CNEWA

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Bathery: A Highly Charged Diocese

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Eparchy of Bathery opens new doors for its people.

In the 1970s, in search of a better tomorrow, central and southern Kerala’s SyroMalankara Catholics uprooted themselves and pitched their tents in the western mountains, foothills and plains of northern Kerala and the neighboring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

These pioneers fought wild animals, inclement weather and communicable diseases. Their settlements lacked facilities for such basic amenities as churches, schools, medical centers and marketplaces. To worship, study, treat an illness, shop or work, they had to trudge through miles of dirt tracks, fields and forests. They were a people deprived of the infrastructure necessary to uplift themselves culturally, economically, intellectually, socially and spiritually.

These early struggles took a heavy toll. Some survived and prospered; others remained on the fringe, farming small plots of land and peddling minor wares; still others failed. Nevertheless, these Syro-Malankara Catholics had an indomitable spirit, a yen for hard work and hope.

The spiritual and pastoral needs of this diaspora were initially met by the Diocese of Tiruvalla in central Kerala. The late Zacharias Mar Athanasios, Bishop of Tiruvalla, sent zealous priests to minister to the people and to organize church centers.

The church grew in strength and number and the dream of the people to have an ecclesial center of their own and a shepherd to lead them began to take shape. This dream was realized when the Holy See erected the Diocese of Bathery in October 1978 and consecrated Cyril Mar Baselios as its first bishop later that year.

The vast territory of the new diocese presented unlimited challenges. Diocesan leaders sought to understand the needs and expectations of the people through regular meetings and frequent socioeconomic surveys. This holistic approach embraced the ecclesial, sociopsychological, economic, political and educational spheres. These thrusts stimulated the fledgling diocese, generating a vigorous church.

To meet its pastoral needs, however, the diocese needed personnel and therefore opened a minor seminary. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life were actively encouraged. Today, Geevarghese Mar Divannasios, who replaced Cyril Mar Baselios in February after the latter was appointed the Metropolitan Archbishop of Trivandrum, takes a keen interest in the educational and spiritual life of the 45 seminarians enrolled in St. Mary’s Seminary in Trivandrum, of which he was once Rector.

In order to build on the pastoral and social dimensions of the parish, emphasis was laid on faith formation, which is continuous and Christocentric.

Strategies for evangelization were devised. “Seek the Kingdom of God” is the motto for catechetical work among children aged five to 18. This work seeks to build a strong foundation through an organized network of Sunday school classes in all parishes and mission stations. Priests, volunteer teachers and children are provided with training programs, camps and seminars to enhance the curriculum and methodology. Their efforts are directed to letting the children come to know Christ, to experience him, to follow him, to witness him and to incarnate him in their lives. This program is coordinated by “Srothas,” or the Source, a central office located in the city of Sultan’s Bathery, which was named after the munitions depot of the sultan. More than 800 trained teachers provide Christian faith formation and values to some 6,000 children.

Forming the young into responsible adults and committed Christians requires guidance, counseling and channeling the children’s talents and energies in a creative manner. The diocesan youth center, “Pratheeksha,” or Hope, functions as a catalyst in this process.

Parents, however, are the primary models and teachers of their children. God centered families create a vibrant parish community. To foster the development of these role models, parents are provided with several forums to discuss parenting problems, religious upbringing and the moral and ethical issues of everyday life.

To inculcate the habit of reading the word of God and proclaiming it in the family, the diocese has started a Bible program entitled “Place a Bible in Every Home.” Regular scripture classes and seminars at the parish, district and diocesan levels have reinforced the centrality of God’s word in daily life.

Along with these evangelization and evangelization activities, the diocese has stressed the importance of the Reunion Movement.

India’s Christian Church is apostolic, tracing its origins to the work of the Apostle Thomas. For more than 1,500 years these Thomas Christians, while hierarchically dependent on the Assyrian Church of the East, maintained communion with the Church of Rome. In 1653, in response to the Portuguese impositions of the Council of Diampur, which restricted the rights and privileges of the Thomas Christians, a group of Thomas Christians severed communion with the Church of Rome and accepted the Christology, liturgy and rites of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

In 1930, two bishops of this Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church reaffirmed their communion with the Church of Rome, thus creating the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The untiring efforts of the Syro-Malankara clergy and laity have restored thousands of families to the Catholic fold.

This has led to the establishment of many new parishes and mission stations. The fruit of hard work is very visible in Bathery diocese. Within a span of 19 years, parishes and mission stations increased from 43 to 110 and the number of parishioners, from 8,500 to 23,118. Some 60 new churches and 19 new presbyteries have been built since the inception of the diocese.

The founding bishop, Cyril Mar Baselios, strongly believed that his people would be liberated from oppression and exploitation through education. Even in the most inaccessible areas, schools and educational facilities were provided. In 1979 the diocese had just five schools; today, the diocese claims one college, two technical schools, five high schools, 26 grade schools and 27 kindergartens.

Creation of a just society based on Gospel values is the vision of “Shreyas,” or Prosperity, the social wing of the diocese.

Having internalized a development philosophy that is people-based and people-led, Shreyas believes not in people having more but in people being more, in a society where justice, equality, community concern and growth opportunities for all prevail.

Programs and services offered by Shreyas are open to all, regardless of creed and caste. These programs reach out through community organization, development, education, health, leadership training, relief and research.

The people’s participation at all levels is the hallmark of the programs and services provided by the diocesan social service agency. This participation has ensured viability, stability and continuity in all its activities. At the village or hamlet level, people are organized in farm clubs, women’s associations, credit cooperatives and other interest groups. There are 450 organizations, each having 200 to 250 members. These organizations have planned, implemented and sustained various socioeconomic and health programs in collaboration with local and other development agencies. Through these groups the diocese has played a leading role in fostering education and literacy, thus empowering the poor, particularly the dispossessed rural poor in the tribal regions.

Until recently, the lifestyles of these sons and daughters of the land were uniquely integrated and interwoven into nature; they were a self-reliant people. Internal migration and countercultural values have contributed to the erosion of their traditional culture, economy and values. Taking these factors into account, the diocese has invested a significant amount of personnel and funds to study this scenario and to devise a comprehensive action plan to ease the tribal peoples from dispossessed poverty.

Shreyas works among 22,000 tribals spread about in 135 hamlets. They meet in groups in CNEWA-funded community centers. Along with various developmental and health care activities, the diocese conducts three grade schools and 14 nursery schools, providing formal education for the dispossessed tribal children.

This diocesan program has commissioned a group of experts to prepare textbooks in tribal languages geared for the primary level. No agency or government has attempted to give written shape to the spoken languages of the tribal peoples. A curriculum in their own language would encourage children to complete their basic education. Preparation is also underway to compile a tribal language dictionary to assist teachers and students.

In recognition of the literacy achievements of this diocesan program, the government of Kerala bestowed the Literacy Campaign Award in 1993.

Just as the whole world is at the threshold of a new millennium, the people of the Diocese of Bathery are looking toward the creation of a new milieu wherein everyone lives in a humane and humanized society. The Syro-Malankara Catholic community serves as a leaven and a nucleus to this new society that is multireligious, multicultural and multilingual.

Father Varghese Mattamana is Executive Director of Shreyas.

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