Ordinations in India

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Fr. Thomas, district superior of India; Fr. Heiner Wilmer, superior general; Bishop Gali Bali and Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, general councilor

Fr. Tom Cassidy writes from India:

Yesterday was ordination day for four of our deacons to the priesthood and two SCJs as deacons. Bishop Gali Bali of Guntur said this was the first time that he has ordained both orders together. It did add a bit of time to the ceremony but I don’t think it really would have alter the three hour ceremony by very much if at all.

Fr. Michael Benedict, scj, the district treasurer, made plans to feed 1,000 people and he told me near the end of the evening that the catering company had to prepare additional food. When we began the Mass at 5:30 pm, I was not sure we’d be feeding 500 people let alone 1,000 but slowly the place filled up so that by the time we reached the end of Mass sometime after 8:30 pm the chairs were full and some had already begun lining up to eat.

Many of our students from Eluru made the trip though they had to take the public bus. That can turn out to be a three-hour trip depending on what bus they are able to catch. It also meant they had a three-hour trip back at the end of the evening. With that in mind except for those brothers staying for Sunday’s Thanksgiving Mass for Frs. Kishore, scj, and Suresh, scj in their home village of Kanaparru the rest left soon after finishing their meal. I think it was around 9:30 pm, which would get them to Eluru around 12:30 am unless they caught an express bus.

It’s now 6:00 pm as I didn’t have time to finish this before we left for the Mass of Thanksgiving by Fr. T. J. Kishore Babu, scj and Fr. G. Surest Babu, scj who hail from Kanaparru about 90 minutes from here. Traffic and the number of small villages we had to go through is what makes for the time rather then any real long distance — more about their Sunday celebration tomorrow.

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Dinner with the bishop

As for the ordinations, they went well. I did notice four things that we would not see in an ordination done in the US. First, the procession in was led by a drum group from the village of Fr. Dumala Raju, scj, and it was loud and large! Second, the offertory procession included not only the bread and wine and cup to be used at the Mass but many people brought fruits, rice, vegetables, communion wafers, etc., as offertory gifts. Third a small group of sisters did a dance offering, light (a candle), incense and flowers at the end of the Eucharistic prayer and before the Our Father. Fourth, before the Mass ended there were many thanks to be given out and guests honored with flowers and a shawl. Finally another dance, this one coming out of the Hindu tradition was performed in front of the honored guests.

After the Mass the mass feeding began. I was asked to have supper with Bishop Gali Bali and Fr. General and Fr. Steve Huffstetter, scj, along with Fr. Thomas Vinod, scj, (district superior) and Fr. Jesús Manuel Baena, scj (rector) of Dehon Premanilayam, minor seminary (Gorantla).

Bishop Gali Bali is two years past retirement age and has been patiently waiting for a new bishop to be appointed. It’s not an easy process in India as so many factors have to be taken into account such as languages, cultural differences, even issues of castes, etc. Fr. General and Fr. Steve will be wrapping up their visit tomorrow. There will be a meeting with the district council in the afternoon and then in the evening they’ll take the overnight Chennai Express train to connect with their flight to Latin America.

 

A “hearty welcome”

Welcome march

Last week we heard from Fr. Stephen Huffstetter with his first impressions of the Indian District. He and Fr. Heiner Wilmer, superior general, are there for a general visitation. Today Fr. Tom Cassidy writes about Fr. General’s arrival to Christu Dehon Nivas:

Despite the two hour delay in their arrival at Vijayawada all went well with the official welcome by the Christu Dehon Nivas community for Fr Heiner Wilmer, our superior general, Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, the general councilor responsible for India, and Fr. Thomas Vinod, our district superior. It also turned out to be a very long day for them. It began at 2:30 am in Mumbai with a long layover in Hyderabad due to their connecting flight’s late arrival. Fr. Heiner said he ended up having; (1) an American breakfast in Mumbai; (2) followed by a French breakfast at the Mumbai airport and finally (3) an Indian breakfast compliments of SpiceJet Airways for the delayed passengers in Hyderabad.

Huff with guitar

Fr. Steve joins in on the guitar

Given the “rank” of our visitors the always enthusiastic “hearty welcome to India took on an even more festive mood, drums included! The guests were met at the front gate by all the fathers and brothers where the traditional garland was given to each and then we all marched in to the front entrance where the rest of the ceremony took place. This included: (1) a welcome song; (2) incensing of the guest; (3) “Tilaka,” marking their foreheads; (4) an offering of coconut milk, and (5) a word of welcome by the rector (Fr. Mariano).

With the conclusion of these important rituals our guests were shown to their rooms and then all headed to the dinning room for the midday meal. Neither Fr. Heiner nor Fr. Steve had much time to rest as they would start meeting the students (each allowed 15 minutes) starting at 3:00 pm and going until 6:00 pm with a half hour break at 4:30 pm.

Fr. Heiner was asked to be the main celebrant at Mass. Normally Mass is done in the cool of the morning but it was moved to 6:45 pm so that we would have the opportunity to celebrate it with our guests and give Fr. Heiner a chance to share his thoughts on the Gospel of the day. The plan was then to have Fr. Steve be the main celebrant the next day (The Feast of the Presentation and the conclusion of the year long celebration of Consecrated Life).

Following dinner there was a program for the evening for our honored guests and community. In the States SCJs would call this a “convivium.” As you can see in the photos, Fr. Steve even joined in on the guitar.

Welcome banner

Welcome banners

 

Former provincial superior on the road as general councilor

Violin welcome

Fr. Heiner and Fr. Steve are welcomed to India by the students at Dehon Jyothi

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, begins his first full year as a member of the General Council with the first visitation of the new administration’s term. The former provincial superior of the US Province joins Fr. Heiner Wilmer, SCJ, general superior, on a visitation of the Indian District. This is Fr. Steve’s first visit to India. He shares the following:

Fr. Heiner last visited India 11 years ago, and many of the SCJs fondly remember the time he spent with them. This is my first visit. When we landed at the Chennai airport we were greeted by five very young Indian SCJs. I might have thought they were students, but I recognized them as members of the District Council and administration team. India is a young and growing district, and it is important to support people placed into key roles before they have had the seasoning that comes with years of experience.

Chennai experienced massive flooding a month ago, and on our way home we saw remnants of refuse washed into piles along the river channels and spilling over into neighborhoods. Some areas of poor homes on the most vulnerable lands washed away completely, with several hundred reported deaths. The SCJs had to leave their house for several days, then spent many hours cleaning and re-cleaning to make the building habitable again.

I was surprised to see how many cows roam the streets; you have to avoid them in traffic as well as pedestrians, auto-rickshaws and the constant flow of motorcycles. Many still had colorful painted horns from a recent Hindu festival.

When we traveled early in the morning I noticed a large number of people sleeping on the sidewalk, homeless and taking on the most difficult and lowest paying jobs in order to survive.

We spent our first full day with the District Council and listened in on their perspectives and ordinary business. They face dual challenges of financing their projects, and providing well-trained people who can help those projects flourish. Many of the parishes we serve are in poor mission areas. While we are proud that they are consistent with our SCJ mission focus, they are unable to be financially self-sufficient and require support from the district and grants from abroad. Thankfully, we have had generous help from other provinces (including the US Province) and from our benefactors. A goal of the council is to work toward greater financial stability within India, which will take some time.

Fr. Heiner encouraged the Indian District to find and articulate its own identity. As our presence develops, what will we as Dehonians in India be known for?

Mass

Fr. Heiner and Fr. Steve are welcomed to India by the students at Dehon Jyothi

On Sunday we concelebrated mass at Christ the King, a parish substation where SCJs often help. Mass was in the Tamil language, and even with a booklet, I couldn’t follow the alphabet containing more than twice the characters that I am used to. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the church, on the floor. Like everyone else, we left our shoes at the church entrance. Flowers and incense were present in abundance, and we had great participation from the assembly. A homily in this part of India is expected to last for at least a half an hour. At the end of mass people flocked forward to ask for a blessing, especially from we foreign visitors.

After two days of meetings we took a break and paid respects at the Basilica of St. Thomas, where the Apostle is buried. In prayer I asked the Lord to see me through my time of doubts, and lead me to a greater faith.

Next we walked to the beach and looked across the magnificent Bay of Bengal. First we came to the area where fishermen and their families live in very basic housing, often canvas stretched over a few wooden boards. As the boats returned, women sat by the road, cleaning and selling the day’s catch. We continued to the wide sandy expanse that we were told is the second largest beach in the world. Many families were out for picnics, playing Frisbee, buying treats and playing carnival type games. I found it odd that with thousands of people everyone wore street clothes. I did not see anyone swimming and only one child had on a bathing suit. Maybe because it’s “winter” and only 75 degrees!

General and Huff welcomed

Frs. Heiner and Steve

Each time we reach a new SCJ house we experience a traditional welcoming: greeted by song, garlands of flowers, and marked on the forehead with soil from the Indian subcontinent. Then we are handed a coconut to drink. Most of the time a hole is already punched in the top and a straw inserted, but I also learned how to open a young coconut by dashing it against a rock.

We have visited three of our formation houses so far. I have heard many stories over the years from members of the US Province who served here for a time in order to build up the district, and smiled when I saw the “Thomas Garvey Memorial Study Hall” in our philosophy house in Aluva. I am a product of SCJ minor seminaries, and started my affiliation with the community at the age of 14. Seeing men as young as 16 playing soccer and basketball, and beginning to discern if God is calling them to religious life and the priesthood brings back memories for me.

In each of the houses the students presented programs of song, dance, music and poetry. One of the students told a few jokes to warm up the crowd and another showed his juggling skills. The dances are energetic and entertaining, just like the ones from a Bollywood movie. Always there are words of thanks and gratitude. People say they are honored to have us here. It is an honor for us to be here among these thankful and grateful communities.

In Aluva for India Republic day, Fr. Heiner reflected how the search for truth was so important to Gandhi, and an essential part of the life of a student. After mass we had a flag raising ceremony. When the flag reached the top of the pole and unfurled, fragrant flower petals floated to the ground.

Fr. Heiner has held Q and A sessions with all of the students. They enthusiastically gathered around to ask questions like,” What would you have been if you hadn’t become a priest, what are your hopes for the Indian District, and why do we have to do 14 years of formation in order to become a Priest of the Sacred Heart?”

Fish prep

Fr. Heiner and Fr. Steve are welcomed to India by the students at Dehon Jyothi

Food is tasty and flavorful, though spicier than I am used to. The combination that works best for me is heavy on the rice and light on the curry. Fish is quite common, and being so close to the sea we have been served many shrimp, crab and fish dishes.

The land we have seen so far is green with vegetation. The philosophy house grows bananas, coconuts and tapioca, raises ducks for meat and cows for milk. Their fish pond also helps to feed the always hungry collegians.

A couple of mornings I was awakened at 5:00 by the blare of loudspeakers from a nearby Hindi temple. Christians are a small minority in the country, but have a strong faith and high rate of church participation.

The aspirant program is in Kumbalanghy in our first house, founded in in 1985. It contains a Portuguese chapel dating back to the 1500s and a good crowd of local people join the community for daily mass.

One of the main purposes of Fr. General’s visit is to meet with individual community members. We learn who they are, and ask how they see the district’s strengths and challenges. We specifically ask what their dreams are for spreading the charism of Fr. Dehon in this culture.

Seminary chores

Fr. Tom Cassidy, SCJ, writes from India:

Mary Babu

Br. Mary Babu

On Monday, Wednesday and Friday the brothers [seminarians] take turns giving the homily. On all weekdays a brother will also give the introduction. It is a common practice in India for the celebrant to give a brief introduction about the day’s readings at the beginning of Mass. Yesterday Br. Mary Babu, SCJ (2nd year) was responsible for the homily. Mary Babu is from Andhra Pradesh where long homilies are the. He and others claim it’s because the people have been influenced by Protestants and complain if the celebrant does not speak for an extended period. By “extended” I do mean between 30 to 60 minutes! That’s not the rule in other parts of India, certainly not in Kerala and Goa, two states where I’ve experienced Sunday parish liturgies. There it is more like 10 to 15 minutes.

Mary Babu is also one of the house barbers and the one I like to use. It’s very common in seminaries (as it was in my early seminary days) for one or more of the students to pick up the scissors and learn how to cut hair. Some become quite good at it and I would include Mary Babu in that camp — I even had one of the SCJs when I returned home last October comment on what a good hair cut I had received.

I suspect that Br. Thambi Joseph, SCJ, learned his electrical skills from his minor seminary days, probably passed on by one of the older students or maybe an SCJ. My own seminary skill that I’d claim came from my days at our college seminary (Kilroe Seminary in Honesdale, PA) is house painting. I became a pretty good trimmer, if I do say so myself.

All the students seem to be very good at ironing their own clothes. Washing clothes does not take much talent but there is certainly a skill to pressing shirts and pants. As I’ve noted in the past, the students do their washing by hand. The house does have one small washing machine that is used for certain house items. One of the perks of being the “house elder” is that one of the students is responsible for my room and laundry. Age garners respect in India!

Back in India

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Fr. Tom sips from a coconut as part of the welcoming ritual.

After a week in the Philippines, where he will return in a few months to assist with the ESL program, Fr. Tom Cassidy, SCJ, is back in his second home of India. For the past two years he has done extended stays in the country assisting the SCJ district with administration and formation. He writes after taking the train from Chennai to Vijayawada Junction.

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Fr. Tom receives the bottu from Br. Hari as a sign of welcome

“This is the first train trip in India that I’ve taken by myself,” writes Fr. Tom. “I’m was an AC six-tier bunk car sharing it with two men and a family of three. These sleeper cars are not all that comfortable for daylight travel but everyone makes the best of it.

“My flights from Manila and Singapore to Chennai went very well. We landed in Chennai about 20 minutes early and getting through passport control and customs was a breeze.

“Fr. Vimala Thiyagarajan Soosainathan, SCJ, superior and formator of our Dehon Jyothi community, was there to greet me, along with a young potential candidate from Sri Lanka. The three SCJs who live at the district house were all gone so the task of collecting me fell to Fr. Vimal. The two of them stayed overnight at the district house and brought me to the train, well actually put me on the train, earlier this morning. I’ll see Fr. Vimal next week when the district council meets with Fr. General and Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, the general councilor chosen to be responsible for India._

“The drive from our district house to the central train station took about 45 minutes. Traffic was light as today is a holiday. According to Fr. Vimal it is a day when animals are dressed up. I don’t mean put clothes on them but rather some artistic touches are given to the animals along with a good bath.

“As many of know, Chennai was hit by terrible flooding last December; the water is long gone but the scars for many people are still there. I was reading in the paper this morning on how hard hit day workers were due to lost wages along with little or no assistance coming from the government. Thanks to a generous donation from our general administration and a number of provinces, including the US, the district will be helping people near our two communities in repairing their homes due to the water damage they received.

“The roads around our district house were never very good and have certainly gotten worse from the floods. Fr. Vimal explained that the reason the district house suffered from flooding even though it is on relatively high ground was due to the need to release water from a nearby lake or reservoir that then inundated the district house neighborhood.”

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A “Hearty Welcome Back Dear Fr. Tom!”

Reflecting on the meaning of mission

The beginnings of a new parish hall in Big Bend, SD

The beginnings of a new parish hall in Big Bend, SD

Fr. Vincent Suparman, a member of the pastoral team based in Lower Brule, SD, reflects on his experience of mission:

Whenever I have refreshment after Sunday Mass, the people of Big Bend talk about Frs. Yvon Sheehy, James Walters, Thomas Westhoven, Mike Burke, Bernie Rosinski and Chuck Wonch. When they want to correspond with them, I give them the address of Sacred Heart at Monastery Lake, which I remember by heart. That is, expect for Fr. Bernie, since he is still here in South Dakota. Big Bend is a tiny church located about six miles off Highway 34 between Stephan and Pierre, SD. It is about 48 miles from the Lower Brule Community House, our home-base for mission ministry.

Fr. Vincent

Fr. Vincent

In the spring of 2013, praying in a rear pew while waiting for the people to come for Sunday Mass, I heard the sound of spring rain outside the church. In the stillness of a Sunday afternoon I could feel the rhythmic drops against the glass window. I was thinking about nature’s power, but also the spirituality of the Sacred Heart that inspired many priests, sisters and lay people to remain faithful to meeting the spiritual needs of the people here in the prairie. I am fortunate to be listed among them. I have always empathized with the older people in the church that I serve. Many of them are really good storytellers. They aren’t all necessarily joke-tellers, but they do know how to put a biblical message in their jokes.

After Sunday Mass, coffee and snacks are always provided. Sr. Charles, OSB, and one or two parish women are responsible for this weekly refreshment. On ordinary Sundays we have fewer than 15 people at Mass. More than that and we would say, “Wow, we have a big crowd.” That is Big Bend, the smallest parish among the six parishes we serve. Here everybody knows everybody else. They do not live near the church. Many of them live and work in Pierre, a 20-minute drive west from Big Bend. As pastor I respect them with appreciation for what they have given to the church. No matter what happens, they struggle to remain faithful. I do not know about their inner spirit. But, whenever I see them singing at Mass, I am happy and proud to be with them.

Sometimes I think of my mission journey. While sitting behind the wheel of the car, I often hear a soft voice whisper, “If you really saw the gift of life you have been given, you would not throw it away.”

“Life is the greatest gift, “ I once told a group of young teenagers in Colorado. This “proverb” makes me aware of how my position in life can easily turn to my comfort, my comfort zone, and my desire to be appreciated and loved. I remember my spiritual director who told me that I was alive for a reason, to go out and find it. Building walls around my life is easy. I am pretty good in recapturing a past experience. But I would rather decide to keep one or two things that give meaning to my life and move forward.

When I was first assigned in the mission I thought that I would bring something new and change the people’s hearts and minds. I thought the people whom I served were mine. But they are not. They are gifts and I was consecrated to be a   Priest of Sacred Heart to proclaim the Good News, not to condemn,  to be with the people and to serve them. When I began to see the people as gifts, I began to change. A gift and a possession are treated differently. I believe that the work of the Spirit continues; it is an unbreakable thread weaving through life as we pray in psalm. Within the context of mission journey I will face adversity, but the power of the Holy Spirit emerges in so many ways.

Big Bend, SD, October 18, 2015 (Mission Sunday)

Celebrating feast of the Holy Rosary in India

SH Nambur feast pic

Sacred Heart church in Nambur

Fr. Tom Cassidy will soon conclude his time in India… at least for now. He returns to the district every few months to assist with formation and administration. In today’s entry he writes about celebrating the Feast of the Holy Rosary at Sacred Heart parish in Nambur:

Last evening the entire community traveled the short distance from the novitiate house to Sacred Heart Parish in Nambur to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Rosary with the parish. We were invited by Fr. Ravindra Moparthi the assistant parish priest who has been acting pastor for the last month while Fr. Dharma Raju Akula, scj, has been in the US for a month-long introduction to how the US Province runs its financial office and fund raising. Fr. Dharma is joined in the States by Fr. Michael Benedict, the district treasurer and the two of them will be returning to India next Monday.

The one lane bridge that we need to cross from the novitiate side to the parish side is partially closed and has been reduced to perhaps half a lane. The Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi of Ignatius Gonzaga, Br. Bapuji, one of the novices, and I all piled in and on a motor taxi to make the journey. Originally only a couple of sisters were to go with us but our driver learned the motor-taxi coming from the other side of the bridge was not able to make it over the bridge so our numbers increased.

Feast of the Holy Rosary in Nambur

Feast of the Holy Rosary in Nambur

Well when we got to the bridge it was absolute chaos. It reminded me of how Italians can blur lines to the point it almost feels like every man for himself! The difference between the two cultures? Often in Italy when a traffic light went out someone would get out there and direct traffic and sooner or later everyone would obey as it was the best way to get traffic flowing. Alas no volunteers appeared at the bridge and no one would budge! We were at a disadvantage in that part of the bridge still open was on the side of the traffic going the other way and they just kept coming. After sitting there for about 10 minutes Bapuji and I got out and decided to walk the rest of the way to the Church.

The walk took between 10 and 15 minutes and at least by then some of our brothers had managed to cross over. By the time Mass finally began everyone was accounted for. As you’ll note from the photo the Mass was going to be outdoors since the interior of the church would not be large enough to hold the expected crowd.

There were eight of us who concelebrated. Fr. Ravindra did not as he was busy with practical matters from helping out the choir to arranging things needed at the altar. A local diocesan priest was the main celebrant with another preaching the homily. Other then guessing that he was talking about Mary since we were celebrating the Feast of the Holy Rosary there was nothing I could understand in his 45 minute homily. Well once in a while when he’d throw in a Praise the Lord, Alleluia repeated three times by him and the congregation I could understand that.

At the end of Mass I was asked to bless a statue of the virgin which was then carried around the church in procession three times. On the first go around four of the priests carried it to be replaced on the last two go rounds by men of the parish and some of our brothers from the novitiate as well.

It was harder than it looks because the statute and platform carried some weight, but what made it more difficult was the uneven ground around the church. Gratefully there were no accidents and all who marched around were able to keep their footing — sometimes with a bit of assistance from those nearby.

After the procession it was time to eat. Tables were set up in church and the first to eat were the priests and sisters. We on one side and the sisters facing us from the other side. Rice with chicken was the main course. Naturally all ate with their hands. I was offered a fork and spoon but by then I was halfway through my meal so declined to use them. Dinner done, Fr. Rino Jose and I were given a ride home by one of the parishioners. Since cars can’t cross the bridge we had to take the long way around a trip of about five kilometers (3.10 miles).