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By Albert Thyrniang
On October 11 last, the people of Shillong, Meghalaya and thousands others woke up to the shocking news, on social media of the tragic death of Rev, Dominic Jala SDB DD, Archbishop of Shillong, in a car crash in USA along with Father Mathew Vellankal, an Indian priest working in the States. The exact spot of the accident was at Colusa County, Oakland, California. As this writer was in the state capital one could sense the pall of gloom that descended on the city and the state. The initial reaction of unbelief gave way to pain and grief as the sudden demise was confirmed by competent authorities. Unfortunately the anguish prolongs as the mortal remains could take three to four days to arrive for an expected highly emotional burial.
Born on July 12, 1951, in Shillong Meghalaya, Dominic was ordained a Salesian priest for on November 19, 1977. After serving a professor in Mawlai Theological college, Mawlai and Rector of Don Bosco Technical School, Shillong he was elected as provincial of the Province of Guwahati before the Pope appointed him Archbishop of Shillong on December 22, 1999 to succeed his predecessor, Archbishop Tarcisius Resto Phanrang. His episcopal ordination was on April 2, 2000.
Condolences are pouring in. Tributes are being created. Images and videos are being shared. Qualities of the late religious leaders are being enumerated. His life is being researched. Facebook, Whatsapp and other social media platforms are flooded with all of the above. Televisions too telecast the tragic death. Thanks to modern technology information is quick and fast.
To me the former Archbishop was a universal man. Before citing some examples to drive home my point let me share with all readers the article in the Telegraph dated 20 Dec 2002 by one Roger Highfield titled, “DNA survey finds all humans are 99.9pc the same”. This is no doubt amazing. A team of scientists analysed DNA of 1,056 people from 52 populations in five major geographic regions of the world: Africa, Eurasia (Europe, the Middle East, Central and South Asia), East Asia, Oceania and the Americas and found that all humans are 99.9 per cent identical and the difference is a tiny 0.1 per cent. Rev. Dominc Jala was surely blessed with this outlook.
Born in Mawlai, he certainly benefited from his Salesian formation, first in Savio Juniorate where he mingled with boys from all over the North East. Later in Sonada, Darjeeling for philosophical studies, in Bangalore for theological studies and then in Rome for his doctorate broadened his horizons. The Salesian Society which he served in various capacities including as Vice-Provincial and Provincial and the Archdiocese of Shillong benefited from his universal outlook.
The late Archbishop was an international figure, not merely in person but in spirit. As Chairman of the CCBI Commission for Liturgy and member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) he travelled widely within and outside the country. He was the face of the Church in Meghalaya in India and the North East abroad. He spoke Italian and German fluently. He translated speeches for the Pope into English. He also spoke Nepalese and Garo, languages which he learned as a student and teacher. Perhaps even his death is a living testimony of his universal attitude. He died along with a friend, a non-Khasi and a non-tribal. His trusted friends were, in fact ‘ethnically and linguistically different’ from him. Without in any way discarding his own roots he appreciated and accepted differences. Uncompromisingly and firmly grounded in his own identity he readily embraced other races, languages, regions and even religions. He understood that external differences are merely accidental while the essence is fundamentally the same.
Humility is the next strong point of the late leader whom we all mourn. He was visibly uncomfortable with the glamorous attires and clothing of a bishop. Given a choice he would have preferred to be without the Miterand – the red cap on his head and the ring on his finger. He would prefer people not kissing his ring. He saw them as symbols of clericalism. In fact, except on solemn occasions he was without them. He was quite often seen in shirt and trousers.
Stories are told of him in Kerela. As a Provincial and even as Archbishop he visited families, dined with them and even spent nights in their houses. He mightily enjoyed their food and company, joking and laughing as heartily and possible. He visited them as an ordinary person. They thought he was an ordinary priest/brother who came along with their priest sons/brothers. On being told that he was a Provincial and later an Archbishop they could not believe their eyes. They had never seen an archbishop casually visiting their homes totally in contrast with his ‘kingly’ high ranked counterparts elsewhere. Humility and simplicity was his trade mark.
On the morning when the sad news broke, this writer visited a family. Unexpectedly the mother was a childhood friend of the deceased. They were neighbours and went to school and played together as kids. She made known her concerns post the ‘Jala era’. Accepted that his successor might not match his stature but her apprehensions are something else. She started with the question, “How long will it will take to get a new archbishop’? Others followed it up with, ‘Why is Nongstoin taking so long to get a new ‘shepherd’? ‘Why, when an international figure was temporarily appointed as bishop of Jowai the clergy refused to welcome him’. Is the Church a universal entity? Pertinent questions ordinary Christians ask. Who is there to answer?
During this mourning period it might not be appropriate to be critical. But whether you like it or not it is in the lips of common people. Parochialism among the clergy is despicable. If the Church in the South is cursed with casteism, regionalism and linguistic differences, the church in Meghalaya and perhaps, the North East is gripped with parochialism, groupism and politics. The diocesan clergy is against the Religious Congregations and vice versa. Even within the religious groups tribals are against non-tribals and the other way around. Even in institutions that impart theological and biblical knowledge ugly divisions exist among their leaders. They concentrate on petty non-issues. They spend their time in gossip and fault finding, back biting and even revenge taking. A lay person told me, “There is more politics in the Church than in politics itself”. Wow!
Late Archbishop Jala stayed away from controversies. This was seen by some as non-involvement of the Church in the society and non-exercise of prophetic responsibilities. During the days of militancy, the IPL, CAB and numerous other agitations, the Archbishop was largely silent. However, people in the know say that the bishop was not indifferent to social, economic and political situation of the state. He was not blind to the issues that affect the people of the state. He was not cold to violence. He was not uncaring about the suffering of the underprivileged. Political leaders testify he offered wise advice on various issues and matters concerning the state.
The Archdiocese of Shillong, the people of Meghalaya, the Church of North East, the entire country and the world will miss bishop Dominic Jala. His legacy will live long. The lessons we should learn from this international citizen are loud and clear. May his soul rest in peace!