Monday, November 26, 2007

Smiling through the twilight years

Retired Catholic priests stay at a home and learn to live with a group of young seminarians

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I am the Balan (boy) of the house,” says a laughing Fr. Ambrose Arackal. “At 75, I am the youngest.” He is sitting behind a desk in his room at Avila Bhavan, a home for retired priests at Chembumukku, Kochi. On the opposite side, on a table, there is a brand new Samsung television set. “When I retired a few months ago as the parish priest from Holy Family Church in Perumpilly, in the Vypeen islands, parishioners presented me with this set.” Just next to the TV is a framed black and white photograph of his late parents, Vareed, 67, a farmer, and his mother Thresia. “My mother died recently at 102,” he says. “So I have a long way to go.”

Behind the large curtain that divides the room, there is a bed placed against the wall and a small table and an attached bathroom. In Avila Bhavan, there are 16 rooms, but only 10 are occupied. It is a U-shaped building and while one wing houses the retired priests, the middle section contains the refectory, the kitchen, the recreation, the physiotherapy and the reading rooms, while the other wing is a seminary for budding priests. So the old and the new live side by side, separated by a garden, full of blooming roses, sunflowers, marigolds and towering mango trees.

At 5 p.m. on a Thursday evening, a few priests are taking a walk along the open corridor. Fr. Anthony Koombayil, 83, walks with a shuffling gait, while Fr. Joseph Thaikoodan, 90, takes a few steps, stops, takes another few steps. The younger Monsignor Bruno Cherukodath, 76, who is wearing a neck brace, because of spondylitis, walks steadily.

In the recreation room, sitting in front of an easel, is Fr. Michael Panakal. He is giving final touches to an oil painting of Mother Mary and a teenage Jesus, with several doves flying about. “I am a singer, but there is nobody to hear my singing,” he says. “So, I am painting now.” Later, he points at his paintings of Pope John Paul 11, Pope Benedict and a man plying his boat in the Kerala backwaters, which are hanging on the walls.

Fr. Panakal was the first director of the well-known Cochin Arts and Communications, which offers training in music, dance and art. His stint lasted 16 years. Says current director Fr. William Nellikal, 48: “Fr Panakal was a gifted song-writer and painter.” But at 91, his career far behind him, the priest has to contend with a host of health problems. “I have only one kidney and that is not functioning properly,” says Fr. Panakal. “I have diabetes and heart problems. I also suffer from arthritis.” But it is heartening to see that he discusses his ailments with a smile.

In another room sits Fr. Joseph Thaikoodan. “Reading and writing helps me pass the time,” he says, in a very low voice. “I read a lot of books on technology.”

Ordained in 1949, he was an assistant at the St. Francis Assisi Cathedral in Ernakulam. “I happened to meet a German who invited me to come for the International Eucharistic Congress in Munich in 1960,” he says. “Somehow, I was able to go.” From Munich, Thaikoodan went to London and stayed for 20 years. “I took my doctorate in technology and taught in schools and colleges,” he says. Then, in the early eighties, he was told to return. He obeyed and began teaching at St. Albert’s College in Kochi.

Nearly all the priests have had busy and fulfilling careers. Some, like Fr. Cherukodath, who suffered a mild cerebral stroke in 1990, had to slow down. But they all look happy and smile easily. “Yes, they are enjoying their lives, even though they have health problems,” says Fr. Alex Kurisuparambil, 41, the administrator. “What has helped is the sense of community here and the regular routine that has been established.”

The routine goes like this: at 6.15 a.m., there is mass in the small chapel. All the priests attend this. They return to their rooms by 6.45 a.m. and assemble again at 7.30 a.m. for breakfast in the refectory. At 10 a.m., tea or coffee is served for those who are interested. At noon, lunch is served, which is followed by an afternoon siesta. Tea is served at 4 p.m. Thereafter, they go for evening walks. At 7 p.m. dinner is served followed by a short prayer in the chapel at 7.40 p.m. The priests then retire to their rooms. Most go to sleep by 10 p.m., but Fr. Thaikoodan says he stays up till 11 p.m.

The distinctive feature about Catholic priests is that they cannot marry and must remain celibate throughout their lives. Asked whether this is difficult, Fr. Thaikoodan laughs and says, “If I were a married man, I would have to look after my family and take on so many other responsibilities. Now, I am a free man.” Says Fr. Cherukodath: “By the grace of God, I have never found celibacy a problem. Priests should be celibate, otherwise they cannot be totally dedicated.”

What about loneliness? Do they suffer from it? “I don’t feel lonely because there are other priests here and we exchange ideas and meet each other several times a day,” says Fr. Cherukodath. Says Fr. Arackal: “For 48 years, I have lived in different parishes. At night, we stayed alone, so we became accustomed to it.”

As they talk, the silence is punctuated by the chirping of the lovebirds, which are housed in a wire-mesh cage in the corridor. But its noise is drowned by the shouts of the youngsters in the other wing. The exuberance of youth! So, what do the veterans think of the youngsters? Did these energetic lads have the stamina to go the full distance as priests, or will the temptations of the world lure them to opt out?

Fr. Cherukodath says the youngsters should be clear in their mind whether they want to be priests or not. “There will be some dropouts,” he says. “Nowadays, because of nuclear families, children end up becoming selfish and think only of themselves. To be a good priest, you have to sacrifice your life for the good of the people.” Fr. Arackal says the boys should be sure whether they have received the call from God to become priests.

On another evening, I go across to the students’ wing. And as I ascend the stairs to the first floor, I can hear loud singing accompanied by music. Vice Rector Fr. Antony Valungal says the boys are preparing for a cultural function in the seminary. And so there they are, in a large room, these 12 boys, some in T-shirts and Bermuda shorts, others in shirts and trousers, while one is wearing a replica of the striking yellow jersey of the Brazilian football team. They are all standing around Tinku George, who is playing on a Yamaha electronic keyboard. Accompanying him on the guitar is Darwin Kodathus. “We are planning a chain song,” says Robin V. Raphy.

So, the group begins with a couple of devotional songs in Malayalam before they move into Dum Maro Dum, Mukabla, Mukabla, Meri Sapno Ki Rani Kab Aaye Gitu, to Mera Joota Hai Japani, then to Sara Jahaan Se Accha and concludes with a bang with A.R. Rahman’s Vande Mataram.

Their faces look flushed and excited after the rehearsal. So what did they think of the old priests on the other side? “I will give the answer,” says Stevin Joseph, 17. Then he closes his eyes and knits his eyebrows. His Adam’s apple goes up and down a few times. The other boys stare at him in silence.

“They are an inspiration to us,” he finally says. “They are saints, who have dedicated their lives to the church and now they are resting after their lifelong work. They look very happy and if we lead lives like them, we will also be happy.” So many people say that life has no meaning, he says, but “when we see them, we realise that life does have meaning. I feel that if I follow in their footsteps, there will be meaning in my life”.

Vincent Linu, 17, says, “They have done so much of good work for the church. I would like to do the same.”

Did they know that their shouts could be heard on the other side? “Yes,” says Raphy. “We are making a noise because of our music practice and our rehearsals for a play.”

Do they meet the priests? They nod in unison. What do the priests say to them? “Don’t make so much noise,” says Joseph. All the boys smile.

Outside, in the semi darkness, when one stands near the entrance, the two wings are a study in contrast. On the left, there is a pin-drop silence and all the doors are closed. On the right, the lights are brighter, the doors are open, and the shouts continue.

The Avila Bhavan is a metaphor for life. When you are young, you are consumed by ambition and an energetic drive and are eager to make a mark. But when it is all over, you just want to move into a restful silence.

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

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