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Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue visits India

06/02/2008

BISHOP’S PASTORAL VISIT TO INDIA

From my father, I inherited a love of India. He was influenced by its new founding fathers, especially Gandhi – remarkable prophet – and Pandit Nehru. The thought of visiting India never occurred to me until my contact with the Indian Community in Southall, Middlesex, when I was Bishop in West London. On coming to Lancaster, almost 7 years ago, the Preston Malayalam (Keralan) Community repeatedly approached me to find them a Syro-Malabar rite priest. Their prayers were answered through the good offices of the British Jesuit Provincial, Fr David Smolira, S.J.

Father Jose Thaiparambil SJ of the Keralan Province was appointed and what a blessing this has been for the Dioceses of Salford, Liverpool and Lancaster. He has been with us now for three years and greatly appreciated by the different communities. From the outset, he impressed on me the importance of a visit to India, especially Kerala, to get to know the immigrants and their faith background and to observe, listen and learn.

Together with Father Jose SJ and Fr Robert Billing, our pilgrimage started on 7 January and what an experience it has been. Our first stop was Chennai and already the vastness of this land was dawning on me. There we visited the Mount of St Thomas and prayed at the Tomb of the Apostle. This was my first opportunity to grapple with the tradition that Thomas had visited this great land. After the death of the Master, missionary zeal, alive with His spirit, drove the Apostles and disciples out from the narrow confines of Jerusalem and Galilee to preach the Good News of Jesus and His Mission to all peoples – Peter and Paul to Rome, the heart of the Empire, James to Spain, Thomas to the East… The great “spice run” between Rome and the East must surely have facilitated Thomas and his disciples!

From Chennai we flew to Calcutta – another incredible experience. Calcutta is a sprawling city of more than 13 million inhabitants, huge developments in the midst of tremendous poverty. During my time at Westminster, I had met Blessed Mother Teresa on a number of occasions, so a visit to her Missionaries was a priority. Her charism and mission live on, and not only among her own missionaries but also in so many other communities. Their witness to the care of the poor, sick, elderly and orphans is truly remarkable and cannot but be a big influence in the new India. While visiting the Missionaries of Charity, I was called upon to anoint a young girl who was dying. What an extra-ordinary privilege.

Our next ‘port’ of call was Goa where the Portuguese influence and that of St Francis Xavier is very much alive. We had the privilege of offering Mass at the tomb of the great saint, only to be jointed by large numbers of eager pilgrims. On the following morning, we returned there once again and this time it was the Mass of St Ignatius of Loyola – how could these two men be separated? This spirit of mission in Francis lives on in a wonderful way though his bodily remains are beginning to disintegrate.

And finally, it was Kerala – perhaps the most important phase of our pilgrimage, after all the call to visit India had come from Keralans in Preston and now we were among their families and friends in their own homeland. Kerala has a Catholic population greater than that of the whole of Britain.

Everywhere there were tangible signs of the vibrancy of the Church in a new and developing India:

  • Full seminaries and novitiates (sometimes 250/300 strong); with thousands of young priests and sisters serving throughout the State;
  • Great interest among the people in the Priesthood and Religious Life;
  • Massive congregations for Sunday and weekday Mass;
  • A Church deeply committed to Catholic Education, its social mission, hospital care, for the poor, sick, homeless at every level;
  • A Church confident in her mission and with a marvellous outreach to peoples everywhere, epitomised in a young Jesuit student we met who has volunteered to work in Afghanistan;
  • A Church aware of the growing materialism in its midst and the challenge of Mission today.

Throughout India in all three rites of the Catholic Church there, Latin, Syro-Malabar and Sryo-Malankara – we were given great hope. They are proud of their Indian culture, democratic system and indigenous Catholicism ever since the first century AD. Their ability to work harmoniously, for the most part, with the Hindu and Muslim communities who form 98 percent of the people is a great credit to all. This is not to deny, however, that there is tension in some rural areas, such as Orissa.

In Kerala, unfortunately I fell ill from a stomach bug and with the effects of dehydration and exhaustion, I needed to be hospitalised. The heat, travel, food, sheer exhaustion (and possibly age!) had got to me in a way that I had never expected. There too, I had to learn about myself and my own frailty. The thing that kept me going throughout was the affection and care of those around me – in nursing me back to health they simply could not do enough for me. May God bless them all and I thank the Lord for the entire pilgrimage to India – an experience of a lifetime!