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Redefining Retirement

Kerala’s priests carry on

Seventy-three-year-old Father Joseph Manikath, the most recent arrival at St. Paul’s Home in Edakkunnu, India, sits uneasily on the edge of his bed as a staff member struggles to install satellite television in his new room. Despite the mundane nature of the task, Father Manikath appears anxious. One moment, he seems ready to lurch for the shiny metal walker at his side, get up and direct the worker. The next, he leans away, allowing Father Augustine Thenayan, his friend, colleague and the retirement home’s director, to manage the situation.

Only three days into his stay at St. Paul’s, Father Manikath is still struggling to adjust to his new home and chapter in his life.

“Am I happy to be retired? No, not yet,” he admitted. Settling into retirement has left the priest decidedly unsettled. “But this is now my home, so I have to be happy.”

For the fortunate few, retirement arrives without a hitch. The date has been marked on the calendar in advance for months, if not years. A lifetime worth of “mind-body-spirit” preparation has softened the potentially jarring change of life. The only surprise might be which long-lost friends show up at the send-off celebration.

But for many, retirement arrives abruptly — a company downsizing, a sudden quirky heart palpitation or, as in Father Manikath’s case, a misstep and the thud of a painful fall.

“I broke my leg nine months ago and couldn’t get around easily anymore,” said the priest, who for 35 years taught metaphysics and Indian philosophy to seminarians and on three separate occasions served as a pastor in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly. “I had no choice. I had to ask the bishop if I could retire.”

It has been said that the most reliable measure of a society’s humanity is how well it cares for its elderly. If this is true, then as far as Keralite society is concerned, the jury is still out.

Today, Kerala is at the forefront of a major demographic shift sweeping across India — a growing elderly population compounded by a declining number of young people.

Compared to other Indian states, Kerala has the greatest proportion of elderly persons. In 2001, more than a tenth of its population was 60 years of age or older. The University of Kerala’s Department of Demography predicts this number will rise to 16 percent by 2021 and to 30 percent by 2051.

To help explain the increase, they point to recent public health data, which indicate a greater life expectancy, lower birthrates, declining infant mortality, improved health care, better nutrition and higher literacy rates among the population.

Progress in so many crucial areas of human and social development has made Kerala the perennial poster child for the United Nations Development Program and torchbearer for its Human Development Index. For this, Keralites can hold their heads up high. By the same token, these improvements have generated a new set of social challenges, some of which make many Keralites hang their heads in shame.

According to the Kerala Aging Survey published by the Centre for Development Studies, the state operates the most nursing homes in India — an astonishing fact considering Keralites traditionally value close family ties. Historically, as Father Thenayan explained, “it was the duty of the children to assist their parents in retirement,” which in Kerala begins at the age of 55. But as more young people leave Kerala to pursue careers elsewhere and the number of dual- income households within Kerala increases, many aging parents are discovering they cannot count on Kerala’s age-old custom of family care in their golden years.

“It’s not normal for retirees to go to these nursing homes unless they have no family. But these days,” added Father Thenayan, pausing to collect his thoughts, “children aren’t doing well for their parents if they send their parents to nursing homes. Maybe they don’t see any other choice.”

While the jury may still be out for Keralite society when it comes to caring for the elderly, the verdict is in for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which is centered in the state.

The church has invested in facilities for its aging priests, building modern and well-equipped residences, such as St. Paul’s Home, and phasing out deteriorating ones, such as St. Joseph’s Home in the Eparchy of Irinjalakuda, which will be replaced by the Vianney Home in Puliuilakunnu.

The new residences provide retirees with modern amenities, comfortable living quarters, community support and various recreational activities. These retirement homes have even launched web sites. In caring for its elders, the church has made its position clear: retired clergy deserve the same dignity and respect they earned and enjoyed during their lifetime of service to the community and to the church.

Thanks in part to funding from CNEWA’s donors, St. Paul’s Home opened its doors in 2006. One of three such residences in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, St. Paul’s currently operates at only half its capacity. However, it will not be long before its 40-plus rooms are filled. In light of the facility’s superior quality and other economic considerations, the archeparchy plans to resettle retired priests from its other homes to St. Paul’s — “the best place for all priests to live,” suggested Father Thenayan.

The simple and modern facility is clean and spacious. The building surrounds a well-manicured courtyard garden, which residents can see from windows in their rooms. Rooms facing the back overlook vegetable gardens, rabbit cages and flower beds. Such an ideal picture of tranquillity is hard to find even in rural Kerala.

More than the facility’s modern amenities and scenic views, what makes St. Paul’s successful is its close ties to the adjacent Nazareth institutions — a beehive of activity. The complex includes Stella Maris Hospital, Nazareth School and six different homes serving the needs of orphaned infants and children, mentally disabled children, children with physical or developmental disabilities, single mothers and elderly laywomen.

Eager to work and interact with others, the retired priests at St. Paul’s offer whatever help they can. A dynamic, symbiotic relationship between the two communities has resulted, from which both benefit. With so many residents at the Nazareth institutions in need, and with so much work to be done, many of the priests living at St. Paul’s now run tight schedules. A nap, if there is time, is a remedy for fatigue, not an activity to help pass the time.

At the age of 72, Father Thenayan, St. Paul’s director, is not unlike the other retired priests. Several times a week, he makes the rounds at the Nazareth complex, visiting St. Antony’s Home, built in 1948, which houses 40 elderly women who never married nor have been able to support themselves. There, Baby Scalia, 90, enthusiastically awaits his stop at her bedside, where he sings to her from the hymnal she has written during her 55-year stay at the home.

Next, he pops in at St. Ann’s Home, where single mothers and other women live. He hears the confession of Mary Cachirakal, whose parents dropped her off at the home 20 years ago after giving up hope she would find a suitable husband.

And along the dirt paths between the various facilities, residents greet Father Thenayan and request his advice as though the stroll were his office hours. He counsels a young schoolgirl, comforts a retired sister of Nazareth and promises a hospital staff member to stop by later that evening.

The atmosphere at Joseph’s Home, 12 miles north of St. Paul’s, is markedly different though not at all desperate. Nap time has just ended for the more than 13 retired priests who live there and the afternoon’s activities are in full swing. Father Thomas Thadikkaren, the eldest at 87, retreats to the chapel with his prayer book. Father Rocky Vazhappilly, 76, discusses his highly successful eye-donation campaign with one of the two Samaritan sisters assigned to St. Joseph’s. And the spectacled Father Antony Irimpan, 81, plants himself at his desk to pen an article for the eparchial bulletin.

“I can’t write anymore with these,” he said, shaking his arthritic hands in the air. “So they send a volunteer here to help me.”

A group of priests settles around a nearby table and starts up a card game, aptly named Support. The game requires that the priests form pairs, usually composed of a younger and an older priest. Before long, the table comes to life. Cards fly at all angles and laughter fills the common area.

Formerly a residence for doctors, St. Joseph’s Home huddles among a cluster of buildings that make up St. James Hospital, a Syro-Malabar Catholic facility in Chalakudy. Converted in 1999 to house retired priests, it is a far cry from the idyllic yet engaging environment found at St. Paul’s, which most faithful would hope for men who have devoted their lives to service. The structure is old, poorly lighted and cramped. Its only advantage is that it offers convenient access to the hospital for the few priests in need of regular medical attention. But for now, it will do. It has to. St. Joseph’s is the only place the Eparchy of Irinjalakuda has for its 229 priests, 20 percent of whom have reached or are nearing the retirement age of 75.

“Right now, there’s only one home in our eparchy for retired priests. So as the priests get older, they have to live separately and alone in their parishes,” explained 38-year-old Father Binoy Pozholiparambil, supervisor of the Vianney Home project.

“We want them to be together near the center of the eparchy. But to do that, we need to build a new home.”

The Vianney Home represents the eparchy’s long-awaited solution to its retirement housing shortage. Slated to open early this year, the one-floor, 16-room facility will offer its residents clean and spacious living arrangements fully equipped with all the modern amenities.

Ten of the first residents are expected to relocate from St. Joseph’s. Over the next 10 years, provided adequate funding is available, a second-floor will be added to accommodate the projected increase of retiring priests.

Certainly not a card game, the project is unequivocally an act of “support.”

“To build this home, all of us — young and old — will work at it. Even on their vacation, our seminarians will come here for a month to do manual labor. They’ll help move these bricks and build this home,” Father Pozholiparambil said enthusiastically, pointing to a newly erected brick wall on the construction site. “It’s their way to help support the older priests.”

The blueprint for the Vianney Home project includes considerations beyond simply building a beautiful, restful home for retirees in a bucolic village.

“We selected this location because it’s next to the boys’ orphanage. The retired priests can tend to the needs of the boys at the orphanage and the boys can help the priests. They can support each other,” said the young priest. “In their old age, these priests can still engage with the children and guide them spiritually. The children are missing fathers and family guidance. The priests have an inner thirst for being a parent. So they’ll fill this role well.”

No matter how filled their daily calendars, the retired priests happily make time to indulge in what appears to be one of their favorite pastimes: sharing their reflections on India’s current transformation.

Who better than these men to provide valuable insight on Kerala’s development over the last 50 years? Throughout their lives, they have served the community, from the pulpit, in the confessional and through outreach and other social service activities. They have confronted head on society’s worst aspects and dedicated their lives to bringing out its best.

Now in retirement, they express their feelings freely, most notably on how many Keralites’ overarching drive for economic success has detracted from their spiritual growth and sense of togetherness.

“We used to depend on agriculture. We were farmers,” said Father Thadikkaren, who was ordained in 1963 and retired to St. Joseph’s in 2001. “Then in the 1980’s, young people started to move around. There was a lot of progress — social, industrial, economic — in Kerala. But now, everyone is studying computers and engineering and no longer working with their hands like their fathers. Today, the young people want more. I pray for their safety.”

Father Joseph Kavalakkat, who retired in 2006 at the age of 80, went further.

“People nowadays are not up to the mark. Christ was born poor, lived poor, died poor and was buried poor. We are not,” said the priest.

“But we should see Christ in the sick person, the homeless. We have moved far away from the real spirit of Christ. Here in Kerala, it is far better than other areas, but all of us need to improve.”

St. Paul’s newest resident, Father Joseph Manikath, was unabashedly confident when articulating his thoughts on faith in today’s Kerala.

“India’s prosperity and material wealth have consequences. Moral standards have declined and integrity has been lost.

“People get these jobs and start to make money. They think they’re saving themselves, but truthfully, they’re forgetting about God because their focus is elsewhere. That makes me sad.”

Many of these “retired” priests, exemplified by Father Manikath, do not simply talk idly. They put actions to their words, doing all they can for their parishes and communities, even in retirement.

“My desire, if my health is okay, is to teach youngsters the value of life,” said the priest, who plans to write at least two books in retirement. “I want to focus on moral values because I believe things are going from bad to worse. Our youngsters must learn a different way. Drugs and alcohol are diminishing their religious spirit. It’s up to us, the priests and sisters, to strengthen it.”

Retirement? Says who?

Award-winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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