Category Archives: Fr. Tom Cassidy

“Why do you go to India?”

Fr. Tom with the family of one of the Indian SCJs.

Fr. Tom Cassidy returned to India last week; each year he spends several months in the district assisting with the formation program. Periodically we will share excerpts from his daily journal on the province blog. It seems fitting that this time we begin with Fr. Tom’s reflection on why he goes to India. He writes:

“I am often asked when I’m back in Franklin: “Why do you go to India?” Now there is no simple answer to that question but a partial answer hit me this weekend when visiting the shrine of Br. Joseph Thambi. It’s between here and Vijayawada, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) by car or foot. I say foot because three of our brothers and a friend and fellow student at Vijnananilayam Institute of Philosophy and Religion walked from here to there. They left on Sunday evening at 10:30 pm and arrived around 6:00 am Monday morning. This has been an annual trip for Br. Jesu Prasada Sidella (3rd year) as well as Deacon Mary Babu Kota and Br. Sakharov Adam Nanduri (3rd year). Servant of God Thambi Joseph is revered as a holy man who died 73 years ago. He was the first of the Capuchin priests in the area and helped to strengthen the faith in this part of Andhra Pradesh.

Prayer in the midst of a festival

The three-day festival for Joseph Thambi is part state or county fair and part religious festival. Rides, trinkets, games and food are available to those who come perhaps less for the religious experience and more for the entertainment. On the religious side, Mass is celebrated just about every hour with the highlight being the Bishop’s Mass on the closing day. The highlight for the true pilgrims is a chance to pray at Thambi’s tomb and receive a blessing from one of the Capuchin priests on duty. It’s a taxing day for them. One of our SCJs spends most of his day giving blessings as well. I claim he comes home with blessing elbow, an affliction akin to tennis elbow.

I find that the chaos has an appeal all its own. In the midst of all that is going on each person cuts out a turf or space or activity that appeals to him or her at any given moment. The hawker tolerates the pilgrim on his/her knees, the pilgrim shuts out as best he/she can the chaos all around and somehow gains a bit of interior silence and peace. Saints rub shoulders with sinners! Sellers offer their products to anyone — saint, sinner, pilgrim, hawker, etc. — just as long as the rupees add up by the end of the day.

The religious side of the experience is not devoid of its contribution to the chaos and noise. Indians love loud music, and all through the grounds –– sometimes faint and sometimes glaring –– you hear the music, prayers and preaching of the Mass being said in the large outdoor space set up to handle the throngs of pilgrims, some who come to stay for all three days of the festival. For someone from the Milwaukee area the closest experience would be a crowded hot summer day at Summerfest [summer music festival in Milwaukee]

Maybe what I’m really trying to say is that in a land with more than a billion people, each person must find his/her way to maintain the balance life requires of us. Watching people achieve that is both intriguing and instructive and is part of the reason India fascinates me.

 

Our SCJ student “mud slingers”

Fr. Tom Cassidy, SCJ, writes from India (note that in India students who are in vows but not ordained are referred to as “brothers”):

Last Saturday was our second Social Action Day. Br. Manish Nayak, SCJ (3rd year student — second from the right in the photo above in a red t-shirt) suggested that his group and others, if they so desired, should help the villagers of Palagudem in the construction of their substation church. Manish and Br. Kiran Kumar Silarapu, SCJ (1st year) have been doing their Sunday ministry in Palagudem. He pointed out that the villagers are poor and were trying to do most of the work themselves. I believe three out of our five student meditation groups agreed to go with him to work on the church.

Manish let the kitchen know that those going to Palagudem would not be back for lunch but would be home sometime in the afternoon. The villagers would provide a meal for our brothers. The church construction is in an early stage and the help the villagers desired is what I called the need for “mud slingers.” The task of the day was to prepare the foundation for the interior floor of the church. This meant water and sand needed to be mixed. In some ways it was turning young men into little boys. We all know how young boys love to play and splash in mud! This was a dream come true for our mud slingers.

A very common Indian construction technique is to fill a foundation with sand and then force water through it to compact the sand so that when finished the floor will not sink or tilt. Anyone who comes to our refectory at CDN will note that we do have a problem with the foundation sinking on the eastern side of the room.

From what I was able to gather the people of Palagudem were very appreciative of our help and especially to see some old faces. Sunday ministry brothers from past years were welcomed and feted as long lost friends by children and adults alike. It was alumni week with fond memories of past times and funny moments of brothers who’ve carried out their ministry to the people of Palagudem.

While the mud slingers were working hard under the hot midday sun another group was visiting with the residence of the Missionaries of Charity’s home for the mentally challenged. This is a project of the brothers of the Missionaries of Charity who take care of a group of mentally challenged men of various ages and abilities.

Reflecting on community life India

Fr. Tom Cassidy, SCJ, writes from India:

Community meeting at Christu Dehon Nivas

On Monday night after supper the five meditation groups met to discuss various aspects of religious life: community, prayer, work, human relationships, etc. One or two of the groups went to almost 11:00 pm in their discussions.

The setting for the community meeting was the remodeled TV room which now serves as a conference hall and where we also watch our movies. A roll down screen with a ceiling mounted projector and air-conditioning were added. Christu Dehon Nivas is often chosen as a place for district conferences and ongoing formation programs. These are sometimes held in May or early June during vacation time — the hottest time of year in Andra Pradesh. A couple of years ago Fr.  Stefan Tertünte, SCJ, from the Dehon Study Center in Rome was the presenter. He just about wilted away in the heat and that was the genesis of looking towards providing a place where meetings could be held without worrying about temperatures approaching 120 degrees. I’m sure that Fr. Charles Brown, SCJ, of the US Province will appreciate an air-conditioned conference room for his presentations when he comes next May to give a course on St. Paul to our brothers.

Our rector, Fr. Michael Augustine, SCJ, serves as moderator of the community meeting.  Each of the five meditation groups was asked to report on its discussions after which others could add comments not covered by the groups. Fr. Michael responded with comments and observations we (formation directors) had about the community since last we met.

One example from last night: the  brothers (students) rotate as homilist four days a week and at the end of Mass feedback is given by the community. More often than not it is the same few brothers willing to share their praise and suggestions to the homilist. The tweak that went into affect this morning: from now on the homilist is to pick three brothers before Mass to give their feedback. If this morning is any indication it should work much better than our old system.

Fr. Michael also covered some topics where the brothers could improve, such as paying more attention to light housework duties after Mass and before breakfast. Little things –– yes ––  but important to a well-run house.

These meetings are not only about things that need improvement but also about praising the many things that went well between meetings by offering thanks or praise to different people for their contributions to the community. Along that line I think Br. Meghanandha (Mega) Chakravarthi Bandanadham, SCJ (3rd year) made a good point: “Often it is not only the brothers out in front that deserve our thanks and praise but the brothers behind the scenes that take their turns, such as with this year’s Feast of the Sacred Heart celebration and the on-going formation program on Founder’s Day.”  Well said!

Founder’s Day in India

SCJs in India gather for Founder’s Day

In some parts of the world, Founder’s Day is noted as the commemoration of the death of Fr. Leo John Dehon on August 12, 1925 (many entities also celebrate Fr. Dehon’s birth on March 14, 1843, as “Founder’s Day”). Fr. Tom Cassidy writes about the Indian District’s Founder’s Day gatherings in a recent journal entry:

With three formation houses and three parishes it brings quite a crowd together. It was CDN’s turn to host the gathering this year but with the large number of minor seminarians (41) from  Dehon Prema Nilayam the decision was made to hold it at DPN. We did bring from CDN our cooks John and Rekha to help with feeding the large crowd.

Last year some of our CDN brothers had to take public transportation since we only have our truck and van to cart people around in. Due to a late train bound for Eluru the brothers did not get back to CDN until around 4:00 am last year. I’m not sure if that was the motivating force but Fr. Micahel Augustine, scj, our rector, borrowed a van from our former Telugu teacher and a car from our own Br. Meghanandha Chakravarthi Bandanadham’s, scj (3rd year) family and with that we were able to accommodate our entire community.

Our Saturday began with Eucharistic Adoration and the presentation of our Dehonian Crosses to the 15 new students from Dehon Prema Nilayam (DPN) followed by the blessing of new juppas (shirts) for all in attendance. These were made to measure by the ladies of Sacred Heart parish  sewing center in Vempadu. I was asked to bless the crosses and distribute them as well as bless the juppas. I used the opportunity to remind the new students that while they are at the beginning stage of their formation process it would go by quickly, just ask our fourth-year theologians! I also reminded all present that we are responsible for living and promoting the charism of our founder. After Adoration, the juppas were distributed to everyone so that we could take a group photo.

While I did not take a head count I think we had over a 100 in attendance.

In addition to Adoration and Mass there were lots of sports activities: basketball, volleyball, cricket and soccer. At night a number of individual indoor games were played such as table tennis and chess.

The next day started with a quiz between the three communities of Dehon Prema Nilayam (DPN), Sacred Heart Ashram (SHA or Novitiate) and Christu Dehon Nivas (CDN) on the life of Fr. Dehon. It was won by the novitiate brothers (SHA).

 

Back in India!

 

The community welcomes Fr. Tom back to India

Last week Fr. Tom Cassidy returned to his second home: the District of India. There, he spends several months of each year assisting with the formation communities. While in India he maintains a daily journal. Periodically we will share excerpts from it on our province blog. The following is a snippet from one of Fr. Tom’s first journal entries:

Our usual breakfast routine was broken up this morning with a breakfast that would be well known to Americans: Rice Krispies and Muslix along with bananas and juice. I’ve never been able to find Rice Krispies in India though most other cereals are available so I brought with me a family size box for the students to try.

Today is a free day for the students and it started with late rising and breakfast at 8:00 am. I had to rise earlier as I had the 7:00 am Mass for the Holy Family Brothers, picking up my routine from earlier this year of celebrating Mass for the brothers on weekends.

One reason for making today a free day was all the activity of the past week in getting ready for and then hosting the district’s ongoing formation program. That ended at noon yesterday and then last night we all went to Sacred Heart parish Vempadu for the first Friday evening service that our students conducted. The service is done in a manner similar to a revival in the Pentecostal style — a lot of  “Praise the Lord Hallelujahs” thrown in from time to time.

First Friday

There is, of course, a Catholic twist to it all. The service began at 7:30 pm with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament followed by a praise and worship service. I call it the warm up act. Last evening it was led by Br. Jesu Prasad Siddela, SCJ (thirdrd year). This portion of the service ran about 45 minutes and is designed to prepare the congregation for the sermon. Last evening it was delivered by Br. Chitti Babu Nandipamu, SCJ (second year) who spoke for 45 minutes. While this was going on Fr. Michael Augustine, SCJ, heard confessions underneath the bell tower. The service ended with benediction but very different from what Americans experience. In this service the priest goes around to each person and blesses him or her with the monstrance. When the Blessed Sacrament is returned to the tabernacle and the priest leaves the alter there is no closing hymn. The people simply get up and leave the church. We finished around 9:15 pm and went from the church to the parish house for supper before heading home.

I don’t know all that well the history of the development of the Catholic Church in Andhra Pradesh but it certainly is the most Pentecostal compared to Goa or Kerala, two other areas of the country that I have spent time in. Kerala and Goa have a much bigger concentration of Catholics and that may have something to do with it. I have been told by our Andhra Pradesh brothers that the people have been heavily influenced by Protestantism where preaching is the central part of worship. Certainly in Goa and Kerala a homily of 15 minutes is the norm but here in Andhra it is generally 30 minutes or more.

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.

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.