Friday, March 05, 2010
From Russia, with mixed feelings
COLUMN: PASSING BY
Fr. Paul Chemparathy talks about his missionary experiences
By Shevlin Sebastian
“The Russian people are cold and distant,” says Fr. Paul Chemparathy, who has been living there for the past five years. “A Belgian friend of mine, who had come on a visit, said that people in India and Nepal are poor, but they are smiling all the time. But in Russia the people never smile.”
Fr. Paul told the friend that the Russians had suffered enormously during 70 years of brutal Communist rule. “Millions of men were killed during the second World War and during the collectivisation drive by dictator Joseph Stalin,” he says. Many women could not marry because of this, and as a result fewer children were born. The effects are still being felt.
On a brief vacation in Kerala, Fr. Paul says, “Another problem besetting most families is alcoholism. Vodka is cheap. So, numerous men have become drunkards. Consequently, many marriages have broken up.”
He remembered befriending seven-year-old Paulo, who lived with his divorced mother and grandparents. “Paulo missed his father very much,” says Fr. Paul. “In fact, he treated me like one.”
The family belonged to the Orthodox Christian denomination, but had not gone to church for decades, thanks to the clampdown on religion during the Communist rule. One day Fr. Paul invited them to a function in the Catholic church. They came and had a good time. Thereafter, they began attending Mass regularly and even said their confession during one Christmas.
Later, the grandfather, Petrova, said, “Fr. Paul, before we met you we were living like animals. Now there is a meaning in our lives. Thank you very much.”
In fact, during the years of enforced atheism, there was only one church which functioned in Moscow. “It was used by the French embassy personnel,” says Fr. Paul. “However, the secret police always kept an eye on the people who attended mass.”
But in the privacy of their homes, it was the ‘babushkas’ (elderly Russian women) who kept the faith. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, they were the ones who came to the forefront and brought about a country-wide religious revival. “Now the churches are full,” says Fr. Paul. “But there are not enough priests. And that was why we Jesuits have been invited to serve in Russia.”
During his years of service, Fr. Paul was taken aback by the Russian people’s hatred for Americans. “They were anti-capitalists for a long time,” he says. “This had been taught to them in the schools. They did not realise that capitalism can be a good thing. But Vladimir Putin, the former president, had brought in a healthy dose of capitalism.”
Today, the economy is growing rapidly. And life is getting better. “But it will take time for the wounds to heal, and for Russian society to rebuild itself,” he says.
When asked to describe the vivid difference between Malayalis and Russians, Fr. Paul says, “I am amazed at the deep religiousness shown by Malayalis of all faiths. No wonder Kerala is called God’s Own Country.”
(The New Indian Express, Kerala)