Into the Deep: An Exhortation to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church

On Saturday, 17 November, CNEWA?s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, addressed a missionary conference in Delhi, India.

Editor’s note: On Saturday, 17 November, CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, addressed a missionary conference in New Delhi, India, organized by Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. His exhortation, “Into the Deep,” praises the Eastern Catholic churches of India for their missionary fervor and their generosity to the universal church.

New Delhi, India, 17 November 2012

Many thanks to you, Your Eminence, Cardinal George Alencherry, for your kind invitation to join you at this very festive celebration. It is an honor for me, as a Latin-rite priest, to address all of you and to share with you my thoughts about your missionary charism and the bright missionary future the Syro-Malabar Church shares with the church universal and the world.

It is also a special honor to be welcomed into this new diocese where my friend Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara is the newly installed shepherd. I fondly remember his presence in New York when he served at the United Nations as the secretary of the Holy See delegation there. Many hearty congratulations to you, Archbishop Kuriakose, and to the wonderful faithful of your diocese.

Let me tell you a little bit about me to better situate my sharing with you.

In various interviews with the media, I have been asked: “How would you describe your role as President of CNEWA?” My answer is always, “I am just a parish priest on loan to the world.” I then add that my priesthood is intimately linked to being a missionary.

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I always wanted to pursue the priesthood. My heroes were visiting Maryknoll missionaries who gave presentations in our school. My ultimate hero was a Maryknoll bishop who had been imprisoned in China for many years. His suffering — including many instances of torture — and his abiding faith resonated with me in my formative years. I wanted to imitate his spirit.

While in the seminary, I had the great fortune of serving a summer in Juliaca, Peru, working in the Altiplano with an all-indigenous population. It was at high altitude, freezing cold — but the hearts of the poor were warm and welcoming and the missionary needs were great. I got the fever: the missionary fever. This was a life-changing experience. It confirmed for me some important values for my priesthood.

As a deacon in my last months of preparation for priesthood, I had the good fortune to meet Archbishop Fulton Sheen, former national director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith — a role that was bestowed on me years later — a television and media star, and the personality who put the missions on the map in America. It was Fulton Sheen who boldly asserted in interventions during Vatican II that everyone is a missionary by baptism. This pronouncement would become the mantra for the Propagation of the Faith. I believe strongly this should be the mantra of the Syro-Malabar Church.

To finish up on my own missionary journey…

I was ordained a diocesan priest in 1971 and was very happy and satisfied in all of my priestly assignments, but the call to reach out as a missionary was strong and would not diminish.

I remained in my home diocese and did not join any mission society, but soon learned the lesson of St. Theresa the Little Flower that I could still be a missionary in prayer and in good works done in solidarity with missions all over the world — and remain at home.

Eventually, I became the diocesan director of Missions and then was given the honor of being national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies — a role that brought me many times to India, mostly in service to the Latin Church.

And now, I am the President of CNEWA — the Catholic Near East Welfare Association — and am learning to breathe with the other lung of the church, its Oriental or Eastern lung.

But I am still a parish priest on loan to the world.

But what has happened to the missionary spirit in my country and in much of Europe? What has happened to the spirit of Pentecost? In large part it has been overwhelmed by anxiety over legal and financial problems, an uncertainty about vocations to the priesthood and the religious life, and an unwillingness to share and reach out to the missions in our own want. Without making a sweeping generalization, the flames of the Holy Spirit and the call to be missionary in a time of Pentecost have diminished greatly.

Enter the Syro-Malabar Church. You are a missionary church to the core. You are a church alive in the Holy Spirit. You live the mandate of Pentecost.

Fifty years ago, after centuries of suffering — losing much of your identity as an Eastern church, after breaking the shackles of Latinization — the spirit of St. Thomas broke through and you undertook a bold, risky venture to go where others would not. You set out for Chanda.

Bishop Januarius Paul Palathuruthy, a Carmelite of Mary Immaculate, like the first apostles, like St. Thomas, offered himself and the Syro-Malabar Church as a loving representation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. His simple, but very measured “seven step” catechetical approach resonated with the poor. He began by teaching a simple signing of the Cross. Then came the image of Christ, who died for all, then the Bible and so on.

His abiding presence, his missionary heart, his patient endurance and especially the grace of God have brought about this miracle of evangelization in India. With a small group of migrated Catholics, the seeds of faith were planted and produced the fruits of 25,000 souls.

This has been a true Pentecost event in your history. Why did Bishop Januarius and the Syro-Malabar Church have such a miraculous harvest? You shared in your want, you served, you fed the poor and you healed the sick. All of this was accomplished through a very healthy partnership between the bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church and its religious congregations — in the case of Chanda, especially with the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate. It is not an atmosphere of competition, but one of fraternal collaboration.

Congratulations on this 50th Anniversary of this important chapter in your missionary history.

As you have set this missionary course these past 50 years, there continue to be many challenges, some sufferings, hardship and sacrifices that won’t go away — but there are blessings in abundance.

Vocations to the priesthood and religious life continue to flourish. The call to be missionary is exciting to many and is readily accepted by young people. Priesthood is not perceived primarily as a ceremonial vocation, but one of service, surrounded by a willingness to reach out “into the deep.”

I think of the marvelous example and call to serve as given by Archbishop Mar Joseph Kundukulam of the Archdiocese of Trichur. His legacy of countless social service and helping programs gave hope to the poor and disenfranchised. Having visited Trichur, I am inspired by his spirit, still alive and carried forward by Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, a dear friend who has honored me with a recent visit; Cardinal Alencherry, your major archbishop; and our dear brother, Cardinal-elect Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis, the major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Church.

I am also inspired greatly by Mar Joseph’s legacy in founding the Nirmala Dasi Sisters, who do heroic work with God’s special “little ones.” Their missionary hearts, their selfless giving is a towering beacon of service in the name of Jesus.

Their light is a beacon for vocations in your church.

There are countless religious sisters who are the “foot soldiers” of the Syro-Malabar Church. Their loving maternal affection, especially for children, gives the reassurance, the security and hope of Christ. They are catechists, formation directors, “adoptive mothers,” nurses and care givers; they are Christ.

Let me tell you about a little girl I met a few years ago here in India…

This 8-year-old girl came from an aboriginal area and was living at a hostel with some religious sisters — the only opportunity for her to receive an education. While there, she learned many hymns and songs of praise to Jesus and enjoyed learning about Jesus and his mother from the sisters.

While at home during school recess she was set upon by a group of fundamentalists, who accused her of proselytizing as she was heard to be singing songs to this Jesus. Her life was threatened and she was rescued, narrowly escaping bodily harm or even death for herself and her family.

I asked her: “Were you afraid when they threatened you?” She answered straightforwardly as she looked me in the eye and said, “No, because Jesus would watch over me.”

What a testimonial in faith from a little one not yet baptized, but led to Christ by the gentle and loving hearts of the sisters. And others want to follow in their footsteps; the Syro-Malabar Church continues to be blessed with many women choosing to be religious.

Your dynamic missionary spirit resonates at home and abroad, as it must. There is a real Pentecost spirit at work all over India.

I have been privileged to participate in a popular mission, presented by the Vincentian Fathers in Chenganassery. My hearing was a little impaired after four hours of high decibel shouting, giving praise, singing, testimonies, etc., but the fervor of the thousands of people present was dramatic and the whole thrust was missionary. It reiterated the mandate of Pentecost: “Go tell others what you know, he is risen! Alleluia!”

You present the missionary challenge very clearly to your people:

  • You do not apologize for our faith, as Pope Benedict reminded us in his recent exhortation to the church in the Middle East. You celebrate your faith through our life in Jesus.
  • You are not anonymous, you are followers of Christ, but you do not boast.
  • You welcome and offer unconditional service to everyone, just as Christ reached out to all. In the West, we have largely separated our faith from our good works.
  • You especially reach out to the poor, the lonely, the Dalit.

Ad Gentes — To the peoples of the world

First of all, in the vast mission territories of India, your missionary witness and presence is alive and well.

I am amazed and inspired that 24 Syro-Malabar bishops are serving in Latin dioceses in India, often with no recognition and little appreciation. This is an untold story, one that I personally share with audiences, especially in my own country. Almost 40 percent of diocesan priests serving in Latin dioceses in India are Syro-Malabar priests. And more than 60 percent of religious priests serving in Latin dioceses are Syro-Malabar.

The missionary outreach of the Syro-Malabar Church extends to every continent, to 36 countries. Three thousand religious sisters of the Syro Malabar Church serve outside of India, as do more than 1,200 priests, including 205 in my own country.

In some areas of the world, despite large numbers of Syro-Malabar faithful, you do not yet enjoy juridical status, but you do not retrench or retreat. You maintain your Christ-like service and missionary presence. You continue the legacy of St. Thomas. God continues to reward you with growth and vitality in your church and the refreshment of vocations.

In New York, I must comment on the missionary spirit of Father Jos Kandathikudy, Pastor of St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Church in the Bronx. At a recent celebration honoring the tenth anniversary of the parish, Cardinal Timothy Dolan and I, both privileged to join in this celebration, were overwhelmed by the dynamism of this young mission-minded parish and the Christ-like service of dear Father Jos. His missionary heart, as representative of the Syro-Malabar tradition, serves as a beacon to all of us in New York: Celebrate Pentecost, be happy, be faithful and respond to Christ. Go out into the deep.

We have just initiated a Year of Faith. Our Holy Father invites us to enter the “door of faith,” a life of communion with God, the journey of a lifetime.

He invites us, as Christ has called us, to leave everything behind to follow him, to be missionary.

In this call to be missionary, our Holy Father reminds us that faith without charity bears no fruit and charity without faith brings doubt. Charity and faith require each other. These are our walking orders to be effective missionaries.

We just concluded the Synod on New Evangelization, in which some of you participated. As Cardinal Alencherry has personally shared with me, perhaps there is nothing new about evangelization: just some humility needed to admit we have not done well the first time around or in evangelizing since Vatican II.

This reminds me of a commercial 15 to 20 years ago for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. As you have probably tasted them, Corn Flakes is the father of breakfast cereals, the simplest, most basic, probably the healthiest — no sugar coating, no chocolate covering, no nuts or yogurt flavoring — just simple corn flakes.

The commercial promoted the cereal with the motto: “Corn Flakes, try them again, for the first time.”

Maybe some have forgotten how good and tasty they are, how simple they are, how unadulterated. Maybe some have never even tried them. So: Try them again, for the first time.

Your church encourages all to experience the power of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Savior of the world. To those maybe in my country, in Europe or in foreign lands, your invitation as missionaries in this new evangelization to try the faith again for the first time is warm and inviting. Go and tell others: He is risen, Alleluia!

And to those who have never known this Jesus of Nazareth, the Syro-Malabar Church offers this bread of life to the hungry, the poor, the alienated and the forgotten.

There are many celebrations of interest today:

  • 50th Anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II.
  • 50th Anniversary of setting the missionary course in Chanda.
  • The anniversary marking the beginning of reclaiming and re-discovering your roots and your identity as an Eastern church.
  • The beginning of a Year of Faith.
  • The closing of the Synod on New Evangelization.
  • The closing of a Syro-Malabar Year of Mission, which gathers us here these days.

But more than anything else, this celebration is about Pentecost. Despite sufferings, sacrifices, disappointments, you maintain the countenance of Christ.

Thank you, brothers and sisters of the Syro-Malabar Church. You challenge the church universal to be as Christ, the supreme missionary, and as Mary, his mother, the missionary to the Apostles. You enkindle the spirit of St. Thomas, your father in faith.

Pentecost is alive. The Holy Spirit is burning in your hearts.

Cardinal Alencherry, dear bishops, priests, religious brothers and sisters and loving lay people — we who breathe from the other lung of the church, we love you and we need you.

Go tell the others: He is risen, Alleluia!

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