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)

Happy birthday in the Indian style!

Fr. Tom was well-remembered by the Indian community for his birthday

Fr. Tom was well-remembered by the Indian community for his birthday

On his last Sunday in India, Fr. Tom Cassidy writes about celebrating his 73rd birthday “Indian style.” Fr. Tom returns to the United States this week. He writes:

I woke up this morning at 5:30 am to give myself plenty of time to get ready for the short drive to Vempadu. We planned to leave at 7:00 am. My 73rd birthday was last Tuesday but since I was in Chennai at the time the Eluru community is celebrating it today. Actually for me it’s been an almost daily celebration starting in the novitiate at Nambur until today. It won’t stop here as I’ll have two more celebrations: one next Thursday with my SCJ community at Sacred Heart at Monastery Lake and then next Sunday with my family.

Fr. Tom's birthday door

Fr. Tom’s birthday door

One of the local house traditions is to decorate the door of the person celebrating his birthday. That tradition was certainly kept this morning. When I opened my door around 6:00 am and with the house just getting up the bright blinking lights staring me in the face felt as though the sun was approaching its zenith! I’ve learned Indians love bright colors and bright lights, especially the kind that twinkle. I have no doubt there are more Christmas lights in India then anywhere in the world and that they are used not only at Christmas but for celebrations of all kinds the year round.

Since this is Sunday and most of the brothers are off at one time or another to their ministry experience and there is no set time for breakfast the usual cake cutting and flower presenting and HEARTY BIRTHDAY greetings did not take place. That will be this evening instead. We’re going to have outdoor adoration at 6:30 pm followed by a program in my honor and supper. My dear friend Hari (Haresh) Kumar, scj, said I should be ready for two surprises. I have a pretty good idea of one. He asked for my sister’s (Marge Bray) email address as she had some pictures of me he requested (and got). Hari is good with the computer so I suspect something with these photos and the computer may pop up this evening — I’ll let you know tomorrow.

Fr. Gopu and I did manage to leave at 7:00 am. It’s about a half hour drive to Sacred Heart Parish. I think it’s about 32 kilometers (19.8 miles). Normally some of the brothers would travel with us but they left at 6:30 am to drive into Eluru to pick up some sisters who help with the music and teach catechism after Mass. When the brothers were late in coming I should have guessed something was up. It turned out they not only had to pick up the sisters but a birthday cake large enough to feed the congregation.

Fr. Jojappa Chinthapalli, scj, the pastor, had the Dehonian youth group participate in the Mass and at its end I presented them with t-shirts for the men and hats for the ladies. I wasn’t aware that I’d be given credit for the gifts but that’s what Fr. Jojappa said so I was asked to present them to each person who in turn wished me a happy birthday. I was presented with a collage photo put together by Deacon Suresh Gottom, scj.

The Mass and post-liturgy presentations took about two hours. Fr. Gopu was the celebrant and Fr. Jojappa preached. Both of them and Deacon Suresh had to go to the parish substations for Masses. All along I thought there were two substations but it turns out there are three. The normal schedule is one substation has Mass at 6:30 am and the main church (Sacred Heart) at 7:45 am with the other two stations at 10:00 am. Now all of these are on Indian time with the start being an approximation as was the case today. Since we went long the two 10:00 am Masses started sometime after 10:00 am.

Fr. Jojappa stayed after Mass to take me over to the construction site of the new community house. Our North Italian Province is providing the financial support for its construction. According to Fr. Jojappa, with luck the building will be done in about seven months.

The community house is only about a five-minute walk from the church. It’s surrounded by rice paddies. They have raised the land by about six feet to ensure that it will remain dry in the rainy season.

Finally I waited with for everyone to come back from the substations as Fr. Jojappa had prepared to serve ice cream and the last of my birthday cake for our brothers and the sisters. A nice touch to end my morning visit to the parish. We made it back to Eluru at about 12:40 pm and joined the rest of the community for lunch.

Old meets new in India

Cola and rice paddies side by side

Cola and rice paddies side by side

The following is an excerpt from Fr. Tom Cassidy’s journal. He is writing from India, where he has been assisting in the missionary district for the past few weeks. 

At first glance this is just an ordinary picture I took at an outdoor restaurant in Goa. But if you think about it the photo is also a metaphor for old meets new in India. The rice paddy is centuries old tracing its origins to the ancient lands of Asia, including India. Pepsi, on the other hand, is a product of the late 19th or early 20th centuries that grew out of the popularity of their main rival, Coca Cola.

I remember an American SCJ who was visiting Latin America who told the story about a trip he took, I believe in Bolivia. It goes something like this: We were going to visit an ancient Indian settlement up in the mountains. We traveled first by train and when the tracks ended we took a bus. When the bus stopped we rode donkeys and when the donkeys stopped we made the final part of the journey up the mountain on foot and wouldn’t you know it on top of that mountain the first thing that caught my eye was a sign that said: DRINK COCA COLA.

India is a land that combines the ancient and the modern. You can’t miss it for it’s staring you in the face which ever way you turn. Cows who seem to know that they have the right of way must be yielded to by even the most expensive car driven by a millionaire. A land in which on the one hand you’ll spot a day laborer using a tool invented and fashioned centuries ago works side by side with a backhoe made by Mitsubishi. Somehow, at least on the surface, it all seems to work. Yet change is difficult too.

Certainly our theologians are very comfortable living in a technological world. They speak the common language of computers, Facebook and mobile phones with the same ease as anyone their age in the States.

Finally, this photo is a good transition to what I will be doing over the next 10 days. Tomorrow after lunch I will head to our novitiate house in Nambur to teach a short course on our SCJ Rule of Life to the novices. It just about brings to an end my stay in Eluru though I will return here on October 16th for two days to wrap up my stay and gather all my belongings as I head for home on October 19th.

After my 10 days at Nambur I will travel by train to Chennai for three days of meetings with the district council. At least the train ride to Chennai is relatively short one lasting only eight hours; and if you take the night train you can spend most of it in dream land, that is if you can sleep on a train when the Chai men ply their wares at 3:00 am.

Indian novitiate in Nambur

Indian novitiate in Nambur

Eat, pray and learn Italian

Fr. Steve receives his Italian studies certificate

Fr. Steve (red shirt) receives his Italian studies certificate

Fr. Stephen Huffstetter, SCJ, writes after completing his summer language studies in preparation for his work as a member of the General Council in Rome:

After six weeks of Italian language studies at Cultura Italiana in Bologna, I received a certificate and report card. It has been a while since I’ve been graded! It showed that I have made good progress in the short time here, but also have so much yet to learn.

Fr. Steve's classmate and fellow general councilor, Fr. Carlos Enrique, receives his graduation certificate.

Fr. Steve’s classmate and fellow general councilor, Fr. Carlos Enrique (center), receives his graduation certificate.

There have been five SCJs studying here. Fr. Heiner, our superior general, has been brushing up on the Italian he already knows because he will often need to represent the community in public, and wants to speak and write well. Fr. Carlos Enrique and I will serve on the council, and Frs. Loc and Quang from the Vietnamese District will begin graduate studies in Rome next month.

The SCJs have two communities in Bologna. One is near the historic center of town but I stayed at the one a bit outside the original stone walls that encircled the city. The walls have come down, but the ancient gates remain standing at each of the main roads into town. The trip to school is about a mile-and-a-half and takes 15 minutes by bike (a half hour on foot).

The class size was limited to a maximum of 12 to guarantee better interaction with the teacher and other students. We had a two-hour grammar class and an hour-and-a-half of conversation class. Each week there were cultural tours and talks (in Italian of course) to help students get to know the city and its history. I also added individual lessons. One on one with a teacher pinpoints my strengths to build on and exposes areas needing improvement.

One of our SCJ communities in Bologna

One of our SCJ communities in Bologna

The school includes an interesting mix of students. Many are in their early 20s, preparing for studies at the university. The middle-aged folks are often here for just a week on a learning and cultural vacation. They particularly seem to gravitate to the optional evening Italian cooking class. My only time in the kitchen was helping wash dishes in the community house. Some folks like me who are preparing for work are in school for a longer time.

I have enjoyed exploring Bologna, a city about the size of Milwaukee. The university here is one of the first in all of Europe, with over 100,000 students. When I arrived in August during vacation, the streets were empty. As classes get set to begin the streets are now crowded with bicycles and pedestrians.

St. Dominic is the saint associated with the city but the patron of the city is St. Petronio, an early bishop who shaped the development of the city and its people. While all of Italy celebrates the Feast of St. Francis on October 4, here in Bologna they postpone it until the next day since Petronio takes precedence.

I am impressed by the work of the Northern Italian Province. The complex in Bologna is huge, and they have changed with the times. Half of the building that used to be our seminary is now a residence hall for university students. Villagio del Fanciullo was constructed after WWII to house the many orphans in the war’s aftermath. Some generous help came from US donors, and the community got advice and support from Fr. Flanagan of Boys Town on what type of programs were helpful. Today’s young people in residence have fled difficult situations in Africa and the Middle East.

The building also houses a technical school, which teaches skilled trades like welding and being an electrician. There are day care programs, after school programs, and an organization specializing in working with reading disorders such as dyslexia. A host of volunteer groups call the campus home, and SCJs and others offer counseling services for families and individuals.

The community dinner table.

The community dinner table.

The community of 15 is a mix of Provincial Council and staff, and those who work in the adjacent parish, local hospitals, and engage in youth work. There are a few professors emeritus in the house and meals allow for interesting discussions in moral and dogmatic theology, scripture and spirituality. But the discussion really gets animated when the guys start talking about Calcio (our soccer). With five or six Italians all talking at the same time with hands gesturing passionately, it is a challenge for me to follow and understand. In time. As they keep saying, slowly and gradually, “piano e piano”.

Which way? The SCJ property hosts a number of organizations and communities.

Which way? The SCJ property hosts a number of organizations and communities.

We pray morning prayer in the parish church, followed by Mass. My first task was to keep up with the pace and pronounce the words as close to the original as I can. After a few weeks I’ve taken the more important step of starting to understand the words I am praying. When I can’t rush through scripture and have to take my time to learn the meaning, it does open me to a newer and fuller understanding of our faith.

I have been able to visit a few of the other communities. I particularly enjoyed Mass at the SCJ retirement home, where about half of the 18 members came into chapel in wheelchairs. Many dedicated themselves to overseas missions in Africa and South America. It’s in the Trentino region, with sheer mountain cliffs rising from the river valleys lush with grapes and apples.

We also enjoyed the hospitality of the SCJs in Padova, and paid our respects at the Basilica of St. Anthony. He is the most popular saint in the country, and people usually refer to him as “il santo” (the saint)

We finished our time by participating in the ordination of Marco Mazzotte in his hometown 50 miles to the east. I was surprised how much the ordaining bishop spoke about Fr. Dehon and our spirituality. Afterwards I learned he was a religious (Salesian) himself. The pride of his family and the community he grew up in was lovely. The festive meal afterward was served outside in the courtyard with pizza, pasta, and many different kinds of treats and sweets that I don’t yet know the names to. It is a reminder that as I head back to Rome, my studies and learning will be an ongoing process.

Rain doesn’t dampen spirits at dedication

The new bell tower at Vempadu

The new bell tower at Vempadu

Fr. Tom Cassidy is once again assisting in our Indian District. Here, he writes about Sunday’s dedication of a new bell tower. Benefactors from the U.S. Province donated toward its construction:

Fr. Jojappa

Fr. Jojappa

Yesterday was the dedication of the new bell tower at Sacred Heart Parish in Vempadu [On the central-eastern side of India, near the Bay of Bengal]. The bishop was going to bless the tower at 5:30 pm followed by a Mass at which he would preside and preach. As Fr. Mariano and I, and a car full of students were headed to the parish (it’s about 20 miles from the seminary) the skies again took on that menacing look as though Mother Nature was going to provide her own tower blessing. Several of us asked Br. Mary Babu Kota, a second-year student, why he prayed so often for rain!

The rain did force the Mass inside. The parish church is not very large so many people had to stand outside in the rain. We started with a ribbon cutting (I was given the honor!) followed by the tower blessing and then immediately went into Mass. We may have stated about 20 minutes late but we were able to wrap things up by about 7:30 pm. Then we had presentations and thanks. Bishop Jaya Roa Polimera spoke for about 30 minutes. Actually, he spoke and sang. Since he was speaking in Telugu all I could do was listen and enjoy his voice and his engaging of the people in his songs and his talk.

Fr. Tom at the dedication

Fr. Tom at the dedication

It is an Indian custom to give a shawl and flowers (they call the ceremony facilitation) to honored guests. After the bishop, I was next to receive a shawl and flowers. Others honored included the couple which paid for the bell. The U.S. Province gave a gift towards the tower’s construction and that’s why I was honored.

When the pastor, Fr. Jojappa, spoke to me about the desire to build a bell tower I had in mind, well a bell tower, like any you’d see in the United States. However, a bell tower here, at least in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, is actually a shrine with a bell to Jesus, Mary and the Pieta. I could tell the people were very proud of their new tower and its bell. I don’t know if it will get the parishioners to arrive to church on time, but it will certainly call them to prayer.

Dedication Mass

Dedication Mass

A meal was planned for after the ceremony. Mother Nature gave us another great deluge before we began the ceremonies but then continued with what the Irish would call a soft rain. The grounds were a muddy mess but that and the rain did not stop the people from getting their meal and enjoying it, for most of them standing up – nothing dampened the spirits.

First professions in India

Fr. Tom was among those who took part in this year's profession ceremony in India.

Fr. Tom was among those who took part in this year’s profession ceremony in India.

Fr. Tom Cassidy writes about today’s First Professions in India. Congratulations to the Novitiate Class of 2015!

This morning the big day for the novitiate class of 2015 finally arrived. After 13 months as novices they would finally become full-fledged members of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart by making of their first profession of vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Our day began early, especially for those family members who did not arrive last evening and choose to travel to Nambur in the morning. A good example is my own Eluru community who left the house at 4:30 am to arrive in time for the 6:30 am start of Mass.

Actually, for those of us living in the house the start of the day wasn’t much different time wise, in fact just a half hour later then the normal start for prayers. This morning we began our day with morning prayer at 6:00 am after which all went about getting ready for Mass.

A special banner was made to welcome the VIPs: Fr. Tom Cassidy, Fr. Thomas Vinod (district superior) and Fr. Stefan Tertünte (director of the Dehon Study Center in Rome; he was in India giving formation workshops).

A special banner was made to welcome the VIPs: Fr. Tom Cassidy, Fr. Thomas Vinod (district superior) and Fr. Stefan Tertünte (director of the Dehon Study Center in Rome; he was in India giving formation workshops).

For some the arrival of morning didn’t come soon enough. We had power problems in the house, and in this case it was a local house issue so many rooms were without fans (and air conditioners) for parts of the night. Frankly, life is unbearable in the sleeping rooms without some form of ventilation at this time of year! Some opt to sleep outside and enjoy the cooler temperatures but then they must deal with mosquitoes and who knows what other critters of the night.

As for the Mass of First Profession, our chapel isn’t all that large so each of the ten novices were limited to about 15 guests. These were added to the many SCJs who came for the celebration along with sisters, novices and priests from the surrounding area.

I was able to catch up with some of our Eluru brothers who have been on their vacation/pastoral time. This group returns to the scholasticate on May 10, and the four students now in the house will take their holidays.

We were able to start the Mass pretty much on time with Fr. Thomas Vinod, SCJ, district superior, as the main celebrant. Joining him on the altar were three members of his council, Frs. Jojappa, SCJ, Jesu Manuel Baena, SCJ, and Mcqueen, SCJ (novice master) along with Fr. Stefan Tertünte, SCJ and myself.

Fr. Thomas Vinod presents Br. Siddela Jesuprasad (Jesu) with his cassock.

Fr. Thomas Vinod
presents Br. Siddela Jesuprasad (Jesu) with his cassock.

The profession including three distinct parts: First, after the novices professed their first vows all the SCJs present were invited to rededicate themselves as expressed in this sentence taken from the prayer: “We rededicate ourselves to you [Lord] and commit ourselves to share with al people the love we have from you in Jesus.”

Then there was the presentation of the profession cross and cincture (vows cord), and the presentation of the Rule of Life and Divine Office.

After communion two of the novices expressed thanks on behalf of the entire profession class to the many people who have influenced their lives and brought them to the altar this day, as well as to all those who helped make today’s celebration such a festive occasion. We ended the Mass around 9:00 am and this was followed by brunch on the basketball court. Of course it began with the obligatory cake cutting to be shared by all.

By 11:00 am things began to wind down and families returned to their homes. Most of those who came hail from Andhra Pradesh, in fact four of the newly professed come from the Diocese of Guntur and two from Eluru while for the rest, two are from Kerala, one from Vasai (Mumbai) and one from Odisha.

The newly professed plus the six remaining novices and a few of our own brothers from Eluru were quickly put back to work to tear things down and get the house back in order. It’s somewhat of a rush job because tomorrow morning at 6:00 am most of the newly professed will travel with Fr. McQueen to Mumbai for a quick four-day visit to the family of Br. Sajeet, SCJ, as well as to our SCJ Vasai parish.

A promise kept

Fr. Tom took this photo in March 2014 when this years novitiate class was completing its postulancy. The students were on a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Health, Vailankanni, India. Fr. Vimal (pictured in the middle of the group) was their postulant master. Fr. Tom promised the group that if returned to India this year that he would attend their first professions. This week he makes good on that promise!

Fr. Tom took this photo in 2014 when this year’s novitiate class were postulants.

Fr. Tom Cassidy wrote the following just before leaving Eluru to travel to Nambur, where the Indian novitiate is located. When he was in India last year, Fr. Tom promised the postulants that if he could, he would attend their first professions. This week he makes good on that promise. Fr. Tom writes:

Today is my last day in Eluru; tomorrow after lunch Fr. Mariano, scj, will drive me to Nambur. The whole purpose of extending my time into the hot season was so that I could attend the first vows of the current novice class. I grew to know this novice class last year when they were postulants and their program was held in Eluru. [Fr. Tom was assisting in the formation program at Eluru last year] Normally the postulancy would not be housed in the theologate but due to the small numbers of theologians (eight) the postulants were there in part to help maintain the house.

The novitiate

The novitiate

The low number of theologians was due to a change in the district formation system that ended up with only the first and second year theologians in the house following the first semester of the 2013-2014, school year. The low numbers were also in part due to four of the theologians from the first two years being sent to Cameroon and Venezuela to learn the language and do their theological studies in these two countries.

When I knew I would be coming back to India this January I told the novices that I would arrange my trip so that I could attend their first profession before returning to the States — even though I was well aware this is now the hottest time of year in this part of India.

Because of the heat the Mass for the first vows will take place at 6:30 am!

Novitiate chapel

Novitiate chapel

Our Nambur novitiate house is built in the style of an Indian ashram. Unfortunately the architects did not take into account the summer climate in Andhra Pradesh. Many of the rooms, including the individual bedrooms of the novices and staff, are not well designed to dissipate heat. Add to that the frequent power outages when fans and the few rooms that are air-conditioned do not function makes Nambur a difficult place to live and work from April to well into June. Nambur has installed a solar photoelectric system but it has had problems of its own so that as of this moment it too can’t be relied on to provide a steady supply of electricity either during the day or by battery at night. Happily they are working to resolve this issue.

Despite the problems of heat the campus itself is conducive to a novitiate’s contemplative atmosphere. I particularly like the chapel with its stain glass window of the Sacred Heart. Our philosophy house in Aluva, Kerala, also features an Indian-styled Sacred Heart figure.