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Witnesses to a Poor Christ

India’s Malabar Missionary Brothers lead a simple life, following in the footsteps of St. Francis.

“Christ was a rich man who became poor,” said Brother Louis, Superior General of the Malabar Missionary Brothers. “St. Francis remained a brother, although the pope asked him to become a priest. Money and prestige, as well as holy ambition, are a temptation for many who become priests. Sometimes this becomes a danger, so we gladly remain brothers to be better witnesses of a poor Christ.”

This answered my impertinent question, “Why be a brother when you could be a priest?”, posed during a recent visit to the Malabar Missionary Brothers at their center in Trichur, Kerala.

These religious brothers of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, who take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, number more than 200 and devote themselves to evangelization and serving the poor. Founded in 1948, the Malabar Missionary Brothers adopted the spirituality and lifestyle of St. Francis of Assisi and his followers while absorbing a missionary spirit from St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Today, the community administers 18 houses in India, 12 of which are in Kerala and 6 in the northern Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

An intelligent, soft-spoken man, Brother Louis explained that by following in the footsteps of St. Francis, “our congregation, right from the beginning, placed a stress on charitable services. Our field of activities embraces the least brethren and tries to help them in the various neglected areas of life.”

The community operates a home for elderly men, various orphanages, a school for mentally handicapped children, a health care ministry, a hospital, a number of dispensaries, prison ministries for juvenile criminals and technical education centers for underprivileged boys and girls.

The House of Providence at Irinjalakuda, Kerala, houses some 70 men aged 60 to 95. The only requirement for admittance is that they be over 60 and poor; they can be of any religious background. Most of the patients at the House of Providence are ill, and nine brothers take care of all their needs, including nursing, cleaning, cooking and bathing. A few brothers are trained in geriatric nursing, and their duties rotate according to their talents. Varghese, who is 73, is one resident of the house; he has lived there for two years. Unmarried, Varghese explained that he had no one to look after him as he got older. Now he feels safe and cared for; he is very satisfied with his new home.

The Malabar Missionary Brothers also run the Karunarlyan Boys Home, which is located in a rural area. Run by Brother Abraham, it is home to 75 boys ages 6 to 16, all from very poor families. Here the boys are given educational opportunities they would never otherwise receive. The construction of the home was largely financed by CNEWA; the boys attend a local Syro-Malabar Catholic school. They receive extra tuition help from the brothers, as well as an opportunity to play sports such as football, cricket and volleyball. Also available are facilities for dance, theater and music, including the harmonium and tabla drums. On Sundays the boys watch a video in Malayalam, the vernacular of Kerala. Christian boys attend catechism, moral education and rosary, though many of the non-Christians join the classes too. Eventually, Christian boys go out into the community to teach catechism and visit families, among whom they create prayer circles. Some of the boys have entered religious life; so far the Karunarlyan Boy’ Home has produced eight priests and two brothers. An additional 11 boys are now studying in the seminary.

Thirteen-year-old Joman Joseph has been at the home for eight years. He would like to become a brother himself one day, and “work in the missions in north India where I can help the poor.” Sanskrit and social science are his favorite subjects. Vinu, 16, has lived at the home for six years; his favorite subject is Hindi.

“I like being around boys my age, as well as having an opportunity to study and play cricket,” Vinu explains. “I want to be a taxi driver when I grow up,” he added.

In Trichur the brothers run vocational training workshops for boys who have been in trouble with the law. The police appreciate the benefits offered by the brothers, who visit the prisons regularly and urge the police to give the boys to them. The boys are provided with training and later, in many cases, full employment at their metal workshop or Saint Mary’ Art Studio, often called simply the Statue Factory.

The Statue Factory is an extraordinary place where 18 students under three instructors churn out a steady stream of religious artifacts in plaster and wood, which are sold all over India and even abroad. It is a nonprofit venture, and the prices are very low – in some cases, free.

The large workshop was full of students busy at work; images of Christ, Mary and the saints, statues as well as icons, are produced to exacting standards. Nearby a printing press run by the brothers caters to the needs of their congregation, the Trichur Archdiocese and the public as well. Maryvijayam Monthly Magazine, published by the community, is a prominent Catholic journal in Kerala. It acts as the official organ of the Christian Life Communities of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and has earned the respect of Christians throughout Kerala.

Vinoj, 15, is a bright boy who described candidly the hard road that brought him to happiness at the Statue Factory. From a poor family, Vinoj’s father died four years ago, so his mother re-married. Vinoj’s alcoholic stepfather beat him severely, so he left home for a life of begging and sleeping on the streets of Trichur. Police picked him up and took him to a juvenile home, where he fought frequently with his peers. Finally, the police brought him to the Malabar Brothers. Today Vinoj is an apprentice with a bright future.

Though the brothers aspire to live a simple life, becoming a brother is not simple. It takes nine years of rigorous formation. For the first year one is an aspirant. The second year is spent as a postulant. This is followed by two years as a novice, which leads to one’s first profession. Then there are an additional five years in the juniorate, during which specialized training in academic or technical fields often occurs. Finally, one professes final vows.

Alvernia Ashram is the aspirant and postulant house where young men, many of whom are still adolescents, begin this way of life. Aspirant Denny, 21, explains his attraction to the lifestyle:

“I like to follow Jesus and the way of our patron, St. Francis. We follow a simple life, our motto being ‘evangelize through humble service.’ I was originally from the Latin [Roman] Catholic community, but joined the Malabar Brothers because I was attracted to their activities, such as working with the aged and the poor. From the beginning we have a chance to be with the people and work with them. I like that.”

Benny, 32, is a mature student. For years he worked for an electronics company before joining the Malabar Missionary Brothers. His faith developed after experiencing a miracle.

“I was living and working in the ‘real world,’ but became ill with lymphatic cancer. I went on retreat to the Syro-Malabar Divine Retreat Center, where my sickness was completely cured, even though doctors said I would need a major operation and that my chances of survival were slim. It was a miracle! From that day I was inspired to pursue the religious life, so I joined the Malabar Brothers.”

Brother Edwin runs Alvernia Ashram. “In addition to spiritual development, manual labor is essential here,” he explained.

“We have four acres of arable land and do all our own farm work, growing rice, coconuts, vegetables and bananas. We keep two cows for milk and raise chickens. We also have local community support, which helps us with donations and volunteer work. Sometimes we help the community with projects, too, such as repairing roofs.

“We are always welcome in the outside community; the people often see us at work, and respect us for that.”

After their two years in Alvernia, aspiring brothers move on to the Apostolate House at Peechi, near Trichur. Again they continue with a busy life that combines labor in the fields with an intensive spiritual routine.

During my visit, the juniorates participated in a beautiful candle ceremony known in Sanskrit as aarathi. Brother Joseph explained that “God is Light” and that the young men, kneeling before an altar and holding candles cupped in their hands, were renewing their profession. In another chapel, perpetual adoration was taking place.

“Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament,” Brother Joseph explained, “so we adore him, bless him and praise him and beg pardon for ourselves and others.”

The brothers, who rotate in one-hour shifts from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. on weekdays and overnight on Saturdays, engage in continuous prayer and Bible study before the reserved Eucharist.

Having joined the order in 1949, the Superior General, Brother Louis, hails from the first group of Malabar Brothers. He is grateful for his 50 years as a religious, living a humble and simple life and dedicating himself to the poor.

“I can enjoy freedom and peace of mind,” he reflected. “God has rewarded me one hundred fold. I am very happy and feel that I have taken the right path,” he continued with a smile.

Following in St. Francis’ footsteps and making a conscious decision not to be priests, the Malabar Missionary Brothers follow a simple rule, although the road to brotherhood is just as long and challenging as that of the priesthood. In Brother Louis’ words, “We gladly remain brothers to witness better a poor Christ.”

Sean Sprague frequently travels to India for Catholic Near East.

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