To one, who in an hour-long flight, passes from the dry, water-scarce, parched Chennai into the watery, green and comfortable-looking plain of Kerala, the contrast comes with more than a superficial or causal significance. It is not just the earth that changes from east to west – the whole outlook of life seems to have been moulded by the ‘lie of the land’, the climate, the rainfall, and the abundance of water and food. Things are different.
But it is Catholic Kerala that strikes the visiting priest even more than Kerala in general. One feels as soon as one enters Kerala how the true religion is at home as it is nowhere else in India. Even Goa, as far as I can remember, is not so soaked in Catholic life as these Keralites who try to live the Faith even after 50 years of Vatican II. One does not see vitality in the streets of Goa. On the contrary, the Hindu Fundamentalists are making beachhead there. But in Kerala, things are different. One sometimes gets the feeling that somehow the crisis never touched the ‘grass roots’ here. It is not just the scapular around the neck or picture of the Sacred Heart in every home or the brand new, well-designed churches being erected as we speak, but the whole attitude and bearing; that inward look of Christian modesty, that difference which the Incarnation has made in even the most uncultured hearts. The Faith has been long here longer than even in some parts of Europe. It dates back to St. Thomas the Apostle: and it has become part of the landscape, with many churches and chapels, its landside and waterside crosses, pieta statues and monuments. This is a blessing which we in Tamil Nadu as a state never possessed. This part of India was always on a ‘mission mode’ though some parts (esp. the ‘coastal region of S. Tamil Nadu’) had established Catholic milieu.
In Kerala, one sees clear traces of vitality esp. in the Syrian dioceses. I am referring to the faithful. Amongst the clergy, there is continual daily decline. But amongst the faithful, one still sees the evidence of zeal for the Faith. As Fr. Stehlin loves to point out, it is here St. Maximilian Kolbe wanted to establish the ‘City of Immaculata!’. Dr. Seby of Angamaly and a few devout Catholics invited us to introduce the SSPX in Kerala. From the airport, we took a small detour along the ‘more scenic route’ skirting along the Chalakudy river. At one point, we stumbled across the mighty Athirapally falls – where the clamorous river makes its powerful stand. We were forbidden to go near the roaring waterfall as there was a flood alert.
Twenty-five people showed up for Mass and for most – it is the first time. Dr. Seby has arranged a nice altar for the occasion. I preached on the nature of the Mass and why we must reject the Novus Ordo in which the very concept of ‘sacrifice’ is missing. Twenty-two communicants on that day. After Mass, I heard people greeting one another with “Laudetur Jesus Chritus” in Malayalam. I was told this is a custom from time immemorial. A fascinating custom indeed! I imposed scapulars on almost all of them and spoke of Militia Immaculata.
As I mentioned earlier, it is in Ernakulam, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe envisioned to open his second “Niepokalanów”. And so it was to the same place we were invited. Dr. Martin, a layman who holds a licentiate in theology (!) from Louvain University, is an ardent devotee of Our Lady of Fatima. He, in his old age, decided to dedicate his time in spreading the message of Fatima. After a small conference, we were treated to a sumptuous meal. I offered morning Mass there as well. I must mention that a few of the attendees have travelled from far (Some traveled 4 hours…).
The Syrian Catholics of Kerala are an interesting bunch. They have big families, home schooling program, and a no-Tv at home policy.
And obviously, lots of vocations. It is not a rare sight to spot nuns or clergy in their habits almost every corner! As I prepared to leave for the priory, they insisted I go north to visit a shrine in Palayioor. It is where St. Thomas the Apostle landed and built his first Church. Though it has high Catholic historic value, the presentation of its history is poor. Cardinal Tisserant, (the learned authority on ÉgliseSyro Malabar (DTC) brought a big piece of the relic of St. Thomas from Ortana and donated here.)
Coming back to our interested people, what could be done? Obviously, they would love to have a ‘residential priest’ and ‘a proper school’. This we cannot provide at this time as we are already spread far too thin. Clearly, finding more vocations is the solution. How to pull on with the work of feeding the flock when we are lacking shepherds? An occasional visit may have a part to play in keeping the flames lit, but this occasional effort, however welcome and efficacious it may prove, cannot answer the acute problem of permanent solution.
O Lord, grant us many holy priests.
Fr. Therasian Babu