Cordileone’s pilgrimage to India
Ubiquitous respect for each others’ religious
Day 6: Wednesday, Jan. 4
Today I actually had a chance to catch my breath. After
a Holy Hour and Mass at a nearby convent and breakfast (again, more of
a brunch) back at the family’s home, I was able to spend some time
in rest and reflection.
Hospitality is a highly esteemed virtue in just about every culture, and
India being a more traditional society, its expression of hospitality
is in a more traditional way, that is, bending over backwards to serve
the guest in every detail (e.g., no self-service for guests – the
hosts serve the portions from the serving plate onto the guest’s
plate, even to the point of putting the sugar in the guest’s coffee
and stirring it), especially through abundance of food.
As we were nearing the end of another marathon meal, we made a remark
that, given the quantity and late hour of the breakfast, this would also
serve as our lunch. The mother of the family just looked back at us smiling
quietly; however, her eyes spoke volumes, and I could hear what they were
telling us: “You’re not going to get away with that.”
And so it was.
In the afternoon we drove to Chalakudy, the home town of Father Paulson
Mundanmani, pastor of St. Mary parish in Walnut Creek, arriving in time
for a cultural show put on by the children of a school founded, built
and developed by Father Paulson’s brother, Father Santhosh, who
is also the principal of the school.
The students of this K-12 school were impressive, exhibiting great self-confidence
on stage and displaying abundant talent in song, dance and memorized recitation.
Courteous, bright and spiritually-focused, these students are a sign of
hope for the future. And there is more to it than that: this is obviously
a school for well-to-do families, but they are mission-focused and mindful
of their obligations to the poor.
The teachers voluntarily take below-scale salaries to keep costs down.
Also, the families of the school have recently raised money to build 10
houses for the poor people in the area, and every year they donate money
to help 500 poor school children purchase their textbooks for the year
(in India, while public education itself is free, the textbooks are not).
I should add that, before we set out for Chalakudy, I blessed the workshop
of our host family’s business. When I arrived, all of the workmen
– about 10 or 12 of them – stopped their working and gathered
around for the prayer. They lit candles and incense sticks, and followed
me throughout the shop as I sprinkled holy water all around. They again
gathered together for the prayer at the conclusion of the blessing.
I couldn’t help but be touched by them – they were shy, and
extremely reverent, even though many of them, I’m sure, were not
Catholic. One of them asked to be allowed to kiss my ring before we departed.
This was yet another of the many examples I saw of the innate religious
sense of the people here. Certainly the respect everyone shows to each
other’s religious traditions and the place of religion in public
life are clear manifestations of this. Perhaps the most striking example,
though, is a pilgrimage the devout make walking for days, and even weeks,
barefoot, a practice common to both Catholics and Hindus.
The Hindu destination is a temple held to be particularly sacred. Catholics
make the pilgrimage to Malayatur (where we visited earlier in the trip),
where there is a stone claimed to contain the imprint of St. Thomas’
foot. For Catholics, this harsh pilgrimage is taken up in a spirit of
penance, as a way to make reparation for one’s sins. I saw these
pilgrims walking on the streets, carrying their few provisions on their
heads, everywhere we went.
Whenever I visit any place where the faithful knew or recognized me as
a bishop, I could hardly take two steps before someone or some couple
would ask to kiss my ring or kneel down and ask for a blessing. All of
these experiences bring to my mind a passage in one of the letters of
St. Francis Xavier which is read every year on his feast day in the Liturgy
of the Hours (the second reading for the Office of Readings).
Writing about his experiences in India to St. Ignatius back in Europe,
he says: “The older children would not let me say my Office or eat
or sleep until I taught them one prayer or another. Then I began to understand:
‘The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” It
seems to me that this spirit of the people here is still alive and well
nearly 500 years later.