Bp Sebastian Vaniyapurackal
When is your Episcopal Ordination scheduled for?
It is scheduled for 12th November.
Is there any special reason for choosing that particular date?
There is nothing special about it except that it is the day following the celebration of the beatification of Sr Rani Maria in Ernakulam. It will therefore be convenient for the bishops who may come for the beatification function to participate in my consecration ceremony also. Also it is the earliest day available for the Major Archbishop.
What is the motto that you would like to take?
I have taken my motto from the gospel of St Mark 10:45: To Serve And Not To Be Served.
You are becoming the Curia bishop and in that capacity you are going to help the Major Archbishop. What according to you is the strength and vitality of the Syro-Malabar Church?
I think the strength of Syro-Malabar Church is the good number of vocations, wide participation of people in liturgical celebration, cooperation with the hierarchy and active participation in the parish activities through catechism classes, youth involvement, family apostolate and prayer attitude. We can say the family – family bonds and values – is the main strength of our Church. Since 2000 years we are keeping the faith tradition of Saint Thomas with the cooperation of all in the activities of the Church.
In your opinion, what is now the weakness of the Syro-Malabar Church?
I wouldn’t specify any one thing as the weakness of our Church. Even when we hear something negative about the Church, I think positive, because it motivates us to work for the Church and pray to God to live our faith tradition.
I was not hinting at the failures of some individuals within the Church, which are to be expected when the Church has so many priests and religious. Failure is not a big tragedy at all. But, taking the Church as a whole, where do you find the weaknesses affecting it?
I do not right now find anything of that nature. I can answer that question if it is about any particular subject.
For example, we have lot of retreat centres that promote a lot of religiosity and piety. Do they in any way help to deepen people’s spirituality?
You have raised a valid topic. I think that the people are swayed by this movement. Despite some aberrations in the manner of praying and preaching, we have to admit that they do help to cultivate a prayerful attitude. The negatives of it don’t in any way diminish people’s interest in faith orientation and God orientation. I would prefer to pay attention to only the positive side.
Can a positive attitude be an excuse for overlooking what could be a big problem? All around us, religions are becoming more and more market oriented. Is not today’s pietistic religiosity becoming a sort of business?
In a way you are right. I used to think many times that there is a sort of commercialization in the aspect of sacrament, in its administration and the publicity that is given for retreats and religious activities. I do not support such activities. I think religiosity and prayer attitude should come from within. I do not favour the way retreat preachers’ photos are exhibited and also the grandiose celebrations of the sacraments that accompany retreats.
The Syro-Malabar Church has become very much universalised now with the establishment of new dioceses in different parts of the world. This is mainly due to the migration of our people. Does it represent great progress? How do you see the issue of migrants in the Church now?
One thing very positive about it is that we could reach out to our migrant people. Some of them have migrated many years ago when we did not have a Sui iuris Major Archiepiscopal Church structure. Now the Church is able to reach out to these migrants in a unified way. To be able to give due pastoral care to the faithful is something very positive.
Migrant people are uprooted from the Mother Church, from their soil and culture and placed in an alien land. Wherever they are, they have a longing for home. That is why they carry with them the paraphernalia of traditional festivities. In the Indian context, we hear repeatedly of Ghar Vapsi, return to home. Are the migrant people enacting a Ghar Vapsi and trying to create a home in their place of stay?
I have met with many migrant people outside and all of them have nostalgia and desire to go back to the homeland as early as possible. But their children like to remian in the land where they were born and brought up. We have to make a differentiation between the old generation and the new generation. Therefore what you ask may be valid for the old generation.
In the Indian context Ghar Vapsi is a fundamentalist slogan and it is about getting back to one’s caste, ethnicity and closed community. What is Christianity closer to, going back to ethnicity or the Exodus of a community, which is going where you want to go and getting rooted there, rooted not in the sense of remaining rooted like a tree but getting related to people, cultures and values which are everywhere?
That could have been fine. It is an ideal thing to go there with the missionary motives like the people of the Exodus. We try to give the migrant people the orientation that they have gone to a foreign place not just for studies or job, but to work as missionaries. They should try to evangelize the people around by being witnessing models. I do not know how far our migrant people have this vision. Our people have gone there seeking a good job to earn their livelihood. But it will be good from the part of the pastors who give pastoral care to give this orientation, emphasizing that they have not simply landed there to obtain a job but also to evangelize by leading a model Christian life, and that will be a positive contribution.
In India we are confronted by very strong fundamentalism that is spewing hatred, dividing people and creating animosity among them. How does the Church see it?
All though we hear about these things, they are not exactly true. We are a small minority in India. We have our role to play, to give witness in our own way to the Gospel values in the midst of persecutions, rejections and communal problems. Let us simply discard, ignore and accept them. Take everything positive and try to live our life upholding the gospel values. We need not react to every action of other religions. Let them do as they want. In their heart of hearts, people of other religions respect and love the Christian community for all the services that it has done in many areas, particularly in the education field. Therefore, all these things are helping us to live our Gospel values.
You have gone to receive Fr Tom Uzhunnalil who volunteered to work in an extremely risky area. Some thirty or forty years back so many of our young girls and boys went to different parts of India and even abroad. They have been working wonders in the name of humanity, justice, brotherhood and spirituality. Do you think that the missionary thrust has dampened?
This missionary thrust was always there in the Syro-Malabar Church in one way or other. Like the old missionaries, there are also many now who, like Fr Uzhunnalil, is involved in risky missionary activities. I have met many of them. Therefore the missionary zeal has not yet gone down in youngsters. Sr Rani Maria and Fr Tom Uzhunnalil are proof of the zeal that was kindled in the hearts of our children.
Kerala is perhaps oversaturated with priests and nuns. Do you think the religious life now is tottering, not knowing what to do? Is there an identity crisis in the religious life within the Syro-Malabar Church?
I don’t see any such crisis. But if it is there, we have to encourage and motivate people to embrace the religious life. All priests, brothers and sisters are very sincere and hard working. We all measure or evaluate the effect of our missionary activities by means of success in the secular context. When we work for Christ, sincerity is the mother of salvation. They all work with dedication and the common people see and appreciate it. They are producing much fruit, helping the Church to go in the right direction.
Please share with us some of your biographic details?
I hail from St Antony’s parish, Nirmalagiri, in the diocese of Kanjirapally. I was born and brought up there. My mother passed away three years ago and my father is ninety-three years old. I am the eighth of nine children. My elder brother Fr George, the fourth one, is right now working in the United States. I did my school studies in Mundakayam and Peruvanthanam. I had my minor seminary studies in Podimattam, Kanjirappally. I did both my Philosophy and Theology at St Thomas Apostolic Seminary, Vadavathoor. For higher studies I was sent to Holy Cross University, Rome, and I have obtained doctorate in Canon Law. I was first appointed as assistant parish priest at St George Forane Church, Kattappana, for two years and then later diocesan director of Yuvadeepti – youth apostolate – for five years. I was parish priest in four places Pazhaya Koratty, Poomattam, Chennakkunnu and Mulamkunnu. I have worked also as Judicial Vicar of the Eparchy of Kanjirappally and then for the last three years I was Vice Chancellor of the Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal curia at Mount St Thomas, Kakkanad.
What is in the life of Christ that has inspired you so much?
I am attracted both by the teachings and life of Jesus. Particularly I am enamoured of the service aspect of Christ. He came to serve the people and His advice was “I have come to serve and not to be served.” In the coat of arms I have included the picture of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This is a sign that reminds us that we all have to be ministers and servants of Christ. One general criticism of priests and bishops is that we have raised ourselves to another grad. I do not find any meaning in that. When we have become ministers, we must see how humbly we can serve other people in our speech, in our dealings, in our food style, in our travelling etc. Everywhere let us try to be ministers who cherish the teaching, life style and the service mindedness of Jesus.
What is prayer for you and why do you pray?
I always pray to make me faithful to Christ in all aspects. God has called me in spite of my weaknesses. Therefore, in all the appointments I was given, I had a sort of anxiety and lack of confidence. In all those moments, God has encouraged me in prayer saying, “Be faithful, I am with you and don’t be afraid.” When I read the Bible, I am encouraged by the words especially of Moses, Jeremiah and Isaiah which tell me that, although I am weak and have my own inabilities, God will strengthen me and guard me.