[This was written Monday night about this past Sunday, Aug. 6]
The memorial of the saintly Cure d’Ars was past Friday. The nearest weekend is always a big to-do in Indian parishes: Vianney Sunday as it’s known, is set aside to honor parish priests. And yes, Indians, like I suppose Catholics everywhere, love their parish priests.
Sunday morning turned out to be really grey and really rain. Not the light rimjhim showers that Pune is famous for. This was a proper monsoon downpour, worthy of the Malabar coast. I was out of the house just before 8:00 am, and there was one solitary rickshaw sitting on N. Main Rd. The umbrella provided some protection, but by the time I got in, my trousers were already soaked. No traffic on a Sunday morning and at 8:10 or so, after a bumpy ride in the wet rick (the right side had a flap which, well, flapped around and sluiced the rainwater inside. The left was open for the spray from every passing bus, truck and car), I was deposited outside the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, on Todiwalla Road, right across from the main railways station (hence the moniker: Station Parish). Most amazingly, the rickshawalla charged by the meter (Rs. 17) instead of inflating the final figure.
The 7:30 am Mass in Marathi was in progress, so I huddled under the awning of a tea-stall outside the gates and had a cup of tea to “awake from my slumber and rise from my sleep” (to paraphrase a certain hymn ), bringing back memories of just such a stall outside the gates of college where copious quantities of piping hot, sweet milky tea served in little glasses (known in Bambaiyya slang as “a cutting” – back then Re. 1, or a “half cutting” – 50 paise!) were consumed along with vada pav (deep fried potato dumplings in bread rolls) served with freshly cut raw green chillies. Today’s cutting was aadheech rupay, in that lovely Marathi way of putting things. “Only two and a half rupees.” Ok, focus on the Eucharistic fast, boy!
The lot in front of the church was one large puddle. I waded to the large concrete structure next to the church, which had an open ground floor parking garage, where a large sign warned, “Parking for Nav Sadhana members only!” I have no earthly clue what Nav Sadhana (lit. “New Worship/Prayer/Meditation) is, but the structure houses the Diocesan Pastoral Center. When this was my parish, there used to be a nice old bungalow in this corner of the lot, but I guess, at some point, “progress” happened. I’m glad for the shelter from the rain though. A plaque in the corner commemorates the 50th anniversary of the relationship between the Diocese of Eichstatt (Germany) and Pune. The plaque, however, reads “1995 – 2005.”
OLPH is a modern concrete thing. Above the sanctuary is an entire floor that has meeting rooms, and the rectory is attached at one end of the building. The Diocesan Pastoral Center abuts the other end. Every week I’d go up there to meet with Fr. Thaddy, a Dutch Mill Hill priest, for my “convert classes.” Fr. Thaddy used the (in some circles controversial) Dutch catechism of the 1960s (the CCC was not yet out in English in 1994) and the hour and a half or more of discussion were such fun! I also helped him practice his (quite excellent) Marathi. It was weird, however, talking to someone who spoke Marathi but hardly knew a stitch of Hindi! I really ought to write the congregation to try and locate him.
The crowd waiting for the 8:30 am English Mass grows. A group of nuns sloshes through the lot, in their regulation light brown saris. Cars start pulling up, and people dash out into cover. The rain has only increased.
Finally, at around 8:20, the Marathi Mass lets out. The church fills in rapidly for the next Mass, which starts about 10 minutes late. The wall behind the altar has been decorated with large twinkling lights for the feast. [:: sigh ::] The Mass is concelebrated by the pastor and one of the parochial vicars, and a (young! I’m sure he’s in his twenties, but looked not a day over sixteen!) deacon in his transitional year assists at the altar. One of Mother Teresa’s nuns, in the distinctive blue-bordered sari, herds a gaggle of young children up to the front pew. To the right of the altar the choir is gathered, and mercifully the keyboard provides a simple organ backdrop to the singing (There’s a lesson here for the over-enthusiastic young fellow who likes to get all kinds of singularly inappropriate beats and rhythms out of his keyboard in the Cathedral in Baroda.) This is where the youth group choir used to sing (yours truly was a member a decade or so back). Today’s choir is decidedly not made up of The Youth.
The music was tolerable, the homily by the young deacon quite decent (focusing on the readings and tying them into both the Transfiguration and St. John Vianney). The opening story, (about a balloon seller who is asked by a kid whether a black balloon will also rise in the sky like the other colors. Of course! It’s not what inside that counts, but what’s on the outside!) however, made me almost bust out. I had heard this exact story a few weeks back in a homily in Baroda. Maybe they use canned homily helps in India too? :-)
Well, it is appreciate our priests Sunday. So, after the Sign of the Cross a gentleman comes up to the ambo to give a short speech (about 2-3 minutes) to honor the two priests present, singling out some characteristics of their life: their dedication in the confessional, “every evening, even if no one comes” (Hmm! Empty confessionals is not just a Western thing, eh?) and, that priests are lonely, and we parishioners really ought to think about their lives outside of Mass. What do they do when they’re sick? When the cook doesn’t turn up? Thank you, Fathers, for your loneliness for the sake of serving your people. ( Really now, I couldn’t tell if this was profound or just depressing. )
After Communion (but before the Prayer after Communion) the priests were presented with cards from the children up front, along with flowers, to mild applause. Maybe people are just not accustomed to clapping in church here (it seems to be epidemic in the US! :-)), but I thought the applause was far from enthusiastic. The children, who then performed a cute little song where they lined up and each held up the letters to “FATHER” (‘F’ is for faithfulness, ‘A’ for altar, and so forth), received far louder applause. (The ‘T’ was a tad impatient, and lifted his letter way too early, which led to young miss ‘A’ next to him to shoot him a dirty look and swat his hand down.) A lady then got up to give thanks to the priests again.
The whole thank-the-priest thing seemed a little strained. Maybe there’s a dynamic here that I’m vaguely picking up on. Maybe I’m just imagining things. The priests did not smile, not once! What’s up with that?
However, the most annoying thing was the Penitential rite. It was a Creative Thing With Props performed by members of the youth group. Guy comes up to the front with a large white paper with a solitary black dot on it. Another guy announces, “White paper with black dot. Like the times we focus on the one weakness of our priests and ignore all the good. For all the times we complain about our priests, Lord have mercy.” Similar routine next with a candle and flowers. I can’t remember the details of what the flower was for and what the candle was for. My jaw was on the floor. I couldn’t believe it. Lord, have mercy indeed! I mean, all power to the youth group and yes it does get the point across, and would fit right in at any high school (or, for that matter, college) retreat in the States. But why mangle the Penitential Rite?
Oh gosh. Can I write about Mass in India without coming across as a whining complainer? Apparently not. Yes, there’ll be lots about the liturgies here that I won’t miss when I’m back Stateside. But despite a certain quirky laissez-faire attitude towards the conduct of the liturgy, the devotion, the piety, the reverence of the worshippers is something that any American could learn from. And, it seems to have hardly any bearing at all as far as vocations to the priesthood and religious life are concerned. That’s just Not An Issue in the subcontinent.
And please don’t get me wrong, I think Vianney Sunday is something that very well ought to be emulated in the States. I think the USCCB is trying to promote a Priest Appreciation Sunday sometime in the Fall – at least in my experience, it hasn’t really caught on. Why not tie this up with the feast of St. John Marie Vianney, who is the patron of parish priests, and whose life certainly ought to be a model for priests? Lord knows our American priests could use a whole year long morale boost these days.
After Mass I stood outside in the covered parking lot, people watching, waiting to meet a friend for brunch. He text-messaged me in a bit, and I walked down the street to Vohuman Café, a classic Bombay-Irani style joint for an excellent meal: authentic cutting chai, egg bhurji (scrambled eggs cooked with spices) and bun-maska with the butter literally dripping down the sides. “It’s a proper Bava (i.e. Parsi) owned place, yaar” as my friend said. Sure enough. They have bottles of Ardeshir raspberry soda, a Parsi brand available only in Bombay and Pune, the last hold-out against the hegemony of the colas. Resistance is not futile.