Church Institutions In Kerala Ignore Poor, Says Award-Winning Catholic Priest

2007-04-18 00:00:00

A nonagenarian priest and educator who recently received one of India´s highest civilian honors says some Church institutions in his native Kerala state have failed in their mission.

The Church´s education ministry is aimed at serving God by serving people, asserts Father Gabriel Chiramel, 92. The citation for his Padma Bhushan (lotus decorated) award, the third-highest civilian state honor, recognizes the Carmelite priest´s contributions in education and literature.

"The people who need your attention are the poor and not the rich," Father Chiramel told UCA News on April 7, talking about his life and mission. He had received the award two weeks earlier. The federal government announced it on Jan. 26, India´s Republic Day.

The priest now spends his retirement at a cancer care and research center near Thrissur, formerly Trichur, Kerala´s cultural capital, 2,510 kilometers south of New Delhi.

Father Chiramel, who started several educational institutions in Kerala, says Church leaders in the state "failed morally" by campaigning to protect Christians´ educational rights.

The Church launched the campaign after the state´s communist-led government passed a law in July 2006 to regulate professional education. Christian and Muslim leaders jointly opposed the bill, saying it violated the constitutional rights guaranteed religious minority communities to establish and manage educational institutions.

Among other things, the bill asked privately managed professional colleges to admit more poor students, reduce fees and stop demanding money for admission. The new law limited private schools´ discretion in admissions to 15 percent of their enrollment.

In September, the state High Court not only stayed the law but also allowed school administrations to fill 50 percent of seats at their discretion.

Father Chiramel says the campaign gave the impression the Church does not care for the poor and only wants to "make money." He blames bishops and other leaders of the Christian community for letting the situation reach a flash point.

Some Church people reportedly said teaching the poor is the state´s responsibility, and it should not pass the buck to the Church, but the Carmelite priest has a different view. "It is the responsibility of the Church to support the weaker sectors of society, and not the priority of the government," he maintained.

Private medical colleges, even those under Church management, demand about 3.5 million rupees (US$77,700) to admit a student. The institutions say the money is needed to pay back bank loans. Father Chiramel says these institutions keep the poor out to protect profits.

"I´m against such policies and practices," he stated, expressing regret that Church leaders did not address "the issue in its real terms."

However, Father Chiramel also criticized the state government for not recognizing the Church´s contributions to education and social development. He added that the state set up only five medical schools in 50 years, whereas private groups started five such colleges in one year. "The state government should understand this reality," he said.

After being ordained a priest at age 28, Father Chiramel taught zoology at a college his congregation manages. He founded Christ College in Thrissur (Trichur) district in 1956 and served as its principal for 36 years.

After retirement, he started two high schools that use English as the medium of instruction and are now among the state´s best. Most Kerala schools use the local Malayalam language, and English-medium schools have a higher status.

Father Chiramel also set up Amala (immaculate) Cancer Care and Research Institute, which is now a medical university. These institutions he founded reserve 25 percent of their seats for poor students and provide fee concessions, for which the priest got rich parents to subsidize poor students.

Approximately 10,000 people attended a function on March 31 at the cancer center to honor the priest for receiving the federal award.

Former student Johnson Francis, who works at the center as a doctor, says the priest works 18 hours a day, even at his advanced age. Father Chiramel visits all the patients and spends time with them, he told UCA News.

Beena Vijayan, a medical doctor who heads the local administration in Thrissur district, described the priest as "a great humanitarian." Father Chiramel "has never approached me for his personal needs, but for serving the poor," she told UCA News.


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