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placeholder INTRODUCTION

Day 1: Visit to a Hindu temple; Concord parish reaches out

Day 2: Learning the rules of the road

Day 3: Family visits in ‘Catholic’ India

Day 4: Chennai (Madras) – Time with an apostle

Day 5: Close look at an Eastern Rite Church

Day 6: Ubiquitous respect for each others’ religious beliefs

Day 7: Southern India home to vast tea fields

Day 8: Worship on a houseboat

Day 9: St. Alphonsa, India's first canonized saint

Day 10: Home shrines a standard feature

Day 11: Portuguese influence very clear in Goa

Day 12: The Portuguese influence

Day 13: Time for a little tourism

Day 14: Seeing ‘the king’s land’

Day 15: Taj Mahal builder sought to unify religion

Day 16: India’s oldest mosque

Day 17: Discussing world issues

Concluding reflections

placeholder January 23, 2012   •   VOL. 50, NO. 2   •   Oakland, CA

Bishop 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 rooms.

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 doorbell).

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.


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