Family units reshape Catholic faith in Kerala diocese
By Susan Klemond
Kottayam: When Alphonsa George was living in a small plastic-covered shed in the mountains of southern India, the 43-year-old widow dreamed of a safe, well-constructed home where she could live with her two daughters.
But like many of her fellow Catholics in Vijayapuram diocese in Kerala, George lacked the means to make her dream come true — until last year, when fellow parishioners helped her build a new home with funding from a Bloomington couple’s nonprofit.
“We are happy as if in a dream realized,” George wrote to the benefactors. “Now I am able to sleep safely in this house. We have a cow and a dog.”
George and the Catholics who helped her belong to the Little Flower Family Unit, one of the neighborhood-based subgroups of 15 to 25 families called “basic Christian communities” into which their parish is divided. These lay Catholics pray together, serve each other and learn the faith. They gather with their entire parish at Mary Giri Church for Sunday Mass and parish-wide events.
As Catholics, members of the Little Flower Family Unit and about 1,000 other BCCs in the Vijayapuram diocese are a minority group within the national Christian minority, and they are disregarded by Indian society and government.
India’s caste system, which dates back at least 3,000 years, stratifies Hindus into four hierarchical groups. Among Christians, caste stratification often reflects sect, location and predecessors’ castes.
Catholics as a whole comprise less than 2 percent of the Indian population; of the three Catholic rites practiced in India. Many of Vijayapuram diocese’s 90,000 Latin rite Catholics are of lower castes and societal standing.
Vijayapuram is an example of both the hope and need found in 1,150 mission dioceses that benefit from the annual World Mission Sunday collection. This year, it will be taken worldwide Oct. 21-22. Collection proceeds are sent to the Pontifical Mission Societies, to which these dioceses can apply for grants.
Since some mission organizations consider India to be a developed country, they no longer prioritize helping Indian states, said Bishop Sebastian Thekethecheril of Vijayapuram. However, he said, many Christians there live in poverty and suffer for the faith.
In 1990, the diocese established BCCs in its 84 parishes. Parishes now act as a community of communities where all Catholics participate, said Father Jose Puthenparambil, who coordinates the Vijayapuram diocese’s BCC program and who served as a resident priest at Epiphany in Coon Rapids from 2003 to 2005. BCCs are modeled after the communal life of the early Church. They originated in South America and the Philippines and grew with the support of St John Paul II.
BCCs hold meetings for men, women and their general membership in parishioners’ homes. Members serve in family and formation ministries and perform works of mercy. In Kerala, impoverished Christian families turn to the bishop for assistance. BCC leaders inform their pastor and the bishop’s social service office of member needs.
“They are guided by God to do what is necessary to work on the problems,” Father Puthenparambil told The Catholic Spirit in August, while he and Bishop Thekethecheril were visiting the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Vijayapuram diocese has facilitated construction of 246 homes in the past three years, some with funding from the non-profit We Share Program started by David and Kathy Rennie, parishioners of Holy Family in St. Louis Park. Hundreds of other families in the diocese still need sturdy shelter.
“The pastoral aim is always to meet the basic needs of people, not just the spiritual needs,” Bishop Thekethecheril said. “We find some money here and there, some support we give.”
With funding from the We Share Program, the diocese and personal savings, a family and its BCC build the house. “They take this as a project of that family unit for all of the parish, all of the diocese,” Father Puthenparambil said.
Incorporated in 1999 to aid Vijayapuram diocese, the We Share Program finds donors who sponsor home construction, as well as entire families and seminarians.
Its founders, the Rennies, have a longstanding friendship with Bishop Thekethecheril. Their connection to the diocese began in the 1970s, when Kathy’s mother sponsored Bishop Thekethecheril while he was a seminarian. In the 1980s, the couple adopted two Indian children from an area near the diocese.
We Share fund recipients may not know of this friendship, but they show appreciation through letters posted on the nonprofit’s website, WeShareProgram.net.
“I would think that they would see how God is providing through other people because of the way they express their gratitude,” said Kathy Rennie, 72.
BCC participation fosters a sense of belonging. “They see the base of the BCC is the mystery of the Holy Trinity, where each person is respected, where they are innately loved and where they are doing the works of God,” Father Puthenparambil said.
The Roman Catholics’ humble status in Kerala stems in part from their evangelization. The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, an eastern-rite Catholic Church in communion with the pope, is more dominant in Kerala, where it is based. Another eastern-rite Catholic Church, the Syro-Malankara Church, is also based in Kerala, but it is significantly smaller than the Syro-Malabar Church. Both trace their roots to St. Thomas the Apostle, who, according to tradition, brought Christianity to India in the first century.
St. Thomas evangelized mainly higher caste Indians, who didn’t share the faith with lower caste people, Father Puthenparambil said. In the 16th century, St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit missionary, brought Christianity to Indian fishermen and other people in lower castes.
Catholics in Kerala call themselves “Latin-rite Catholics” to distinguish themselves from the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches. The line, however, is not steadfast; some priests have permission to celebrate the sacraments in two or more rites.
“There are so many problems these people face because they became Christian,” Bishop Thekethecheril said.
Despite their own challenges, Vijayapuram Catholics evangelize and serve others. Many of the Roman Catholics in the diocese are lower class or Dalit, people who are excluded from the caste system and who were once considered “untouchable.” They assist other Dalit and tribal people, also from lower castes, many of whom struggle with alcoholism.
Meanwhile, people see the Church as a place of comfort. Each week, a St. Anthony shrine at one of the diocese’s parishes draws more than 35,000 people, almost half of whom are not Christian, Father Puthenparambil said. They come for healing prayer services, Mass, confessions and Divine Mercy devotions.
“They are gathering for a God experience,” he said.
Last year, the Vijayapuram diocese received a $30,000 subsidy for diocesan operations from the Pontifical Mission Societies. From this grant, the BCCs have received funding to train and monitor their leaders.
BCC members themselves contribute to the collection, Bishop Thekethecheril said. “Though the people are poor, they give money and we every year increase the giving to Rome.”
He said he hopes the BCCs will continue to grow in the generosity, faith and service that characterized the early Church.
“What the Church expects from all the faithful is this kind of lifestyle of the early Church, not only in India but all over the world,” Bishop Thekethecheril said. “The expectation is when this is fully implemented, people will feel they are really Christian and their Christian life fulfills Christian obligations. They are in the process.”