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MAPUSA, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - Catholic priests in the traditionally Catholic stronghold of Goa are endorsing a syncretistic festival that recasts the Blessed Virgin Mary as a Hindu goddess.
During a local festival known as "Our Lady of Miracles," celebrated on the third Monday of Easter, clergy from St. Jerome's Church in the town of Mapusa, erect an image of Mary for Hindus to worship by bathing the statue in oil. The festival is being revived after a 13-year hiatus.
Hindu worshippers of "Milagres Saibinn" (Our Lady of Miracles) believe that Mary is a Hindu goddess who originally bore the name of the goddess Mirabai but was converted to Christianity by the Portuguese missionaries.
Milagres (or Mirabai) has a sister, the Hindu goddess Lahirai, who resides in the temple at Shirgao around 15 kilometers away and is worshipped by the same Hindus who revere Mary as a Hindu goddess.
The local myth on which the festival is based holds that Mary and Lahirai are part of a family of seven divine sisters. The other five who are worshipped in other parts of Goa are identified as the Hindu goddesses Mahamai, Kelbai, Adipai, Morzai, and Sita.
Catholics reciprocate by visiting the village of Shirgao and worshipping the idol of Lahirai on the day of her annual festival, which falls on the fifth day of the Hindu month of Vaishaka (April–May). Here, Hindu and Catholic devotees join in a ceremony of walking through fire.
"Both Catholics as well as Hindus of Goa worship Our Lady of Miracles. Hindus believe that she (Milagres Saibinn) is the incarnation of goddess Mirabai, who is the sister of goddess Lahirai," the Amche Goa (Our Goa) Facebook page announced.
The family relationship between Mary and Lahirai is reaffirmed when Milagres, during the Shirgao festival, traditionally sends a basket of jasmine flowers to Lahirai, notes Alexander Henn in Hindu-Catholic Encounters in Goa: Religion, Colonialism, Modernity.
In return, the Hindu priests of the Lahirai temple send a pot of coconut oil on behalf of Lahirai as a gift to her younger sister.
"The formula of the seven divine Hindu sisters, one of whom converts and becomes the Catholic Mary of Mapusa, gives the closest insight into how the local people conceptualize the syncretistic worship of Milagres Saibinn," writes Henn.
Catholic politician Joshua De Souza, a member of Goa's legislative assembly for Mapusa, posted an image of Mary and Lahirai on his Facebook page and announced, "A divine bond: Two sisters bring together two faiths."
Goan Catholic intellectual Óscar de Noronha told Church Militant that he was shocked by the "poor catechesis" and "unjustified tolerance, if not veiled promotion, of this abominable practice" by Goa's clergy acting with the tacit approval of the hierarchy.
In an article published Sunday titled "Mary to Mira: Just a Sound Away?" Noronha noted, "Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not a goddess but a human being, whereas Lahirai, shrouded in legend, is one of the seven sister goddesses to the Hindus."
"From the Catholic perspective, the story is not Mariological," the academic maintained. "Why link a historical personage to a mythological septet? It is therefore gratuitous to put Lahirai on par with Milagres Saibinn."
Blasting the media for syncretism as a marker of social cohesion, Noronha noted that while "unity is desirable and even achievable at the social level, to endeavor to merge institutional identities, unite heterogeneous beliefs and mix up religious doctrines is unacceptable."
Cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote argues that the syncretistic phenomenon between Mary and Lahirai is a result of "the worship of the mother goddess" which "forms a confluential link between Goa's Hindu and Christian cultures."
It is explicitly clear that the veneration of Mary was, for Indians newly converted to Catholicism from multifarious caste groups and sects within the Hindu fold, in profound psychic consonance and continuity with their worship of the Devi, the Mother Goddess, in her various forms — among them Durga, Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Mahakali.
A Catholic lay leader told Church Militant that syncretism had always been deep-rooted in Goan Catholicism since the arrival of St. Francis Xavier as a missionary, but the hierarchy are now promoting it under the guise of inculturation and building community relations.
The lay leader lamented the elevation of Cdl. Filipe Neri Ferrão, archbishop of Goa and the president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, to the Dicastery for Evangelization in April.
Last month, Church Militant reported on significant numbers of Catholics offering flowers, coconuts, fruits, rice, milk, sweetmeats and incense sticks to the idols of Shantadurga Kunkalikarin, a Hindu deity also known as Durga, the goddess of destruction.
Church Militant earlier reported on several priests paying homage to Ganesh idols.
Faithful Catholics rebuked Ferrão in September for downgrading Jesus and promoting a "masonic relativism" by endorsing clergy visits to Hindu idols, Church Militant reported.
Writing in the diocesan magazine Renovação, the newly-created cardinal urged Catholics to "imbibe the perennial values" that the festival of the elephant-headed deity Ganesh celebrates.
The Nirmala Institute of Education, run by the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, even printed invitations calling for the worship of Ganesh ("Shree Ganeshaya Namaha") and asked invitees to "join us to celebrate the festival and seek blessings of the lord [Ganesh]."
In August, Ferrão told Catholics who were scandalized by the funeral Mass offered for LGBT activist Wendell Rodricks that not giving the gay fashion designer a Catholic burial would have triggered an even greater scandal.
Rodricks made history after entering into the first legal same-sex union on Indian soil with his long-term French partner, Jerome Marrel. The "wedding" was conducted at the French embassy under French law.