PALAYOOR, India (CNS) — A lone figure walked up the dusty road ahead of the thousands of pilgrims who had stopped for a few minutes at the parish in the town of Puranattukara. A third of the way through the 18-mile trek, Chacko Kakkassery did not want to stop lest he fall too far behind the rest of the throng.
“I am finding it difficult to keep pace with them,” Kakkassery, 51, told Catholic New Service March 21 as he trudged ahead toward the shrine of St. Thomas the Apostle at Palayoor in southern Kerala state. “So when they slow down, I keep walking.”
Kakkassery was one of an estimated 50,000 pilgrims making at least part of the arduous pilgrimage under a blazing sun from Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral of the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Trichur to the shrine.
“Since I attended the pilgrimage the first time eight years ago, I have not missed it,” Kakkassery said. “It is painful to walk all the way but it a joy to do this as I am walking to the land sanctified by the apostle who brought the faith in Christ to us.”
Kakkassery lives not far from the shrine — six miles. But he boarded a bus at dawn near his home to get to the cathedral in time for the pilgrimage’s 7 a.m. start. He said he wanted to make the entire pilgrimage on foot.The pilgrimage followed the main roads before passing through rural areas on the way to the shrine in the town where the “doubting” apostle established the first Christian church in India.
St. Thomas landed at ancient port of Crangannore — now known as Kodungallur — in A.D. 52 and later traveled by boat to Palayoor where he baptized India’s first Christians. The church followed.
The shrine is a revered site for the country’s Christians. Several monuments mark the remnants of the church St. Thomas built, his landing spot on the nearby shore and the baptismal font where the first Christian converts were baptized.
Parishes along the route erected colorful banners depicting the Stations of the Cross. Priests carried the banners to a neighboring parish on the pilgrimage route.
Participants recited the rosary and reflected on the way of the cross as they walked. Some carried wooden crosses. Eager volunteers awaited them at parish stops with water, watermelons and buttermilk.
Besides the main “pada yatra” (foot march), four smaller marches — covering distances of up to 22 miles — converged at Palayoor by 4 p.m. The gathering marked the conclusion of the Year of Faith celebrations of the archdiocese.
The record heat — temperatures hovered near 104 — failed to deter the people making the pilgrimage. Participants said they wanted to offer make the trek as a Lenten sacrifice as well as to demonstrate the depth of their faith.
“I have never missed this pilgrimage since it was started (in 1998),” Sunny Panengadan told CNS as he waited at his parish in Puranattukara — 12 miles from the shrine — for the pilgrimage to arrive before joining it. “I join this march as an act of penance during Lent. We are walking to the sacred soil where the seed of Christian faith was sown in India.”
Sheila Jojo Chalakkal, a school teacher, was not sure if she would complete the grueling trek when she took part in it for the first time in 2007.
“Four three days, I could not move and could not go to school after that,” she recalled.
With that bitter memory, she would decide every year not to participate in the pilgrimage when the pilgrimage was announced in her parish.
“But when the day came, I would change my mind and participate. This is the fourth year I am attending the pilgrimage,” she said.Retired Syro-Malabar Archbishop Jacob Thoomkuzhy told CNS he initiated the pilgrimage in 1998 “to awaken the people’s interest in the apostolic legacy and heritage of the shrine.”
“It is a joy for me to see that the pilgrimage has become a movement to assert our faith,” said Archbishop Thoomkuzhy, who walked the entire pilgrimage route on Good Friday in 2009 at the age of 79.
At the conclusion of the pilgrimage, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Trichur congratulated the throng for their determination to conclude the long, hot procession prior to celebrating Mass.
“This is a fitting finale to our Year of Faith,” he said.