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'Whispering' archbishop earns wide acclaim

Salesian prelate called a 'messenger of peace'

Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati
  • Lissy Maruthanakuzhy, Guwahati
  • India
  • October 26, 2011
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Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil has embarked on a mission where angels fear to tread by facing challenges in India’s troubled northeastern region head-on.

His seven successful peace-keeping initiatives in the region are well-known across the country and earned the Salesian prelate, who turned 75 on October 22, a Nobel Peace Prize nomination this year.

His achievements notwithstanding, Archbishop Menamparampil refuses to accept accolades for his courageous work.

“These works came up because the members of my team have worked. Our goals were clear and we knew how to work together,” he said, adding however that “there were moments of pain.”

The archbishop is perhaps better known for introducing the Asian Church to a new way of evangelization, which he calls “whispering the Gospel to the soul of Asia.”

This approach came at a time when the Church was struggling between a triumphalistic proclamation of Christ as savior and a total denial of Christ’s mission of salvation.

“When I say ‘whispering,’ it is not a sign of timidity or diffidence. It is, rather, a sign of seriousness and depth. It stands for respect,” he said.

When we are close to the soul of a community, we are at a profound level of a person’s being and a whisper is more than enough. However, what we fail to do is to get close to the soul of a community.”

Archbishop’s insightful approach caught the attention of Pope Benedict XVI, who entrusted him with the task of writing the meditations for the Way of the Cross on Good Friday at the Colosseum in 2009.

Born in Palai in Kerala state, Archbishop Menamparampil was appointed bishop of Dibrugarh in Assam before taking the reins of Guwahati as its first archbishop in 1995.

A prolific writer, the septuagenarian has authored 30 books on wide-ranging themes, including evangelization, peace and pastoral work.

Fr Varghese Kizhakevely, vicar general of the archdiocese, says the archbishop will be remembered for helping the new Christian communities in Arunachal Pradesh, where missioners were banned until two decades ago.

In 1996, Archbishop Menamparampil formed an Ecumenical Peace Team in 1996 in the wake of ethnic strife between Bodo and Adivasi-Santal tribes in Kokhrajhar in Assam.

He said the peace team side-lined political leaders and vociferous elements and brought together sober, moderate and farsighted people respected by their communities.

“When they made an appeal for peace, everyone listened,” he said.

Two years later, the Baptist Church sought his help during a conflict between the Kuki and Paite tribes.

His team has also assisted in the Dimasa-Hmar conflict in 2003, the Karbi-Kuki clashes in the same year and the Dimasa-Karbi tensions in 2004, as well as several more recent tribal conflicts.

Be it conflicts over land ownership, political power distributions, educational opportunities or employment, the prelate seemed to operate everywhere as a broker for peace.

“There have been heartbreaking moments, much fatigue, no results after an enormous amount of effort, total failure. But we continue trusting in the Lord.

There were also moments of encouragement.

His interventions earned him the title “messenger of peace,” in large part for his focus on fostering dialogue and negotiation instead of conflict and confrontation.

Archbishop Menamparampil has also left his mark as a prominent leader in civil society. Presently, he is engaged in spreading awareness about the need for probity in public life.

During two decades of service in Guwahati, he has established more than 50 parishes, schools, hostels, institutions for the disabled, two seminaries and five hospitals.

He has also served as chairperson of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference’s Commission for Clergy and Religious for Proclamation, and currently serves as the chair of the Office of Evangelization of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference.

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