Kerala ‘export’ on mission to world’s hotspots
Kochi: Despite brushes with captivity and death, priests from God’s Own Country continue to venture into remote, trouble-torn areas.
At the Don Bosco Salesian House in Kochi, the vigil is over. Barefoot boys play basketball on the makeshift court in the premises and a tall, strapping priest briefly chips in, his white habit hitched up as he neatly dodges the defenders and surprises his wards with a slam dunk.
Every day, for 18 long months, the inmates of Don Bosco prayed for Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a fellow Salesian priest who was finally released from Islamic State captivity in Yemen last Tuesday. The Salesians, like many other Christian congregations in Kerala, send their most motivated members to various parts of the world, places marked by bloodshed or deprivation, or both.
The risks these modern-day missionaries face far outweigh the rewards – which are spiritual in any case — but there has been no sign of a decrease in one of Kerala’s principal ‘exports’. A popular saying among local Christian communities goes, “A family’s greatest wealth is an elephant or a priest.”
According to official sources in the Catholic Church, India, along with the Philippines and Vietnam, sends the most number of missionaries abroad. While there are no proper stats about priests from the rest of India, Kerala currently has 15,000 priests and 27,000 nuns working outside India. The number of Kerala nuns who work elsewhere in India is 56,000. This puts the total number of Kerala nuns working outside the state at 83,000. The number of nuns — belonging to Catholic and Syro-Malabar denomination — in Kerala itself is only 1,20,000, which shows the clear emphasis on challenging ‘missionary’ activity outside the fold, whether it is for spreading the Word or merely well-being — schools, hospices, and soup kitchens.
Fr George Muttathuparambil, a Kerala priest who was in Yemen with Fr Uzhunnalil, and had a narrow escape soon after the latter’s abduction in March 2016, says that foreign priests went to Aden and Sana’a at the request of the then Yemenese government to look after lepers and the ailing aged. The priests were forbidden from preaching. “Transformation into a better human is the expected end result of a mission, and not conversion. Our definition of a missionary is simple – someone sent on a mission for goodness,” Fr Muttathuparambil, who started his work in Yemen at Hodeidah where three nuns were shot dead in 1988, told Times of India.
There are many Kerala priests working in North America and Europe where congregations are dwindling by the day and vicars are hard to find. But if church sources here are to be believed, within the church itself ‘postings’ to the trouble spots of the world are considered more ‘glamorous’.
A Dominican father based in Kottayam, who did stints in West Asia, Germany, Ireland and various dioceses in the US, and is now yearning for a ‘posting’ in West Asia or Africa, says that “in the US and Europe, our functions were largely ritualistic and sacramental. There was little or no real challenge”.
Priests and nuns chosen to work in remote locations are of course provided prior ‘acclimatisation’, notably in the form of language training, psychological adaptation, culture tips and also emergency survival skills.
Fr Thomas Manninezhath, one of the first members of Carmelites of Mary Immaculate in Namibia in southern Africa, says that knowledge of the vernacular language is important. “It was a very new experience for me as I had never properly interacted with blacks. I used to teach them and though it was tough, I had a feeling of fulfilment in imparting knowledge to those kids there,” says Fr Manninezhath who worked for 17 years in Namibia.
Back at Don Bosco House in Kochi, Fr Paulson Kannappilly, the rector, reiterates that it’s all about doing good work and leading by example. “Our priests and nuns go to these distant places and try to inspire the local people. Soon they do things on their own,” he says. The sweaty novices, seated around him after the basketball session, nod in agreement.