English priest buried - after 17 months

Fr Mark Barnes, an English priest who worked with the poor in northern India for 40 years, has finally been buried after a 17-month standoff between the priest's supporters and the local diocese.

The BBC reports that Fr Barnes, who died in February 2005, was mysteriously exhumed amid a controversy between his followers and India's Catholic Church, who regarded him as a renegade.

A dispute over whether the 72-year-old priest should have been buried in an official Catholic cemetery or in the grounds of a convent he set up without the Church's authority dragged on in the courts before the Church bowed to his followers' wishes.

Fr Barnes was the son of a British Army officer, who also served long years in India.

He left his family home in Leicester to return to India in 1964 and chose Punjab's remote border districts of Gurdaspur and Amritsar to work as an independent missionary.

In only a few years, the tall, gentle giant of a man attracted a huge following among the ignored lower castes of the area.

He cleared large tracts of wasteland along the border with Pakistan and handed it over to the landless poor for cultivation. He helped others set up looms to supply Amritsar's then booming textile industry or got them the finances to set up small businesses of their own.

Frustrated by what he saw as the slow bureaucracy of the Catholic Church, Fr Barnes chose to carry out his work on his own and came to be considered as a renegade.

The priest's accidental death, while making cartridges for his shotgun, led to a major row with the Catholic diocese of Jalandhar and his followers staking rival claims to choose his burial site.

While the Church wanted a burial in a cemetery for priests at Jalandhar, the dead cleric's followers buried him in the compound of St Mary's Convent that he had built in Gumtala, a village on the outskirts of the city of Amritsar.

What followed was a bizarre sequence of events during which his body was secretly exhumed by "unidentified persons" the same night and hastily reburied, first in a Muslim graveyard and later in a Hindu funeral ground a few kilometres from St Mary's.

His followers believe that Catholic clerics had brought pressure upon the government of the state of Punjab to have the body shifted with the collusion of the local police so that the Church could take control of the lands Fr Barnes had distributed to the poor and also take over the seminaries and convents he had built.

Fr Barnes's followers managed to regain possession of his coffin and mounted a 24-hour vigil over it while the courts debated the issue.

The stand-off ended only a few weeks ago when the local bishop agreed that a reburial could go ahead at St Mary's.

Christians, Hindus and Sikhs all joined in the tearful ceremony which, significantly, was led by the very Catholic clerics who had so vehemently opposed the man who had become the Punjab's most-loved priest.

"Fr Mark was a great soul and a true friend of all us poor people here," said Kala Massih, a mason who says he owes his very life to the late priest.

Long wait for English priest's burial (BBC News 23/7/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Fr Mark Barnes Foundation

24 Jul 2006