjab was split in two between India and Pakistan, forming the states of Punjab and Sind. Opportunities for the two to meet are rare. It is little meetings like this that help us understand why we came to Kolkata.
And so the pilgrimage of trust continues – only in the weeks and months to come will we fully understand what we’ve experienced during this past few days.