To The Peripheries of Latin America and Africa

Light of truth


Paul Achandy CMI

You are now in charge of the CMI congregation as its Superior General; what is the direction you would want to give to the congregation?
In the last General Synaxis, the CMI congregation decided on its mandate for the next six years, with a thrust on CMI charism and the prophetic call for global mission. The previous three chapters had taken us to a global mission approach, because we do have enough priests and religious, especially in Kerala and other parts of India. Right now, the Indian Church has a global mandate. We sense that we have comparatively more number of priests. There are a number of places where people are not in a position to even receive the sacraments at the right time. So we wanted to take up this issue, especially in the present context in which we have been receiving lot of invitation from Latin American and African countries. So we have taken up this great challenge of global mission. Our congregation is now very clear about the need for every CMI member and community to be deeply spiritual, to be proactive in our commitment to the poor, to take up the challenging mission of reaching out to families by living the legacy of Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara and to make our presence stronger in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

You have specifically made a mention about prophetic mission. What do you mean by a prophetic call?
Prophetic call, in a sense, is reading the signs of the time, making the right discernment and responding creatively to the challenges. Prophets are guided by the Spirit and they have been always a step ahead of the times. Prophecy could be hard and soft. Hard prophecy will make their presence felt by questioning the status quo and opposing structures and posing challenges to the establishments in order to bring justice. Soft prophets will not make much of outcry, but their life and mission become standing witness to challenges and necessary changes in the society. More than blaming anybody or finding fault with everybody, they want themselves to be a solution. St Kuriakose Elias Chavara relied on the providence of God and responded creatively through his very life and mission. If we are not part of the solution, we become part of the problem. He read the signs of the time at a moment in history, made all efforts to build and strengthen the Church and accordingly reinvented the Church in Kerala. He himself had been a missionary, involved in the life of the Church, concerned about the poor people in society. We are trying to redefine ourselves in the light of the legacy we have received from St Chavara. We identified four critical thrusts on which we should focus: being deeply rooted in CMI communitarian Charism; commitment to the poor and the marginalized; renewal of families after the model of St Chavara; and proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth. The last two thrusts, renewal of families and proclaiming the Gospel have got much more emphasis, especially among the younger generations. Our young generation members are keen to go to distant lands and to take up tough missions, for example on the banks of Amazon in the Diocese of Santarem, Brazil. Eight young CMIs priests from seven provinces are working together. One good thing about the young generation is that they have more an inclusive attitude and approach. They are ready to cross borders and work together with people from any province or any place or with any kind of people. Secondly, they were given a choice to be in a town or the outskirts. All chose to be on the outskirts. And now from the city of Santarem, where the Diocese has its headquarters, they have to travel by boat for twenty-four hours, and to reach Santarem from their capital city Sao Paolo, they have to change two flights: they opted for farthest and toughest regions, as they know well that there are not many from among the priests in the diocese who would make such options. Due to lack of priests, people couldn’t get the Church’s service. In one place, when they visited, there were children of seven and eight years of age who had not received baptism: simply because, no priest had reached them over a period of last seven or eight years!

In how many Latin American countries are you there now?
We are right now in Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

Do you visit these mission stations?
Of course, when I visit a country, I do make it a point to meet with all our missionaries in their context. Hence, I visit all mission stations and it is indeed a great learning experience; it gives me a clear picture of the impact of our CMI missionaries have made in and around the area of their missionary involvement. Our members mostly work in distant peripheries of the dioceses where there is a genuine need for missionaries. In all the Latin American countries, people are so affectionate and warm and they are really hungry and thirsty for the experience of God and service of the priests and religious. At present, we have more than 40 members working in Latin American countries.

What is the real issue with Catholic life in the Latin American countries?
They were Catholics, but now they have to be re-evangelized to some extent. There has been a decline in priestly vocations. The harvest is plenty, but there are no labourers. That is the context in which the Latin American Church exists, especially in interior areas. In the cities we do have priests from Latin American countries themselves, but they have no priests to take care of people living in remote areas. Our members prefer to work in those places.

Do you see a lot of injustice and marginalization in Latin America?
Exploitation of the poor is a global phenomenon and in most of the Latin American countries it is indeed very strong. As we know, Liberation Theology arose there in that context of injustice. In pastoral ministry, we have a lot of issues like exploitation by the rich, environmental degradation, land and forest exploitation, etc., to tackle. But, right now, we restrict ourselves to taking care of people’s basic pastoral needs. We are hardly able to administer the sacraments once or twice a month. People don’t have a chance even to meet a priest for their wedding. People live scattered in remote places. So, the situation in Latin America is totally different from the one we are used to here.

Do you think that Latin America is a kind of slum existing at USA’s backyard?
It need not be exclusive to the USA, because these countries were European colonies, mostly Spanish and Portuguese. The medium of language is either Spanish or Portuguese. Till recent times, many Latin Americans found asylum in the US and we find Spanish as the second language there. Like any capitalist, the US too may have its share of economic domination. Ecuador has adopted American dollar as its currency. They turn to the US for their future.

Why don’t they get vocations there?
There are vocations, but not proportionately enough. Good vocation can come only from solid families that promote faith formation. Families are in crisis and there are challenges of divorces, separated couples, single parents and a lot of more such family issues. The cases of live-in-relationships and other issues of deviations in moral life do pose real threat. There are opportunities to get into all kinds of relationships from a very young age. So, vocation to priestly and religious life is very challenging when religious life is very demanding. To have religious life in an ambience where family life itself is at risk is very difficult.

Are the priests working there able to get into solving the socio economic and cultural problems of the people? Are they concerned only with the daily pastoral, sacramental issues?
Right now we are more concerned with the spiritual services through pastoral care we give to the people. Since there are not enough priests to administer sacraments, our present focus is on building up communities and making them united through pastoral care. However, we are also slowly getting into addressing social concerns as well. For example, along with the earthquake in Ecuador, we started a few empowerment programs for the poor and charity programs. We have not yet entered into social and political movements. As foreigners, we should be very careful in dealing with social issues that have political overtones. So, we concentrate on pastoral needs in the initial stage along with the works of charity.

How do the young people who go as missionaries to Latin America, Africa, and other countries having different cultures enjoy it? What inspires them to take risks?
As you know, the young people like challenges, risks and adventures. The emerging young members in the CMI congregation are more outward focused and are ready to move to tough terrains. We are by nature missionary and mobility has been always our winning currency. Being religious, we are supposed to go to places where others are scared to enter. The religious call is about listening to the cry of the people and reaching out to them. As a congregation we have grown in every direction. The CMI congregation, though started in 1831, in terms of membership, we were less than 300 until 1950. But, when we took up missions in North India – Chanda, Sagar, Jagdalpur, Rajkot, Bijnor and other missions outside of India – from 300 we became almost 1,000 by 1993. Now we are moving almost into two thousand. Only when we take up new missionary initiatives, the Church grows; simultaneously, the congregation also grows. The best remedy for a sick Church is to put it on missionary diet. It appears that the Church gets suffocated with too many bishops, priests and religious in India, especially in Kerala. The harvest is plenty, labourers shall be few; only then we will pray to the Lord for more labourers. When the labourers are plenty and the harvest is less, there is a crisis and it will beget further crises inside and outside the Church.

You have six mission dioceses in India. The willingness to go to other places, not minding the risks, takes missionaries on an adventurous journey of life. How do you see the six dioceses flourishing in India and the mission thrust that is being exercised there? Do you see a dampening of Indian missionary work?
There are different ways to look at it. We have made pioneering efforts not only in the so-called 6 mission dioceses where first bishops were CMIs but also in different dioceses in India. Of course, being recognized for our efforts in High ranges and Malabar in Kerala or in other parts of the country is not a big reward; but historical facts shall be recognized. The religious are expected to be pioneers and after the pioneering work the dioceses were established in the mission territories. Now it is up to the authorities to capitalize on the strength of the religious rather than treating them as a threat or a disturbance factor. Now even our mission provinces have moved to Latin America, Africa and other countries like Nepal in Asia. I am not worthy to make a judgment on the missionary work of the whole Church in India, but much more is to be done in the challenging times.

Is the religious culture of India undergoing a change now? Are mission activities becoming very difficult?
We do face difficulties in most of our North Indian missions. At the same time, challenges are in God’s plan to break our comfort zones and to recapture the original missionary momentum and drive. Our first and most successful missionary adventure in Chanda had a great missionary philosophy. In line with the thinking of Pope Francis, Mar Januarius, the first bishop of Chanda, evolved a mission philosophy, namely, ‘from peripheries to the centre.’ He challenged the pioneering young missionaries to go to the peripheries. His was a missionary adventure. Our pioneers didn’t know the language and the culture of the place. It was almost like taking a plunge into the unknown, but they had the passion and fire within. And they made a lot of difference there. Many were baptized in Chanda and Adilabad Dioceses. Missionary work in the Hindi heartland is not very easy. Still we had some success in Chhattisgarh, especially in Jagdalpur. The preaching ministry has been blocked to some extent in the Hindi speaking states of North India. We encounter a lot of opposition from Hindutva forces. Right now, some of these dioceses have good vocation to religious life and priesthood.

You also ventured into Africa. How is your work going on there? How many priests do you have there?
In Africa, right now we have 86 members including 62 priests and 24 brothers. Presently we reach out to Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, Namibia, Madagascar and Botswana. We will begin our new mission in Uganda shortly. We started our Kenyan mission in 1982 and right now we have more than 30 priests in Kenya. Seven Kenyan priests are there in our congregation. They are doing good mission work. We also have formation houses and novitiates there. In all our missions, we want to take local candidates and train them. Our priests had the fortune of baptizing a huge number of people, more than two lacks in Kenya. We have education institutions and social centres. We have taken up rehabilitation of differently-abled, retreat preaching and teaching in the seminary. We have all kinds of activities in Madagascar and Ghana too. In Namibia, we administer and teach in the national seminary for the Namibian Church. Namibian Catholic Bishops’ Conference has entrusted it to us and we take care of the formation of priests in Africa.

How do you describe Church life in African countries? What is the real problem you face there?
We have a very receptive Church there and it is indeed people’s Church with high level of people involvement. The people are very dynamic, active and welcoming towards the Church. But ethnic problems are there in plenty; that is the challenge. We had issues like missionaries being hit by certain groups. Our houses were looted. Once, the car in which two priests were travelling to the bishop’s house was taken away. They were taken to the forest and tied on to a tree. They were deprived of everything. In Africa, looting is part of life. A gang of 30 to 50 people come and just break your house and take away everything. You are helpless, because they have the support of the police. One of our priests suffered severe head injury, but that did not frighten any of our priests into quitting the mission and returning home. They are very happy to be there. That kind of passion remains and the pastoral satisfaction they get from the African mission is very high. To be a priest in Africa has been a very happy experience for them. So, they all stay back.

How do they cope with the climate there?
The climate, food habits and culture are very different from ours. But, despite that, they love the missionary work since they breathe missionary air with passion for the Lord. The impact they have created in a short span of time is substantial. Our members are really honoured and respected by the people, even by the national governments. We have our unique ways of connecting with the people, especially families, and taking care of their needs. Our priests are known among the people for their unassuming availability and their ability to reach out to their homes. So, we are more contented than a priest sitting in an office. Generally, people love our approach. We regularly send a few of our brothers there for regency (practical training). Some of the faithful associated with them come all the way from Africa to Kerala to attend their ordinations. Even when one of our priests who had worked in Africa died, people came all the way from Kenya and South Africa to attend his funeral. People loved them to that extent. “The mark of a great Church is not its seating capacity, but its sending capacity” (Mike Stachura).

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