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From schools to clinics, missions work to lift up the poor

If you ever doubt your faith or get tired of partisan church squabbling, go visit the missions in India
Sacred Heart Cathedral, Thanjavur

Sacred Heart Cathedral, Thanjavur. (Photo: Facebook)

Published: March 31, 2023 05:37 AM GMT
Updated: March 31, 2023 05:47 AM GMT

I recently spent nine days traveling around India with a small group from the Pontifical Missionary Societies-USA, and whenever Inés San Martín, vice president of communications, was introduced as being from Argentina, there would be cries of recognition: "Argentina -- Messi!" Even in rural hamlets and fishing villages of India, young people know who the soccer great Lionel Messi is.

Cricket might be India's favorite sport, but soccer -- or football -- is universal. And so is the work of the Catholic Church.

If you ever doubt your faith or get tired of partisan church squabbling, go visit the missions. There, you see the church's preferential option for the poor, as well as laypeople, priests and nuns who -- in the words of Pope Francis -- smell like sheep. Every day they live in conditions most people in the First World would consider unlivable, yet they do so with a smile and grace and lots of prayer.

India is a multicultural society, the fifth-largest economy in the world. Catholics are a very small percentage of the population, and many are clustered in areas such as the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra, where we visited.

Some of the people we met were not even Catholic, like many of the social workers trained by the Archdiocese of Bombay to work with tribal peoples. One social worker said she earned eight times more in her previous job, but she said she felt her current job of tutoring children and mentoring the villagers' health was more important.

And the people have faith. It shone through at Masses in small parish churches and regional shrines, or when they greeted the parish priest or the visitors. At St. Anne's Parish in Gnanam Nagar, a section of Thanjavur, Father John Peter told us that the 700 families include mostly day laborers. "They are very poor economically, but in faith, they are strong."

The parish was a substation of the diocesan cathedral, and currently, special Masses, such as on feast days, are celebrated in what is described as the "shed church." The Diocese of Thanjavur is employing 100 people to help build a larger church -- small by Western standards -- so parish leaders can conduct more pastoral and spiritual activities; parishioners must pitch in 10% of the construction costs. Two Hindu masons working outside the church said they were happy to help build a place for God. They also made $9 a day -- enough to feed their families -- compared to $4 a day in a previous government job.

At a substation of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in Tamil Nadu state's Diocese of Chingleput, people spoke of their faith. Their parish priest, Father Raji, rides his motorcycle to and from the parish each day. He lives within the chancery where the bishop lives as well, and the people at the substation said they really would like to have a rectory, so their parish priest could live closer to them.

Many orders of religious sisters are working to empower the women of small communities. We met with some of the women, who noted that, when seasonal work runs out, their husbands often turn to alcohol. Besides teaching catechism classes and running health clinics, the sisters also teach families how important it is to participate in decision-making, even at the parish council level. Some of the orders run boarding schools -- "hostels," as they call them -- so that when parents migrate for nonseasonal work, the children do not lose six months of education.

St. Francis Xavier Vocational Secondary School near Thanjavur has 190 young men as students; 80 of them, orphans or semi-orphans, live at the school. They did not speak a lot of English -- although they did know Messi -- but they were proud to show off the trades they were learning: carpentry, auto mechanics, book-binding in the "Don Bosco Press" room, welding. The young men sell what they construct -- like beds for local hospitals -- which helps fund their education.

I could continue with the litany of amazing people: minor and major seminarians hoping to make a difference within the church; differently-abled students who played bugles and drums and performed a classical dance; nuns who lived up a road that a van could not even traverse; and deaf teens performing a mime about the value of water and why it must be conserved.

India is just one of the mission territories around the world, and the Pontifical Mission Societies-USA (TPMS-USA) is just one of the many Catholic groups helping the missions. When the collection basket for missions is passed each October on World Mission Sunday, it's easy to get donor fatigue and think of the many other ways we can spend money.

This year, I will remember 12-year-old Annamaria, who wants to become a nurse, and Sister Celestina, who would love to have computers for her school.

As Msgr. Kieran Harrington, national director of TPMS-USA, often told the people we met: "I am from the United States. People think the United States is rich. ... But I think the church is rich because of you."

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