By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Flying from Mumbai to Delhi, and the subsequent drive to the Taj mahal, afforded the time to reflect upon an amazing 10 of 14 days in India. Father Albeen Vatti, the pastor of Madison Saint Francis Parish, and a priest of Warangal, and I arrived at 2:30 a.m. on Friday, February 8, and immediately the sights, sounds, tastes and smells engaged and, at times, overwhelmed my senses and familiar categories of physical reality. But far surpassing the sheer volume of humanity, were the blessings of Indian hospitality around every bend in the road.
Our first stop on this pastoral pilgrimage was the bishop’s house in Warangal where Bishop Udumala Bala and staff warmly welcomed us to what became our base of operations for the next five days. Although we were dragging from the effects of jet lag after 31 hours of travel, we jumped into the flow of Indian life with a few visits out to the villages where I met the families of Father Pradeep Thirumalreddy, the pastor of Batesville Saint Mary, and Father Raju Macherla, the chaplain of Saint Dominic Hospital, Jackson. These were joyful encounters with opportunities for prayers for healing for Father Pradeep’s father, struggling with cancer, and for blessings for the sister of Father Raju, who is about to be married.
On one of our pastoral outings we visited with Father Basani Channappareddy, the former pastor of West Point Immaculate Conception, who is doing well in his new assignment. The visits required several hours of driving out and back, and immediately the density, pace and swirl of traffic in India riveted my attention. Cars, auto-rickshaws, transport vehicles, motorcycles and motor bikes, bicycles, people and animals (goats, buffalos, dogs, sheep, cows, etc.) all honked and/or aimed for an advantageous position in the unrelenting flurry of organized chaos. Often, we came within inches of adjacent vehicles or people without incident until we hit two goats out in the countryside.
A large throng of townspeople came to quarrel for their position and compensation for the goats, but I maintain it was a no fault incident since the goats were happily munching leaves as everyone argued.
Within the second most populous nation on earth, the Catholic Church, small in number, but with roots going back to Saint Thomas the Apostle and to Saint Francis Xavier in the modern era, brings the Good News of Jesus Christ into the center of Indian society. The commitment to Catholic education throughout the Diocese of Warangal is astounding where approximately 50,000 children up to grade 10 are enrolled in Catholic Schools. To put it in context, 15 million people reside within the territory of the diocese, but there are only 70,000 Catholics.
Bishop Bala is fond of saying that wherever the Church takes up the Lord’s commission to make disciples of all the nations, education nearly always is at the heart of the mission. “Where there is a Church, there is a school.”
Most of the students in the highly-respected Catholic schools in urban and rural areas are Hindu, followed in number by Muslims and Catholics. The schools proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Catholic tradition in faithful and creative ways, and at the core of this intellectual tradition is the upliftment of the dignity of the person from all faith traditions and cultures. Formation in wisdom, knowledge and grace educates the whole person made in the image and likeness of God.
Likewise, with a population of 1.4 billion people there are countless people mired in destitution and abandonment, and like Saint Mother Theresa, the Church is there to serve. The Diocese of Warangal serves the vulnerable through health care and residential facilities for the homeless, mentally ill, the infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, schools for the deaf and speech impaired, and the elderly, to name those we visited. Religious brothers and sisters, living in community, dedicate their lives to their guests.
Since many in India speak English, I was able to celebrate Mass regularly, both at the Cathedral and for parish celebrations throughout the diocese. In every gathering for worship, the vibrant colors of the Saree, the traditional attire of the Indian women, and abundant flowers created a festive environment for prayer. A highlight of the Warangal experience was a visit to the homestead of Father Albeen where the whole village, along with Father Albeen’s family, put out the welcome mat. I rode down main street on an oxen-pulled cart with two children pointing the way. Father Albeen’s parents, who celebrated 60 years of marriage last May, were beaming to welcome home their son and the bishop from Mississippi.
After five days in Warangal, we drove to Hyderabad to stay two nights at the seminary where many priests from Warangal received their formation. The parents and sister of Father Suresh Thirumalareddy, the pastor of Magnolia Saint James and chaplain to School Sisters of Notre Dame in Chatawa, drove no small distance to greeting me at the seminary to offer gifts of flowers and the traditional Indian scarf.
After enjoying the hospitality of Father Albeen’s sister and family, Maria, Vincent and their daughter, Teju, we flew to Cochin, in the state of Kerala in Southwest India. Father Sajii Sebastian, the Provincial of the Healds of the Good News of the Saint Paul Province, greeted us and accompanied us for the two-day visit.
In route to the Provincial House we visited the families of Father Augustine Palimattam, the Pastor of Meridian Saint Patrick and Saint Joseph, and Father Antony Chakkalakkal, the pastor of Aberdeen Saint Francis, and the sacramental minister of Amory Saint Helen, who are the Heralds of the Good News Priests serving in Jackson.
As noted, Indian hospitality is a blessing to behold and to experience, and it is even more joyful when the dwelling is the family home of a priest serving as missionaries. The Heralds of the Good News is a recently established (1984) religious community of more than 90 priests but their motto Love in Action is evident in crucial ministries. A home for the abandoned stands adjacent to the Provincial House where we celebrated Mass and visited with the residents. We also snaked our way up a mountain side where we lunched at their home for the mentally ill which overlooks a mountain range exceeding 2,400 meters.
Next on the pastoral pilgrimage was a flight to Mumbai, the economic hub of India with a population of 25 million people, 8 to 10 million of whom live in the slums. We spent a day at Saint Norbet Priory where Father Xavier Amirtham, pastor of Jackson Holy Family, was the Prior for eight years. After celebrating Sunday Mass at their parish of Saint Joseph the Worker, we visited the nearby slum where many of the children in their parish school live.
Out of this incredibly impoverished environment each day people, young and older, emerge with great dignity to study and work. Mumbai is a west coast city of India on the Arabian sea and the steady breeze off the water tempers the otherwise intense heat of the region. As we motor on toward the Taj mahal I give thanks to the Lord for the many blessings of this pastoral pilgrimage. India the remarkable is one way of expressing this nation of multiple cultures and languages where the Catholic Church is a living sacrament of God’s presence.