In the Footsteps of St. Thomas: “An Environment of Grace”

Day 8, 6 March 2012

It is late evening and I am very weary from an emotionally challenging day of pastoral visits. There were many joyful moments, to be sure, but there also many moments that challenge one’s soul with the suffering of the poor.

We began very early by driving north about one and a half hours to Trichur to have coffee and a visit with His Grace Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazath, of the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Trichur. He very warmly greeted us and was most happy to tell me that he was a classmate of Msgr. John Faris, formerly of CNEWA, while they were both graduate students in Rome.

Archbishop Andrews is a visionary who demonstrates his courageous spirit through efforts to “put out into the deep,” as Luke’s Gospel puts it, offering wonderful service to the poor. He has continued some very creative programs for the poor initiated by predecessor bishops, including every type of social service and educational programming you could imagine. He wished us a brief goodbye, as he would join us later for lunch at his seminary.

From our visit with him, we headed to the Paul VI Mercy Home, a complex of social service modules owned and operated by the Archeparchy of Trichur. And of special note, local Catholics and others offer enough support that the programs are almost self-sufficient.

This Mercy Center offers superb educational programs to mentally challenged children. It is directed by the Nirmala Dasi Sisters, who do a marvelous job in serving the needs of these special loved ones. We were welcomed by a marching band and many smiling faces, including very small children, children up to their teens, many sisters serving there and a large contingent of trainees who study there to receive a diploma in working with special needs children. This institution is licensed to offer this diploma, as it has such a good name in its care for the specially challenged.

The children were a delight and, amazingly, understood most of the English I spoke, even though M.L. Thomas did a superb job of translating for me.

From the educational modules, we travelled to another part of the very large campus to visit the John Paul II Peace Center, which is dedicated to the care of people of every age with severe physical and mental challenges. The care given here is nothing short of phenomenal. Many residents require total assistance for every bodily need: feeding, dressing, cleaning, etc. A core group of sisters — aided by some volunteers from France and a number of aspirants of their community — give a heroic example of what serving others is all about. We were especially touched by the aspirants, girls 18 to 20 years old who would accept this most demanding work as a foretaste of a possible religious vocation, and do it so lovingly. What an example for some of our young people!

On the same huge campus, we next visited the Grace Home, which accepts children and adults stricken with H.I.V./AIDS. We focused our attention on the children who are victims of this disease. They greeted us with song at the door of their “Home.” They were cherubic in their welcoming and demonstrated to us why the name “Grace Home” is so appropriate. The care given by the sisters and others creates an environment of God’s grace, which overflows with joy and happiness, even though some of these little ones might not endure the ravages of this disease.

Credit must be given to the archbishop of Trichur, to Father Joshi Aloor, the director of the entire facility, and to his assistant, Father Johnston. They, along with the Nirmala Sisters who serve on this large campus of loving care, do an amazing job of bringing Christ to those with these special needs.

From here we headed to Mary Martha Syro-Malabar Major Seminary. There are currently 136 seminarians studying at this seminary, about 40 percent of whom are from the Archeparchy, and the others represent many of the other Syro-Malabar eparchies and a few religious congregations. We did not get to visit with the seminarians, as they were involved in studying for their exams later that day. We were content to have a lovely lunch with the administration, faculty and a special guest, the archbishop.

A nice break was our next pastoral visit to the Congregation of Samaritan Sisters Generalate, where we were warmly greeted at the main entrance by Mother Rose Cornelia and the Mistress of Novices, Sister Sophia. With them were all the sisters living there, plus the very happy and smiling novices dressed in their lovely white saris and a contingent of about 20 postulants and aspirants.

We were lead into the chapel for a brief prayer and then on to a meeting hall, where Mother Cornelia formally greeted us and gave us some welcoming gifts. This was followed by a beautiful program performed by the aspirants, postulants and novices. They presented a program of dances, mime, recited verse and song. What a spirited bunch of young women, exuding such happiness, joy and poise! We were delighted to be entertained by these future sisters.

After some refreshments — and some storytelling by yours truly — we bid our farewell to all the smiling sisters and candidates, who all accompanied us to our vehicle. I promised to come back and spend more time with them. They expressed their loving gratitude to all of you for your ongoing support in prayer and gifts. They promised you their prayers.

Next on our schedule was St. Anne’s Orphanage, also in Trichur. This is a large institution with about 130 girls, which, like all the other institutions and programs we visited this day, is subsidized by CNEWA. This facility is directed by Father Laurence Thaikkattil and is serviced by the Carmelite Sisters, with Sister Rita Grace, C.M.C., as the superior.

Here, too, we had a surprise welcome of cheers, smiles and raised arms from all the girls lined up in the hidden passageway at the entrance of the orphanage. They certainly made the three of us feel at home.

We headed into a meeting hall where we were formally greeted by Father Laurence and given bouquets of flowers by some of the smallest children in the program. Then we were treated to some amazing dancing by the children. Their intricate steps, coupled with their obvious pride in entertaining, were infectious.

After the program, I was privileged to address — or should I say entertain — all 136 of these sweethearts. They were so happy, their smiles were overwhelming. Even though they were also studying for their exams, they gave all their loving attention to us and brought joy to each of us. After a little repast with the sisters, we headed out to our next and last stop of the day.

We arrived at St. Christina’s Home, a place for unwed mothers and newborns, along with unwanted babies and children. This home is also run by the Archeparchy of Trichur and is directed by Father Paul Neelankavil. Sister Chinnamma, a Nirmala Dasi sister, serves as the superior. A beaming group of youngsters warmly greeted us at the entrance. This facility also accepts adult women who have been disowned by their families and would otherwise live on the street.

Father Paul brought a little girl to meet us, held lovingly in his arms. He explained that she had been “dropped off” only two hours earlier. With big eyes fixed on this strange visitor from America, this little one offered us a huge smile. That said it all. God bless the little ones.

Father Paul then took us to the newborn nursery where some of the babies were being nursed and held by their mothers. Since there is often a great social stigma in being an unwed mother, the mothers often leave these infants with the sisters after delivery. From this area of the facility, babies move to the intermediate nursery, where little girls from 6 months to 2 years are housed. The goal is to place as many as possible in adoptive homes, and this institution has an enviable record in the placement of these children. This particular group made us melt — they were so affectionate, looking for us to hold each and every one of them. The care given them by the sisters is amazing.

Our visit ended with a number of the children walking us to our vehicle for a final loving goodbye.

It was a very long and memorable day. There was the reality of much suffering and many sorrowful stories. But there was always joy, love and hope on the faces of everyone, and especially with these most blessed visitors.

You were there with me and are remembered by all the children, all the specially challenged, the abandoned, the many sisters giving loving service to the poor, the priests. After all, they are your family.

God bless all of you.

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