Father Bernard Digal rests in Peace

BHUBANESHWAR, Orissa – The funeral service for Fr Bernard Digal, who died from the injuries inflicted upon him by Hindu extremists two months ago, was held today in the pro-Cathedral-St Vincent Church in Bhubaneshwar (Orissa). The function, which began in sadness and mourning, became a witness of faith and hope.

The Eucharist began at 10.15 am and ended at 12.45. It was celebrated by Mgr Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar. Mgr Thomas Thiruthalil, bishop of Balasore (Orissa), and Mgr Sarat Nayak of Berhampur were present along with more than 150 priests and 3,000 faithful, many streaming in from refugee camps where they have been living since they had flee their villages destroyed by Hindu extremist groups.

Fr Bernard Digal was from Kandhamal district, the area where anti-Christian violence first began on 23 August. Local priests are usually buried in Raikia, one of the many villages affected by the violence. Father Digal’s funeral should have been held in Raikia but for security reasons the diocese opted to celebrate the service in the pro-cathedral of the state capital. And throughout the service police officers and security agents surrounded the church to prevent attacks from Hindu fundamentalists.

The liturgy was largely conducted in the Oriya language with some English. The flute and other musical instruments were played during the ceremony.

“As the service got underway the faces of those present, initially sad and grief-stricken, were transformed, becoming calm and full of faith,” said one witness.

Dressed in his priestly robes in the coffin, Father Bernard still showed in his face the marks of the beating he received, all tumescent and swollen.

On 25 August Hindu fundamentalists beat the priest for hours, leaving him in the forest unconscious and half naked where he was found ten hours later.

Although he was treated first in Mumbai and then in Chennai, the clergyman died in the end from the consequence of a blow to the head and from respiratory failure.

“Father Bernard’s funeral was a living catechesis of Christ’s power, which brings life where death once ruled. In this liturgy we were able to taste peace again after two months of terror,” said one faithful.

“A close relative from his village said that Father Bernard’s death filled her (and Father Bernard’s) entire family with faith in Christ. This deadly event has strengthened the faith of the Digal family as well as that of all Kandhamal,” said Fr Joseph Phillip, director of the regional forum of the Orissa Regional Organisation for Social Action (OROSA).

“I am grieving for the loss of a brother and a dear friend,” said Mgr Sarat Nayak, bishop of Berhampur, who attended seminary with Father Bernard. “But my consolation is that Father Bernard was another Christ, immersed in the passion and death of our Lord. The horrible suffering he endured unites him fully with his Master. The history of Christianity is full of the suffering of the innocent. But this suffering also brings purification to humanity. Father Bernard is not a loser, but a victorious martyr. His sacrifice shall bear fruit for the Church as a whole, especially for his people in Kandhamal.”

Fr Bernard’s remains arrived in Bhubaneshwar yesterday where an autopsy was performed.

The Orissa government has opened an investigation into his death, linking it to the wave of anti-Christian violence that swept Kandhamal district.

Fr Mrutyunjay Digal, secretary of Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, noted that the clergyman’s last words were about forgiveness.

“I met him in Kalinga Hospital a few days after he was attacked. His head and body were dressed and he could hardly move. Yet his words were about forgiveness for the extremists and concern for the fate of his fellow priests and for the parishioners from his area. Now he will take care of Kandhamal from heaven.”

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