By Nirmala Carvalho
Mumbai, Dec. 21, 2018: As he completes 69 years as a Catholic priest on December 21, Monsignor Nereus Rodrigues remains humble and grateful.
“I am very grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ who called me to serve Him in the priesthood and His Grace has kept me faithful for 69 years,” the 95-year-old priest said during a thanksgiving Mass at Mount Mary’s Basilica, Bandra, Mumbai, where he continues to offer pastoral services after being its rector during 1995-2016.
“Pray for me, and be like Mary— faithful, joyful, always helping others in need,” he urged the gathering comprising his former students, parishioners and friends and family members.
Bishop John Rodrigues, current rector of the basilica, and Jesuit Father Charles Rodrigues, nephew of the nonagenarian priest, concelebrated with him at the Mass.
Bishop Rodrigues thanked the monsignor for his dedicated service to the Church as an educator, pastor and a healthcare promoter. “We are Grateful to Monsignor Nereus’ guidance and witness of faithfulness to the Lord,” the prelate added.
The Jesuit nephew credited Monsignor Rodrigues with his vocation to priesthood. He said his uncle impressed him by making service to God, Church and community as his highest priority. He also found the monsignor greatly dedicated to education, especially among those on the periphery. “His unstinting loyalty to the Church and availability to all people at all times have also attracted me,” added the priest, renowned for his retreats on Ignatian spirituality.
Monsignor Rodrigues, who was ordained a priest on December 21, 1949, is considered a pioneer educationist in the Archdiocese of Bombay. It began 60 years ago when he was appointed the first principal of St. Andrew’s High School in 1958. He still serves as a trustee to St. Andrew’s College.
Speaking of the origin of St Andrew’s College, Monsignor Rodrigues said he had realized the need for Catholic college in the suburbs of Mumbai (then Bombay). He said he felt proud when St. Andrew’s College received the Best College Award from the Mumbai University.
The priest had prepared well for the education work. He obtained a master’s degree in education from the London University. He then earned a Fulbright scholarship for studies on the ‘American School Administration’ at the University of Southern California.
He also has doctorate in cannon law from Urbania University, Rome, that enabled him to teach the subject at St. Pius X College, the archdiocesan seminary.
In the mid-1960s, Father Rodrigues headed the All India Association of Catholic Schools, where he pioneered audio-visual and multimedia-based education. He also served as the leader of the secular “Headmasters’ Association.”
For much of the 1960s and 1970s, Father Rodrigues served as the director of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Bombay, helping set the template for church-run education across the country. He is convinced the Church has made a key contribution in education. ”Through our schools and colleges, Catholic education is responsible for positively changing and transforming the face of society,” he told Matters India.
The Bombay archdiocese recognized his service when Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop, set up the “Monsignor Nereus Rodrigues Educator Award” on April 5 this year on the occasion of the elderly priest’s 95th birthday.
The cardinal also conferred on the priest a Life Time Achievement Award to honor his pioneering work in education in the archdiocese.
“I learned education under Monsignor Nereus when I was a headmaster of a middle school and he was the principal,” the cardinal recalled. “That was my only experience in education and I learnt from the best,” the Archbishop of Bombay said. The cardinal had served as a priest under Monsignor Rodrigues at Sacred Heart parish and school in Santacruz, another suburb of Mumbai.
Monsignor Rodrigues also played a key role in building the Catholic health care system in India. His intervention helped Bandra’s Holy Family Hospital from shutting down. He recalled that in the mid 1970’s, the Medical Mission Sisters who managed the hospital, wanted to close it so that they could serve the poor in rural areas. Monsignor Rodrigues, who was then Episcopal Vicar for the archdiocese, urged Cardinal Valerian Gracias, to invite the Ursulines of Mary Immaculate to take over the hospital in 1978.
Today, Holy Family Hospital is a 260-bed super-specialty facility that continues to serve the most vulnerable and marginalized. “It was important to have a Catholic hospital to cater to the growing Catholic community in the suburbs, and to serve the poor and the weaker sections of our people,” Monsignor Rodrigues asserted.
Msgr Nereus resides at the Basilica, where he served as Rector for 21 years
“I have seen wonderful things happen here and the sincere devotion of Catholics and non-Catholics, and the gratitude of people who have received favors from Mother Mary,” he said. “I would advise all of us to have a close relation with Our Lady, who stands to help us in all circumstances.”
As the basilica rector, he had initiated the Marian project and exhibition, depicting the scenes of the twenty mysteries of the Rosary.