In the Footsteps of St. Thomas: Reaching Out to the “Untouchables”

Day 4, 2 March 2012

Today, Thomas and I traveled to the outback, to areas deep in the south Indian countryside. Since CNEWA has been involved in a number of projects here, I was very happy to make this visit.

We arrived very early in the morning at the hilltop parish of St. Mary, a Syro-Malankara Catholic church in the village of Podiyattuvila. We were surprisingly met and greeted by the parish priest, and a delegation of some 50 parishioners. Our purpose was to review the construction work being done to replace the previous church that was almost completely destroyed by fire in late 2010.

It was delightful to see the church under construction and to see the pride in the eyes of the parishioners who led us on a tour of the construction site. It was obvious that this was a dream being fulfilled. And how they shared with me their gratitude — many times over — of how CNEWA was such an important partner in helping this dream to be realized.

Father Stephen, who is the parish priest, told us that the parish includes 100 families — all of whom attend the Sunday Divine Liturgy, which is presently held in a temporary hall. Additionally, daily liturgy is well attended and there are parish activities every day. A personal highlight for me was the singing of some of the Malankara hymns in Malayalam rendered by the women of the parish.

After a variety of photo opportunities and a light repast, we bid our host a fond farewell and I assured them I would return someday to concelebrate a liturgy in their beautiful new church.

Only a few kilometers away, but on an unmarked road, we were led by one of the priests to a mountainous area that has no community name, no zip code and no street address. In fact, our vehicle could only go so far and then we had to walk the rest of the way. Our purpose in this visit was to offer our solidarity and support to the poorest of the poor for whom we are helping in the construction of homes. By the way, these people are of the Dalit group, which means they are the so-called “untouchables” in India’s illegal but powerful caste system.

The project of building these homes is a combined effort of CNEWA, the Indian government and the parish outreach; in some instances, a very modest share is borne by the poor themselves. To understand the contrasts between the hovels in which these dalits live to the beauty and dignity as witnessed in the homes under construction is impossible. One mother showed us her one-room shanty — that housed five people — that was about the size of a small bathroom in Canada or the states. Even though her new home is still under construction, and very rough in appearance, she beamed with pride as she took us through the modest dwelling.

We had the good fortune to visit with two other families whose new homes are under construction. We were accompanied visit by two priests, who related very comfortably and beautifully with these, the poorest of the poor. On your behalf, I accepted the heartfelt and emotional expressions of gratitude for the generosity of CNEWA in giving these supposed “untouchables” dignity of life for the first time in their lives.

These visits were perhaps the high point in my visit so far as they reflected so well the best efforts of CNEWA in reaching out to the poor in this part of the world.

Following this full morning of activities, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and proceeded to our base of operations for the next few days, the Vincentian Provincial House in the city of Kottayam. Since I had visited here as a guest early last year in my previous job with the Propagation of the Faith, I felt very much at home being greeted by the provincial and dear friend, Father George Arackal.

After settling in and unpacking, we enjoyed a brief rest at the provincial house and the customary break for tea. We then traveled to Changanacherry to participate in the completion of a “Popular Mission Retreat.” As Father George explained, a popular mission is the culmination of one week of dynamic preaching and catechesis in a given parish. The closing of this popular mission happened to be in the cathedral parish, the largest parish, in the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Changanacherry. The parish was divided into ten centers and a team of 33 Vincentian fathers prepared the people for this solemn closing event.

If you can imagine: There were 10,000 people who solemnly processed from various parts of the city and arrived in an amphitheater setting in front of the cathedral. I was privileged to sit in a seat of honor next to the archbishop and to offer a word of greeting from all of you. Something that really impressed me was the tremendous variety of participants in the closing ceremony. There were thousands of little children, young people, parents and very many old people. All of them responded with great energy and vigor at the charismatic style of program that was shared with them. The ceremony lasted over three hours and I was tired just watching the energy of the participants in a very hot and muggy environment.

Although we had to hurry to return because of the huge traffic, I was very touched by so many people, especially mothers, who ran up to me to receive my blessing and to receive a blessing for their small children. As a priest, it was a special moment and a satisfying reminder of my vocation.

It is very late and it has been a tiring, but most fulfilling day. I especially remind you of the power of the prayers of the poor; that power was evident to me at every turn. May God bless you and may He bless the poor.

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