Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Nothing to mar this legend

Mar Chrysostum, the popular head of the Mar Thoma Church, is retiring. At 90, his mind is sharp and his repartees even sharper

By Shevlin Sebastian

"I went for the golden jubilee celebrations of the Pala diocese of the Catholic Church. Bishop Mar Joseph Pallikaparambil mentioned that there were 1.25 lakh priests all over the world," says Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostum, Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church. "When my chance came to speak, I said, 'It seems to me that the last Bishop of Pala will be Pallikaparambil. Why do I say that, you might ask? Because, if all the people become priests and nuns, there will be no children.'"

An impish child-like smile breaks out on Mar Chrysostum's face, as he sits in his office at Mar Thoma headquarters in Tiruvella. He is about to retire as the supreme head of the church on October 1. He is an imposing figure, in a pink cassock, with a soft white beard and tendrils of silver hair falling over his shoulders. This is topped by a black headgear, called a masanapsa.

So, the question is put forth: For Catholics, a priest has to be celibate. On the other hand, a priest in the Mar Thoma church can get married. Does celibacy lead to more dedication on the part of the priests?

"I don't subscribe to that view," says Mar Chrysostum. "A celibate has to move with the people and soon, there are various allegations hurled against him. If I don't like somebody, I can say, 'this priest went with that lady'. It may be true, it may not be. People believe these allegations very easily. So, this damages his effectiveness."

But undoubtedly, he says, there is dedication on the part of celibates, like when nuns and priests teach in a school, the results are very good. "However, one should not force celibacy on people," he says. "I decided to become a celibate, because, as a bishop, I felt I could contribute more."

He is 90, but you can easily see the sharp intelligence lurking in his twinkling eyes. When asked whether he is mentally alert, he replies, with a smile, "I don't have Alzhemeir's disease, if that is what you are trying to say."

Says Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil: “Mar Chrysostum is well known for his humourous speeches. Through all this, he will be driving home important truths and values. I found him a very pleasant man. When I became cardinal he honoured me by inviting me as the chief guest during the Maramon convention. During his speech, he asked a rhetorical question: ‘Are there special chairs for cardinals in heaven?’”

Indeed, earthy positions are temporary and through that question it is clear that Mar Chrysostum has his feet firmly on the ground. And this could be because of his upbringing.

His father, the Very Rev. K.E. Oommen was a priest and became the Vicar General (the highest position among priests). "Right from childhood, because of my parents’ influence, I was committed to the church and God," says Mar Chrysostum.

Soon after graduating from Union Christian College in Alwaye, he heard that the Mar Thoma church wanted to start a missionary centre in Ankola, Karnataka. “Since I had two brothers, who could support my parents, I decided to become a priest,” he says. He studied at United Theological College, Bangalore, and St. Augustine’s College at Canterbury, England.

He was ordained in 1944 and became a bishop on May 23, 1953. On October 22, 1999, he became the supreme head of the Mar Thoma Church when the then Metropolitan, Alexander Mar Thoma, opted for voluntary retirement. Now it is Mar Chrysostum's turn to leave.

Asked why, he says, "Joseph Mar Irenaeus, who is succeeding me, is very efficient and dynamic. I am getting weaker and weaker to tackle a world that is moving very fast."

The world is, indeed, moving fast, so is there any danger of religion losing its relevance in the 21st century? "I don't think that, in any century, people can survive without religion,” he says. “Because, without God, there is no reality. All religions accept this. The reality is God."

However, there are ungodly realities, too. Like the spat between the Christian churches and the present government in the education sector. Asked whether the LDF government was infringing on minority rights, he says, "Let me give you an example. One day, my sister fell ill and my mother gave her milk and soup. For us three brothers, she gave kappa and kanji. Is this fair? We are the majority and she is the minority. However, this minority needs protection. I am disappointed by the LDF. The infringement of minority rights is really an infringement on the freedom of man."

He says this without any trace of bitterness. Says the Rev. M.O. Oommen, 45, the vicar of Sharon Mar Thoma church, Palarivattom, who has known Mar Chrysostum for many years: “He accepts contradictory viewpoints with grace, although he has strong opinions.”

More than an hour has passed in delightful conversation, and the time has come to ask just one more question: What is the secret of his long life?

"The first thing you should do is ask the God Almighty why did He allow this man to live so long?" he says, breaking out into a playful smile. Then he become serious and says, "It is the sheer grace of God. It is not because of any merit or special favour. I tell my people that God, in his wisdom, has understood that I am not yet ready for the Kingdom of God."

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from the New Indian Express, Kochi)

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