A trailblazer from India stopped by our New York office this morning for a visit: Syro-Malankara Bishop Jacob Barnabas Aerath.
CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, described a visit to the bishop’s home turf, what he calls “The Great North,” a few years ago:
The great call of these churches is to reach out to the real mission territory of India: The spiritual sons and daughters of the Apostle Thomas have undertaken a new missionary thrust to evangelize the “unreached” in the northern half of India.
On a series of visits with my hosts — a team of humble priests, religious sisters and lay leaders, including catechists — I have experienced firsthand this new approach to missionary life in India. It is happening not by building schools, erecting clinics or developing social service projects, but simply by humbly living with the poor. This means no formal structures — no buildings per se — but living, breathing witnesses of Christ who share with the poor the love that God has for all, giving them a sense of hope and belonging.
Cultural and political sensitivities prohibit me from sharing with you where some of these visits have taken place, but I can tell you what I experienced. I met humble, tribal people. Many were not of any caste (thus, they are literally outcasts) and all of them were hungry to learn about Jesus. They felt very comfortable and loved by the priests, sisters and lay leaders who were sharing their faith with the poor.
I may have been the first North American to have ever visited them — and these beautiful, spiritually thirsty souls made me feel most welcome by making the sign of the cross and praying with me (in their local language) the Lord’s Prayer. This is where I really choked up; at that moment I felt that God truly was the father of us all. They reminded me of this tenet of my faith.
We got a great sense of that faith from Mar Barnabas, whose zeal and joy enlivened our office. He shared with us stories of the tremendous sacrifice and sense of mission that animate the Christians in his diocese — men and women, mostly lay people, who carry the message of the Gospel to people who may never before have heard the name of Jesus.
Often, these lay catechists teach and lead liturgies in an atmosphere of great risk.
“I tell them,” the bishop said, “at maximum you may lose your head. Get ready for it! And they respond, ‘We are ready!’”
The region he serves in northern India is very humble — he himself has no chancery, no house, no income beyond a modest budget to make ends meet. He described visiting one mission in his diocese and sleeping on the floor. But again and again, he reminded us of the faith that sustains and inspires his flock.
He told us about one man who isn’t a physician, yet people call him “the doctor,” and bring him anyone who is sick. He prays with them and for them—and often, that is enough.
“He tells them, ‘I have just one medicine,’” Mar Barnabas explained with a smile. “‘Prayer and fasting!’”
To spend time with this bishop — whom Msgr. Kozar described as “my younger brother”— is to be reminded of the missionary roots of our faith, and how that kind of fervor, even in times of great difficulty and challenge, continues to bear witness to the Gospel today.