“I don’t have anything but I have everything!”

Frater Juan Carlos Castañda Rojas, a seminarian doing his pastoral year in Brazil, shares the following reflection. He wrote it after learning of the death of Br. Gabriel Kersting, who died on April 7. 

Remembering Br. Gabe

Br. Gabe Kersting

I have to say that during my journey with the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, I have been able to meet many amazing people, people who by the example of their lives have made a huge impact on my own vocation. And one of them Br. Gabriel Kersting. I met him on many different occasions but the one that really caused a huge impact in my life was during my novitiate year 2012-2013 when, with my novice master Fr. John Czyzynski and classmate Frater James Nguyen, we visited all the ministries of the congregation in the United States. That journey took us to Pinellas Park, Fl., to visit the retirement community of the US province

We had the wonderful opportunity to interview all the members of the community house. By that time Br. Gabe, as he was called, was having memory problems and was not able to remember many things. In fact, he was not able to remember what he had said just couple minutes before. However, we had a blessed moment chatting with him and asking him about his experience in the Congregation. One of the things he mentioned was about community living and how grateful he was to the entire community. Also he was very humble and honest in admitting to us that he did not remember many things. But what he said next are words that became tattooed on my heart:

“I don’t have anything, but I have everything.”

He explained to us that it meant he did not have any money, property, or valuable material things but that at the same time he had never missed those things because he had everything he needed thanks to the congregation. If he was sick he would get medicine or be able to visit a doctor. He was able to complete his education, and if he was hungry he knew he would always have food from the community.

Those words truly stayed with me “I don’t have anything, but I have everything.” When I got the news last week that Br. Gabe had passed away, those words resounded in my heart and my mind like a burning fire. Today as my pastoral year continues in Brazil and I have been able to see the difficult life situations of many poor people here, those words have become even stronger in my life as a foundation of growth in my vocation.

Frater Juancho with youth in Brazil

“I don’t have anything, but I have everything.” As I see the difficult situations of the people by doing what our founder Fr. Leo Dehon taught us, which is to be among the poor, the most vulnerable, and marginalized,  I  appreciate how these humble, wonderful people, in their own way, also live the words of Br. Gabe. They live in very humble homes, some made with clay and with only roofs made of palms leaves, some with floors made of dirt and walls made from old boards. Many families sleep in hammocks because they don’t have money to buy beds for everyone and in many cases because their homes are so small they don’t have enough space.  But despite living situations that for many people would be unbearable, they are the most welcoming people I have ever encountered, sharing the little that they have and always with a warm smile in their faces. I have been in their homes, and shared a meal with them and even experienced sleeping in a hammock, which to be honest I found more comfortable than the bed. Some of them said that I was becoming a native like them because I slept in the hammock but that to become a true native I had to get used to the heat, which has been difficult for me to bear.

I was very moved as I visited different communities including the churches they built to have a place to celebrate mass and live their faith. Because many of these people live far from the parish or matriz, which is how it is called here, there is a need to create a place for the small neighborhoods. Brick by brick and with the collaboration and effort of the entire community and sharing the little that they have, they build their sacred place to live their faith. Amazingly a parish can have 20, 30, 50, or even 130 communities and all of them created by the effort of these people.

“I don’t have anything, but I have everything.” These people live in extreme poverty, without a proper water system, and are exposed to many illnesses caused by mosquitoes. But if you go along the streets, which also are in very bad condition, you can see many families sitting outside their homes. Some are playing cards, others just talking, and many trying to avoid the high temperatures because of the lack of fans or air conditioning.

In one of my most recent visits to one of the communities, I was very moved when I heard how they were building their church. The church was just unfinished walls, flooring, and seats made with old wood. And there were no fans despite the very hot weather. But in my eyes it was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. I felt the love of these people and the price of what they had so far achieved. It is true that I have seen many amazing art woks, churches that are incredible because they are huge, stylish, comfortable, and historic. But this place, this unfinished place, had been created through more faith, love, devotion, and sacrifice than many of the most beautiful ones I have visited. As in other communities, people received me with open arms and a beautiful sincere smile on their faces. And there was also some laughter because I was sweating heavily because of the heat. But after we celebrated mass, many people came to give me a hug and welcomed me to take some selfies. That place became the most beautiful place I had ever seen not because of its walls or the roof or the seats that made up the church. The beauty was in the heart of the people who were truly building community, building a church.

While I have been among these people, I have experienced some of their needs. But I know that I am and will be privileged. In the future if I get sick I will be able to get some medicine and care and that on my return to the United States there is a school waiting for me; and that if I am hungry there is always something to eat. I know by experience that “I don’t have anything, but I have everything.”

I have come to understand the meaning of those beautiful and powerful words.   Because of the many experiences I have had during my time in the Congregation of the Priest of the Sacred Heart, I know that I have not just the material things to cover all my needs but also and more importantly the spiritual and moral support of my brothers in the community.

I know that there is and always will be someone to walk with me, to care about me, and to be a companion in this amazing journey of our vocation. I don’t have anything but I have everything and I am privileged because I am part not just of a congregation, but a great family which takes care of each member of this family. My novice master once told me that our vow of poverty invited us to live simply but that it is also a reminder that we may have more privileges than most people. Thank you Fr. John (muchacho), I truly understand those words and our invitation to recognize the needs of others and to be among them and experience their needs by putting ourselves in their place. By putting our privileges aside and humbling ourselves, we can truly experience their needs and also their joy.

One of the members of our family went before us on this journey. But Br. Gabriel Kersting, by his legacy and example, stays with us even after his death. Thank you Br. Gabe for the gift of your life within our congregation. Thank you for the beautiful gift of the example of your life. Thank you for the amazing words that came from your heart and impacted my life. Thank you for teaching me that I don’t have anything, but that I have everything because I already have all that I need as a member of this Congregation, as a member of this family. Rest in peace dearly beloved Brother and watch over us as we continue with the legacy of Fr. Dehon

One must listen to be a Dehonian

“Dehonitation”

We continue preparing ourselves during this season of Lent to live the pascal mystery of the life, Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. And I am also continuing with my pastoral experience in Brazil where I have the opportunity to really understand the meaning of going out of the sacristy and being among those who are in need and more vulnerable than most people. My getting to know more about the different ministries and the impact the Priests of the Sacred Heart have in the various regions of Brazil has been a meaningful growing experience for me as a Dehonian. And it has made me able to understand the needs of others and to be present to help them.

There is no more perfect time than this season of Lent for me to reflect on my vocation and my response to God’s call to strengthen my relationship with other people. And the Second Sunday of Lent in which we celebrated the transfiguration of the Lord provides suitable readings to reflect on what I am thinking about. One beautiful message for reflection comes from the reading of the Book of Genesis (12: 1-4a) the calling of Abraham and the promises of God’s blessings. I reflect on my own vocation and of hearing God’s call, which took me to a foreign land: the United States where I have been blessed by many experiences and all the amazing people I have met during my time in formation there. And today after following my heart and missionary call, I am again in another new land ––  Brazil  –– and I am experiencing more amazing experiences and countless blessings during my pastoral year here.

As we read of the transfiguration of the Lord in the Gospel according to Matthew (17:1-9), where the Divinity of the Lord is revealed to some of His disciples, an important message made its way into my heart. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” “listen to him…” in moments of sadness and sorrow, “listen to him…” in times of joy and happiness, “listen to him…” in moments when we do not know which way or path in our lives we should follow, “listen to him…”  when the political situation affects everyone specially the poor and marginalized, “listen to him…”  “listen to him…”  And so I must remember, always, to “listen to him” myself.

When I was looking for a spiritual reading to enrich my personal prayer during this season of Lent, I found the perfect book in the library of the community house in the city of Parauapebas State of Para where I spent two weeks. John Leo Dehon, a Prophet of the Verb Go, is a book written by Fr. Jose Fernades de Oliveria, an SCJ well known not just in Brazil but in many countries as Fr. Zezinho, SCJ, famous because of his singing career. As I was taking a look at this book, I was struck by the description of it by Fr. João Carlos Almeida, SCJ, who said this book is more than a biography because it captures the soul of the life, work, mission, and spirituality of Fr. Dehon.

In his description, Fr. João Carlos says that after you start reading this book you will not be able to stop … And that after finishing reading it your life will be “Dehonizada.” What a beautiful way to describe that feeling, that your life will be, allow me please to do interpret it by using the word “Dehonitation.” Is that a real term? I am not really sure, I just know that I am learning the meaning of that term. This Dehonitation is something that even if someone tells you what it is about, the best way to understand it is by living it through the experience of your life.

I have come to understand that Dehonitation can be understood by taking the message of the Gospel “listen to him.” Fr. Dehon listened to the cry of the poor and the needs of those in his time who were in need and whose lives were marginalized. Fr. Dehon listened to God’s call and as result, the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart was born. Today we are called “Dehonians,” but we are not only religious men who listened God’s call because in our response we chose to live the charism and teachings of Fr. Dehon. Today the Dehonian family is integrated by the work and love of both religious and lay Dehonians, who walk hand in hand with us in our mission and ministry. Lay Dehonians have also experienced Dehonitation and live our charism in helping us reach out to and serve those who need us the most.

This past March 14, we celebrated the birthday of Fr. Dehon. We also celebrated our vocation as Dehonians, we celebrated our mission and ministry among the poor and marginalized, we celebrated our response to God’s call to the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, and we celebrated the experience of Dehonitation in our lives.  Father Dehon listened to the cries and needs of the people in his time and gave us a legacy that we keep alive today. This legacy gives a deep meaning to the verb “go” because “to go” is an important part of our charism. It means going out of the sacristy and being among those who are marginalized or poor. As Fr. Zezinho mentioned in his book, Fr. Dehon was a real prophet of the verb go.

A missionary chapel in Brazil which Frater Juancho visits

As my pastoral year continues and I experience this Dehonitation, my spirituality and missionary vocation grows stronger and also grows is my firm desire to give my life to this Congregation and the service of those who need us the most. Of course, an essential pillar of our charism is our perpetual adoration and our intimate relationship with God, but my experience visiting rural communities has taught me that this Dehonitation occurs out of the sacristy among these people because it is in them that I can see the face of God.

During this season of Lent we are called to deepen our prayer life, to reflect, and to fast. It usually implies giving up something we are used to having and that will deprive us of a particular pleasure. Some people will give up soda, chocolates, TV shows, Facebook, or many other things. All of those things are good. But today as I experience Dehonitation in my life, I am not sure about what I should give up during this season. Instead, I am thinking about what I can give the most, how can I be present for others, and how I can bring the presence of God and comfort to those who are in need. During this season of Lent I want to continue this process of Dehonitation and listen to the will of God in my life.

Many times, I have said to people here in Brazil when I introduce myself that I decided to come to Brazil to do my pastoral year. I am proud to say that it was my decision, that I chose to come to Brazil and that all the amazing experiences that I am having are the result of my own decision.

But during Lent I have come to understand that it was not me who made the decision to come to Brazil, it was not my decision to go to the United States. Instead I realize that I was listening to God’s voice in my heart.  Today I say that I am in Brazil because it was the will of God.

Today I say that I am just listening to God and His will for me.  Today my invitation during this season of Lent is not of giving up something. instead, I invite you to think about what you can give,  how you can give more of yourself. My invitation then is to open your heart and to listen to the voice of God and to experience Dehonitation in your life and become a prophet of the verb Go.

Rediscovering the seven gifts

Fr. Mark with confirmation students and the bishop

The following was written by Fr. Mark Mastin, SCJ, a chaplain with the US Army at Fort Gordon:

Like many of us in active ministry, our lives can be very busy and stressful, particularly around key holidays and liturgical seasons such as Lent. In the military environment, we priests are often without staff members or available volunteers, which can add to our anxiety or worry. Hence, we are often left by ourselves performing many of the tasks and job functions in a parish including finance management, sacramental record keeping, event planning, teaching, acting youth minister, counseling, sacristan, burning palms for ashes, chauffeur for the brass, etc. Staffed by myself for nearly four weeks to manage activities such religious education, daily and weekend masses, confirmation, and a few ecumenical Ash Wednesday services, I found myself needing some spiritual guidance.

Through my Confirmation class, I rediscovered how the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit can help me get spiritually grounded again for Lent, especially in the practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I likewise saw how Dehonian this discerning process was. As a child of the sixties, I was confirmed in the 7th Grade. By my adulthood, I had relegated the gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord) to some ethereal realm never to be called upon again. However, even though I knew that they were still there, I never sought to reconnect with them. However, I now saw a deeper connection of these gifts in conjunction with  our Priests of the Sacred Heart (SCJ) Rule of Life. I began to see those gifts of the spirit in a very real and practical human way for my Lenten practices and managing my ministerial life as well.

Fr. Mark speaks to students and their families.

Prayer, Wisdom, Understanding, Fortitude, and Knowledge: Our Rule of life (76-78) speaks of how our faithfulness to prayer will help dispose ourselves to God’s word, which in turn unites us with the world. Consequently, prayer enables us to receive “a spirit of wisdom” or a welcoming of the spirit “who prays in us and comes to help us in our weakness.” Wow! A sense of fortitude to strengthen us in our weakness brought on by stressful days. We all can use a dose of this firmness of mind and spirit. This rule goes on to say that it is by prayer that we progress in the “knowledge” and understanding of Jesus thereby increasing our intimacy with him. To accomplish this relationship, we need to set aside time of silence and solitude with Christ. To let God in and let the noise out. Then, we will begin to comprehend how God sees, judges and acts with love, mercy, and forgiveness. Someone once said that silence is the language that God speaks. I am making that time.

Fasting, Counsel, and Piety: Such an attitude towards prayer and deep friendship with Jesus leads us to fast, to seek his counsel and grow deeper in our piety towards God. We discover that fasting is not just about reducing our food intake but fasting from those sinful things that keep separating us from God and each other. More importantly, we fast from our selfishness so that we may become selfless. From there, we seek Jesus’ counsel in directing our life, to fast from our willfulness and seek what God wills for us in the world (35). In a Dehonian sense, we become an oblation to people by offering up our lives for them. Not just by offering up our sufferings, though that may be involved, but by being available and attentive to the needs of others, particularly to the poor and marginalized (35).

Almsgiving and the Fear of the Lord: Finally, we are called to be Sint Unum or one with the world by our acts of charity. Our awe for God and God’s generous love for us pushes us to build up “the reign of justice and Christian charity in the world” — to bring God’s Kingdom to this earth—adveniat regnum tuum (32). Therefore, “Our special love shall go to those who have the greatest need of being acknowledged and loved” (51-52). “In this way, we will be disciples of Father Dehon.”

Having reflected upon these gifts of the spirit and the writings of our Rule of Life, I was at peace with all of my recent chapel activities, especially on the days of Confirmation and Ash Wednesday. I now feel better about Lent. I guess those seven gifts are still with me after all.

Birthday rituals in India

 

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Fr. Tom Cassidy, who assists in the Indian District for several months each year, writes about a recent birthday celebration in India:

Birthdays are important events anywhere in the world and are certainly celebrated by our Indian SCJs. There is a house ritual to the experience. It starts with door decorations, prayers at Mass and morning prayer for the birthday honoree, and concludes with the presentation of a cake, flowers and hugs from all, along with the traditional birthday song. It kicks off with a few words from the rector (or in his absence, his delegate) on some of the positive qualities of the honoree in helping to build and live our SCJ community life.

In the past, celebrations have included ice cream at supper provided by the honoree but that may have been suspended due to last November’s financial crisis or perhaps dropped all together, I’m not quite sure. Today we honored Br. Ravindra Uppuluri, SCJ (3rd year) who celebrates his 26th birthday. He comes from a nearby village no more than an hour from here.

Br. Ravindra receives birthday wishes

Br. Ravindra receives birthday wishes

I first met Ravindra when he was a novice in Nambur and at that time I knew him as “Emmanuel.” Soon after I got here he told me he preferred to be called “Ravindra.” Much to my surprise this morning the cake had his old name, a name I have not heard for almost three years.

Part of the birthday ritual is for the superior (or his delegate – me, in this case) to cut a small piece of cake and feed it the birthday honoree and for him to feed the superior, much like at a wedding in the United States.

Unfortunately, the cake was kept in the freezer and was as hard as a rock. Ravindra and I managed to cut small pieces and carry out the ritual as prescribed. We then sent the cake back to the kitchen to thaw and will enjoy it with lunch. Normally the cake would be sliced and served at breakfast.

Br. Franklin Victor, SCJ (3rd year), one of Ravindra’s classmates, confessed that the frozen cake was his doing, something got lost in translation. The instructions were to put the cake on top of the refrigerator but he took it to mean to put it in the freezer compartment at the top of the refrigerator. No harm done, just a delayed treat.

Getting out of the sacristies and going to the people!

Participants at the Dehonian Youth Mission experience in Brazil

Participants at the Dehonian Youth Mission experience in Brazil

 

“Entering each house was like opening a book and each page brought something completely different and new”

-Frater Juan Carlos Castañeda Rojas

 

Frater Juan Carlos Castañeda Rojas is in Brazil, where he is doing a ministerial year with a focus on youth ministry. On February 1 he will renew his temporary vows along with other SCJ students in Brazil. Frater Juancho writes:

The first phase of the Youth Dehonian Mission (M.D.J) took place from January 13-22 in Terra Boa, Parana, in Brazil. Every three years a different city is selected to be the host city of the Brazil Youth Dehonian Missionaries.

In 2017 the mission began in Terra Boa with 122 participants including priests, fraters (seminarians) and young lay Dehonians. Divided into nine communities of mission in different areas of the city we visited many houses to share stories, ideas, and the Word of God.

What an incredible experience it was to see the young Dehonians who had so much enthusiasm in their heart for this experience. In the same way, the people of Terra Boa were expecting our visits. The weather was very hot, but that did not stop us from our mission. Entering each house was like opening a book and each page brought something completely different and new. We met really humble people who opened not just the doors of their homes but their hearts to us as they shared with us their feelings.

To my surprise and joy, in one of the many houses that I visited I had the opportunity to meet and get to know a Buddhist family. I was impressed by the way they spoke about Catholics and even more how they spoke about Fr. Leo John Dehon. I was amazed by their knowledge about our founder as well as their love for Pope Francis. Furthermore, to make this experience even greater, I was invited to light incense as an offering to their ancestors.

“My ancestors are going to be very happy with your presence and offering,” they said to us.

This is how this mission also gave me an intercultural and inter-religious experience that taught me again to be more respectful and understanding of other cultures and religions. And that is what Pope Francis is doing by inviting us to engage in inter-cultural and religious dialogue with other people and faiths.

The youth mission banner

The youth mission banner

It is true that it was a tiring experience that included long walks, super-hot weather, and visits at night that included different celebrations. But these challenges were nothing compared to the gratitude we saw on the faces of the people we visited. Even days after our visit they remembered us and greeted us again with a nice smile and big hug every time we met. So I was able to realize how blessed I am because among all the people, among all the Dehonians around the world, I was there in Terra Boa, which in English means “Good Soil.” It is a perfect fit for the Gospel of Luke 8. 8: “Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.”

I was called to be part of this mission to awaken and nourish my missionary vocation. I was called to be a disciple and plant seeds in this soil so they could to produce good fruit.

I cannot say enough about the beautiful devotion to Our Lady of Aparecida here in Brazil, It was really wonderful to be present to pray the Rosary with a big group of men who every week gather to pray the Rosary. A total of 345 men gathered that day, and everyone came with an open heart and dedication to pray together.

However, during our mission, a dark and sad cloud covered the shining sun. Two of the members of the mission lost members of their families in a car accident. One of them, Danillo, who was part of my group doing visits, lost his father. It was a horrible experience for him and all of us. We tried to be present for him and we cried with him while gathering him into a big hug to show our love and support for him. The next day we also accompanied him and his family to the funeral. It was a sad situation. But I felt blessed again to be present for him in that moment and to witness how beautiful and powerful the human heart can be when we really understand and share the pain of others.

Continuing with these great experiences, we celebrated Mass with young people in the area. There was a huge crowd of young people who sang and danced to show their love to God. Learning the steps was not easy, but I did my best and I sang and danced along with them. I was even able to use what I learned years ago when I did some theater. I was invited to take a small part in a skit that we were going to present to the young people before Mass. I have to say that I was nervous, but the experience was super nice.

When the day came to say good bye to the people of Terra Boa there were many tears –– tears of joy, tears of satisfaction for our mission, tears of gratitude, and tears of sadness for leaving that place and the many friends we made.

Fr. Dehon taught us to get out of the sacristy and go to the people and Pope Francis has invited us to do the same thing. That invitation has a more powerful meaning in my heart now. We Dehonians understand the needs and suffering of others and we go to the people when they need us. But when I say Dehonians I include lay Dehonians who also understand the meaning of that invitation. And it was reflected not just in the young Dehonians but also in the many lay Dehonians who accompanied us during our days in Terra Boa.

My words of gratitude extend to the many people who were present and willing to give their time and dedication so we would have a place to stay and food to eat.

What a blessed experience it was. I can truly say my heart rejoiced in it and my vocation continues to grow each day. We have all been called to be present to others in many different ways, not only to show care and respect to people but to show the face of God to others and to be able to also see the face of God them. I was able to put in practice some of the pastoral skills that I have been learning. But it was also a great opportunity to learn even more about myself and learn more about how to be present to others and see the face of God in them.

I heard many times during our visits that our presence was a blessing for them. But my response was that they were a blessing to me because all the people I visited were a blessing to me on my journey and to my vocation. With all due respect, this experience actually taught us something that we could not learn in any classroom: how to reach out to people and really understand the meaning of getting out of the sacristy. We learned the theory of how to reach out to people in the classroom but this experience really taught us the reality of reaching out to others.

Muito Obrigado! Thank you so much Terra Boa, thank you to the missionaries and thank you God for your calling to live this experience of being Dehonian.

Frater Juancho and friends in Brazil

Frater Juancho and friends in Brazil

 

 

Funeral traditions in India

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Fr. Tom Cassidy writes from India, where he spends several months of the year assisting with formation and administration in the district:

Yesterday our entire community, save two brothers not feeling well, traveled to Br. Sekhar Adam Nandudri’s village of Lingapuram for his mother’s funeral. It was scheduled for 3:00 pm but as we arrived late, and I’m sure a few others as well, including the assistant parish priest, the funeral did not begin until about 4:00 pm.

Our trip was dictated by the theologate schedule. Our brothers were excused from the last hour but by the time they all biked home and we had our lunch it was closer to 1:00 pm before we got underway. We managed to fit everyone into our van, truck and two motorcycles (one of ours and the other belonging to Fr. Jojappa Chinthapalli, pastor of Sacred Heart parish, Vempadu, who took on one of our brothers for the three-hour journey.

Funeral and burial customs vary around the world, and I’m sure even in India itself. Here in Andra Pradesh things are simple.

The mother’s took place around 6:30 in the morning and by late afternoon her coffin would rest in the earth. Between her death and the funeral Mass she was prepared for burial and while I’m not sure by whom I would suspect women relatives did so, perhaps assisted by women of the village. As India is a hot country a refrigerated glass casket is used to place the body in for what back home we would call a wake. This is placed just outside the house as houses are very small and could not accommodate the crowd.

When the assistant parish priest arrived we had a short prayer service and the placing of her body into a simple wooden casket covered with white cloth and black trimming. A garland of flowers was around her neck much like we place rosaries in the hands of our deceased Catholics in the States.

Most of the priests went to the church before the procession from the house to what really is called a sub-station chapel. It did not take long to hear them coming. Led by our two brother servers and accompanied by the beating of drums and the setting off of firecrackers the mourners moved slowly from the house to the chapel. The use of drums and fireworks seem to accompany almost any type of procession.

The Mass was what we would be used to in the States with a few minor differences. An introduction to the Mass is a regular feature of an Indian Mass. As Fr. Jojappa is our best Telugu speaker he gave it. The main celebrant of the Mass was our formation house rector, Fr. Michael Augustine. One surprising element was the lack of a homily. I was told that the people begin to relax once the body is in the ground.

In seven days there will be a memorial Mass at which time more family members and friends who could not make it to the funeral (as it was on the day of death and therefore very short notice) will be in attendance. The family will also be in a different stage of grieving then. I’m reminded what a good friend of mine Leo Graham, a psychologist, often said: Death is always a surprise.

The burial of Br. Adam's mother

The burial of Br. Adam’s mother

Adam’s mother’s death is a case in point. She had been bed ridden for over seven years and had been in declining health in recent months. Adam went home the day before her death and still it came as a surprise when she took her last breath around 6:30 am yesterday morning. Adam told me he was up with his mother all night and around 5:30 am fell asleep himself, he woke just before she breathed her last. Adam has several brothers and sisters including one brother who basically has been taking care of his mother since an accident crippled her.

The procession to the cemetery did not take long. I was a bit surprised (though probably should not have been) that traffic did not stop nor for that matter slow down as we walked down the highway with drums beating and fireworks going off in front of the procession and honking horns from in back as drivers impatient to be on their way whizzed by.

The burial service was conducted by Fr. Jojappa. At its conclusion but before the casket was closed for the last time Fr. Michael placed a second garland of flowers in the casket, and with the lid nailed shut several men lowered her into the ground. All present took a clump of dirt and threw it into the grave. Completely covering the grave would be left to others as the mourners left to take part in a simple meal.

Two interesting customs not found in the States caught my attention. Except for immediate family no women come to the cemetery. Consequently the crowd of mourners were men and young boys. There is, by the way, no attempt to shield the reality of death from the young. Second, upon arriving back at the house buckets of water were placed so the mourners could wash their legs and feet. This custom, as explained to me, is a precaution against any disease that might be present in the cemetery.

The meal was served as usual with the priests and religious sitting at a long table and men dishing out the rice and side dishes. There was not enough room for all at the table so many of the brothers sat wherever they could find a comfortable spot. Eating with hands and holding a plate is actually rather easy to do.

With the meal ended we said our goodbyes.

 

Pongal: a celebration of thanksgiving in India

Fr. Michael with members of the Franciscan Sisters of Aloysius Gonzaga during the Pongal celebrations

Fr. Michael with members of the Franciscan Sisters of Aloysius Gonzaga during the Pongal celebrations

Fr. Tom Cassidy is back in the Indian District where he spends several months each year assisting with formation and administration. As in the past we will share excerpts from his journal on the US Province blog. On Sunday he wrote:

Saturday was a day of mixing ancient and modern traditions. For me it began with Mass at the Holy Family Brothers’ minor seminary just down the road from us. I usually say Mass on Saturdays and Sundays since I now have an international drivers license and can drive myself to and from. It was good to get back as I enjoy the enthusiasm and fine singing of the young men, probably ranging in age from early to late teens. Following Mass and breakfast (my usual Indian breakfast of bread and peanut butter) I headed out for my walk. Getting it in early was a necessity given the plans for the rest of the day.

The community was preparing to celebrate the Tamil Nadu Pongal festival. [Pongal is a festival of thanksgiving] I believe it’s the first time our Christu Dehon Nivas community in Eluru is celebrating it. Fr. Michael Augustine, SCJ, our rector, was born and raised near Chennai in the heart of Tamil Nadu (the state). I’m not entirely sure we would have gone to the effort if it were not for the sisters’ postulant community next to our Nambur novitiate as both Sister James and Sister Augustine (the house superior) and their postulants come from Tamil Nadu and did much of the necessary work that goes into this harvest festival. While the feast comes out of the Hindu tradition, Christians have made adaptations to it.

Our local Pongal celebration began just a tad late as the sisters took the opportunity to visit the Holy Land, a local representation of the important religious sites and events in the life of Christ, run somewhat like an amusement park or museum. Our own Fr. Joseph Kasmir, SCJ (assistant novice master and treasurer of our Nambur community) served as their driver and took part in our house celebration.

Making the Pongal rice

Making the Pongal rice

Usually Catholic celebrations begin with Mass but the most important event of Pongal is the cooking the Pongal (a rice dish). A special pot just for the occasion is prepared and decorated; our own Br. Mary Babu Kota, SCJ (3rd year) decorated our pot with floral designs. As the Pongal cooks to perfection participants do a dance around the Pongal pot and when all is ready our Pongal pot was led in procession as the community processed into our temporary chapel. The Mass was celebrated in Tamil with Fr. Michael as our principal celebrant. It followed the Indian Rite.

Fr. Michael is the only Tamil-speaking priest in our local community but he was able to get some of the concelebrants to dip their tongue into Tamil during the division of parts that take place in the Eucharistic Prayer. The introduction to the Mass was prepared by Br. Shaba Dennis, SCJ (3rd year) who also speaks Tamil while the homily was shared by the postulants of the Sisters of Aloysius Gonzaga. They prepared (in English) a brief history of the Pongal feast while Fr. Michael added how it has been adapted by Christians. A good example is that that Sun God is seen as Jesus the Light of the world and just as the sun is necessary for human existence so Christ is to the salvation of the human family.

Upon the conclusion of Mass it was time to eat our Pongal and begin our cultural program. It was a departure from our usual performances as we not only had dances and skits by our Christu Dehon Nivas brothers but also by the Franciscan Sisters of Aloysius Gonzaga postulants.