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.

Vacation time is work time in India

Vacation days for the SCJ students in India often mean work days!

Vacation days for the SCJ students in India often mean work days!

Fr. Tom Cassidy writes from the SCJ scholasticate in Eluru, Andhra Pradesh:

With this being vacation time the scholastics spend more time at work, and work right now it is concentrated on the front drive and small plots of land in front of the refectory for grass and flowers. Currently there are 10 students in the house though all but three of them will leave next week to begin either their vacation or their 20-day pastoral experience. Some of the students who left on April 1 will return to keep the work force up. The returning group is splitting their ministry time from their vacation time. They began their ministry time helping out during Holy Week and with the Indian custom of house blessings following Easter.

After eight or ten years in the seminary system the students pick up all sorts of trades and skills. Some have learned a lot about electricity and technology, while others carpentry and masonry and still others cooking and hospitality skills. Some, given their physical size, are usually the first given work requiring strength — some might call that the grunt work!

Landscaping at the community house

Students at work

Fr. Mariano has spent lots of time over the past year or so working on the grounds. Right now he’s trying to level part of the front drive by removing the paving stones to even out the ground and then putting the puzzle back together. While this is going on Brs. Manu and Ajith, who have masonry skills, are building border areas for several small plots in front of the dining room destined to house plants and perhaps grass.

Sometimes when I think of India I think of headgear. If you mention the word “Sikh” almost everyone would picture in their mind’s eye the turban worn by Sikh men. Mention the word again in the same breath with India and some might think of the towel some men wear when they are working. While there are many reasons why a man would choose to use headgear, for example the Sikh using it for religious reasons, the hot Indian climate is inducement enough to warrant something to either offer protection from the sun or perhaps to keep sweat out of one’s eyes.

One of the drawbacks of work during the summer vacation season is heat. From about 10:30 am to 4:00 pm it is often simply too hot to work, or at least to work with any degree of enthusiasm. One of its few advantages on the other hand is that there are very few days where outside work is called off because of rain. Rain won’t be a problem until June or later depending on when this year’s monsoon season begins and, in any case, it won’t start until after the school year has begun and the time for work is greatly reduced.

There is one daily compensation enjoyed by the brothers, or at least by the sports enthusiasts among them, and that’s the nightly cricket match on television. The Indian Super League has begun play. The season lasts two months and features a set game that takes about three hours to play (a far cry from the Five Day Test Match!). Many of the major cities have teams consisting of Indian and international professional cricket players. Each team is limited to four foreign players.

The brothers each have their favorite team and since practically all of them come from small towns and villages their choice of team is often determined by what Indian or world star they admire. Last night Br. Franklin was the lone rooter for the Mumbai Indians in its match against Rajasthan Royals. Sadly for Franklin, to quote the Deccan Chronicle: “Mumbai Given A Royal Beating!”

As for me when I’m asked who do I follow? I tell them: Why Chennai, of course, we have a ‘house’ there!

Sacred Heart Devotion starts in the home

Shrine in a family home in India

Shrine in a family home in India

Fr. Tom Cassidy writes from India:

One of our students took this photo and it clearly shows the devotion his family has to the Sacred Heart; one of the pictures should be very familiar to North American SCJs. This little shrine is a feature of many homes and certainly of the few I have had the opportunity to visit. These are the homes of our students and it should not be surprising that faith plays such an important role in the life of the family and is the seed of vocations. Parents and grandparents are so important in the transmission of their faith to their children and grandchildren.

Sacred Heart devotion has a long and strong tradition here in India. The fact that our title “Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart” speaks of that tradition and devotion has been a positive influence on the decisions of many young men who join our community. Just as strong has been their awareness (or perhaps better to say, their growing awareness) of our SCJ charism as beautifully expressed in #31 of Our Rule of Life:

“This mission, for Father Dehon in a spirit of love and oblation, entailed Eucharistic adoration, as an authentic service of the Church (cf Notes Quotidiennes, 1.3.1893), and ministry to the lowly and the humble, the workers and the poor (cf. Souvenirs XV), to proclaim to them the unfathomable riches of Christ (cf Ephesians 3:8). With this ministry in mind, Father Dehon gave great importance to the formation of priests and religious.

“For him missionary activity was a privileged form of apostolic service.”

“In all this his constant concern was that the human community, sanctified in the Holy Spirit, would become an offering pleasing to God (cf Romans 15:16).