Bp Paul Antony Mullassery
Bishop of Quilon
What is the motto of your Episcopal ministry? Why did you choose it?
My motto is progress and joy in the faith (Philippians 1:25). Of at most importance is faith formation, which our people lack. We see today, especially among the priests and the laity, a lack of joy. Pope Francis is talking much about the joy of holiness. Being in faith is automatic; its spiritual fruits are things like helping others, love for the poor.
How would you describe your diocese?
The Diocese of Quilon was the first diocese to be established in India and the cradle of Indian Christianity. The vibrant Catholic community of Kollam cherishes its unique history of being founded by St Thomas the Apostle, nurtured by the great apostles St Bartolommeo and St Francis Xavier and fostered by saintly martyrs like Archbishop Jordanus Catalani de Severac and Giovanni Marignoli. Since the latter half of the 12th century, Quilon became the centre of missionary expeditions by Franciscan and Dominican missionaries. In 1329, Pope John XXII erected Quilon as the first Diocese in the whole of Indies and appointed the French Dominican friar Jordanus Catalani de Severac as its first Bishop.
In 1661, the Portuguese, who tasted defeat from the Dutch, left Quilon. The Dutch, who took control over Quilon, destroyed Catholic Churches and persecuted Catholics. The Christians of Quilon went through a dark period till 1741. Yet another dark period for the Church in Quilon was in 1808 when Velu Thampi Dalava unleashed a fierce persecution on Christians. The Christian community of Quilon, after remaining a long period without bishops, then became a part of the diocese of Goa. When Goa was raised to an archbishopric on 1557, Cochin was made suffragan diocese to the Archdiocese of Goa and Quilon became part of the Cochin diocese. Pope Gregory XVI created the Vicariate of Malabar on 1838 and suppressed the diocese of Cochin and attached that territory along with Quilon to the Vicariate of Malabar (Verapoly). Later the Vicariate of Malabar was divided into three vicariates, Verapoly, Mangalore and Quilon in 1845. The separation of Quilon as a new Vicariate Apostolic, suffragan to Verapoly, was executed on 1845, entrusting it to the Belgian Carmelite Missionaries, and finally confirmed as a separate Vicariate Apostolic on 1853.
What is the strength of the Catholic community in Quilon?
We are around two lakh Catholics. We have 82 established parishes and 112 Churches, 100 diocesan, and 51 religious priests. We have around 56 Convents and 970 nuns.
What is the strong point of your diocesan community?
It is the unity of the people. Majority of them are faithful Catholics and they attend the Sunday Mass without fail. They are very serious about bringing up their children in deep faith. But in some parishes they feel dissatisfied and so go to other places for Mass. They need good feel while attending the Eucharist and listening to the sermon.
The community has some obvious drawbacks; how do you plan to address them?
As a Vicar general, I used conciliatory approach with the people. If a parish priest is removed or he resists the transfer or the parish community doesn’t want him, then I would intervene and call the representatives of the parishioners for consultation. In some parishes, we had to handle dissensions engineered by a group that works secretly behind the scene. They are anti-clerical and are active in parish councils. They have come under the influence of anti-church people. Our people are very interested in listening to the Word, but this thirst to hear Word of God is manipulated by the so called charismatic preachers and Pentecostal movements. When people feel hurt in the parishes, they immediately get influenced by outsiders.
What orientation do you want to give to the people of Quilon?
My orientation is towards welcoming back to the Church those who have defected because of the hurt they suffered due to words or actions. Sometimes our priests feel helpless when people come and fight. I want to teach them to rely on the strength of prayer, the Eucharist and the Holy Rosary at such trying times. So primarily I want to gather my brother priests and pray with them and then ask them what all we need to do for the diocese. We will thus prepare a vision for the diocese for the next few years. And then, later, we will have a diocesan Synod.
In other words, you are looking forward to a participatory Church. What kind of a participatory form of authority do you envisage?
We have a participatory structure in the form of parish pastoral councils and the diocesan pastoral council. Some canvass hard to get into these councils, but people do not elect them. The elections were well conducted in 80 parishes. Only in two parishes and two outstations we had to call a halt to the election process due to problems created by a few. A good sign is that, in the basic Christian community and in the pastoral council, we have well educated people. Slowly the people are learning to elect the right people.
The common man does not like troublesome elements, who still persist. Are you apprehensive about politics entering into ecclesiastical bodies?
Yes, I am. Two political groups try to enter into the ecclesiastical bodies to exert pressure, the right wing and the left wing. Some are interested in financial matters. Recently, a person came to me complaining that he was not elected trustee. The parish priest offered him the post of secretary, but he wanted to be a kaikaran and nothing else. He belongs to a particular party. Some men come to Church not to pray, but to cause disturbance in meetings.
The general impression is that many Latin dioceses of the coastal belt are predominantly inclined to the left wing. Is that true?
To understand that you should know the history of Kerala Swatantra Matsya Thozhilali Federation. It is a small scale trade union of fish-workers. They had been left out of the political mainstream by both the Left and the Right. The Catholic Church was responsible for the political awakening of the small-scale fishing community. Led by Liberation Theology inspired radical clergy, they took the fight to a political level, leading to far-reaching changes in governance. Monsignor Albert, Fr Paul Arakkal and Fr Kocheri were the leading lights of the movement. The political parties did not care to keep their promises. The same is true today also. Then the Swathantra Malsya Thozhilali Federation united the people, but the political parties tried to split it. Our community is always led by promises, not by the reality. They are now trapped in political parties. Still, they strongly hold on to their faith.
How are the right wing people, the BJP, trying to gain an entrance into your Church?
During the Okhy tragedy, people were attracted to the BJP through false promises. The people of the left helped generously during the tragedy, but the concerned minister and local MLA did not come to their help in time, meanwhile the BJP had already influenced some people, including one sacristan. The BJP made a big show using Nirmala Sitharam, nothing but empty promises resulted. The communist government has collected money and provided some help.
As a member of KCBC and CBCI you have to look to the whole of India. In the current Indian scenario, there is a particular form fundamentalism reigning in the country to the detriment of minority communities. How do you feel about it?
The fundamentalism you referred to has emanated from certain groups that were against the freedom movement. They are just using religion to get votes. They cook up stories that create hatred. We know how the hate campaigns orchestrated by the BJP and RSS from outside caused the Khandamal riots.
Do you suspect Manu’s caste System is dividing the Indian community, including Christians?
To some extent, the caste systems has created deep divisions in the minds of our people. It is very difficult to remove something that has got entrenched through thousands of years. It can become possible only if you are renewed every day by the grace of the Holy Spirit according to Christian principles.
As a canonist, do you see marriages coming under serious pressure?
The market system has influenced marriage and changed people’s attitude towards it. Like in the western world, cities are seeing high rate of divorce. But there is hope. Many people who approach us want to have reconciliation, and I am very happy that I reconciled many of them. I used to call them together for prayer and use the power of prayer. I have a group of councilors, priests, sisters and advocates to help them before they go to court.
When you look at Kerala, there are so many retreat centres and preachers. There is a lot of external spirituality and religiosity happening everywhere. But why then is there a dearth of real spiritual people?
We have plenty of religiosity, but we lack true spirituality, which is union with God. Union with God really unites us with others. When we interact with the people of other religions, we come to understand that true happiness, joy and peace come from practicing one’s own religion deeply. Otherwise it is all ritualistic.
Are we training people in a ritualistic religion?
I am afraid we are.
What are these Charismatic centres for?
They are all movements of the spirit, but we are misusing them sometimes. We forget the Spirit who is working within us. The Spirit is there in you and me.
Do you think that these spiritual centres have became some sort of spiritual markets?
Spiritual centres were started with good intension, but later competition came and spoiled their spirit.
Is money becoming God?
Money is not God, but sometimes people are more concerned about money than God.
Is the market entering even the sanctuary?
I am afraid, it is trying to enter there.
Can it enter the sanctuary without the permission of the clergy and the religious?
That’s what the Pope is often warning us about. He tells us that the shepherd should have the smell of the sheep, should be simple and poor, and should have the mind of Christ. The Pope sees the dangers of the market-world. That world is trying to infiltrate into us. When actually I need only a scooter, it tempts me to buy a car. It will tell me it is below a Vicar General’s dignity to travel by a scooter. The same market-world will also accuse me of travelling always in a car. We are fashioned according to the world. This is how luxury and money drag spiritual leaders to profanity.
What is in Christ that you see as the most challenging?
His attitude towards each man and His idea of mercy through justice. He is giving justice to every person He comes across. “Today salvation has come into this house.” We must make sure every family experiences this salvation by Christ.
You are a man of prayer. What is prayer for you and how do you pray?
I say my prayer kneeling before the crucifix and I also say experimental prayers with the help of a book by Sr Faustina. I read her other books, and it helps me to have a very intimate, sincere prayer wherever I am. It has also helped me to realize that every Christian should become like Christ on the cross, who said “Eli, Eli, Lama Sabaktani.” The experience of being one with Christ and being in His presence made me to leave everything to Him and come out with new answers. I don’t ask the Lord for a solution to this problem or that problem, but find solutions by just being with Him in front of the Eucharist or in front of the crucifix for a long time, gazing upon Him. This is my way of meditation. I love to be just before the crucifix. I know how Jesus is suffering for us, and that He loves me. Along with His wounds, He takes the wounds of my sins upon Himself and heals me.
We are living in a Church of three rites; the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and the Latin. How do these three particular churches co-exist within the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church is a communion of churches. We have to profess one faith, the unity of the sacraments and unity with the hierarchy. But, at the same time, we should be able to appreciate our own liturgical, canonical, spiritual as well as theological variety. I think many do not know their own rite. When you know your own rite and also the other rites, you can even concelebrate. Within the variety, there must be unity as well. That is the basic unity of our faith.
Please share with our readers the salient details about you and your family?
I was born in Kaithakody in the diocese of Quilon. I studied in the minor seminary of Saint Raphael and philosophy and theology in Saint Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary, Alwaye. I hold a doctorate in canon law from the Pontifical Urbaniana University, Rome. I was ordained a priest on 22 December 1984. Both my parents have passed away. I have four brothers and four sisters. One of my brothers is a Capuchin in Canada, and a sister is a nun in the CCR, Trivandrum.