UK bishop allows pagan Hindu festival to be celebrated on Catholic church grounds
WIMBLEDON, UK, December 4, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – A London Catholic parish allowed a Hindu group to hold a “Diwali” pagan festival in its parish hall next to the church. The local archbishop defended the decision after a parishioner complained, but has also decided to review policy after LifeSiteNews reached out for comment.
On October 12, Sacred Heart Church in Wimbledon hosted the “Diwali Mela” festival which was put on by a group that aims to “promote and encourage” Indian culture. Diwali, called a “festival of lights,” is the most important Hindu religious festival of the year. Key rituals generally include lighting candles and often include worshipping Hindu pagan deities including Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity) and Lord Ganesha (god of intelligence). The Hindu religion holds itself to be the universal religion for the whole world.
Promotional material for the festival in the Catholic parish hall included colorful pictures of Hindu deities and children dressed up as Hindu deities to act out Hindu myths.
A member of the Catholic parish contacted the archbishop of Southwark, John Wilson, one month prior to the event to express concern about the event. In an email obtained by LifeSiteNews, the parishioner wrote: “Ecumenism, dialogue and hospitality notwithstanding, I can’t see how hosting a pagan festival on Church property is not contrary to the First Commandment.” The first of the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses in the Old Testament states: “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” The author of Psalms points out that “all the gods of the pagans are demons” (Psalm 95.5).
“If we ourselves have not faith in Christ and manifest our indifference to paganism by hosting this festival, then we should expect Mass attendance to decline in our country,” the parishioner added.
Archbishop Wilson, responding to the parishioner a week and a half later, indicated that he was satisfied that the event was “cultural” and not “religious” and pointed the parishioner to Church documents about “interreligious dialogue.”
In an email obtained by LifeSiteNews, the archbishop stated: “I have contacted the Parish Priest, Canon John Clark, who offered the following response after seeking clarification from the Hall Secretary: ‘The Mela is a purely cultural event open to all who would like to come along. This is the third Mela and all have been held here without any problems. We have approached the organising committee of the Mela and they have confirmed that it is a cultural not a religious event. They have made a summary of the programme for the day and none of it has a religious element. I enclose a copy of their response for your benefit. As far as I know their Mela is not operated by a commercial company. We have a number of contacts with the Hindu community as they often hold their wedding receptions and birthday parties here.’”
The archbishop continued: “Canon Clark also forwarded to me the response of the person organising the event: ‘Thank you for the call, I am attaching the poster for the event. It’s open to all and is organised for all. Mainly kids’ activities, food stalls and merchandise stalls. Kids’ activities include but not restricted to face painting, henna, and such. Food stalls for a feast of Indian food and non-alcoholic drinks. Merchandise stalls like decorative things for around the house or clothes. There’s no religious programme or activity intended. Actually an afternoon with family to enjoy with kids having fun and eating good food!’”
Archbishop Wilson concluded his letter, stating: “We must always be faithful to Christ and the teaching of His Holy Catholic Church.”
He added: “Alongside this, we must also pursue genuine friendship and dialogue with people of other religious traditions, in the service of the common good, as enunciated in the teaching of the Church and by St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.”
Archbishop Wilson’s response to LifeSite
LifeSiteNews reached out to Archbishop Wilson asking if allowing a pagan religious festival on Church property undermines the Church’s claim that she alone offers the true religion and provides the only path to the Kingdom of God by means of her carrying on the work of Jesus.
The archbishop replied by email:
The Church is committed to proclaiming the fullness of the Catholic Faith in Christ as the Saviour of the world. If I didn’t believe this I would not belong to the Church, nor spend my life trying to be a witness to Christ so that others might also know, love and serve Him. This is not mutually exclusive with seeking to sustain good and friendly relationships with people of different cultures and religions. This sense is expressed in the annual messages for Divali [sic] by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Bishops Conference of India. Indeed, it is often with people of other religious traditions that we find common voice in defending the values of human life and the family.
In this particular situation, there appears to be a disagreement between the organisers of the event, who have hired the hall for the past three years without incident, and the person who raised a complaint this year. There also seems to be a difference concerning the understanding of what is cultural and what is solely and explicitly religious. When I sought clarification from the organisers of this event, I was told: “It’s open to all and is organised for all. Mainly kids’ activities, food stalls and merchandise stalls. Kids’ activities include but not restricted to face painting, henna, and such. Food stalls for a fast of Indian food and non-alcoholic drinks Merchandise stalls like decorative things for around the house or clothes. There’s no religious programme or activity intended. Actually an afternoon with family to enjoy with kids having fun and eating good food!” It was explained that it is called a Diwali Mela, a festival in the sense of a ‘fair,’ rather than an explicit religious celebration. The church hall is available for social and community use and there was not, and should not, be any compromise of any Church property consecrated for divine worship.
LifeSiteNews then asked how the Archbishop would respond to Catholics in the parish and in his diocese who are scandalized by the decision to allow this pagan festival to take place on Church property. He replied:
I have received one formal complaint from a parishioner about the hire of the church hall at Sacred Heart Parish in Wimbledon for a Divali [sic] fair and I am obviously sorry if anyone feels scandalised by this. In this context, the Catholic Church has a profound witness to give in our diverse society. First, to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and the beauty of the Catholic Faith. Second, secure in our identity and mission, to the importance of interfaith friendship, without compromising any truths of that Faith. I want all the parishes in our Diocese to be evangelising communities. I think we do this by positively proposing the truth we hold dear in a way that is respectful and engaging. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us, the Church grows by ‘attraction,’ ‘just as Christ draws all to himself by the power of his love.’ We are currently reviewing the documentation used for the hire of non-consecrated Church property.
The “Diwali Mela” festival, which ran on October 12 as scheduled, is hosted by a group called the “Social Spark Hub.” The group states on its website that it was founded in 2015 to “promote and encourage the Indian Culture” with the primary goal to “help children learn about different customs, religious and cultural beliefs.” This year, the group became part of the “Kailash Narain Mehrotra Foundation,” a registered UK charity. The Foundation states that its charitable object is to “advance religious harmony” specifically by “spreading Sanatan culture and Sanatan religious scriptures” and “encouraging observance and celebration of Hindu festivals.” “Sanatan” is another word for the Hindu belief system. Both "Social Spark Hub" and the “Kailash Narain Mehrotra Foundation” list the same contact phone number on the UK’s Charity Commission website.
Advisor to Archbishop: Hindu deities are ‘just manifestations of the divine’
The parishioner went on to respond to the archbishop’s original email, providing evidence from social media posts by “Social Spark Hub” that the group does, in fact, include a religious dimension to the “Diwali” event, including putting on a play at a previous festival in the same location called a “Ramleela", this particular one depicting the Hindu god Ram's life. The parishioner noted that “Ramleelas” are considered by Hindus to be a religious event in the same way that Christians would consider a Nativity or Passion play to be a religious event.
The parishioner wrote to the archbishop: “We should love the sinner but hate the sin. Hindus violate the First Commandment with their pagan worship, but they are not culpable, because they do not know Christ. We do know Christ, so we are without excuse. We should of course treat all Hindus with the utmost Christian Charity, but this does not mean allowing them to use the Sacred Heart Parish Hall to celebrate Diwali. It cannot be compared with holding a birthday party in the hall.”
The following day, the parishioner unexpectedly received an email from Deacon Jon Dal Din, who appears to have a special role within the archdiocese as advisor on interreligious dialogue. Deacon Dal Din was listed in 2015 as “Director of Westminster’s Interfaith agency.” The email, intended for Archbishop Wilson, appears to have been accidentally sent to the parishioner. The Deacon appears to be responding to the Archbishop’s request for guidance on how to deal with the parishioner’s concerns.
In an email obtained by LifeSiteNews, the deacon told the archbishop: “I think you have far more important things to do than waste time responding to these letters.”
“My understanding of a [Diwali] Mela is that it is an Indian cultural event and celebration, although there may be a religious element involved, in the same way that many people celebrate Chinese New Year and people of all faiths and cultures celebrate Christmas,” the deacon wrote.
“It is interesting how [the parishioner] has highlighted selected texts from the Hindu group and not others. I doubt [the parishioner] read the texts you attached. [The parishioner] quotes Pope Benedict. I fear [the parishioner] has a narrow view of mission, evangelisation, proclamation and dialogue. All must be done in a spirit of Love. Jesus’ new Commandment,” he added.
Deacon Dal Din in his email went on to quote at length a talk Pope Francis gave during his September 2019 visit to Africa where he answered questions about evangelisation and proselytism. During his talk, the Pope said he felt “bitterness” when he was introduced to Catholics who had converted from other religions.
Deacon Dal Din said, “[The parishioner] continues to call Hindus pagans. Well perhaps they are, from [the parishioner’s] perspective, because they are not Christians. [The parishioner] would probably feel the same if Sacred Heart were to offer Iftar to the Muslim community during Ramadan. [The parishioner] does not realise that Hindus believe in one God. Their deities are just manifestations of the divine, as indeed, all humans and creation itself are manifestations of the divine.”
“Allowing Hindus to celebrate Diwali Mela in the Church Hall is part of Dialogue of Life, being a good neighbour. Jesus did not mix only with the virtuous, but with sinners and outcasts. Like Pope Francis he reached out to the poor and those on the peripheries,” he stated later in the email to the archbishop.
Archbishop Wilson’s decision to allow the Hindu festival to run on Church property comes at a time when many Church leaders, including Pope Francis, have signaled that the Catholic Church may not contain the fullness of God’s revelation and may not be the only sure path established by God to reach the Kingdom of Heaven.
In February of this year, the Pope claimed in a joint statement with a Grand Imam that a “pluralism and diversity” of religions is “willed by God.” Despite backlash from concerned Catholics around the world, which included criticism from priests, bishops, and cardinals, the Pope has not recanted this statement. The Pope also alarmed Catholics around the world when he participated in events surrounding the recently concluded Amazon Synod in Rome that included the worship of the pagan idol "Pachamama."