Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The best and the worst

It is said that one gets to see the real nature of a person only in times of crisis.  It is also said that in times of natural calamities or disasters, one gets to see the worst of humanity.  Well, I've seen the best and the worst!

Here's the list of the worst (how and who):

  • getting the survey inspectors to review the damage to farm and property: phone, plead, send emissaries, wait, and sometime even bribe the village secretary, only to get them to do the assessment
  • approach the Revenue office with petition for compensation or help to repair damaged residence of the boys:  the MRO tells you, hostels are not residences! (So where do the boys stay? At his residence?)
  • erecting fallen electrical poles and pulling new wires to restore electricity: bribe in someway or the other, practically every Tom, Dick and Harry
  • distribution of food, clothing and essential material: not without labels bigger than the product stuck on each item, a big banner in the backdrop, atleast a couple of photographers and journalists, and the assurance that this 'charitable act' would appear in the newspaper the following day
  • (may sound absurd, but true!) charging cell phones, in the face of lack of electricity: people charging Rs 150

On the other hand, it was amazing to see some people like Nagaraj, Appa Rao, Suribabu and several others, walk in time to time, to say hello and willingly join in some work being done.  Even past pupils of the place (who happened to drop in for collecting some certificates from the schools or some financial support) walk in and stay on to help, just like that! Or a farmer pulling down the fence around his property and well so that those around, or anyone for that matter, could use the water from the well. 

Feel, Do, Be ... Good

Often our whole formation structure and all our activities are geared towards, perhaps unconsciously, making one 'feel good'.  Whether it is prayer, work, study, relationship, apostolate... The same is repeated when the students complete their basic formation and are involved in full-time apostolate, not just in their early years but all through life.  Make people 'feel good'.  So we have 'good' sermons, 'radical' documents, 'smiling' relationships, 'high-scoring' students, ...

Some of these boys go on to also 'do good'. That certainly is one step ahead of merely 'feeling good'.  So, some charitable works once in a way.  Some heroic deeds in some place... the rest of time is spent on riding high on the good feeling that is earned from such deeds!

However, very few - very very very few - graduate to 'being good'.  Now that's a different ball game!  'Feeling good' is a form of escapism (from growing in depth, from being men of substance).  'Doing good' is a form of lethargy (can, but do not will).  'Being good' on the other hand, demands a sustained endeavour, a collective effort, radical choices and lifestyle in congruence with those choices, a steady and joyful commitment... there is no play acting here, no breaks/holidays (from being good).  

Study of philosophy

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with a section of the second course students as introduction to the subject, Modern Western Philosophy.  It was basically in the context of modern western thought declaring independence from religion and doctrine to chalk out a path or strategy for philosophy (as against the domination of Christian thought and doctrine during the medieval era). In that context, I stated that Philosophy till then was considered as a handmaid of theology and perhaps this led to the Canonical requirement that those aspiring to Priestly ordination ought to undergo philosophical training too.  So I asked the group, if they, either out of their own experience or what they gathered from the seniors, felt the relevance and importance of studying philosophy, especially in preparation for priestly ordination.  The group was divided.  Some were very convinced and clear as to how philosophy has opened up vistas for them hitherto not thought of.  Some stated that it has indeed strengthened their faith.  There were also some who frankly felt that perhaps three years was too long a duration. They were of the opinion that Philosophical studies could be of some shorter duration, perhaps a year.  The other two years (major portion of the available time) could be catered to studies on the Bible.  Their argument was that people are thirsting for the Word of God, not philosophy.  Furthermore they argued, that at times, those who do not study philosophy, reason out better and are more rational than those who undergo a systematic course on philosophy. And as it is, we naturally reason out, so why Philosophy?!

I fear the latter group considers philosophy as another course, another subject to be studied.  (I am sure, they consider studies related to the Bible too in the same manner!) However, they fail to see that study of philosophy basically offers them tools and skills that need to be imbibed, personalised, and then applied. Rather than a set of doctrines to be studied, Philosophy offers the skill to make the most of reason.

This is the same of even social communication or media.  That's the reason I am not very much for a separate department or commission for communication.  It is not an independent body or section that works by itself.  It is what facilitates and lubricates all our endeavours. It does not and cannot have an identity of its own, totally independent of the common mission.  Communication is for communion and not merely for communication! 

Exchange programme?

Staying at Sabbavaram for a week and noticing things, I realise that there is not much of a difference between a Nava Jeevan institute (home for street children) and a Philosophate (like the one where I am presently)... or between the children and staff of Nava Jeevan and the Brothers in the formation setting... especially when regard to maintenance of buildings, concern for goods of the house, allergy for prayer, resistance to hardships and difficulties, enthusiasm to do things for the house, attitude towards work, priority of food over most of the things, an amazing ability to pass stinging comments...

I wonder if there would be much of a difference if we exchanged the Brothers here for boys from Nava Jeevan! I also ask myself, if I was any different there than how I am here and now? And what am I upto, given the fact that I can affect transformative policies?

I figure that one of the aspects that does play a role, is how grounded has been my upbringing and what / where /  who do I consider HOME. 

Money, as the spoil sport

Over the years I've become convinced that money plays spoil sport in most human endeavours, especially those undertaken by religious!  The staff, students, and even visitors get the impression that there is plenty of money with the Salesians... and it does not take too long for them to become convinced of this!  How?  We Salesians ourselves live and give that impression.  This does more harm than good to all those involved.  A very unhealthy attitude sets in, among our boys, our staff, the visitors, government officials and civil authorities.  Everyone seeks to grab and use - the right word would be 'abuse' - the house, with everything in it. Rather than be concerned about the goods that we use, either in common or private, there is a tendency to merely use.  And if a particular gadget or tool is spoiled or damaged or misplaced, no one is really affected. No one tries to look for it or attempts to fix it up. Why? If not this, we can always 'get' another one.  We merely need to make a 'list'... and lo, a new one would appear.  This applies to clothes, stationery articles, books, tools, furniture, equipment, buildings, ... even food and people! 

Attitude towards work ... being at home

By nature, most people I've encountered during my work in Andhra, are not industrious... certainly not most of the youngsters.  Some work hard, but only under constant supervision. Left to themselves, they're either drunk or asleep or both! Very many are specialists in dodging work.  They know where exactly not to be and if by chance they are caught up at a place where there is work to be done, they have skills to disappear within seconds.  The most favourite 'work' is 'khali ga undadam' (that's 'being idle', in Telugu!).  There are some who do work but take ages to complete something that could very well have been completed in an hour or so.  But all the while they are 'working'.

I closely and very clearly noticed the difference in attitude towards work, in general, during the past one week.  What makes the difference is when one perceives the work at hand, as mine.  The house where I live, as my home.  When I am at home, I give my best, my heart and soul, my flesh and blood, my time and energy, the best and last!

Another fact that was reiterated was the practical working alongside with the staff or boys.  It does make a huge difference.  When some of the boys and others asked me why I was so passionate about doing things all the while, I could only tell them that I consider this, where I am now, as my home... and I'd like to make it the best place I am capable of envisioning.  

An overview of Devipuram

Perhaps an overview of Devipuram, Sabbavaram would give a holistic picture of what I put down henceforth.

The place is about 40 - 45 kms from the port city of Visakhapatnam and was equally - if not more badly - battered by Hudhud on October 12, 2014.  We Salesians have a rehabilitation home for our Street and under-priviledged children exactly opposite to the small road leading to the temple at Devipuram.  We have about 101 boys staying with us and attending the local schools in the vicinity. There are also batches of young people who attend the vocational training courses offered by DB Tech, in another part of the same campus.

On the day of Hudhud, the children were at home and luckily none of them was injured or hurt. Of course, some crazy and weird media reports did do the rounds.  I was asked to help out at the place and I reached there exactly a week later.

On entering the city of Vizag, I gathered that the damaged done by the 7 hours of relentless winds blowing over 200 km/hr, was more than I imagined or witnessed ever before.  The city itself was most badly hit.  I could not trace one single tree standing intact; most of the huge and lush green trees were all uprooted.

At Sabbavaram, none of the 700 coconut trees, we have in our sprawling 19.5 acres of land, is intact.  Some 200 have totally fallen and the rest appear like the alien ships in the movie The War of the Worlds.  The 4 acres of cashew trees resemble something like a plate of noodles!  Most of the teak trees were flattened. Those that were spared of kissing the ground, appear as if someone chopped off not only its branches but every single leaf as well!  Not one electrical pole - neither in the campus nor on the state highway along which we have our home - is standing tall.  The electrical lines, even those of the high tension wires and poles are all strewn over the place. The oldest residential structure, one of asbestos sheets is bereft of all its sheets and is totally open to the sky. The other two buildings witnessed the sintex plastic water tanks being ripped off and flung a couple of kilometres away.  The kitchen, made of thatched palm leaves, had to rebuilt (temporarily) for all the poles and sticks supporting it have given way.  Even heavy metallic objects and every kind of odd household material can be found in the campus, most of which belongs to some neighbours living a couple of kms away.  The stench of dead poultry from the surrounding farms added the missing fragrance to the scene.  The swarms of houseflies by day and mosquitoes by night never missed offering their company and 'hospitality' to the handful of us inmates trying to rebuild our life.

[Letter of the director, appealing for assistance]

To make the most of the least

I returned to my community from Sabbavaram, yesterday morning, exactly after a week.  I was at Sabbavaram to help the place get back on its feet, and more specially to make it hospitable enough for the boys to return, after the place was battered badly by the cyclone Hudhud.  There are several things I learnt and observed during my week long stay there.  I will surely chronicle them in the days to come.  (I purposely did not click any photos not did I secure any, for I did not want to limit my experience to some visual sympathy or use the pics for any propaganda!)

However, my first and the most strong impression, as I get back to life here and its rhythm - quite different from the one that I got into, while at Sabbavaram:  comfort and luxury dulls the person; frugality really brings out the best in an individual.

No wonder why religious and consecrated life emphasises so much on the vows of poverty as a means to holiness.  The more we have, the more we become choosy and fussy.  The less we have, the better we appreciate the little we have and find ways to make the most of what is at hand.  

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Evolution of Communication

While preparing for my Communication course next semester, which begins this Monday, I came across the following cartoon. Good one, describing the evolution of communication and information technology over the centuries... of course, with a lot of humour and truth too!

Bakers display...

Last week while in Mumbai for the South Asia Formation Commission meeting, we had the opportunity to visit the Don Bosco Centre for Learning at Kurla.  It truly has grown in a multi-layered zone of educational and professional training centre.  One of the things we got to witness was the bread display by the hospitality centre.  Here are a few pics...

Monday, 13 October 2014

Situational Formation? (2)

I reproduce here something more tangible and sensible, as continuation of my previous post of Situational Formation?. The following is a response that came in from a good and well-intentioned friend of mine. 
... what you are saying in other words, is let them be lay people engaged in spiritual and religious study. It is fantastic but you may have 2 priests at the end of the entire process. Needless to say, those two will be priests you will be proud of (might turn out to be very individualistic and weird too by regular church standards), but you will only have that kind of numbers. 
Experience of daily practical stresses is also why some lay people can be much better at pastoral work than priests. They understand how hard it is to balance. And then too, you can see how hard it is to put the beatitudes into practice. Almost certain, that the quality of preaching will change. Then, the church will get into the business of justifying why, how, what, cost, so on and so forth, just to pump up those numbers and you will be back at square one. 
Take a middle path. Treat them like we would our kids who are studying who have to earn a scholarship. They need to work hard and/or be brilliant. If not, then they need to earn while studying to pay the fee (subsidised please..we need to give them a break). Once the course is done, they all work for a living like the rest of us. The church would need to pay them a living wage. (this would be like the apostles were- they worked for their living and preached the good news). I say church because if they had to perform regular jobs, they won't be able to do full-time priest jobs.
I'm posting this text for I see a great value behind the whole idea of formation and priesthood/religious life... and if anyone is not willing to attempt to see it, leave alone embark on this risky journey, will really need to clarify his or her concept and orientation towards consecrated life, primarily to God and also to His people. 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Situational Formation?

Our final year students are just back from a week-long exposure to social work and analysis.  I am told that they were working in the mornings and in the evenings going around the village collecting data, and evaluating the same in the night.  All of them look tired and worn out.  It is understandable as they are not used to such rigorous schedule of manual work, and study.

So I'm wondering, what if study for religious life/Priesthood too is made on par with this schedule.  We live in a particular functional house (not a well-furnished, royal palace).  Go out for work, earn our daily bread and fees... for as of now none of us pays for our food, lodge and study.  Suppose each one is to fend for himself... And then, study too!!  Not really in that order but all the same, why not have such a 'format', wherein each one has to 'earn' his formation process (study, work, pay)?  Practically this has several difficulties, I know.  However, I think we can attempt this module because the present luxurious model is not yielding appropriate results.  We get so used to the comfort that the house provides, that 'work' and 'living' does not seem our cup of tea anymore, especially once outside the formation setting.  

Thursday, 9 October 2014

An apostle?

The apostles of Jesus, as listed in the Gospels, can more or less be divided into three groups

  1. The ones closest to Jesus, headed by Peter
  2. the ones who had the most number of contacts with the non-Jews, under the leadership of Philip and
  3. those who were very strict about the Judaic tradition. 

Though they had their ideological differences, they worked as a team, a community. However, human as they were (including Jesus himself), there were some squabbles, differences and misunderstandings among themselves on various occasions - not only after Jesus' time, but during his time itself.

Now for the questions: Can I add my name too to the list?  After all, the apostles were called upon to witness Jesus.  And by my profession, am I too not called to witness Christ and the Kingdom?  And if my name is on the list, to which group would I belong?  

The 'how' of formation

An insight from today's homily by Fr Ivo...
Jesus' temptation was not about his identity as the Son of God or the Messiah but as to HOW to be the Messiah.  
In our formation scenario too, there are many who are passionate about the way our youngsters need to be formed to be 'good' Salesians, all with noble intentions.  However, the differences are not so much about the need for formation or the importance of it, rather differences are due to the mode of formation to be offered.

I think this is where the formation delegate and the respective rectors play a great role.  One can be very eclectic or too monolithic, but the ideal would be to follow a very comprehensive outlook and then a specific mode. Of course, the animator also needs to rope in all involved in the process, especially the formees themselves. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Christian paradoxes

Some paradoxes of our Christian life and mission: 
  • Christians: We have Christians who are baptised but not evangelised
  • Salesians: There are members who have professed but not committed
  • Priests: Clerics who are ordained as Priests but not Spiritual
  • Religious: Persons who have come forward voluntarily and professed to a life of committed dedication but insipid in their relationship, especially to those whom they have committed their life to (God and His people)
May sound quite pessimistic, but there is some truth in these statements. 

Saint and Martyrs

An amusing quote from our discussions...
If we have a saint in the community, then the rest are martyrs! 

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Don Bosco and Psychological Sciences

There is a lot of talk about the utility of psychological testing especially in the pre-novitiate.  The argument is that it is not for sending someone away but basically to help someone better in their vocational journey.  I myself have seen what good psychological sciences can bring in for the formation process - also the trauma it can cause in some cases!

What I am now asking myself is how did Don Bosco manage?  His time there was hardly any psychological tests or sciences at hand to use.  But he did well.  The boys did well.  The confreres did well.

Another perspective on the same could be that he may not have used psychological sciences but he did use the available sciences and means to enrich the quality of his Salesians and boys.  So why not use presently available means to enhance the quality of our life and mission?

Another take: What of the simple traditional but guaranteed methods and strategies?  

Discernment and Decision

At what time does a youngster with us 'decide' that he is to be a Priest or Brother?
The aspirantate? But isn't that still a forum or platform for discernment... so much so it does not even come under the formation commission. It is placed under the youth pastoral department. (that is something I learnt only today!) Salesian formation commences only with the pre-novitiate!

The pre-novitiate? But that's only to discern whether or not, I have a vocation to religious life. Perhaps also to know more about the Salesian congregation and Don Bosco.

Novitiate? Well this could be a place where one finally makes a decision. But one only becomes only a temporarily professed member of the congregation at his first profession. This too is not the final decision-making moment.  It is again a trial period (lasting 6 to 9 years)!

Well, the final preparation for perpetual profession (for a Brother) or Ordination (for a Cleric) could be the final decision-making moment.  That means, from the time a youngster enters the Salesian house (at the age of 18 or so) till this moment (say, age 29) what the hell is he doing???  Already decided?? Or discerning??!

Isn't discernment a process? And at some time, a decision. Yes! But open to review by self and others! If my decision is so fixed and finalised that I am not willing to let it be challenged, neither by self nor others, then I am not even letting it grow. I'm only fanatically preserving it (my vocation), – mostly out of fear that in case something damages it, I would no more be a Priest or Salesian – not living it out recklessly and joyfully.

Vocation as my choice

Don Bosco was not the Rector of a formation house... he was a 'father' to a group of young boys who had none. He was the head of an oratory. In this context the confidence that boys had on him made a big difference. The boys felt comfortable and free to open up, pour out their hearts and souls to Don Bosco because they had nothing to lose – they knew well, they stand to gain!

As with regards to our discussion, we claim to be formators, perhaps Rectors of formation houses. The boys in our care are candidates for our Salesian way of life. The matter of confidence is applicable here too. However, what acts as a hindrance, affecting also the confidence factor, is the matter of choice. In very many instances, the candidates with us have already 'decided' – the process of discernment is often skipped – that they are to become Priests, continue being Salesians. So in this context, the decision is already made. And the Rector (or the formation staff) is seen as a threat to this 'survival' because he/they can terminate my decision. The lifeline of this decision is therefore in the hands of the Rector. 

That brings me exactly to the heart of my concern: Whose vocation? Whose choice?

If the vocation is mine and so is the choice! It is basically my choice to respond to what God wants of me. In such a context, the Rector (and other formation guides) will be seen as facilitators or persons who help me grow in this response, in every way possible – certainly not as threats!

Spiritual animation vs Administration

Only in 1901, with the Vatican decree that the Rector cannot be the ordinary confessor of the boys and confreres, did the portfolio of the Spiritual Director emerge in the Salesian community. The role of the Rector, who so far was the ordinary confessor too, now had to be reinvented. Given the increasing workload, the Rector got practically swamped by the legal, administrative, and organisational work. This did lead to the Rector leaving the spiritual animation part to the confessor and taking up other responsibilities.

The current phenomena which sees Rectors not take up the spiritual animation of the community could be traced back to this historical event. However I think it has another reason too: spiritual animation is more demanding than taking care of administrative matters. Another way of putting it: administration is more lucrative than spiritual animation. This calls for an introspective of our values, our virtues, what we as religious find 'lucrative'. And if helping a person grown holistically is not my primary option, rather I choose do some 'petty' service which is fulfilling for now then I need to rethink what my true vocation is!

A piece of history: Crypt Tabernacle

I learnt of an interesting piece of history this morning after Mass. As I was helping Br Richard D'Souza, a veteran Salesian Brother from Mumbai Province working in Uganda, he narrated the following incident. In 1945 the tabernacle, the one presently in the crypt of Don Bosco's Shrine, Matunga arrived in Mumbai from Italy. However, it was not cleared by the customs. Fr Maschio, of happy memory, then called young Br Bob, gave him Rs 500 (a huge amount in those days) and sent him to meet a certain man named Mr Eddie Pereira. The next day, the tabernacle reached Matunga. For many years it was kept in the School community Chapel. Today one can view it in the crypt of the Shrine.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

At Don Bosco, Matunga

Stepping into Mumbai - Matunga, to be particular - is like stepping into another world altogether. I reached here this morning for the South Asian Formation Commission meeting.  Sundays is all the more special for this place. One thing that one cannot miss is the number of youngsters who flock this place, especially for games. Right since early morning, till late into the night there are scores of boys who come to make the most of the vast grounds of the campus.  This is something we hardly get to see in any of our settings back in the Province.

In the morning attended the Mass in the Shrine, recalling coming into the Shrine with the boarders, a decade ago.  The singing, the hymn books, the announcements, the serenity of the place and of course, the brevity of the whole service.

In the evening I took a walk around the campus recalling to mind all those past experiences during my one year of stay here (2003-2004).  Most of all remembered and missed Fr Ronnie! God rest his soul. As I came infront of the primary section (presently the IGSCE wing), I remembered the afternoon Fr Ronnie couldn't stop laughing at lunch. He narrated how a small boy came running to him right before the classes began and told him that his Mummy has come to meet him.  Surprised he let himself be led to the entrance, only to find a Sister dressed in a habit (a similar looking garment worn by the Nuns, just as Priests have their cassock). 
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