I worked in Odisha for 31 years, in Ethiopia 17 years and now back in Kerala for nearly 10 years.
I was studying for Civil Engineering when I came into contact with the CST fathers from whom I got the inspiration for my vocation. At the confessional, the late Fr. Jacob Kallarackal CST, who later became superior general of the congregation, advised me that I should live for Jesus. I had a lot of economic as well as other difficulties at home, but, somehow, I overcame them and went to the mission. My elder brother was already a novitiate in a mission area. That also made me think about becoming a missionary. My parents had fostered high expectations on me. They wanted me to become a civil engineer and help the family. They were greatly disappointed on hearing about my plan to go to the missions. But they were good Catholics and so did not discourage me from becoming a priest. My mother especially supported me saying, “if God calls you, go. We will manage the home some way or other.” And they did manage of course.
When you look back at your missionary life both in Orissa as well as in Ethiopia and now back in Kerala, how far has life taken you to the fulfillment of your aspirations?
I am satisfied even though I had some disappointments and frustrations. I had wanted to go for higher studies, but somehow that did not materialise. Later events proved that it was God’s will that instead of going for higher studies I had to dedicate my life to mission work and institutions. I also did some teaching in the seminary in subjects like Latin, English and Philosophy. I found satisfaction in that.
My life was what I gave to the people of Orissa. I celebrated mass in villages, heard confession and baptized people. I was happy working there. Oriyas taught me that I should become a good priest, and it is what they expected of me over any other quality. Whenever I was not up to the mark, they commented on it. Even though they themselves had drawbacks as Christians, they expected Catholic priests to be for the people, live a life of prayer and be good examples. To some extent, they influenced my thinking and life.
I was looking after hostels twice, worked in three parishes as parish priest and in the mission field as mission superior. I did what I could. I built a church, some chapels and other infrastructures. I used to go to preach retreats in Oriya language. As you may know, now I am in charge of the Oriya migrants in Kerala. I stay in our study house in Aluva in Kerala. I go to Palissery, Perumbavoor, Mampra and other places where Oriyas are concentrated and bring them together. I can speak Oriya fluently without much difficulty. I say Oriya Mass for them, and they do appreciate me for that.
I was not doing great things, but by living an ordinary priestly life I could guide the people and I help them.
My thrust was one of serving baptised Christians and catechumens. Non-Christiansas such were not actually accessible. I didn’t have the charism of my brother, who was an apostle for the adivasi people. Mine was one of consolidating their faith by regular visits to Catholic villages, living some time with them, administering sacraments and teaching catechism, songs etc.
Harijans are clever people and live a carefree life. I know their mentality, and so was aware what they expected from me. In the same way, when I meet Adivasis Christians or Catholics I know their attitude, what they are and what they expect from me.
Most of the Harijans do not have cultivable lands as such. The Adivasis belong to the primitive tribes of Odisha. Harijans are numerically stronger in Odisha, neighbouring Jharkhand etc. We have bishops from among them, and now at least three of them are my students.
Both groups are very useful for the Church. There is more stability among the Adivasi Christians, whereas Harijans are more active, business minded and know how to manage emerging situations. What I find among the missionaries in general is that there is a lessening of missionary thrust in terms of going to the non-Christians and preaching to them, as European missionaries did. It is true that in the beginning people were attracted by material benefits, but slowly they appreciated our religion and became Christians. At present, the Harijan or adivasi priests and bishops have the difficulty of gaining acceptance from the local community, because they point a finger to their roots and say, this fellow is from here, we know who is his father and mother. So there is no much admiration for them among the local people.
They have that feeling even now.
Yes, they do face that difficulty.
Yes, it is true.
The Kandhamal unrest proved that they were looked down upon and were frightened by their own neighbours, who collaborated to persecute the Catholics and other Christian denominations. But, despite the shortcomings in their life style as Christians, it proved how strong they are in their faith. They in fact died for their faith. They would never leave Jesus Christ for Rama or Krishna or any Hindu God. They are ready to die for Christ.
My hope is that the Oriya Church will surely grow in spite of persecution. Despite so many people and priests leaving the Church, isn’t she going ahead and becoming stronger?
The main thing about Odisha is that it has people of two levels; one is the upper caste Hindus, namely Brahmins, and the others are the many lower castes. The upper castes are the ruling people, and if any minister has come up from among them, it is because of the Christian education they had received. Christian influence has helped them, especially in North Odisha.
There is a lot of difficulty for people of the upper castes to accept Christians as equals. When Graham Stain was killed, we witnessed how his wife and other Christian people reacted, but still there is that clash of complexes, superiority versus inferiority.
It will happen slowly through education and social work, as Mother Teresa and all other missionaries did. Some change will come about.
I spent seventeen full years there.
Actually, I was confined to seminary life. I was rector in the diocesan seminary and our congregation’s major seminary. The Ethiopian culture is Christian even though thirty or forty percent out of the eight crores of people are Muslims.
There the Church is mostly Orthodox, and so the Orthodox culture is prevailing there. They are not very open to any change as such. The Church is more clergy centred. At the government level there is a national assembly which is composed of almost 800 representatives. In that assembly, which is a law making body, there are many bishops and many prominent Christians. The Orthodox Church is considered as the official Church of Ethiopia.
The Church has influence through the Vatican embassy and the religious congregations. We have very many good English medium schools. In Addis Ababa itself there are four or five schools. Through Educational systems we have influence at the government level. They want that our schools accept their children and teach them. They prefer to go to the Catholic convent schools. In Addis Ababa the best school is run by the congregation of the daughters of the Heart of Mary.
One thing that I learned is that they have deep faith in Our Lady and they are attached to her. Second is that they have got a culture of monasticism. There are lots of vocations among the girls as well as the boys. Monasticism is one of the characteristics of Orthodox Church. So the Catholics have inherited that. There are many candidates for becoming Catholic priests, but they have a problem with regard to celibacy. Orthodox priests are married, and that is the main trend. Only those who aspire to become bishops remain celibate. There is appreciation for priesthood and monasticism. Very strict form of fasting is one of their important features.
About that I’m not too sure. It is their custom to fast. For them fasting or abstinence is an oriented ritual. Whether it is making them more humane, that I cannot say, because there is not much of that visible. The Orthodox Church as such doesn’t have the charism of going out to, to help suffering people. There are The Mother Teresa sisters have 15 convents in Ethiopia serving various groups of people, including AIDS patients, and there are also brothers of Missionaries of Charity working there. That kind of going out to the less fortunate people and establishing foundations for helping them are rarely found among the Orthodox Christians.
Yes, that is it.
In the Catholic clergy, because of our training and contacts with foreign missionaries, especially sisters from Kerala and other parts of India, there is a great change in the mentality in favour of helping the less fortunate: the sick, the orphans, the aged, the lamed and disabled. Among the emerging Catholic clergy and sisters, there is a tendency of going out to the people in the periphery. That I have noticed.
I have improved my vision of humanity to see others as my brothers and sisters. Earlier I was used to narrow thinking. When I hear now about suffering and problems in Orissa, Yemen, Syria and civil war in Ethiopia, there is a feeling of solidarity. I think of them also as human beings. The minimum I can do is to pray for them. Materially I may not be able to help them, but I can express my sympathy and expand my wider vision of people.
They easily mingle and become one with the place they are in. There are many Malayali priests and sisters in Ethiopia.
That is what I experienced.
I will try to do whatever I can do for the Church and the poor people. I have no aspiration other than that.
Yes I feel fulfillment. I am in the Golden Jubilee year of ordination.
Because, to some extent, my life is spent for Christ and for the Church. I do not say there are no defects in me. In spite of them, I feel that my life has been fruitful in the mind of God, Church and people. That is why I feel satisfied.