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
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
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
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).