Thursday, May 29, 2008

Breaking bread with the broken: a missionary's vocational journey

[This is Part 1 of a 5-part interview with Fr. Jose Panadan SJ, a Jesuit missionary from India. Introduction and links to other parts.]

You are a Jesuit priest of the Gujarat Province (in Western India); but you are from the state of Kerala originally. Why did you choose to go so far from your home?

Right from my early childhood, my life was associated with the priest and the nuns in my parish. I was an altar boy. During that time, I always felt very attracted to the life of a priest, and felt that it was a holy vocation. After childhood I felt that call that I should be a priest. This desire was more and more developed as I heard missionary priests from my home parish who would return home for holidays and preach during Mass.

I have seen a lot of misery, poverty from my childhood: family struggles, struggles of the people; therefore I felt that I am being called by the Lord to work towards a better society, and sensed a call to be a missionary. I had a sense that the problems outside Kerala were much bigger.

During that period of my life I came across so man priests and nuns who radiated joy and seemed completely fulfilled in what they were doing.

From high school days, the story of Abraham and his call, to leave his people, and his journey into the unknown, to leave all that is familiar to him, to be a blessing to the nations – this story really resonated with me a lot, and I trace my desire to be a missionary to this story.

When I was in 12th grade, one of my friends, in passing, told me, “The Jesuits or the Don Bosco Fathers [Salesians]… Choose one of these congregations.” I knew nothing at all about them. I had never met a Jesuit in my life. But somehow, that particular proposal had an echo within me; I can’t really give a reason why. During that time my elder sister, who is a religious in north India, was looking for other congregations for me to join (such as the Vincentians, the CMIs [both are Syro-Malabar Oriental congregations]). But somehow, I wanted to be a Jesuit. So, I found two addresses of the Jesuits in two different provinces, and both called me for an interview on the same day and the same time, but at two different ends of the country! Initially, the Patna province (in northeastern India) was more attractive, because there were many sisters from my village working in India. Somehow, I still have no idea why, I ended up going for the interview to the Gujarat province.

I was 17 years old. That was the first time I traveled in a train; it was also the first time that I wore a pair of trousers in my life. [The normal village dress for men is a mundu¸ a kind of sarong.] I didn’t speak any other language other than Malayalam. I was going to a completely unknown part of the world, and leaving the family as an economic provider (as the eldest son in a poor family, I had run a side business since the 8th standard, running a small village convenience store): yet, I had no sense of sadness or fear. There was a fire burning within me. I don’t think I have had that much faith since! My family was, however, fully behind me.

Could you describe what the Catholic parish life is like in a village that you grew up in at that time?

There is one village church – 99% of the village is Catholic (of the Syro-Malabar Rite). The church had so many different sodalities and associations – such as the Marian association, the youth group, altar boys association, Mission league (to pray for missionaries). All the children and the youth would be involved in one or the other of these groups, which kept them involved in the life of the church. Every two months there was a major feast of the church which would gather the people together, and which would give a particular rhythm to the year. Daily evening prayer – the family rosary, was prayed by every house, at 8:00 pm. On holidays, the parish would organize various activities for the children as well. There was a convent of the Adoration Sisters in the village, who did a lot of catechetical work with the children, and inculcated a deep religiosity in all of us. The sisters would organize the village girls to collect some rice from every house, which would then be brought to the church and distributed to the poor. Within the village, there was also a major sanitarium for leprosy patients (the second largest such institutions in the state). This was run by the government, but the parishioners were very much involved in the lives of the residents of this institution. This also had an impact on our lives – the clothes that I wore were stitched by the residents; I was taught how to ride a bicycle by one of the residents. There was a bond, an association, with the patients. And of course, our schooling was in the church school. (Incidentally, every church in Kerala has a school associated with it. This was an idea developed by Bl. Chavara Elias Kuriakose, the founder of the CMI Congregation, who saw the need for education among the people).

Our lives were completely centered around the church.

How did your desire to be a missionary grow during your formation with the Jesuits?

For the first three years I was pursuing a college degree at Gujarat University in Ahmedabad. During the Diwali and Christmas vacations, we used to be sent to mission stations. I was deeply impressed and inspired by the work of the missionaries, wherever I went. This confirmed my sense of vocation. The Novitiate was in a village between Gandhinagar (the capital of Gujarat) and Ahmedabad (the largest city and commercial center). During the Novitiate, we had numerous “experiments,” or experiences: begging (survive for 15 days purely by begging), a hospital experience (run by the brothers of Mother Theresa’s congregation, or an old age home), a village experience (a pair of us go to a village for a month). These experiences gave me a clearer picture of the suffering of the people, and various ways in which the Jesuits were working with them, as well as deepening the call to serve people. Of course, the highlight of the Novitiate was the 30-day Ignatian retreat focused on the Spiritual Exercises.

After the two-year Novitiate, I took my vows (which, in the Society, are perpetual). This was followed by a two year Juniorate, which is focused on learning about Gujarati language and culture, which deepened my love for the people of Gujarat.
After this, I was sent for two years of philosophical studies at DeNobili College in Pune (about 100 miles SSE of Bombay), which were followed by Regency (i.e. two year pastoral experience) in Anand (in Kheda district, and the home of the largest number of local Christians in the state), where I developed a love for pastoral work. My earlier desire to pursue work in education was diminishing. After two years of Regency, I was sent to the Regional Theologate in Ahmedabad. During the first year of Theology, I found myself spending a lot of time in the villages, and was again attracted to the pastoral work and missionary life there. It was during this time that a sense of call to pastoral missionary work really deepened, despite the clear sense that this would be a more difficult life than working in educational institutions.

A few months before ordination, we were given our assignments, and I found myself being sent to the missions of north Gujarat. This was a huge disappointment. I had thought I would go to the flourishing missions of south Gujarat. It was then that I re-read a letter that I had written prior to joining, to the vocation promoter, about my joy and enthusiasm for being a missionary. And I had a clear sense that though the north Gujarat work was more challenging, this is where God was calling me.

I was ordained in December 2001, in my home parish in Kerala (this is an Indian custom), by Mar Varkey Vithayathil, the major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church.

The logo that I chose for my ordination card was, “Breaking bread with the broken.”

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