Continuity and Rupture: A Catholic Perspective on Christian Conversion in Nepal
The anthropology of Christianity has initiated a debate around conversion, on whether it must be considered in terms of continuity or radical break with the past. This presentation will examine Catholic conversion in a Hindu context and question this continuity/break dichotomy. I will draw on a field study conducted over a one-month period, in a parish of Nepal’s Tarai. While living in the Presbytery adjunct to an apostolic school, I conducted formal interviews and informal conversations with the parish priest, his auxiliary, their ecclesiastical visitors, and the neighbouring Indian missionary sisters. I also participated in the local daily Catholic ritual life. The data collected will be used to argue that both continuity and break occur.
As Catholicism acknowledges the local supernatural world and allows the inculturation of some pre-conversion ritual practices (such as Baha parab, in the Santhal community of the parish priest, and Pasni, in the Newar community to which one of the students of the apostolic school belongs), it does not initially look for a radical break with the cultural environment where it seeks to take root. However, Catholicism introduces some breaks in the convert’s ethos, and asks a new religious agency from its adherents, as will be shown when we examine the implantation of the religion in the priest’s parish and the process leading to baptism. The ideal of being a ‘Good Catholic’ represents a new personhood: converts are expected to develop an ‘awareness’ and priorities that should enable them to avoid the ‘social evils’ afflicting their villages, and thus promote a new self-definition which is no longer defined by an ‘interiorized inferiority complex’.
Rather than converting to an exclusive and communal religious community, Catholics are still “[I]ntegrated into social systems of caste and participat[ing] in shared popular religious culture with their Hindu neighbours” (Mosse 2006:108). While selective inculturation may reject certain local cultural practices, the ideal pursued is not a total rupture with the local social environment, but rather a reinvestment in it, through the transformation of character by which a successful Catholic conversion is measured.