Travelling to the western hemisphere, whenever I would be asked that cringe-inducing question “What is your religion?” I had one standard response: “I was a Catholic for five days a week for 12 years of my life.”
This was my way of conveying the religious syncretism that I was raised in in Bombay: studying both testaments of the Bible at my Catholic convent school, going to Hindu temples during exams and other religious festivities, being absent from school to celebrate Saraswati Puja at home by offering my books to the one-inch-tall metallic idol, and attempting to observe at least one day of fast during Ramzan.
For my first ever stage performance at age three, I was Angel Gabriel, telling Mother Mary to not be afraid. (Being Mother Mary during the annual Christmas play was a coveted role, meant only for the girl with fair skin and silky hair. Thereafter, I was always the shepherd; a shorter classmate was always a sheep).
Chanting the 'Hail Mary' became my personal way out of any crisis. During Lent, my decision to not eat meat or fish for a whole month did not go down well with my parents.
I learnt all the parables of Jesus. I knew exactly what the crib would need, to fetch a prize for my class during the annual competition ahead of Christmas.
I thought I was almost Catholic, until my Christian friends began to undergo the Christian rite of passage of receiving the Holy Communion. They all changed thereafter.
The Taste of Communion
On the first Friday of the month, right after mass, our teachers would escort my Christian classmates to the St Mary’s Church adjoining our school. On many of these trips, I accompanied them and sang all the hymns alike. However, when they were invited to receive the Communion bread, I was told very clearly that I should not join them.
Many of them said that Jesus would punish me if I did so. Not knowing what would the punishment look like, and not trying to be too adventurous, I sat still, as I would see Catholic friends going up to the priest, opening their mouth slightly, have something white be slipped into their mouth, and they would walk away with a somber look.
What does the Communion bread taste like? That was my singular question for the rest of my school years.
Was it sweet? Was it savoury? Was it soft? Was it crispy? Was it like a biscuit? Was it like a cake? Was it chewy? Did it dissolve quickly? “We are not supposed to say,” my friends told me. I felt incomplete as a Catholic; indeed, I wasn’t one because I did not undergo the Communion ceremony.
I was sad that I did not have a mini-wedding with a white dress and a veil, like my Catholic friends had. It felt like I was at a massive loss; I didn’t feel I could ever justifiably ask any of my friends to sneak in a wafer for me, because that would be a sin. And I knew that I could not live in sin.
Until I went to South Africa and met Desmond Tutu.
Meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu
In July 2014, the — a 100-year-old pacifist and anti-military network comprising activists and academics, anarchists and conscientious objectors of war from various countries, and where each boasted on the number of times they had been arrested for resisting the might of the state — held their quadrennial gathering in .
I had found some funding to get myself there, to interview some of these activists. South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu surprised us with his presence at the opening ceremony.
As activist spoke about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel — drawing in from in ending the Apartheid regime — it was perhaps the first time I was hearing the word “apartheid” being associated with beyond South Africa.
For that whole week, at Cape Town’s City Hall — the building from where Nelson Mandela delivered his first speech, hours after his liberation from 27 years of imprisonment — we were learning about tactics of non-violent resistance from those who had practised it in different situations and conditions.
Almost everyone at the conference denounced every form of institution that cost humanity its liberation in different forms. And that included religion.
But there was soon a murmur that every Friday at 7 am, Tutu presides over a small congregation in a chapel adjoining the St George’s Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Cape Town. Huddled in a car on that wintry July morning of the southern hemisphere, a few of us reached the church. Among leaflets of details of church services were leaflets on safe sex.
I shouldn’t have been surprised: Another church I had come across earlier had a massive rainbow flag adorning it. The war against AIDS continued to determine the responsibility of effective communication by almost every institution in South Africa.
A few minutes after we settled into the chapel, Tutu walked in, draped in a black cassock, a white amice and a chasuble in purple and a gold edge. He wished us a loud good morning, in a manner that’s reminiscent of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam.
I wasn’t expecting a church service to be so cheerful, and so I have almost every detail of that morning etched in my mind:
Tutu then went on to acknowledge the diverse crowd that had gathered; he had been told that some of us from WRI were present that morning. He called WRI activists as some of the bravest people on Earth fighting for justice. “How many people here are under the age of 10?”
A few children, accompanied by their parents, stood up. He then walked down the narrow aisle, to each of the children, and would break into a small dance upon hearing their names. “Now, be good and listen to your parents.” I am paraphrasing here; it was a cold morning but I was in awe.
After the sermons and prayers, he uttered the words that shocked me: “Now, if any of you so feel compelled, I invite you to receive the holy communion. You do not have to be a Catholic to receive it.”
I could not believe my ears. Could I really do that? At this point in my life, I did not care about sinning, but was more careful of not insulting any culture with my enthusiasm. I asked one of the people with me if what I heard was true.
And that’s how — even if I never became a Catholic in Bombay — I received my first ever holy communion from the Nobel Laureate, the conscience keeper of South Africa, the dear friend of the 14th Dalai Lama. The taste of the communion was no more a mystery: paper-like, it stuck weirdly to the roof of my mouth.
As the prayer service drew to an end, Tutu walked out and stood at the door. He knew what us lesser mortals wanted: a photograph with him. And so, we lined up a second time.
I was in a daze at how I had arrived at that moment: all my life, I had longed to know what a holy communion was, and was shunned because I was not a Catholic to be able to receive it.
Religion and Peace
I had grown up to shun everything related to religion, particularly Hinduism, for its violently divisive force at the hands of fanatics. And here, halfway across the world, in the land that championed truth and reconciliation, albeit with flaws, I receive a holy sacrament from a man who utters the word of God in getting people to recognise oppression and injustice.
We walked to a nearby cafe and chatted. After a while, I saw a few tall men dressed in black enter the cafe. It did not feel unusual, until it became apparent they were escorting someone: Tutu, now dressed in a black shirt and trousers and a regular jacket, walked in to have breakfast!
He joined another small group on the table next to where my group was seated, and he kept making jokes, laughing hard at them.
As I now watch Christians across India being persecuted, while those staying quiet enjoy a Christmas cake, I remember that morning in Cape Town.
Along with using one’s position to never shy away from questioning injustice, was that humour and open embrace also a necessity to be a world leader of peace? That holy sacrament that Tutu gave me taught me that yes, it meant just that.
(Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist who writes on issues of human rights and justice, from across the world. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)