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Blazing A New Path

Blazing A New Path

On the patio of the elegant Latin Archbishop’s House in Ernakulam, Kerala, overlooking the picturesque backwaters and the busy Marine Drive, is a white Innova Crysta, its metal logo and cross sparkling in the morning sun. All throughout the day, visitors walk in to have a glimpse of this multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) which has become the talk of the town. The reason?  Given to His Grace The Most Rev Dr Joseph Kalathiparambil when he assumed charge of the historic Archdiocese of Verapoly in December 2016, it will soon be auctioned and the proceeds will fund the efforts to rebuild the lives of flood victims. This epoch-making decision of the Archbishop came as a surprise to many when it was reported in the media on September 4. He also made it clear that in future, he would only use a smaller vehicle for his pastoral trips.

This small, but profound, gesture by the shepherd of more than three lakh souls, touched believers and non-believers alike. It was something quite unexpected, especially at a time when the Catholic Church in Kerala is in the dock for the counter-witness of some of its clergy and prelates. In fact, it is going through one of its most difficult phases since the crisis-ridden 19th century after facing fire and brimstone over an infamous land scam of Himalayan proportions and a nauseating rape allegation levelled against a bishop by a nun.

Archbishop Kalathiparambil’s humble example has come as the much-needed salve at the opportune moment to heal the wounds of the Church, bolstering its tarnished image and strengthening people’s faith. So much so brickbats have given way to bouquets of appreciation from all quarters, hailing his bold pastoral move, which emulates the style of Pope Francis whom he admires a lot.

As soon as his decision was made public, it was hailed by his flock as well as the clergy with all sincerity, prompting many to loosen their purse strings and join the archdiocesan efforts to rebuild devastated lives. It also inspired a layman of a prominent city parish to announce his intention to auction his Royal Enfield motorcycle and donate the entire amount to the archdiocesan fund to help people in flood-ravaged areas.

A couple of days before the decision to auction the vehicle was announced, the Archbishop gave a clarion call for action to help rehabilitate the flood-displaced people through a thought-provoking pastoral letter, calling for austerity measures and curtailing celebrations of all sorts. One of the major highlights was the cancelling of the iconic pilgrimage on foot to the Basilica of Our Lady of Ransom at Vallarpadam on the city outskirts. It has been an annual fixture ever since it began in the early years of the millennium. Instead, the money set apart for all such celebrations and events is to be handed over to the fund meant for flood victims.

In his spotless white cassock and a simple unadorned pectoral cross dangling from a steel chain around his neck, Archbishop Kalathiparambil comes across as a humble, down-to-earth person despite his erudition and a five-year stint in the Vatican as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants. It was evident when he welcomed this correspondent with a warm smile in the hallowed hall of his century-old residence, which has hosted three saints – Maximilian Kolbe, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa – for a tête-à-tête.

When asked about the reason for the decision to do away with his swanky vehicle, the Archbishop said, “One day, while at prayer, it suddenly struck me that I do not need such a big vehicle to go around. All I need is a small car. For long-distance travel, I prefer the train while for local trips the Maruti Ignis here is more than sufficient. When I shared my intention to auction the MPV and donate the money for rehabilitating flood victims, it was welcomed by the priestly fraternity.”

In fact, what made him firmly resolve to take this unusual step were the disturbing scenes of devastation he witnessed when the floods struck. Despite his frail health, he visited the flood-ravaged places of the archdiocese, especially far-flung islands, overseeing relief work carried out by the archdiocesan Ernakulam Social Service Society (ESSS) and consoling the people who lost all their possessions.

Regarding the role of the Church, especially the Archdiocese, in flood relief activities, the Archbishop, who hails from Vaduthala in Ernakulam, said the Church played a prominent role in undertaking relief work contrary to what many detractors claim, providing supplies worth crores of rupees. In fact, in flood-ravaged parts of Ernakulam and Thrissur districts, the archdiocese itself played a key role in providing supplies and opening relief camps when disaster struck.

When the flood alert was sounded, he lost no time in issuing guidelines to diocesan establishments, including convents, monasteries and seminaries, to open their doors to flood victims. One of the first places he visited despite insurmountable odds was Kuttikattukara, where lay organisations, priests and nuns did exemplary service in reaching out to the displaced folks. He also paid glowing tributes to the role of the fishermen from his archdiocese as well as elsewhere who risked life and limb in saving lives, exhibiting genuine Christian charity.

The Archbishop said they were able to provide close to Rs 12 crore worth of materials to the displaced people in 212 relief camps out of which 110 were manned by the archdiocese. “In one of the camps, a person came to me in tears and said he lost everything in the flood and he and his family had nowhere to return once the water receded. This troubled my mind and that was how the archdiocese stepped up rehabilitation activities,” said Archbishop Kalathiparambil, who served as chancellor (1989-1996) and vicar general (1996-2002) of Verapoly before being elevated to the episcopate in 2002. He served as bishop of Kozhikode diocese in north Kerala from 2002 to 2011 when he was called to the Vatican.

When asked about the response from the parishes, the Archbishop said it was tremendous, hailing the magnanimity of the countless good Samaritans. “They chipped in whole-heartedly. In one island parish, the masons came forward, pledging their free labour to help rebuild houses. Many parishes spared by the calamity volunteered to provide succour to flood-ravaged parishes. Some churches in safer areas decided to adopt churches damaged in the deluge and help restore them. The support has even spilled over to the families of those localities irrespective of religious differences,” said Archbishop Kalathiparambil. “What was really edifying was the response of the people, who stood shoulder-to-shoulder to reach out to their less fortunate brethren,” he added with a smile.

The impact of the Archbishop’s video message when the flood struck and his pastoral letter was so profound that one prominent parish in the city decided to virtually cancel its titular feast this year and use the money saved to build five houses for the displaced. Another parish broke with tradition by deciding to sell the thiruvabharanam (ceremonial gold jewellery adorning the statue of the patron during the feast day). The 25-sovereign golden chains of the Blessed Virgin and the Infant Jesus will be sold and the money will be donated for rehabilitating flood victims. The Archbishop’s decision has also impacted parishes in other dioceses as well.

On long-term plans to rehabilitate the displaced, Archbishop Kalathiparambil said a plan of action has to be prioritised for a long-term rehabilitation process. He said under the auspices of ESSS, 15 teams of special volunteers comprising members of lay organisations have been dispatched to parishes ravaged by the flood to assess the extent of damage and classify them according to its severity. “Once they submit the details, we have to prioritise our plan of action. In the meantime, we have to mobilise the maximum resources,” he said.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say the Archbishop has the smell of his sheep, to borrow the words of Pope Francis. Perhaps, it is his admiration for the ‘Francis style’ in pastoral outreach that inspired him to introduce strict austerity measures.

“During the meeting of the clergy, I have made it clear that I am not in favour of celebrations or any display of pomp. During pastoral visits, I only need to be greeted by the vicar and his assistant at the main entrance of the church with an aspergillum. I will bless myself and then all the others before proceeding to the altar. No band, procession and garlanding,” he said.

At a time when Pope Francis’ exhortation to exercise modesty while building churches and other establishments is yet to make an impact on the country, especially in Kerala, Archbishop Kalathiparambil is very vocal in his opposition to spending a pile on extravagant churches and oratories.

“Of course, we need good churches and presbyteries. But, one should not cross the limits and indulge in luxury. If we do so, it will be against the Christian witness. I have made it clear in the meetings with priests. The plan and estimate of churches have to be presented in the curia and they are handed over to the body of consultants and construction committee, where I have a voice. I tell them to keep it simple,” he said.

“One should remember Our Lord is present in the tabernacle of churches, but, at the same time, He is also present in the humble abode of the poor. The dignity and decorum of the sacred liturgy have to be kept, but opulence should be avoided. People should be sensitised gradually and the competitive spirit in building church edifices should be curbed,” he said as he toyed with his pectoral cross.

As a message to the Church in India in general, he said everyone should reflect on the words of Pope Francis who said ‘The church is a poor church for the poor’. “Similarly, Pope John Paul II in Ecclesia in Asia said, in seeking to promote human dignity, the Church shows a preferential love of the poor and the voiceless, because the Lord has identified himself with them in a special way. To ignore them would mean becoming like the rich man who pretended not to know the beggar Lazarus at his gate. That is the mission of the Church,” he emphasised.

Many members of the laity like veteran journalist and author Ignatius Gonsalves feel the Archbishop’s radical approach to reach out to the marginalised and the deprived sections of society during these dark, troubled times will be a beacon for other church leaders. Verapoly Archdiocese Chancellor Fr Ebigin Arackal said the clergy too are happy with the leadership of the Archbishop, who has genuine concern for the welfare of his flock. He also pointed out the Archbishop had initiated the Snehabhavanam scheme for the homeless and the Asakiranam project for cancer patients soon after taking over.

(Published on 10th September 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 37)