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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

St. Alphonsa, India's first canonized saint

Day 9: Saturday, Jan. 7

I spent the night in the bishop’s residence in Palai, and early the next morning I attended a Syro-Malabar Liturgy at the shrine of St. Alphonsa in the nearby town of Bharanaganam. Realizing that it would be difficult for me to follow along without a copy of the ritual in English, I asked if one was available in the sacristy.

While the priests there were telling me that, no, there wouldn’t be anything like that available, Sister Dinza – the young nun who was the sacristan – quietly started rummaging through the closet and found a brand new, seemingly still unused, Order of Mass for the Syro-Malabar Rite in English. So much for their defeatism. As I told Sister Dinza, nuns can do anything.

With the ritual in hand and Father Jimmy at times pointing out where we were, I was able to follow along closely all throughout the Mass. At Father Jimmy’s request, the Mass was celebrated with greater solemnity than usual for a weekday, so that I could see the liturgy in all its fullness.

This was very instructive for me, and it was most interesting for me to compare features of this liturgy with our own and those of other Eastern rites in the Church. After this Mass, I celebrated my own Mass (in the Roman Rite) right there at the tomb of St. Alphonsa.

There are many formally beatified holy people from Kerala, but St. Alphonsa is the first officially canonized saint. She was a Clarist nun who lived in the first half of the 20th century, who bore tremendous suffering quietly and unbeknownst to everyone except her spiritual director.

After Mass, we went to the small town of Ramapuram, where we prayed at the tomb of Blessed Kunjacham (a name which means “padrecito”), a priest who dedicated his life to serving the “out castes,” those so lowly and poor that they do not even belong to a recognized caste.

Outside the church a special station was set up where pilgrims could pour oil over a cross sitting atop a stand similar to the classic Indian oil lamp. This expression of prayer was a new one on me, and I was happy to learn of it. There is also a dedicated Perpetual Adoration Chapel on the premises.

We had lunch with relatives of Father Alengadan’s, and afterwards paid a visit to a convent and school of the CMC sisters down the road from their home. The sisters run a boarding school for girls in the area, many of them from poorer families.

We were running late, and I thought we could just drop in for a brief visit, maybe a quick cup of coffee and be on our way. I should know better by now. They greeted us in typical fashion: all the nuns lined up outside the convent, 40-some of them, and the students as well.

They presented us the customary bouquet of flowers, and brought us inside. The mother superior pronounced words of greeting, and we were then provided with snacks and drinks while a group of about 10 of the students performed an interpretative dance of a Gospel story. This was a true example of inculturation of the Gospel, in that the costumes and movements were taken from the Hindu religious tradition which has been the primary force shaping Indian culture and society, and were used to explain the Christian faith.

The dance was very complex, involved and lengthy, but all throughout the young dancers kept together in tight-knit synchronization. These girls obviously worked very hard on it.

The purity of the nuns and students alike touched me deeply. It was obvious from their smiling faces, which glowed with simple, pure joy, the sort of deep, abiding joy that can only come from the childhood innocence they have obviously preserved.

I couldn’t help but think about the contrast with American society, in which young people are exposed to so many toxic influences at such a young age that many of them get so bruised and burned that they become jaded and cynical even before they get out of high school. The purity and innocence of the moment contrasted sharply with the anger and hurt so prevalent back home. I didn’t want to leave; I just wanted to remain there, and savor the moment.

Alas, we had to be on our way, lest we arrive late for Father Mathew’s anniversary Mass. As they greeted me when I arrived, so again they all lined up in front of the convent to send me off, and I felt happy and sad at the same time as the car drove off with us waving good-bye to each other.

We continued onto our next stop: Father Mathew’s hometown of Moovattupuzha, for the celebration of his 25th anniversary of priestly ordination. The parish church is situated atop a high hill, with a long flight of stairs leading up to it. Before the Mass started, there were throngs of people at all levels, from the ground reaching up to the entrance to the church at the top.

In usual fashion, we were greeted with flowers – both in the form of a bouquet and a lei – and then the procession began into the church, with some carrying ceremonial umbrellas, others playing the drum typical of the culture here, and all showing on their faces the happiness of the occasion. The church was filled to capacity.

I was honored by Father Mathew with the invitation to give the homily at his anniversary Mass. I told the people (among other things) that Kerala is a happy place because generations, and indeed centuries, of priests, consecrated religious and parents of families have been faithful to the mission of their vocation, and fidelity to mission does not come without sacrifice. That is why so many saints have come from this little corner of the world.

With the nation now emerging as a world economic power, the challenge for Kerala, and for all of India, is to teach the world that fidelity to mission and sound moral values, which make for the foundation of a happy and vibrant society, do not have to weaken as a strengthening economy advances, that is, that it is possible to be happy even in the midst of material prosperity. The two do not necessarily go together.

A reception was held after the Mass at Father Mathew’s family home. A program was put on to honor his 25 years of priestly ministry, consisting of brief speeches, video presentations, and, of course, cultural dances. Afterwards – you guessed it – dinner was served. I couldn’t indulge myself too much, though, as Father George and I were due at his relatives for a family gathering.

We set off, then, for his relatives’ home in their home town of Irinjalakuda. The family was getting together, as were all of the other families in the parish, for the celebration in anticipation of the parish festival.

Actually, it was not so much “in anticipation” as it was part of the parish festival itself, as the celebration extends for three days: the Saturday, Sunday and Monday closest to the actual day of Epiphany (Jan. 6). Saturday evening features a series of “mini-processions” organized by the family units of the parish, a prelude to the big procession the next day. A large group of Hindu men took part in the processions, playing the native drums and dancing in jubilation. It was a colorful and happy scene. This lasts all the way up to midnight (although we didn’t).


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