Sunday, May 31, 2009

In the service of God


Mar Joseph Powathil, the Archbishop Emeritus of Changanacherry, wanted to be a priest from his childhood

By Shevlin Sebastian

“When I was in Class two at the Holy Family school at Kurumpanadom, the teacher asked whether any of us wanted to become a priest,” says Mar Joseph Powathil, 79, the Catholic Archbishop Emeritus of Chanaganacherry. “I raised my hand.”

He says there was a religious atmosphere at home, where prayers were important, and the priests who visited the family were given a lot of respect. “I may have got the idea by seeing this,” says Powathil.

When he was 13 his parents shifted him to the St. Berchman’s boarding so that he would have more time to study. Once, the bishop of Nellore, William Bouther, came for a visit and exhorted the students to serve in the missions and spread the message of God.

“The Bishop’s speech affected me a lot,” he says. “My desire to become a priest was rekindled.”

But his parents were opposed the idea. Powathil was the eldest and his father, an agriculturist, was keen that his son study further. So Powathil carried on with his education. He did his BA from St. Berchman’s College, Changanacherry, and his post-graduation in economics from the Jesuit-run Loyola College at Chennai.

When he returned to Kurumpanadom, he sent an application to the principal of Loyola College, Fr. Gordon, asking to join the Jesuits. Fr. Gordon told Powathil he could join, but at Madurai.

“When I told my father about my decision to become a priest he fainted,” says Powathil. “He was also unhappy that I would be going far away.” Eventually, thanks to an uncle, Scaria, who spoke to Bishop Mathew Kavukatt, Powathil joined the St. Thomas seminary, at Changanacherry in June, 1953.

Sometime later, there was an announcement in the seminary that Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, the secretary for the Congregation of the Oriental churches at the Vatican would be coming for a visit.

The rector of the seminary, Fr. Thomas Porukara, told Powathil to write an article on the Synod of Diamper, which was held in 1599.

“This was the first time I got an idea of the history of the church and the domination of the Latin rite over the Syro Malabar one,” says Powathil. “I felt very upset. I thought it was an injustice. I wrote stating that the Synod made changes which went against the traditional practices of the St. Thomas Christians.”

Thanks to the article Powathil developed a life-long desire to undo the injustice of the Synod of Diamper. “It was a turning point for me,” he says.

After he was ordained a priest on October 3, 1962, Powathil was appointed as a lecturer in economics at St. Berchman’s College and remembers having former chief minister Oommen Chandy as one of his students.

“He was quiet in class,” says Powathil. “I remember that for one political science exam, nearly all the students failed, but Oommen passed.” Thereafter, Powathil moved steadily up the hierarchy, from Auxiliary Bishop to bishop, to Archbishop of Chanaganacherry in 1985.

When he became the archbishop, Powathil insisted that the Syro-Malabar church should follow the Divine Liturgy of the St. Thomas Christians, that was Latinised during the Synod of Diamper. This resulted in protests and demonstrations by the laity, as well as the priests.

“Yes, it was opposed tooth and nail by a few,” admits Powathil. “I felt unhappy that the people had misunderstood me. The protests created an impression that the church was divided. A couple of newspapers even predicted a split in the church. That was indeed journalistic sensationalism!”

Nevertheless, Powathil is glad he has remained resolute like the person who had the most impact on him: Pope John Paul 11. He has fond memories of the Pontiff.
Powathil was in Manila in 1995 where Pope John Paul 11 held a World Youth Day rally for four million people.

Owing to jam-packed roads, the Pontiff was an hour late for the ceremony. “The young people were shouting, ‘John Paul, we love you,’” says Powathil. “But when he did not arrive, despite a long wait, they shouted, ‘John Paul, where are you?’ It was an unforgettable moment and I was glad I was present to see the Pope’s popularity at first hand.”

Powathil also remembers the late Pontiff’s sense of humour. Once they had been talking about a certain person in authority who was deciding matters for the Syro-Malabar church. Powathil said they were facing problems with the man.

“But he is an Indian,” said the Pope, in a joking voice.

Powathil was silent.

The Pope said, “Oh yes, but he is also a Latin.”

Powathil recounts this with a smile in his book-filled study at the Archbishop’s House at Changanacherry, his voice overshadowed by monsoon rain lashing the town on a Saturday afternoon.

At 79, even though he uses a walking stick he is still leading an active life. Asked to sum up his experiences, the Archbishop says, “The Lord has led me to places where I never expected to be.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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