The 8th January 2017 will mark an important date in the history of the Indian Pallottines, the day Fr Thomas Thennatt SAC was consecrated Bishop of the Diocese of Gwalior – a first for our Society in that country! He is a member of the Epiphany of the Lord Province and hails from the state of Kerala.
The Pallottine presence in India was established in 1951 with the arrival of the first two missionaries from the Sacred Heart Province in Germany. That humble beginning – “like a mustard seed” – grew into a mighty tree over the years. Presently it is the only country in the Pallottine world with five Provinces, 3 of the Society and one each of the two Pallottine Sister Congregations. Additionally there is the Secular Institute of Khristevikas and the newest foundation called the “Cenacle Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus” plus numerous lay members of the Union who have made their apostolic commitment. And the Indian Pallottines have not only established several overseas missions, such as those in Zambia, Taiwan and the Philippines, but also work in collaboration with many other entities worldwide. These details are provided not to boast of their achievements but to show how good and generous God has been towards us.
Regardless of all these blessings, one thing still missing was an Indian Pallottine Bishop! Having a Bishop is not so much for human glory but to have the voice of a Pallottine also at the level of the hierarchy. I have always said ‘yes’ whenever my opinion was sought regarding one of my confreres becoming a Bishop – given, of course, that the candidate was worthy – because in the end we are all in the service of the church. We are not even for our own religious institute. Every charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit for the edification of the church and for its mission. Some of our best Provincials have been nominated bishops, especially in Brazil. On 23 July 2016, the Provincial of Santa Maria Province, Fr Edgar Xavier Ertl SAC was nominated Bishop; Bishop Julio Akamine SAC, recently nominated Archbishop, was the Provincial of St Paul Province in Brazil. These were excellent confreres and that was why they were chosen to be good pastors of the church. It is not a loss, as some might say, but a gain for the church and for our Pallottine family.
Bishop Thomas was consecrated in the presence of 21 Bishops, numerous members of the Pallottine family, priests, religious and laity. In the short message of thanksgiving that I was permitted to give as representative of the Pallottine family, I highlighted two qualities of the newly-consecrated Bishop: a genuine pastor and Pallottine.
I know Bishop Thomas very well from seminary days, always a humble and generous pastor who loved the people. God exalted this humble man, like the handmaid of the Lord, Mary herself. He was and will remain a Pallottine with a profound love for our Founder and his charism. His long experience in working with laity and with families, inspired by St Vincent, will make him an authentic representative of the Pallottine family in the wider church.
The Diocese of Gwalior has a catholic population of only around 5000. Its main apostolate seems to be connected to education as it has about 13 schools with not less than 3000 students each. This means our confrere will have to deal mainly with people of other religions like Hinduism and Islam. Happily he is no stranger to such realities since he worked for years in the predominantly non-christian belts in northern India.
During visits to other countries I have been repeatedly asked about the persecution of christians in India. I certainly agree that there have been instances of unjust treatment in some areas. But there is more behind these questions. For people living in a predominantly christian and catholic atmosphere, the very mention of a muslim or hindu can provoke fear and even antipathy. Some over-zealous catholics even struggle to see them as people, also created in God’s own image and likeness. This is where the Pallottine charism has to come in. As we have often heard, Pallotti’s vision of the equality of all people of God goes beyond baptism; for him it is rooted in the most profound anthropological foundation of the reality that we are all created in the image and likeness of God.
Maybe it is worth mentioning here that India is the only country where we have a fully committed collaborator of the Union, who happens to be a hindu! How many wonderful hindus and muslims work with us in the engineering college and the 30 or more big schools run by us throughout the country! Despite many journeys around the world I have never made out if a child was a christian or non-christian merely by looking at his or her face. On the face of every person we see God in his greatest splendour and beauty.
This is my wish for the new bishop: may he become an instrument of peace and harmony among God’s people regardless of their caste or religion. This is the need of the hour. How much blood has been shed in the name of religion down through the centuries. Why all these wars and violence in the world today? As Pope Francis has often repeated, they actually have nothing to do with religion or true freedom. Ultimately they have much to do with the god of money, which is closely related to power and domination.
While congratulating Bishop Thomas I also wish that, in his ministry, he may reflect this important aspect of Pallotti’s prophetic vision, namely the call to be an instrument of unity not only among christian denominations but also among people of all religions. Our prayerful support will always accompany him.
As we celebrate the solemnity of our Founder on 22nd January, may you all feel happy and proud to be a Pallottine! Let us revive our enthusiasm and commitment to be “evangelical trumpets”.
Happy Feast day!
Jacob Nampudakam SAC – Rome – ITALY