After completing my public education, I decided it was better to live for Christ, Father John Kalluvilayil said. It had been only one month since Father John, 26, had been ordained and sent to serve a cluster of parishes in the highlands of southern Kerala.
As is customary, he was working alongside an older priest. After a year, he would go out on his own. But for now he was assisting Father Edison Thomas Pallivadakkethil, 30.
We have taken promises of chastity, poverty and obedience, Father Edison said. But this was a choice of ours, not a deprivation, but an exercise of freedom.
Father Edisons name originated from his fathers newspaper reading. He came across the name of the inventor Thomas Edison, and even though he did not know who this American was, the name stuck with him.
Father Edison was in the middle of a long discussion of the challenges, both personal and professional, of his work. As often happens during a talk with the bearded priest, his eyes grew mischievous and his lips curled into a smile.
Without Gods help, though, we would not have the strength against the call of human nature, he said. That is why I say, God, show me your beautiful face or else I will search for other beautiful faces.
As Father John fidgeted, Father Edison erupted with laughter.
Sitting in the foyer of their simple rectory, a small concrete house, the priests sipped coconut water and prepared for Sunday liturgy at their compound in the town of Vattakarickam. Services would be held at St. Mary SyroMalankara Catholic Church, the largest of the compounds three buildings.
This Sundays duties were a welcome respite from the heavy travel of most Sundays, when they celebrate six liturgies three each driving 20 miles of winding dirt roads between churches. All told, about 1,000 people attend the priests Sunday liturgies.
But about once a month, Father Edison and Father John concelebrate at St. Marys, host a feast and arrange classes for children. About 200 parishioners attend and the festivities end in the late afternoon. And this Sunday, they would be joined by Father Abraham Parappallil, a catechist.
Fathers Edison and John live in relative isolation, far from the bustle of Trivandrum, the state capital and the seat of the SyroMalankara Catholic Church, where both spent 10 years at St. Marys Seminary.
Life is ascetic. There are no sizable towns nearby, just farmland and small, poor lowcaste communities.
Both priests rarely see their families, who live between 30 and 60 miles away, an imposing distance by dirt roads especially during the rainy season.
When I first came here four years ago, I was bored, said Father Edison, who like Father John had an urban, middleclass upbringing. I am an energetic person. But now, I feel that the nature that surrounds us has something to tell me. When the sun rises through the forest each morning, it puts me in a meditative mood.
In the morning, before the faithful arrived, Father Edison visited some of the villages in the area. The villages are poor, typically a collection of huts clustered around a well.
There are mainly lowcaste Hindus in the area, Father Edison said.
Bhorathannoor Ambeaker Harigen Colony is home to 700 families, 100 of whom are Catholic and the remainder Hindu. Most of the Catholics entered the church about 10 years ago, the priests said.
The villagers live in small brick homes they have one or two rooms each and the roofs are made of coconut leaves. There is a lone, tiny convenience store in the village, which sells a few staple goods and packets of candy that are popular with the children.
There is a general lack of education in the area, Father John said back at St. Marys. There is a lot of unemployment and most people are small farmers who work only here and there throughout the year. That is why we try to introduce programs such as basket weaving or making other handicrafts.
In Keralas larger cities Trivandrum and Cochin the poor and unemployed can be found outside libraries reading the local newspaper, staying abreast of the political scene. But in rural areas, many villagers are illiterate.
The government provides some primary education, but then these people are abandoned, Father John said. We go to these neglected places and try to meet their needs, organize classes and training sessions in basket weaving, but what these people really need is a school.
As priests, it is important that they respect the tribal traditions of the people they serve, Father Edison said. We cannot change these customs that they have.
They have been practicing some of their traditions for many generations, traditions that may come from Hinduism or have pagan origins. But we can incorporate Christ into their lives.
That is why they allow us to bring them the teachings of Jesus, Father Edison continued. We are not seen as outsiders, trying to make slaves out of them. We are part of the community and help them with many needs, spiritual and otherwise.
At St. Marys, Father Edisons Sunday liturgy was set to begin. Two hundred feet from the church, children finished their Bible lessons in an exposedbrickandconcrete classroom, cramming onto low wooden benches. Nearby, rice was cooking in a huge caldron suspended above an open fire. Coconut trees dotted the compound, and roosters scampered about.
Gradually, the parishioners filed into St. Marys, leaving their shoes outside. The women sat on the right, the men on the left. The division of the sexes is a common feature in much of India, not just in church.
Father Edison stood before them as Father John sat with the congregation and translated. He is telling them about the importance of Sunday liturgy, Father John whispered.
There are many obstacles to coming, I know, Father Edison said. But you must overcome them and come to church so that you may have a union with God.
Gently, and with a smile, he also chided the congregation for its behavior in church. You must come on time, not during the middle of my preaching. And do not use this time to sleep.
Then, Father Edison proceeded to the meat of his sermon, extolling Jesus love for his followers and entreating them to love him back.
Later in the day, Father John would celebrate the liturgy. But first, over lunch, he contemplated his life in the church.
Our forefathers were Christians, said Father John, who, like many Eastern Christians in Kerala, traces his faith to the Apostle Thomas, who brought Christs teachings to India. And in my family, there are many priests.
During my 10 years in minor and major seminary, I had plenty of opportunity to think about the life I was choosing, and I am at peace with my decision, Father John continued.
Father Edison also recalled fondly his years in the seminary.
During formation, I often thought, What is the point of this, he said. We were washing out bottles, cooking, working the fields. We did not get this sort of experience growing up with our families. It was tough work.
But if we did not get the meaning then, we do now, working here in these rural, tribal areas, Father Edison continued. We were trained to live as one with the people we are serving.
Just as they were formed in the seminary, they have continued to learn in the field, Father John said. If we want to communicate our faith, we must study the people. They have their own customs, traditions, way of life and language.
After his year with Father Edison, Father John will get his own posting, perhaps replacing his mentor who will rotate to another tribal area.
We rotate every five years, Father John said. But I hope to remain in these tribal areas, because it is where I can make best use of my experience. I love the people and they need us so much.
Paul Wachter is Assistant Editor of ONE magazine.