Preaching compassion for the poor, Pope John Paul II held a special prayer meeting tonight on a vast, sandy beach where thousands of fishermen struggle for existence against the advent of modern fishing trawlers that are depriving them of their already meager livelihood.
Standing on an ornate red, white and gold pagoda-like rostrum, the pope told a crowd of more than 100,000 who gathered at the Shangumugham Beach that "in the messianic Kingdom of Christ, the poor and the suffering have a very special place."
"The church excludes no one from her compassion and loving service," the pope said, as a gentle breeze rippled his white cassock. "Like a good mother she loves all: children, youth, the aged, the workers, the homeless, the hungry, the handicapped, the spiritually deprived and those who recognize their sinfulness and so experience through her the healing touch of Christ."
The pope skirted the controversial issue of involvement by some radical Catholic priests in organizing the poor, low-caste fishermen into cooperatives to struggle against the richer, higher-caste fishing trawler owners. The priests, mostly Jesuit, have based their involvement in such a touchy social and political issue on the liberation theology whose "excesses" the pope has criticized in Latin America, where it originated.
The only vague reference to liberation theology was a mention that "material development too often serves only to intensify" inequality.
The pope in his 10-day tour of predominantly Hindu India repeatedly has appealed for a Christian-Hindu dialogue and understanding, seeking to allay the fears expressed by militant Hindus that he was coming to India to convert Hindus to Catholicism. Nevertheless, the pope aroused no small bit of Hindu resentment tonight with his prayer meeting at the Shangumugham Beach, which is revered by Hindus.
Local Hindu missions in Trivandrum heatedly have protested the erection of the Papal pagoda on the beach because the site chosen was close to the holy site used annually for the former maharajah of Travancore's annual ritual bath in the sea.
The Hindus fear that the Catholics will not dismantle the papal pagoda they built on the spot for the pope's prayers but will seek to preserve it as a Christian shrine that will defile their own revered beach.
"The government has said that the Christians have given their promise in writing that they will dismantle the rostrum," said R.K. Ramanaguam, a Hindu schoolteacher. ". . . We do not believe them and that will be an insult to our religion."
As Pope John Paul II moves through this southeast Indian state of Kerala, the most Catholic of provinces in this Hindu nation, a recurrent message in his discourses has been one of unity of Christians, who remain a small minority of the population.
There was a good reason for his insistence on the need for Christian unity and reconciliation here in tropical Kerala, the alleged landing point of St. Thomas the Apostle, who Indian Catholics claim first brought the religion to India in 52 A.D. The pope could hardly have found a place where Christianity and Catholicism are so hopelessly fragmented.
Not only is Christianity divided into Catholicism and half a dozen Protestant sects, but there are three separate divisions among the followers of the pope himself, and two Orthodox sects who swear their allegiance to the patriarch of Antioch in what today is Syria.
What separates all these religions are ancient disputes that reflect the schismatic history of Christianity in its early centuries: the arcane theological arguments over the nature of Christ, more recent arguments about what rites the church should use and whether the liturgy should be in the ancient Syriac of its introduction to India, the Latin liturgy forced on the original Catholics by Portuguese Jesuits in the 16th century or the local Malayalam language used today.
"We are all one," said Thomas Ninan, a local professor of zoology watching the Trivandrum mass, "but we all have our differences."
Coming into the city of Cochin yesterday, the pope was greeted by an outright commercialization of his visit.
Among the banners, signs and billboards that lined his route in and around the city, there were hundreds that used the occasion to advertise local banks, gas stations, hotels, tea traders, soft drink makers, textile companies and other commercial enterprises.
The most prevalent of these commercial greetings read: "A breezy welcome to His Holiness Pope John Paul II." It was signed by a local manufacturer -- "Polar -- The Super Fan."
A regional television manufacturer's adversisement in the Indian Express newspaper today showed one of its television sets with the pope's image on the screen. It read: "Blessed are those who own a Kelvish color TV, for they can watch the pope better than others."