Thursday, 22 June 2017


Lovely lilies in the chapel...

Living tombstones

The other day I took a walk to the cemetery and also to check if the undertakers had completed their restoration work of the two plots of deceased Salesians.  They indeed did a decent job and was happy to note the names of the second plot, the slab of which had fallen and I couldn't get it up to read the names of those buried therein.  

 I did click these two photos and then too a small stroll round the place. Just when I was about to leave I remembered that there are a few Salesian Sisters too buried right next to the Salesians.  In fact, the FMAs were here in Chertsey much before us.  And it is their school and property that we are now owning.  So I took a while to pray at their tomb too.  They have 14 Sisters buried there in two separate plots - the same number of deceased Salesians buried in Chertsey.  The statue of Mary Help of Christians is on one of their tombstones.

On one of the tombs of the Salesian Sisters I noticed flowers.  I had seen them earlier too.  I guess someone in the vicinity still remembers atleast one of them.  I doubt if any of the relatives of these Salesians or FMAs ever visited this place.  But I suppose those buried don't mind or miss them!  All the good that they did when they were still walking on the earth would certainly be more than what they ever wanted.  All those touched by them and now making a difference in the lives of others, would be the real tombstones and memorials of these deceased.  

British summer

After more than four days of "intense heat" - by any British standards! - today is quite cool.  Cloudy and cold wind.  The maximum temperatures touched 33 C. It is said that the country did not have such a heatwave since 1976.  Even I too felt the heat!  Of course, it may be that I am getting pampered by the luxurious weather of the place and hence 'feeling the heat'.

Another factor, I realised is that the houses here in UK are all built to retain heat.  Hence when the temperature is hot outside, the interior of the house gets hotter!  From my window I can see men walking around in the streets shirtless and in shorts.  Some of the Britishers are not complaining of the heat as they feel happy to experience it in their own backyard rather than on an expensive holiday trip to Spain or Italy!  Either way, life goes on.  

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Middle path?

Trying to find the mean or the common denominator in all instances of life is not always the best way of dealing with every situation.  There are instances in life where we are forced to take a side or make a stand.  It could be with simple or even life-changing matters.  However, human as we are, we tend to find a 'peaceful' solution to every issue.  By that, I mean, a comfortable way out for us, at that time!

Statistics do help in arriving at a decision but can never be totally reliable.  After all, if one is to believe statistics, if one places ones head in an oven and the feet in a fridge, on average one should be perfectly comfortable.

I am not sure even that 'middle path' that Buddha sought and taught, is really possible.  From experience we know that we are always biased, for good or for bad.  There is never truly an unprejudiced mind.  It is another fact that most often we are unaware of it or even have the courage to acknowledge it. But the fact is that we are biased.  So is it truly possible to attain that 'neutral' view?  I guess each situation and context varies and so does the possibility.  But I guess nothing wrong in trying if that is the best solution, that is for everyone involved. 

To the dogs!

In The Times of today there is an article of a man building a kennel for his dogs that cost him £1,70,000!  Not only that but there is a booming market and there are builders exclusively catering to this demand.

Huh!  I'm sure it makes no difference for the dogs!  And the best I can think of (but not put down here) is some terms in pure Hyderabadi language!  

Evolving understanding of 'community'

During the meeting for the revision of the Salesian rector's manual, there was a suggestion that prior to laying down the guidelines for the Salesian Rector, it is necessary to redefine 'community'.  Perhaps if I were in India, I would not have understood or taken this insight too seriously.  Having spent more than 7 months here in the UK and observing the Salesian style of functioning here, I cannot but agree with this suggestion.

When I was in the initial formation, the word 'community' only meant those professed or the 'staff' of the community.  The rest of us were present in the house.  I do not say that we were ill-treated or anything. Absolutely no. But the understanding, even among us boys and youngsters, was that only the professed Salesians or the staff members were 'community'.

Later my understanding of the community grew a bit wider, especially during my work in Kondadaba, wherein all those in the house, even the non-Salesian Brothers were part of the 'community'. Even those who worked in the seminary, the 7 support staff, I counted them in as members of the 'community'.

Living here in the UK, I sense my own understanding of the word 'community' has grown to be more inclusive.  That's primarily because, the work of the Salesian charism is not carried out only by the professed Salesians.  It is equally and at times, even mostly carried out by non-professed members in the society.   I'm beginning to see the worth and the quality of partnership we professed Salesians have with the non-professed.

How I wish this level of collaboration and understanding was real even in India.  Most certainly, we would hear the 'no personnel' antiphon less often.  Much more could be achieved by way of outreach and professed Salesians would thereby focus their energy and resources on priorities and not doing everything all by ourselves.  But alas, I guess we are not very good learners!  It may not be till numbers drastically reduce that we begin to see the worth and need of genuine partnership with the laity.  Perhaps only then we will realise that we are not the sole inheritors of the Salesian legacy. 

Monday, 12 June 2017

Remembering Fr Panampara

Yesterday was the fifth death anniversary of Fr Panampara Abraham.
that's him with his worn out multi-purpose towel!
I'd known him only as a fervent missionary who was often fooled by confreres for being a 'hose-pipe missionary'... the sort who believes in merely baptising everyone whom he comes across within the first day of meeting the person and not bothering about them later on!

However, I'm also aware of what he was before he consciously opted to be part of Hyderabad Province and this radical evangelization mode.  He was the one who threw open the doors of Sacred Heart College, Tirupattur, the then largest institute of higher education in Salesian India, to the poor and the dalits.  It was Fr Panampara who took that bold and radical step of making higher education possible and feasible for the dalits.  Many of those who were the initial beneficiaries of this decision of his, were in touch with him even till the end of his days (read this news bit on donboscoindia).  They attributed their present well being in society to his generous and visionary personality.  He always had a standing and open invitation to the past pupils meet.  All his trips were sponsored and he always returned with gifts... one of which was a laptop, which I was helping him learn to use (that was when I was in the Provincial house in 2008)!!

Of course, later on in years, he totally gave up the education field he was initially involved in and was a fervent advocate of direct evangelisation.  He would not spare any occasion or anyone, when it came to 'preaching Christ!'  He wrote books on catechism and sacraments, was the first to bring out Telugu hymn cassettes (Stuthigeethalu), printed telugu hymnals, started the catechists training centre at Ponnur... never one to back off from a challenge.  Most of us youngsters loved pulling his leg and he loved it too.
the province pioneers: Br Gabriel, Fr Benji, and Fr Panampara
So on this day would like to remember him and thank him specially for his legacy of hard work, dedication and commitment to live and work for the poor and those really on the margins of society.  

Abridged formation course

This province of Great Britain does not have any initial formation house.  The only formation house that it can speak of is that of Battersea where there are three clerics staying and attending college at St Mary's studying theology.  So unlike most Indian provinces it has neither an aspirantate, pre-novitiate, philosophate, nor any house of specific formation.  I was thinking that's a huge reduction on expenditure.  For I know that most of my province's expenditure is on formation and formation houses.  (Perhaps that's the only advantage, if one can speak of at all... for not having vocations is perhaps an absolute loss!)

However, this particular trip to Turin with 9 of us is perhaps an investment in formation...  formation of lay collaborators.  Much more than me, a professed Salesian, this visit would throw up for the collaborators many more views and options and messages and most importantly, questions about the Salesians and Don Bosco.  Some of them have been working with the Salesians for years and some are new but all the same their love for the Salesians is great.  This guided tour certainly offers them a great possibility of deepening their love for Don Bosco and a unique flavour to their Salesian ministry.

For me, it offered a great chance to meet and interact with these individuals. Each of them unique, different and greatly experienced in their own field of work.  Besides their work ethic I admire their fidelity to their Catholic faith.  For them the latter is not something pietistic or ritual, it is something that enthuses them and something they are very convinced of passing on... not only for their families but for young people whom they teach.  Best of all, it was not as if I was or for that matter even Fr John was, 'better off' than them merely because we were 'SDBs'.  We walked, talked and shared life and mutually enriched one another!

I'm sure if I were to have come here with a group of (professed) Salesians only, it would have been very different.  But thanks to the unique composition of this group and the slant of Fr John's explanations, I can boldly say that this 'formation course' is more holistic and meaningful than the decades of 'cloistered formation' we Salesians often insist on. 

In Turin

Some other photos I clicked with my phone... could not click as many as I wanted because the charger I took wasn't fitting the socket and had to save my phone battery because my boarding pass was on my mobile app!  
the chapel of St Francis of Sales

the waterfont which was part of the original Pinardi shed

Near the rooms of Don Bosco listening to the story of Grigio

Our Lady's statue at the reception

one of the streets of Chieri and the impressive tower in the background

Around Valdocco

On the second day of our stay in Turin, we walked around Valdocco visiting places related to Don Bosco's initial work with the boys.  Among the places Fr John showed and explained to us, I felt greatly pleased to visit the relics of St Joseph Cafasso in the church of Our Lady of Consolata.  This was the Church Don Bosco frequented when he was a young priest and is specially mentioned when Mamma Margaret died, and Don Bosco prays specially to Mother Mary at this Church.

For me, the person of Fr Cafasso represents the person of the spiritual director, the guide.  It was this person's great advice that moulded many of Don Bosco's decisions, especially in his early years as a seminarian and as a young priest.  To truly find someone of that kind, to be able to able to open up and follow the advice of such a person of depth is a rare honour.

We also visited (from the outside) the Refuge, the Marchioness Barolo's palace, the place where Don Bosco studied pastoral theology for two years after ordination, the institutions started by the Marchioness Barolo for the education of children, the unwed mothers and young women, the church of St Laurence (beside the Royal palace), the cathedral of Turin (the one of the Holy Shroud and the only austere Church of all the churches I've entered in Italy!!), the marketplace (most colourful and fragrant and very orderly!)
the royal palace and the square

At Colle Don Bosco

On the first day of our trip to Turin we visited Colle Don Bosco, the birth place of Don Bosco.

The main church was so huge!!  Moreover being on a hill it looked imposing.  And it had not one but two large churches within: one called the lower church and the other the upper church. Both are modern churches with the upper being the main one, with lots of wood work.

We also had a look at the original house of Don Bosco, the house where he lived as a boy, the room of Mamma Margaret, Joseph's house... We did not go into all of the different places there but spend time mostly in the house of Johny Bosco and the church.

The whole place is 96 acres!  The Salesian community consists of 28 Salesians of whom 18 are Brothers.  Unfortunately only three of the total are below the age of 56.  All the others are over and above 70.  There was a time when the Brothers took care of the estate and farm all by themselves, but not any more.

More unfortunate than that was the fact that there is hardly anyone there!!  In sharp contrast to its large and wide space, there are no resident youth, no boarding, vocational training centre, nothing!  The only youth seen around are the visitors.  Of course, being totally in a far off rural area there is no real local population either.  But why then did they build such huge churches is a mystery to me!  Can they not make use of the existing structures more wisely, meaning for young people?  After all it is sacred ground for us Salesians and to see it bereft of life and activity was very painful.  As one Salesian visiting the place seems to have said, "If only I'd known that it is so desolate, I would never have come here to visit. I had such a glorious vision of this place before coming here.  And now that I've seen it, I feel my glorious vision shattered." 

Dog in a suitcase!

While on our trip to Turin, Dave narrated this particular incident which he heard from one of his colleagues.  This particular friend of his was narrating of the experience of his ex-girlfriend.  She was asked to look after the dog of her parents or neighbours while they were away for a holiday.  Two days after their departure the dog died!  So she called up the owners and with great remorse told them about the death of the dog.  The owners took it in their stride and told her to get the dog to the vet to certify its death.  Unfortunately she did not know to drive and hence had to take the dead dog by train.  So she put him in a suitcase and took him to the station.  Being a labrador, the dog was heavy and she was struggling to carry it along.  A gentleman seeing her struggle offered to help.  Out of curiosity he asked her, what heavy stuff was she carrying?  Surely she could not say that it was a dead dog, so she told him that it is some computer parts.  They got on the train and she settled down. But when the train moved, she was horrified to find the suitcase missing... and so was the man who had helped her! He stole the suitcase!!

We were all laughing our heads off, imagining what would be his expression when he opens the suitcase to find out the remains of a dead dog than computer parts!!

Prayerful Bascilica

During our visit to Turin, I did spend some time by myself in the basilica of Mary Help of Christians. And I don't think I would be blamed of prejudice to say that it was a prayerful place.  Unlike other mega-churches that I visited last week in Rome, this place was peaceful, silent and had a very prayerful ambiance about it.  There were no people clicking photos, no chit-chats and talking, plenty of people sitting down and praying...

Perhaps the only commonality with the other churches was the grandeur of the structure.  Huge and highly ornate.  Apart from that it was every bit a place of worship and peace.

The other thing that I liked about this church was that it was very much alive.  There were hundreds of people, most of whom were visitors on the first day that we were there.  The second day there was the diaconate ordination and it was packed.  Even after the diaconate Mass the Sunday vigil Mass also saw the Church filled to its capacity.  In that sense it was good to see it more as a place teeming with people and activity rather than a historical ruin or a museum piece on exhibition.
the sanctuary and the backdrop

the side altar of Don Bosco, containing his relics

the rooms of Don Bosco 

the view of the basilica from the piazza Maria Ausciliatrice

At Casa madre of SDBs

I returned yesterday afternoon from Turin along with Fr John.  We had been on a two day trip to Turin along with 7 collaborators from the various Salesian houses in Great Britain.  There was Laurence from Egham, Anne from Farnborough, Pauline from Bolton, Sophie from Liverpool, Sophie, Kate and Dave from Chertsey.  More than the places we visited and spent time at, it was the company of the group that I enjoyed most.
At the waterfont (the one surviving since Don's Bosco's time at the Pinardi shed) in Valdocco
L-R: Pauline, Anne, Sophie, Laurence, Kate, John, Sophie and Dave
On Friday we went to Colle Don Bosco and spent most of the afternoon there.  Had the opportunity to meet and speak with Kalyan for sometime.  Visited sections of Chieri and returned to Valdocco for the night.  On Saturday we took a walk around Valdocco, visiting most of the places related to Don Bosco's initial work with the boys in Turin.  In the afternoon we spend time in the mother house, casa madre of the Salesians!  The bascilica of MHC, Pinardi Chapel, Church of St Francis de Sales, Rooms of Don Bosco... We had Mass in the Pinardi Chapel and it was good.  Later in the night we had a long meal in one of the restaurants down the street.

There are many things that stand out of this quick but meaningful two day trip.  One certainly is the expertise and competence of Fr John in weaving history, context, meaning and prayer. If not for that it would have been a walk through buildings and places.  His ability to be able to present a picture of the whole scenario and try to seek relevance for us today, especially for our Salesian work in the UK, made a big difference.  For me, those names and places which were only in books came to life in a totally different perspective.

Fr John did not paint a very emotional or pious picture of Don Bosco and his works.  He sketched a very down to earth, critical portrait of Don Bosco, his formation, the educative method and the early stages of the Oratory.  Of the several insights I gained, what really hit me hard was the notion of 'seminary' for Don Bosco.  He was not very happy with the mode of seminary formation being 'doled out' in his days.  He resisted it and this is seen in his own valiant efforts not to put his own 'Salesians' through it.  The notion of being closed up within the seminary cut off from the rest of the world, the purely theoretical input without much of practical experience to ferment reflection, the strict adherence to practically all the diktats of ecclesial authorities...

It was interesting to note that an elderly ex-priest was sharing his experience of the rigid hierarchical structure that existed in his times. I thought he was speaking of the present times!! I had to acknowledge that in most cases, it still is the same.  Post-Vatican II's radical thoughts, did not really percolate the mindset and practical living of the Church and especially formation paradigms.  

Thursday, 8 June 2017

God so loved the world...

Having been involved in meetings and organising some, I know the pain of getting everyone on board.  It is far easier to work with individuals directly than get a group going!  Today found a theological (or Biblical?) proof for this idea!
God so loved the world that he did not send a committee. 
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