Cordileone’s pilgrimage to India
Home shrines a standard feature
Day 10: Sunday, Jan. 8
Today I had a rare morning to sleep in and relax. I
prayed and celebrated Mass in the chapel of the catechetical center of
the Diocese of Irinjalakuda, where I spent the night in one of the guest
I was joined by Father George Alengandan. Five women, employees who do
the domestic chores at the center, were in the chapel and wanted to attend
the Mass. They didn’t understand English, and perhaps didn’t
even understand the Roman Rite, but their religious devotion moved them
to participate. They spiced up our simple Mass with some songs in their
own language, and I asked Father George to offer them some words of reflection
after the Gospel in their native language.
In the afternoon, we went to the original family home of Father Alengadan
for lunch. This time the family pulled all the stops in extending the
traditional welcome to a guest. Of course, they were standing outside
the house to welcome me, as people always do here, without exception (no
guest in India, approaching the host’s home, ever has to ring the
And, of course, in typical fashion, I was also handed a bouquet of flowers.
The other gestures of welcome extended to me, all common practice here
and used in varying degrees of frequency, were the children of the family
showering me with flower pedals, a lei of fresh flowers being placed on
my shoulders, the woman of the house gesturing in a circular motion with
lighted candle in front of me, and having my forehead marked with the
traditional bindi, the red dot between the eyes. (If you’re getting
the idea that Father Alengadan has relatives all throughout this state
who love to cook, eat and entertain, I think you’re right.)
After the usual royal treatment, we set out for the town of Mala, where
Father Joseph Parekkatt, pastor of St. Anne’s parish in Rossmoor,
had asked me to bless the new home his family had purchased. The neighbors
across the street allowed us to park in their driveway, as space was limited.
The whole neighborhood turned out for the event, which, of course, was
followed by food. When we went to the car to depart, the family who allowed
us to park in their driveway asked me for a blessing. I went inside, and
we stood in front of their home-shrine to the Sacred Heart, and I pronounced
the blessing on the mother, her two daughters, and another family member
or friend, perhaps an aunt. It was an encounter that lasted all of five
minutes, and even though we exchanged only very few words (I wasn’t
even sure if and how well they understood English), it touched me deeply.
Their simplicity and purity shone through clearly on their smiling faces.
I was so moved I didn’t want to leave. Amazing how such simple,
fleeting encounters can have such a profound impact on us.
Home shrines are a standard feature of every home here in Kerala. Those
less well-to-do families will have the shrine in a prominent place in
the living room; whenever possible, however, the shrine is located within
a dedicated “prayer room.”
It is set up in an altar-type of arrangement on the wall in the form of
a shelf covered by a sort of baldacchino (canopy), and typically consists
of a crucifix with a statue or image of the Sacred Heart below accompanied
by an image of Our Lady and one of St. Joseph. And the families do use
these spaces for prayer, dedicating a half-hour or longer before dinner
every day for the family to pray together. No wonder they stay together.
The evening had us returning to Father George’s home town of Irinjalakuda
for the parish festival – or, I should say, the “city’s
festival,” as the whole town came alive. A four hour procession
with a relic of St. Sebastian – to whom the people have a special
devotion – preceded by a band and marchers carrying crosses and
followed by 300 ceremonial umbrellas arrived at the church at 7 p.m. And
you just couldn’t miss the church, as the façade was completely
lit up with lights flashing in different patterns.
The streets were jam crowded, as was the church, and there were fireworks
galore. We concluded the evening at the home of other relatives of Father
George’s for a gathering of family and friends. As we were walking
to their home, Father George pointed out to me a popular decoration for
the festival proudly displayed in the front yard of every house: a banana
tree, with all of its branches removed such that it is stripped down to
its trunk, and then colorfully and variously decorated.
This is called pindiparunnal, literally,
“banana festival.” The parish even has a contest for the best
decorated banana tree, and Father George’s family won it this year
for the third year in a row.
Another cherished custom, and one that carries with it deep devotion,
is the passing of the arrow of St. Sebastian. The devotion to St. Sebastian
arrived in Kerala from Syria in ancient times, thus accounting for its
deep roots in this part of the Church. Each parish is divided into family
units (typically seven or eight), and each unit is entrusted with an arrow,
the instrument associated with St. Sebastian’s martyrdom.
The arrow is passed from one family to another in each of the units, until
all of the families have had the opportunity to host it for the recitation
of the formulized prayers, keeping it for several hours. This is considered
a great honor. On the second or third day of the St. Sebastian festival,
after all of the families have had this honor, a procession is held throughout
the parish, culminating in Mass in the parish church. It was spiritually
and culturally enriching to be a part of this here in Irinjalakuda.