Pope John Paul II ended his 10-day trip through India today with a final outdoor mass in this northern Maharashtra city considered a hotbed of radical, anti-Christian Hinduism. The trip ended as it began -- low-keyed, with sparse crowds and a noticeable reserve on the part of the majority of the population.
There had been fears, and a few threats, of antipapal demonstrations, as occurred in New Delhi on Feb. 1 when the pope arrived from Rome. But John Paul's three-hour visit to the Papal Athenaeum Seminary on the outskirts of Poona passed without incident, even though some walls in the city center had been painted with inscriptions such as "Go back, pope."
In Poona, known as one of the birthplaces of Indian nationalism as well as the birthplace of the Hindu fanatic who killed nationalist leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, the turnout to see the pope on the five-mile road from the airport was small -- made up mostly of schoolchildren on their way to classes, curious residents on the route and the unemployed, who are to be seen along the roadsides in much of India.
About 10,000 faithful gathered for the mass on the grounds of the seminary, and many of them drifted away before it ended.
John Paul addressed his remarks particularly to the future priests studying at the seminary. He spoke of the importance of their mission, while delivering a mild warning against priests getting involved in political activism, as have some priests organizing the poor in southern India.
"The church's ministers are not called to play leadership roles in the secular spheres of society," he said. "You may be tempted to emulate the secular leadership because of its growing attractiveness in society today. You may at times feel irrelevant because your call is specifically spiritual. It is therefore urgently necessary for you to be convinced of the precious value of your vocation from God."
The pope did not repeat his call, made at other stops in India, for a new dialogue with India's Hindus and other non-Christian religions, whose adherents make up the vast majority of India's 745 million inhabitants. He ignored the resentment that his visit has stirred among the city's Hindus.
But at the headquarters of the militant Hindu nationalist party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh -- popularly known as RSS -- workers readily acknowledged that their party was opposed to the papal visit. They said that Christians in India had sought to weaken the dominant Hinduism in the nation by trying to convert them to Christianity, often insulting their Hindu culture and traditions.
"Christian missionaries are largely involved in antinational activities," said Shatyajit Josh, a party worker. He blamed the missionaries' Christianization of animist tribesmen for separatist movements such as one in Nagaland, along the Burmese border.
"The problem with Christianity is one of conversions," Josh said. "They are seeking to turn their converts against us."
S.S. Nik, a retired police officer here, said that what still causes bad blood between Christians and Hindus is "the memory of how Christians behaved during the days of the Raj," the long British colonial rule over India before independence in 1947. "You have to understand the political background of our fears of the Christians, how they behaved, how they defiled our temples, our customs -- the massacres."
Despite such fears, Nik said, the RSS in Poona at least had not staged demonstrations against the pope as did its branches in Delhi. About 400 persons were detained there and in several other cities Feb. 1 for protesting the pope's arrival in India.
Since that first day there have been no more open protests, although the pope's reception by some Hindu dignitaries was reserved. In Madras for example, 300 religious leaders and personalties were invited to meet with the pope, but 100 failed to reply to the invitations. Of those who did, only about 50 agreed to attend, and church officials filled out the gathering with lesser figures. In his talks during the past 10 days, John Paul's message to the Hindus has been a call for understanding, tolerance, respect for religious freedom for all and dialogue.
It is a dialogue that many Hindus said they want to see better defined. A group of Hindu leaders published an open letter to the pope in the Indian Express newspaper when he arrived in Cochin, in Kerala State, last week. It said: "For religious tolerance to be effective and genuine, it must be mutual, not unilateral. We are awaiting from your holiness a declaration from you affirming the validity of all religions as a path to know God."