Kerala’s most popular bishop turns 100
I like them (the Communists). But I don’t agree with everything that they say.” So has he ever voted for the Communist party, something very unlikely for a Christian priest?
“Oh, that’s another story,” responded the large old man sitting in front of me in a priest’s cassock—the longest-serving bishop in India. “Once, the Communists came to me and said: We know Thirumeni (an honorific title for priests in Malayalam) would never vote for us, so we have come to request you to abstain from voting. I told them that for the last three years I had voted for the Congress, and the Congress had lost all those three years. Suddenly, the Communists took it as an omen and urged me to vote for the Congress this time too. I voted for the Congress that time, and guess what happened? The Congress won,” he said, laughing. “You should think for yourself, not blindly believe anything or obey anyone.”
Philipose Mar Chrysostom reminded me of the witty, wisdom-rich hero of the 2012 best-selling comic-caper novel by Jonas Jonasson, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared. Like the novel’s protagonist, who climbs out of the window of his room in a retirement home on his 100th birthday and starts travelling aimlessly, the cleric sitting in front of me is reputed to enjoy the lighter side of life. On 27 April, he celebrated his 100th birthday. And he’s still in search of fresh adventures.
“I like doing creative things, it makes me happy,” says Chrysostom, a patriarch of Kerala’s Syrian Christian community, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world outside West Asia. In community legend, the Syrian Christians of Kerala were converted by St Thomas the Apostle, one of the 12 disciples of Jesus (Doubting Thomas in the Bible), early in the first century AD.
Born Philip Oommen, Thirumeni is emeritus metropolitan—the highest honorary position—of the Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church. He has served as a bishop for more than 65 years, and is a pre-eminent figure in the state’s Christian community. Yet he is unafraid to poke fun at some of the very things religious people take seriously.
On 20 March, at a ceremony in Delhi, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan, the third-highest civilian honour in the country. This year’s honours were not without their share of controversy. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government rejected 41 of the 42 recommendations that Kerala’s ruling Left Front had made for the three civilian honours this year. Both parties, however, agreed on Chrysostom. He was too popular, or perhaps too powerful.
We are sitting in a small hall in Chrysostom’s retirement home, built on the banks of the Pamba in south-central Kerala’s Maramon. The walls are covered with portraits of the priest, gifted by admirers. There are photographs of him with notable figures, from politicians to movie stars. A vertical aquarium occupies a corner of the room. It was gifted by the Syrian Christian family that publishes Kerala’s largest daily newspaper, Malayala Manorama.
Chrysostom was born in 1918 in Kozhencherry, near Maramon, in a family of priests. His father, K.E. Oommen Kassessa, was a vicar of the Mar Thoma Church. After finishing college in Kerala, he studied theology at Bengaluru’s United Theological College. He became a vicar in 1944, rising to become a metropolitan in 1999.
He retired in 2007, but this hardly seems to have dented his popularity. In early February, we had to wait one week for an interview. Just a week earlier, a prominent Kerala-based publisher had sent a writer to research what would become at least the fifth book on him. When he is home, he has a steady stream of visitors, from people of all faiths. Even Communist politicians line up for his blessing.
I waited quietly as he worked his way down a long queue of people. The last group was a family of six. “Thirumeni, please include my daughter in your prayers. Science and math are so hard for her, so we have sent her to study journalism,” said the eldest man among them.
“Oh, so lying comes easily to her?” replied the priest, grinning.
Chrysostom likes to keep his audience guessing. At a Christian convention in 2012, he was expected to talk about the evils of alcohol. Most of the Kerala priesthood was at the time lobbying for prohibition. But Chrysostom did not believe prohibition was a solution. So he told the audience a story.
“I once went to petition E.M.S. Namboodiripad (the Communist stalwart who became Kerala’s first chief minister in 1957), to complain about the growing liquor habit among Keralites. He gave me a great solution. He said once all Christians stop drinking alcohol in Kerala, then he would think about introducing prohibition.” His story was greeted with shocked silence at the convention, both on the podium and among the audience. “Are we ready?” he asked with a smile.
That Chrysostom has anecdotes about Namboodiripad is another story. He has more vivid memories of Jawaharlal Nehru, whom he met as the head of a delegation of priests during the “liberation struggle” in Kerala (1958-59), a movement against the first Communist government by the Church and civil society.
“This was the world’s first elected Communist government. Nehru, of course, wanted it to fall as a Congress politician. He asked us to tell EMS that we will come on board for a peace meet if the government agrees to three conditions. But he told us to make the third condition impossible for a Communist leader to agree to. You see, that’s what politics does to people. It makes them crave power, and they pretend to be sincere.”
Despite his reservations about politicians, Chrysostom admits to having a soft corner for the Communists in Kerala. “There was a priest amongst us who would preach about equality all the time but would not go to the wedding of backward- caste (converted Christian) members,” he says. “But one day he had to go to one such wedding, and he saw EMS sitting among the locals and having lunch there. Practice is the thing. Not preaching.”
What has changed in the last hundred years in the region? Chrysostom thinks about this for a moment.
“Values,” he says. “In my childhood, most mothers in my neighbourhood were housewives. Only a few women had jobs outside the home. Now there are only a few at home, most women have jobs. The woman who has a job holds perhaps the opposite set of values from women who don’t. It has made them ask, which are the values we should keep and which are the values we should shed?”
There are all sorts of material changes, of course. In his childhood, he explains, the thought of electrified villages was a wonder, the number of cinemas could be counted on one hand, and communities were real, not virtual.
“One American priest told me a story. Someone died in his parish. That person’s son phoned and asked for his help with the funeral rites. They shared addresses. It turned out that the priest and son were neighbours. In my childhood, my neighbours knew more than we did about what was happening in our house. There were real communities. Now nobody wants that. Now machines are our friends.”
“Are you saying machines aren’t good?” I asked.
“The other day, the newspaper had news about a son killing his mother. So is it bad to have children? There is no good or bad, there is only that which can be converted into good or bad.”
Is there anything that hasn’t changed?
This time the reply comes instantly. “Politics and religion. From then to now, religious violence has always been about money or property. It is never about faith.”
I ask him about the black money allegation, in connection with a series of land deals, against Cardinal George Alencherry, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church. The police registered a case in March.
“That’s like asking me how I felt when my father died.”
“Chrysostom is the last of his kind,” says Bobby Thomas, the Kerala-based writer of the 2016 book, Christianikal: Christumathathinoru Kaippusthakam (Christians: A Short Book On Christianity).
“What makes him important? The first thing is his humour, often at the expense of himself, God or religion. Many people, within or outside the religious fold, are afraid of hurting sentiments. But he can, and he does.
“The second thing you notice is that he goes beyond religion in offering a philosophical perspective on life. Humour is only a tool. In doing so, he breaks a sectarian outlook. In fact, this was how religious leaders in the past preserved a syncretic nature in Kerala. He is the last link in that chain,” says Thomas.
Take, for instance, the way Chrysostom has patronized local charity projects. From providing free housing to free meals, he funds a lot of them, on one pre-condition—that they serve people of all faiths.
“The Nasranis (Syrian Christians) created a Christianity that assimilated into the already existing traditions in Kerala. A serene and unique belief system evolved. There were no holy crusades in it, only coexistence,” Thomas’ book, in Malayalam, notes.
But many, including Chrysostom, agree that he isn’t a revolutionary. I ask why he couldn’t correct some of the faults within his own sect, such as gender discrimination, when he was a bishop. “Why would I want myself to be beaten up?” he replied.
Outside the house, there’s a festive atmosphere. On the other side of the river, a vast dry sand bed is filling up with hundreds of people who are attending this year’s “Maramon Convention”, one of the largest and oldest annual Christian gatherings in Asia. Since the end of the 19th century, the Mar Thoma Church has been inviting all the state’s churches for an eight-day convention in Maramon.
Various church organizations, operating out of makeshift tents, are publicizing charity work and requesting donations. In an open hall, priests are delivering sermons. A temporary pedestrian bridge, made of wood, has been built across the river, linking Chrysostom’s house to the other bank. Local children, for whom the first day of the convention is a holiday, are playing in the sand.
In one corner of the ground, a priest in a white cassock takes out a black guitar and starts playing a folksy-religious number. A tall man at a kiosk is talking to a visitor. A woman standing at another stall contemplates the children playing.
I walk across the wooden bridge, feeling its rickety suspension, rubbing shoulders with truth-seekers and truth-givers. It is the kind of setting in which the mind turns to the bigger questions. Where is everyone going? Will we ever get there?
“When I started, I thought I knew the answer,” Chrysostom says, back at the house. “Then I thought I don’t know the answer, but someone else knows the answer. Now, I realize, nobody knows.”