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July 31st, 2012

Moved By Love

A priest with a paralyzed body has become a source of strength for the physically and mentally challenged. He is Fr. Sebastian Thengumpallil, who believes that he has been called to this unusual vocation by the will of God.

Fr. Sebastian was a Jesuit Scholastic pursuing his graduation. At the same time he was a playback singer, organizer, teacher, and social activist, actively involved in multifaceted fields of life. But the course of his life changed drastically at the age of 23 with the visit of a least expected ‘guest’ to his body. It was in 1985. It all started with a mild fever. Doctors diagnosed deadly Guillian Barrie Syndrome and predicted a delicate chance of survival. He lost his power of movement below his neck. At first he had to depend upon others even for a glass of water. But with the help of relatives and colleagues he limped back to life.

Fr.Sebastian Thengumpallil 01

His companions in the Jesuit Order were attending to all his needs and the superiors and his dear ones from home monitored  every beep and movement of the life-support machines and wholeheartedly supported his struggles to live. He became consciously aware of the change of his question to God. He asked, “How, O Lord, how shall I overcome my suffering?” To this he heard HIS life-giving words: “Be not afraid, I am with you.”

The Guillian Barrie Syndrome left him with permanent disorders and challenges to his life. His muscles were shrunk, limbs stiffened, body became numb and the chest remained squeezed. With continuous physiotherapy he could walk on plain floors with the help of a walker. He needed a helping hand to climb a step. But it could not rob off all his dreams. Usually a disabled will not be ordained a priest, especially as a Jesuit priest, since the life of a Jesuit priest demands a lot of physical endurance. But due to his iron will and determination he was able to complete his studies and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1997.

It was when late Fr. Joseph Kannampuzha, S.J., the founder of Snehabhavan, Kottayam, Kerala, India invited him to join his initiative. Snehabhavan is dedicated to the education, training and rehabilitation of the physically and mentally challenged. He now takes it as the passion and the mission of his life to communicate to those who struggle to survive with physical and mental challenges. He is now the executive director of Snehabhavan responsible for running a special school that caters to 71 students with special needs; managing a Vocational Training Centre under Snehabhavan for physically challenged and coordinating the Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) projects spread over eight Gramapanchayats of Kottayam district catering to the rehabilitation needs of 1116 families.

Every mentally and physically challenged child he comes across is specifically important for him. He is very particular that everyone is approached in a very personal way. His priestly vocation gives him that approach. He believes that everyone is a unique and precious child of God and merits to be treated so.

Fr.Sebastian Thengumpallil 02

Fr. Sebastian is a man of practical wisdom. He is moved by compassion and love, especially if the person in front of him is physically or mentally challenged. That makes him empathetic and he is driven by a firm conviction that the person before him deserves his services. Above all, as a Catholic priest, he discerns a spiritual dimension of every situation where God is in charge and this gives him a sense of direction and orientation. Thus he gets an inspiration to be a co-worker with Jesus Christ.

To conclude, when there is passion, there is a dream, a project to imagine. When there is a project, there is a vision and a way to achieve it. That necessitates a professional approach to fulfill it. When there is a person deserving our help and there is a passionate dream that moves us, there is a practical way to help that person. This sums up Fr. Sebastian’s vision and mission with Snehabhavan.

Fr. Sebastian can be reached at +91-481-2597984 (Mob: +91 9496224332)

To know more about Snehabvavan, Kottayam and to offer your help, if any, visit their official website www.snehabhavanktm.org

July 28th, 2012

Life of Saint Alphonsa

Life of St Alphonsa

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Alphonsa. 

Sister Alphonsa is popularly known as a person who loved and invited loving suffering. She is called the “Little Flower” (St. Therese of Child Jesus) of India. Both of these claims draw our attention to the fundamental reality and truth of Jesus Christ as the only Son of God and the unique Savior of the whole creation. She was a Franciscan Clarist nun. Her life was confined within the four walls of the FCC Convent at Bharananganam.

Life History of St.Alphonsa

Annakutty was the childhood name of Alphonsa. Roughly translated it would mean ‘little Ann’. It is a typical christening name popular among the Christians of Kerala. Although the immediate attention is now focused on the name Alphonsa, reflection on the name Annakutty reveals not only her childhood goodness, virtues and trials, but also an often unsung story and history of the family values, faith practices and ecclesial foundations of the Christians in Kerala. Without any exaggeration, one can say that Alphonsa’s real foundation was laid in her childhood as Annakutty, in her Christian family upbringing.

Annakutty was born on August 19, 1910. It was a premature birth, taking place in the 8th month of the pregnancy. This was the result of a diabolical shock her mother, Mary Muttathupadathu, received from the coiling of a rat snake around her neck in her sleep. Her mother died three months after birth and on her death-bed she entrusted Annakutty to the care of her own sister Annamma Muricken. With her aunt, Annakutty painfully and joyfully tried to overcome the inexplicable loss of her mother and motherly love.

Annakutty’s father unwillingly agreed to placing the child with her newly found ‘mother’ with the sole motive of promoting an ideal upbringing which would make Annakutty more capable as a future house wife. Annamma Muricken educated her sternly. The family played a key role in her faith formation and love for Christ, especially through the prevalent practices of regular evening prayers, observance of weekly fasting and participation in the Eucharistic celebration.

Fr. Romlus rightly emphasizes this role the family played in the life of Alphonsa in nurturing and deepening her Christian faith. However the most important fact is that Annakutty developed a personal devotion and love for Christ. This is the fruit of her genuine faith formation. It is also the first visible sign that faith was a lived experience in the childhood of Annakutty. In other words, Jesus Christ began to become a concrete personal relational reality for her. It is because of this relational realization of God’s love and knowledge of Jesus Christ that Annakutty began to yearn for sanctity.

From Annakutty to Sister Alphonsa

The desire for sanctity was for Alphonsa a solid and concrete response to the invitation of Christ. The surprising depth of spiritual understanding possessed by Alphonsa in her childhood teaches us all the most profound lesson on the Christian life. Spirituality and sanctity is not a mere object to yearn for but comes as a result of a personal experience with Jesus Christ in the Church and in the Sacraments. A striking narration related to her first confession as a little child throws light on this fact. She notes, “I loved God more ardently. I took great care to avoid all faults. I had nothing special to mention in my First Confession. I zealously aspired to become a saint. I felt that desire while I was reading the biography of St. Therese of Lisieux.”

Canonization of St Alphonsa

Later, the decisive Christian family upbringing of Annakutty paved the way to the fruit borne in her life as a professed Clarist nun at Bharananganam. It is important to remember that because of the unique minority status of the Christian community in India, and because of the apostolically rich traditional background of the Church in Kerala, any mention of Alphonsa will always have to be done in reference to the unique ecclesial nature of the Catholic Church in India. That is the tri-ritual communion and the Christian reality of India which is astoundingly ecumenical because of the presence of all the major tributaries of non-Catholic traditions.

Hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Malabar and other parts of South India have faith in Sister Alphonsa and invoke her aid, for they are convinced that she is a person of uncommon holiness…What a power would she not wield over the minds and hearts of the Catholics of our country where her cause to be taken up. At a turning point in its history, when the Church has to face so many difficulties and trials, struggles and dangers different in character and different in scope from those which assailed her in the past, may we not hope that through her intercession the Church will overcome all obstacles and grow in strength and vigor? It is fitting that such a beautiful soul should have sprung up in the earliest and most prosperous home of Christianity in our country.

St. Alphonsa Prayers

St. Alphonsa songs (15 songs in Malayalam)

July 18th, 2011

A Village That Refuses To Bury Its Dead

A Village That Refuses To Bury Its Dead

Love does not know bounds, so is the case with hatred too.

Orissa has been in the news, often for wrong reasons. The list is long with some of them making our heads hang in shame. In fact there is no comparison to what was done to Graham Staines and his two sons at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar district on 23 January 1999. A maniac mob blocked the doors of their station wagon where they were sleeping, poured petrol all over, and shouted political slogans as the father and two sons were burned alive.

As if this was not enough, the same barbaric elements unleashed violence on the hapless tribal Christians in Kandhamal following the killing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his aides on 23 August 2008. The marauders ran amok, violating the tribal women, looting their properties, torching their houses and killing all those who were too weak to resist. In all nearly 200 people lost their lives in the violence.

That is why Orissa does not surprise me anymore. Yet a recent incident has stirred me once again in spite of the obvious contempt I do have for the state. At a remote village in the state, the majority Hindu group refused to allow the burial of a three-year-old Dalit Christian girl who died following some health complications.

The girl living at Jinduguda village, 15 km away from Malkangiri, a district in the southern part of Orissa, fell sick and was taken to a nearby health centre on 27 October 2010. The doctor advised the parents to take the child to a nearby hospital. However the patient developed more complications and died while being treated there.

The helpless parents brought the body of the girl back to their village for burial. The Hindus, who form the majority at the village, refused to allow them to bury the girl at the village. There are only 15 Christian families living at the village.

The distraught parents took the body to Malkangiri to seek help for burial. Finally the matter was reported to the local police. The parents, with the dead body in their hands, waited for the police to find a way-out. When the body started to stink, some sane elements in the community managed to prevail over the obstinate ones at the village and gave a quiet burial for the girl.

If anyone thinks this is an isolated incident, they are badly mistaken. Bargaining over the dead has been a regular phenomenon wherever caste feelings run high. In fact there are churches where separate routes as well as divided cemeteries exist to bury their dead – one for the high castes and the other for the lower sections.

Even in Kerala, God’s own country, the reality is no different. The lower sections and also new converts have no say in the running of the Church. They are kept on the margins, being denied of even normal human dignity. Separate seating and separate cemetery dots the landscape of Kerala Church.

A recent incident in central Kerala makes one sit up wondering about the extent of rot that has set in. A Dalit in his late fifties, who had been ailing for quite some time, died without receiving the last sacraments. In fact, he had not been attending the church for many years in protest against the discriminatory practices within his own church. And the leadership in the church did not take kindly to his way of expressing anguish. They ostracised him along with his family, stubbornly refused to reach out even in their times of crisis. Even when he died, they refused to bury him in the cemetery. Finally with the intervention of some sensible elders, he was buried just outside the cemetery.

This is happening in spite of the fact Christ has come mainly to give a new identity to all those who live on the margins – the tax collectors, the fishermen, and even the prostitutes. It is time there arose a new theology of action that could cleanse the Church within and without.

Remember the words that Christ spoke while addressing the synagogue at the beginning of his public ministry. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he appointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden…” (Luke 4:18-19)

– – – written by Dr .George Karimalil

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