25 Years Later...
It was July 1, 1983. I was barely 17. I joined the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) as a postulant. This meant leaving home and moving 1,300 kilometers away from my home town Jabalpur to the big city Bangalore. I would not see my family for two years. This was a traumatic experience for my mother, who never shared her grief until much later. I myself was in agony then, but the newness of the experience had dulled some of my trauma. I remember the day my parents were to return home from Bangalore.
After morning Mass, my parents and I stayed back in the small chapel. We were all terrified of the impending separation. Hanging on the front wall of the chapel was a picture of the Mother of Perpetual Help. If you are not already aware, this 13thcentury icon portrays Mary, the Blessed mother, holding the Child Jesus. The Archangels Michael and Gabriel, are shown the upper two corners, holding the instruments of the Passion– St. Michael holds the spear, the sponge, and the crown of thorns, and St. Gabriel holds the cross and the nails.
The intent of the artist was to portray the Child Jesus contemplating the vision of his future passion. In anguish, the child Jesus runs to his mother. His sandals are shown falling off his feet as he attempts to run into his mother’s arms. The focus is also on the hands of the Child Jesus grasping the hand of the Blessed Mother. Mary is shown both holding the hands of her son and presenting Him to the world. On that day in July, my mother, as only my mother could, saw in that picture, life as being played out for her and her son. She gently called out to me and walked me to that picture. Standing in front of the image of the Mother of Perpetual Help, she looked into my eyes and said, “All these years, I have been your mother. From today on, SHE is your mother!” In these words, my mother entrusted me into Mary’s safe and secure hands. The rest is history.
The Past. I was ordained a priest on April 25, 1994. I had spent 12 years in the seminary. Life in the seminary is like life anywhere else. It is a mixed bag. There are good relationships and those you could live without; there are good superiors/mentors and those you can only pray tor; times when you feels convinced about the “call,” and times where doubts cripple you; times that you love and times you don’t care to remember. Between hectic academic schedules, spiritual activities, service activities, sports, friends, and simply muddling through life, time flies. Through it all, there are two prominent things I remember. First, my gradual but totally serendipitous and growing intimacy with God. It was in the seminary that I grew from the God of my childhood to the God who calls me to gospel-centered, radical discipleship of Christ. The best part is that everything that I hold dear today about my relationship with God was pure grace! I simply run out of explanations trying to reason out God’s unfathomable presence in my life. Second, I learnt life by falling and rising over-and-over again. I was and still am most aware of my weaknesses, my faults, my insecurities, and my sins. Believe me, they are many. And to keep me humble, I also know that the last mistake has not been made yet and my last sin has not been committed yet. If you are looking for the perfect priest, I am not that man. All I can assure myself of is this – that the God who called me, in spite of my unworthiness, is also the One who has sustained me for twenty-five years. I believe that the Blessed Mother, to whom my mother handed me over, continues to hold my hands as I tightly grip hers.
The Present. Today, I am celebrating the 25thanniversary of my ordination with immense gratitude to God and to all the people, most especially you, whom I have ministered to, over these years. However, I am also aware that my anniversary occurs at a time when the dignity of the priesthood has been severely damaged by the child abuse crisis. How do I see my own priesthood in light of the crisis of priesthood in the Church? Of all religious orders or the dioceses that I could have chosen, I joined the Redemptorists. I chose them, first, because of their charism, “preaching the good news to the most abandoned.” Second, the Redemptorist motto from Ps 130:7 was particularly attractive to me. It read, “With him there is plentiful redemption.” Basically then, the mission of my priesthood was to take God’s plentiful redemption to those who are most abandoned. For me, this was the essence of Christ’s priesthood. I saw in him the eternal priest who brought plentiful redemption to the most abandoned, to those on the peripheries, to the poor, the rejected, and the unwanted. At the Last Supper, his priesthood was lived out in the washing of feet and finally laying down his life as an act of supreme self-sacrifice. Jesus came to change the world by breaking down the wall of separation between heaven and earth, between peoples, and to show us how to love one another, even our enemies. He detested ritualism, triumphalism, factionalism, and self-serving leadership!
As far as I am concerned, my priesthood must imitate the priesthood of Christ. My priesthood is at the service of God’s people, especially the poor, the neglected, the rejected, the oppressed, those on the periphery, the one stray sheep, for whom no one cares. Some of you have expressed concern about my passion and work for immigrants and asylum-seekers. My struggle on behalf of any one who feels relegated to the peripheries of the Church and society is the essence of my priesthood. This is not about politics. This is about Christ who lay down his life for his sheep. The day I stop serving the poor and to expect to be served; the day I stop serving the most neglected, oppressed, and rejected; the day I stop striving for peace, will also be the day I will stop celebrating the Mass at the altar. For me, the altar leads to me to the poor and the poor lead me to the altar. Today, if the dignity of the priesthood must be reclaimed, it must be reclaimed in the connection that priests make between Body of Christ on the altar, the body of the Christ in the pews, and the body of Christ in the peripheries of the Church and society. Today, on the Feast of Divine Mercy, I commit myself to Christ-like priesthood.
The Future.Today, more than ever, I am aware that my father, with whom, I had intended to celebrate this anniversary is not physically here with me. I am aware that this is a new phase of my priesthood. I am most aware of me beloved aging mother, to whom I dedicate these 25 years of priestly life. I have promised her my every care. To my father and mother, my first teachers of faith, I dedicate my priesthood. So, where do I go from here? Twenty-five years back I would have never imagined that I would be in Dayton, OH for my 25thanniversary. In the years to come, I am ready to be who God wants me to be and go where God sends me. In reality, do any of us have another option? On a more practical level, I intend to spend as many years as possible with all of you. Immaculate Conception parish community has been my home for nineteen years, and St. Helen parish community has been my home since 2008. I have a single-minded goal for our parishes – that our parishes are places where people’s hearts, minds, and souls, and lives are nurtured by God’s unfathomable love; that our parishes be places were people encounter the divine and grow as a community; that our parishes be places where each person, immaterial of their color, gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, culture, status, wealth, and sexual orientation, feel embraced by God; that our parishes be a place where no body and nothing comes between the person who seeks God and the God who seeks us. Framing it differently, nothing discourages me more than human dignity being denied to people because of their race, status, ethnicity, religious affiliation, nationality, or simply because of the misfortunes of life. Having sometimes been a victim of prejudice myself, today I vow to work toward upholding of human dignity of every human person from the womb to the tomb. I will work tirelessly towards this end.
On a different note, two weeks back, in conversation with Bishop Joseph Binzer, I learnt that in spite of nine ordinations this year, our parishes will not be getting an associate pastor. Being the pastor of two parishes is a delicate balancing act. Ironically, I am most noticed when I am not present. It is a 24x7 existence. Between four Masses most weekends, confessions, hospital visits, emergency calls, the care of the dying, funerals, baptisms, marriage preparations, parish pastoral council meetings, finance commission meetings, staff meetings, other committee meetings, school needs, preparing thoughtful homilies, preaching retreats, giving talks, conducting faith formation sessions, taking up the cause of immigrants and refugees, managing MercyPets, and making time for pastoral counselling, there is not much time left for preparing meals, doing dishes, laundry, paying bills or fulfilling the regular demands of life. My feeble attempt to take a day off is moderately successful. In the midst of this hectic schedule, however, I do manage a strenuous workout every other day and eat healthy most of the time.
And then, there is Tutu! She knows my every story! Yes, right now priestly life is more demanding than I ever imagined it would be. All I know is that the passion for my calling is as fresh now as it was on the first day as a priest. However, I could not do any of this without the love, the support, and prayers of my precious mother. Moreover, I would utterly fail without the very insightful, dedicated, creative, and hardworking staff at both parishes. Today, I offer them my deepest appreciation. I am also immensely grateful to the hundreds of volunteers, well-wishers, parishioners, and particularly my friends without whose prayers and support, my priesthood would simply lack meaning and purpose. To each one of you, I offer my most sincere gratitude! My gratitude would be incomplete if I did not also thank the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for welcoming into its fold.
As I celebrate my 25th anniversary to the priesthood, I recognize that the Body of Christ extends from this altar, to the pews and to the furthest peripheries of Church and society. Today, I rededicate myself to this Body of Christ. For this, today, I beg God’s favor and your prayers and blessings.