7 March 2012
Outside the Syro-Malabar Church in Palayur, Kerala is a reproduction of the baptismal font where St. Thomas first baptized the Brahmins. (photo: Sean Sprague).
Day 9, 7 March 2012
Since our visits today involve quite a bit of travel, we headed out early and proceeded north to the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Irinjalakuda, the home diocese of our own M.L. Thomas, regional director of the India office and one of my traveling companions.
We arrived at Pratheeksha Bhavan, an institution for mentally challenged children and adults. The facility is directed by Sister Paulcy, C.S.C., and the Sisters of Charity. This was an exciting visit, as the sisters have put together an amazing variety of programs to educate specially challenged individuals with vocational training and occupational and physical therapy — all done in an environment of loving patience and kindness.
The residents are joined each day by an additional group of many other special needs children and adults who joyfully arrive from neighboring areas to have a day of learning and activities.
I was particularly taken with the quality of the vocational and occupational therapies and activities. Sister Paulcy has formed partnerships with business enterprises, government agencies and individuals — all of which provide an outlet for the work done by these very energetic special needs children and adults. Their pride in learning and crafting is obvious. CNEWA has been a part of this wonderful outreach, and the gratitude of the sisters was reiterated many times over. Thanks to all of you in our CNEWA family.
From here we proceeded to visit with the bishop of Irinjalakuda, Mar Pauly Kammookkadan. He is a very affable man and only two years into his term as bishop here. We had a lovely chat with him, followed by a very filling lunch (even though the bishop apologized that since it was Lent, the meals are “meager.”) I learned so much about this very historic eparchy, truly the “cradle of the faith in India,” as he explained, since it was in this area that St. Thomas first landed by boat and began his missionary work with the people of this faraway land now known as India.
When you visit southwestern India, so many eparchies and parishes lay claim to the doubting apostle, but this is real history and this eparchy of the Syro-Malabars merits the legitimate designation of being the first to receive the faith brought by St. Thomas. This is really exciting to me, as I consider this pastoral visit to be a walk in the missionary footsteps of St. Thomas.
The bishop introduced us to his entire chancery staff, who joined us for lunch. They are a delightful group of dedicated priests and sisters and they seem to have a wonderful rapport with their beloved bishop. The bishop was profuse in his thanks to all of the CNEWA family for our prayers and financial support.
Next stop was a visit to a small home for severely challenged adults, both mentally and physically. This facility is operated by the Nirmala Dasi Sisters. Before arriving, we had to be “rescued,” as we had gotten lost. Father Peter, the chaplain, came on his motor bike to find us and then led us to this rather hard-to-find location.
The work done by the sisters is heroic, just as we had discovered yesterday in another institution run by this same congregation. Some of the patients/residents have been there for years and rely totally for all their needs on the compassionate care given by the sisters. Assisting the sisters, at least for a two-week period, were nine novices from a different congregation who were participating in this “field experience” in preparation for making their vows. Other religious congregations of men and women also send their novices, aspirants and postulants for short-term immersion in this most special ministry. What a learning experience it must be.
We met one resident, 44 years old, whose body is grotesquely disfigured and contorted. God has given him an incredible ability to draw. With great difficulty and some modest assistance, he positions himself to hang on the bedrail in such a way that he can take a pencil in his gnarled hand and draw with a creativity and detail that you would not believe. In fact, one of his most celebrated pieces is a portrait of the bishop, the original of which hangs on the wall in the bishop’s office. I was shown a copy of this and other artwork. You cannot believe how gifted he is and how comfortable he is in his affliction. He has even been featured on television.
We also visited with some residents who are unable to communicate at all — no sounds, no sight, no hand or body motion, no response — but all loved beyond measure by these dear sisters. I said a prayer for all of them, a prayer of thanks for reminding me that God never wants to abandon anyone, even the most defenseless.
We next had a very brief visit to Palayur Church, venerated as the place where St. Thomas first arrived in a canal by boat and, as the story goes, had his first three families of converts, all of the Brahmin caste — the highest one in the ancient kingdom. There is now a parish here — more like a pilgrimage site — by a remnant of the canal and a pond that, legend has it, represents a miracle brought about by St. Thomas, when he prayed and water came forth from the ground. This visit, though brief, heightened my sense of walking in the missionary steps of St. Thomas.
Our final visit of the day, and it was absolutely a delight, was to St. Joseph Orphanage in Brhamakulam. This large facility houses about two hundred girls, who attend classes across the street in a school directed by the same congregation of sisters, the F.C.C. Sisters (Franciscan Clarist Congregation of Sisters).
What an enthusiastic welcome upon arrival here! All the girls were bedecked in their St. Joseph uniforms and formed a huge honor guard for Thomas Varghese, M.L. Thomas and me. Their excitement was contagious.
In a tightly packed meeting room, we received hearty welcomes from Sister Maria Sudha, the director, and from Sister Scarlet, the provincial superior, with all the girls checking out my every move. They were mesmerized by my eyes, my gestures and my speech patterns, and responded to my every word with such overwhelming enthusiasm. I felt like a rock star with these lovely girls.
They treated us to some very polished entertainment, which included biblical playlets, songs and dances. We gave each of them some candy after their performance and our remarks. All of the girls approached me with the biggest smiles imaginable. Some even reached out to touch my face, especially my cheek, as their expression of affection.
Following all of this, we proceed to the dining hall, where all the girls were lined up with their metal plates and cups, waiting for me to enter and to give a blessing. I said a special prayer for all of them, as they are presently in the midst of their standardized exams.
The sisters took us outside through a field with some cows, some chickens and other farm animals to show us a rather high-tech filtration system, subsidized by CNEWA, which allows them to re-use wastewater. It is very eco-friendly and cost-effective in conserving water, which is a most valuable commodity in India. I was very happy that CNEWA has been instrumental in helping them to address this need and to preserve the environment, as well.
We had one more final goodbye to all of the girls who were again standing in line to see us off. What beautiful smiles for this farewell.
I remembered all of you at many junctures today. As I am winding down this pastoral visit very soon, I can’t help but be thankful for all the blessings I have received from the loving individuals I have met. Even though you are physically far from here, you have been very close to me and to our many special family members here in India. Many of you have adopted children here through your sponsorship, but the truth is that they have adopted you and love you very much.
God bless you and God bless the poor of India.
6 March 2012
Tags: India Education Msgr. John E. Kozar Orphans/Orphanages
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In this 2010 image, Sister Lisi Valloppally walks with young patients on the grounds of Grace Home in Trichur, India. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Day 8, 6 March 2012
It is late evening and I am very weary from an emotionally challenging day of pastoral visits. There were many joyful moments, to be sure, but there also many moments that challenge one’s soul with the suffering of the poor.
We began very early by driving north about one and a half hours to Trichur to have coffee and a visit with His Grace Archbishop Mar Andrews Thazath, of the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Trichur. He very warmly greeted us and was most happy to tell me that he was a classmate of Msgr. John Faris, formerly of CNEWA, while they were both graduate students in Rome.
Archbishop Andrews is a visionary who demonstrates his courageous spirit through efforts to “put out into the deep,” as Luke’s Gospel puts it, offering wonderful service to the poor. He has continued some very creative programs for the poor initiated by predecessor bishops, including every type of social service and educational programming you could imagine. He wished us a brief goodbye, as he would join us later for lunch at his seminary.
From our visit with him, we headed to the Paul VI Mercy Home, a complex of social service modules owned and operated by the Archeparchy of Trichur. And of special note, local Catholics and others offer enough support that the programs are almost self-sufficient.
This Mercy Center offers superb educational programs to mentally challenged children. It is directed by the Nirmala Dasi Sisters, who do a marvelous job in serving the needs of these special loved ones. We were welcomed by a marching band and many smiling faces, including very small children, children up to their teens, many sisters serving there and a large contingent of trainees who study there to receive a diploma in working with special needs children. This institution is licensed to offer this diploma, as it has such a good name in its care for the specially challenged.
The children were a delight and, amazingly, understood most of the English I spoke, even though M.L. Thomas did a superb job of translating for me.
From the educational modules, we travelled to another part of the very large campus to visit the John Paul II Peace Center, which is dedicated to the care of people of every age with severe physical and mental challenges. The care given here is nothing short of phenomenal. Many residents require total assistance for every bodily need: feeding, dressing, cleaning, etc. A core group of sisters — aided by some volunteers from France and a number of aspirants of their community — give a heroic example of what serving others is all about. We were especially touched by the aspirants, girls 18 to 20 years old who would accept this most demanding work as a foretaste of a possible religious vocation, and do it so lovingly. What an example for some of our young people!
On the same huge campus, we next visited the Grace Home, which accepts children and adults stricken with H.I.V./AIDS. We focused our attention on the children who are victims of this disease. They greeted us with song at the door of their “Home.” They were cherubic in their welcoming and demonstrated to us why the name “Grace Home” is so appropriate. The care given by the sisters and others creates an environment of God’s grace, which overflows with joy and happiness, even though some of these little ones might not endure the ravages of this disease.
Credit must be given to the archbishop of Trichur, to Father Joshi Aloor, the director of the entire facility, and to his assistant, Father Johnston. They, along with the Nirmala Sisters who serve on this large campus of loving care, do an amazing job of bringing Christ to those with these special needs.
From here we headed to Mary Martha Syro-Malabar Major Seminary. There are currently 136 seminarians studying at this seminary, about 40 percent of whom are from the Archeparchy, and the others represent many of the other Syro-Malabar eparchies and a few religious congregations. We did not get to visit with the seminarians, as they were involved in studying for their exams later that day. We were content to have a lovely lunch with the administration, faculty and a special guest, the archbishop.
A nice break was our next pastoral visit to the Congregation of Samaritan Sisters Generalate, where we were warmly greeted at the main entrance by Mother Rose Cornelia and the Mistress of Novices, Sister Sophia. With them were all the sisters living there, plus the very happy and smiling novices dressed in their lovely white saris and a contingent of about 20 postulants and aspirants.
We were lead into the chapel for a brief prayer and then on to a meeting hall, where Mother Cornelia formally greeted us and gave us some welcoming gifts. This was followed by a beautiful program performed by the aspirants, postulants and novices. They presented a program of dances, mime, recited verse and song. What a spirited bunch of young women, exuding such happiness, joy and poise! We were delighted to be entertained by these future sisters.
After some refreshments — and some storytelling by yours truly — we bid our farewell to all the smiling sisters and candidates, who all accompanied us to our vehicle. I promised to come back and spend more time with them. They expressed their loving gratitude to all of you for your ongoing support in prayer and gifts. They promised you their prayers.
Next on our schedule was St. Anne’s Orphanage, also in Trichur. This is a large institution with about 130 girls, which, like all the other institutions and programs we visited this day, is subsidized by CNEWA. This facility is directed by Father Laurence Thaikkattil and is serviced by the Carmelite Sisters, with Sister Rita Grace, C.M.C., as the superior.
Here, too, we had a surprise welcome of cheers, smiles and raised arms from all the girls lined up in the hidden passageway at the entrance of the orphanage. They certainly made the three of us feel at home.
We headed into a meeting hall where we were formally greeted by Father Laurence and given bouquets of flowers by some of the smallest children in the program. Then we were treated to some amazing dancing by the children. Their intricate steps, coupled with their obvious pride in entertaining, were infectious.
After the program, I was privileged to address — or should I say entertain — all 136 of these sweethearts. They were so happy, their smiles were overwhelming. Even though they were also studying for their exams, they gave all their loving attention to us and brought joy to each of us. After a little repast with the sisters, we headed out to our next and last stop of the day.
We arrived at St. Christina’s Home, a place for unwed mothers and newborns, along with unwanted babies and children. This home is also run by the Archeparchy of Trichur and is directed by Father Paul Neelankavil. Sister Chinnamma, a Nirmala Dasi sister, serves as the superior. A beaming group of youngsters warmly greeted us at the entrance. This facility also accepts adult women who have been disowned by their families and would otherwise live on the street.
Father Paul brought a little girl to meet us, held lovingly in his arms. He explained that she had been “dropped off” only two hours earlier. With big eyes fixed on this strange visitor from America, this little one offered us a huge smile. That said it all. God bless the little ones.
Father Paul then took us to the newborn nursery where some of the babies were being nursed and held by their mothers. Since there is often a great social stigma in being an unwed mother, the mothers often leave these infants with the sisters after delivery. From this area of the facility, babies move to the intermediate nursery, where little girls from 6 months to 2 years are housed. The goal is to place as many as possible in adoptive homes, and this institution has an enviable record in the placement of these children. This particular group made us melt — they were so affectionate, looking for us to hold each and every one of them. The care given them by the sisters is amazing.
Our visit ended with a number of the children walking us to our vehicle for a final loving goodbye.
It was a very long and memorable day. There was the reality of much suffering and many sorrowful stories. But there was always joy, love and hope on the faces of everyone, and especially with these most blessed visitors.
You were there with me and are remembered by all the children, all the specially challenged, the abandoned, the many sisters giving loving service to the poor, the priests. After all, they are your family.
God bless all of you.
5 March 2012
Tags: India Msgr. John E. Kozar Orphans/Orphanages Seminarians HIV/AIDS
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Msgr. Kozar visits an orphanage run by the Bethany Sisters. (photo: CNEWA India)
Day 7, 5 March 2012
Today, we shifted gears and directed the focus to the staff of our regional office in Ernakulam, which is a city in Kerala of about three million people and very historic, especially in terms of the Christian faith. This is the seat of the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Mar George Cardinal Alencherry. We will have a visit with him in a few days, as he prepares to convene a synodal meeting with all his bishops of this church of four million souls. Since Cardinal George did me the honor of visiting me in New York several months ago, I am honored to be able to repay the visit.
However, today we focused our attention on the wonderful men and women who staff our office here in Ernakulam. It is the largest office in many ways: in the number of employees as well as the number of projects, institutions, programs and individuals directly assisted by CNEWA. The office primarily serves the two very dynamic Eastern Catholic churches in India, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara churches, but the staff has also reached out to the other non-Catholic Eastern churches, which also include several million people.
My first surprise was the location of the office of CNEWA, as it is strategically located on the campus of the Syro-Malabar Archiepiscopal Curia. This is a large, impressive hilltop property just outside the city of historic Cochin (also referred to as Ernakulam). After making a turn just before reaching the top of the hill, we arrived at an unusually-designed building that houses the CNEWA offices. The design of the building was very creatively conceived by Thomas Varghese when he previously served as the regional director of this office and basically started from scratch. He and his team of architects and builders have assembled a very beautiful multilevel office structure that is bright, comfortable and very efficient in use of space and design.
But the best part of this CNEWA office is the lovely family-like staff who serves here. Their professionalism, as obvious as it appears, is second to the warm hearts and the genuine dedication of these hard working men and women.
Naturally, there was some apprehension as I entered. After all, the new big boss was now in the office for the day of reckoning and accompanied by the previous regional director. So how did they react to the new president of CNEWA? You would have to ask them, of course, what they thought of me as the new boss, but I can tell you they were very warm and welcoming. I felt right at home with each and every one of them. I shared with my thoughts that, despite being separated by time differences and continents, we are one family in CNEWA and I thanked them for the amazing work they do. By the way, they were obviously joyful in having Thomas “back home” with them.
What impresses me about the work of this dedicated staff is the sheer scope of the outreach done through them. The office cares for tens of thousands of orphans or needy children living in homes associated with CNEWA’s sponsorship programs; thousands of school-age children receive educational subsidies; thousands of the abandoned elderly, the feeble, the sick, the dying are lovingly tended to with dignity and grace; homes are built for the poor; water is retained for farmers and families; generations of young men have been formed to serve the Lord as priests (and I have visited already with many of them) as well as generations of women who have entered religious life; churches, parish halls, convents, rectories all built with your prayers and support! All of this is coordinated, visited, reviewed, distributed and reported on by this talented family team of CNEWA. I expressed to all of them, not just my profound thanks for all they do, but I also included you in my expressions of thanks.
Our host for my entire pastoral visit is Mr. M.L. Thomas, who has been a loyal member of the CNEWA team since the office was opened in Ernakulam some nine years ago. He does an exceptional job in directing all these efforts in India. He is very well respected by bishops, priests, sisters and all the people responsible for administering the programs and institutions of these dynamic churches. He is most highly regarded by his staff. And, in this regard, he follows so well in the footsteps of his predecessor Thomas Varghese.
I did not even realize it, but as large as the office outreach is today, until only nine years ago the processing of the needs and distributions was handled by the papal nuncio to India. With all the other responsibilities of a nuncio, it was not possible for him to give the necessary attention to the mountains of details as is the case today. So the office was initiated by Thomas and my predecessor, Msgr. Stern, to accommodate the many needs of administration on behalf of CNEWA
Imagine the volume of visits and communications needed to serve thousands of institutions and programs. The India regional office does an amazing job in reaching out to the poor. And that should make all of you reading this feel really good. Your charity and your prayers are working and bringing about some amazing results in the name of the church and on behalf of our Holy Father.
I invited, or rather I should say that M. L. (as he is commonly called) invited, all of the staff to join me for a lovely lunch at a restaurant. It was a happy occasion and I was delighted to get to know everyone and to see them hungry and happy — just what a family gathering and meal should be.
After lunch, I visited a tailor, well known to countless bishops and priests for making cassocks for their everyday use. All priests and bishops here dress in a white cassock and for future visits I, too, want to be properly dressed, so I am having some cassocks made by this gentleman. I will also wear them in other hot climate zones, all over India and beyond.
It was a gentle day and a very fulfilling one to be with my India regional office family. They all expressed their loving best wishes to you and their thanks for all the charitable good works made possible by your gifts and effected by their labors. God bless you for giving such dignity to so many of the poorest of the poor in India. Your presence with me is felt by so many here in India.
5 March 2012
Tags: India Msgr. John E. Kozar
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Day 6, 4 March 2012
Our schedule for today featured just one pastoral visit, but it was one filled with great content and meaning.
We arrived a little after 6 a.m. at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Apostolic Seminary in Kottayam. Waiting in front of the seminary was the rector, Father Alex Taramangalam. It was still dark and he walked us inside to meet with the priest in charge of liturgy, with some sisters who brought a choir of girls, and with some priests who would concelebrate with me. I had the privilege of celebrating the liturgy in this Syro-Malabar Seminary in the Latin rite, complete with English and Latin sung parts of the Mass.
While we were going over preparations for the Mass, the seminarians were chanting together the morning prayer of the church in their distinct style and their own beautiful local Malayalam language. Father Alex pointed out to me one portion of their morning prayer was for all their benefactors, which includes all our CNEWA family.
My first impression as I processed to the altar was the size of the chapel filled with smiling seminarians, about 300 of them, a mix of those at the philosophy level, theology level and about 35 seeking advanced degrees in Theology and Scripture. What an uplifting feeling to know that God has blessed the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church with so many priestly vocations.
This seminary is one of three Syro-Malabar synodal seminaries, not the oldest (as it is presently celebrating its golden anniversary), but it has the largest student body.
Back to the liturgy ... It was very humbling and much appreciated that all the seminarians had copies of all the responses to the newly promulgated Latin rite Mass and were fully in sync with every detail of the liturgy. I think they may have been more comfortable with this rite than so many of our faithful at home still coming to grips with changes put in place since last Advent. And they even sang some responses in Latin.
You might not appreciate what an honor it was for me to celebrate with these seminarians in my own rite. The Syro-Malabar liturgy is filled with so much reverence and inspires me to be a better celebrant in my own liturgical norm. I am grateful to all of them for this.
At the end of Mass, Father Alex gave a glowing introduction of me, especially noting how CNEWA has accompanied the seminarians for many years on the road to priesthood. I cannot remember the exact number, but he mentioned that this seminary has been blessed to have educated and formed about 1,600 priests giving service all over the world. In fact, in my homily I, too, highlighted the wonderful missionary charism of the Syro-Malabar Church. As with St. Thomas the Apostle, Syro-Malabar Catholics always reach out to spread the Good News of Jesus far and wide. I thanked them for continuing to answer the call to priesthood and to be faithful to their Syro-Malabar heritage.
I also shared with them after Mass about the work of CNEWA and how blessed are we to serve the needs of our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches. I told the seminarians that my role is to educate our Catholics, to animate them and to inspire them too embrace more fully our family in the East. I also assured them we will continue to accompany them as they discern God’s will.
Father Alex and his team of administrators and faculty, under the spiritual leadership of the Syro-Malabar Synod, offer the seminarians a great blend of top-notch academic theology coupled with very healthy doses of formation. The result, as I have evidenced firsthand, is a community of priests firmly rooted in their faith and ministry, and committed to give loving service in Christ’s church. You should be proud of them and take delight as their loving sponsors.
Thomas Varghese mentioned in his remarks to the seminarians how valued is the relationship between the sponsors and their seminarians and told the young men how important it is to write to their CNEWA family sponsors. They promised to remember all of you in their prayers. In fact, they sang a hymn to Our Lady at the end of our sharing in which they commended all of you to her protection.
After Mass we enjoyed a bountiful breakfast with the seminary administration, again the rector being a superlative host. All of the faculty and administration and staff, including the sisters I was fortunate to meet, made us feel most welcomed.
The final facet of our visit was a tour of the vast campus. CNEWA has had a hand in building the new library, which is “state of the art,” with an impressive reference section, a lending section, digital control system and plenty of space and plenty of books for quality research and reference. The grounds are impeccably maintained and the seminarians assist with gardening chores, general maintenance and other household tasks. There is also a very impressive museum and a special treat was to walk up several flights of stairs to a special chapel/prayer and meditation room. This simple room invites seminarians to come for private, quiet prayer at any time of day or night. A spirit of peace permeated this holy space. And how perfect it was to climb to this holy place on the Lenten Sunday when the story of the Transfiguration is read!
After our visit to St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary, we packed up our things at the Vincentian Provincial House, offered our thanks to its superior, Father George Arackal, and proceeded to Ernakulam where we would be based until our departure on 9 March.
I end this day with much hope after my energizing visit to the seminary. Whatever God’s plan is for each of them we do not know, but with certainty we can say, the church will be blessed. God bless you and keep you in his love.
5 March 2012
Tags: India Msgr. John E. Kozar
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In this 2010 image, locals living near Kerala’s Idukki Dam, the largest of its kind in Asia, collect water at a well. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
Day 5, 3 March 2012
Today was a full day of pastoral visits. Some were very poignant and all were important in terms of our being present with the poor.
We began very early in the morning and arrived in the hill country of the Eparchy of Kanjirappally, which numbers some 204,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics. At the eparchial pastoral center, we were welcomed by Father Matthew Paikat, the vicar general, who also conveyed the best wishes of the bishop, who was out of the country.
After a delightful breakfast with Father Matthew and several other officials, we headed out, led by the vicar general, who insisted I ride with him. This afforded me an opportunity to learn about this eparchy and its many outreaches to the poor. Father Matthew highlighted how CNEWA has been a most significant supporter since the eparchy was founded in 1977.
About an hour later we arrived at the flourishing mountainside parish of St. Thomas, in Kanamala. What an amazing reception: A marching band of beautiful special needs youngsters and young adults, several hundred children, their parents and the elders of the parish, all lined up in a receiving line. There were many huge Indian umbrellas held by the women and hoisted high while twirling them to welcome the three of us. Thomas Varghese, M.L. Thomas and I were swept away by this welcome.
They led us to the beat of the marching band to the church, where we entered to say a prayer, and then on to the humble parish hall, which was packed. The welcoming continued in the form of remarks from Father Matthew, who spoke on behalf of the bishop and expressed profound thanks to CNEWA for the many facets of assistance given to this parish. Then the pastor gave a very emotional welcome to us and also highlighted the many expressions of solidarity from CNEWA from the parish’s beginning. Then came some young people who did some amazing dancing: a combination of intricate classical Indian dances and a little bit of Bollywood. They put their heart and soul into the performance.
Besides construction projects and renovations at the parish proper, CNEWA has been instrumental in helping the people of this parish to improve the quality of life by assisting in the building of substantial houses and water holding tanks. The area is very mountainous. Normally the rains come with great force and cause annual flooding, mudslides and loss of soil. With the water tanks, they now can break out of the cycle of being inundated by floods or suffering from drought.
After a most moving and loving visit with the parishioners at the church hall, we headed out with the pastor to a much more remote area of the parish. We saw firsthand the dynamic difference a new durable house can make for the poor and how having a controlled supply of water gives the cycle of life new meaning. We had some very steep climbs to arrive at these sites, but the recipients of our charity were beaming to show us their new homes and their water catchment systems. Thanks to you for giving them this new dignity through your kind donations over the years! CNEWA has funded over 40 such water tanks just in 2011 alone. Over the years, hundreds of families have benefitted from CNEWA’s water tanks in this part of India. (To learn more, click here.)
A note about these wonderful people: About a hundred years ago, this group of people — already fiercely loyal to the Syro-Malabar Church — arrived in this heavily-forested mountainous terrain. They brought with them skills in farming and settled in what others thought was impenetrable terrain. They also brought with them their faith, even before priests and sisters could accompany them. The community has done reasonably well, sustained by their faith and their talents, even in difficult times.
From this cherished parish visit, we headed to St. Joseph Orphanage in Kannimala, directed by the Sisters of Charity. This is a relatively small orphanage with about 50 girls, but the environment is loving, thanks to the leadership of Sister Shiny C.S.C., and the others sisters working with her. I was overwhelmed with the cleanliness of this facility. They should get an award! The sisters stress with the girls the importance of cleanliness and good order. You would have been amazed at how neat they kept their dormitories, the eating facilities and the laundry area (the girls do their own laundry).
We enjoyed a brief dancing program presented by some of the girls, who had the poise of young ladies. The girls listened to Thomas Varghese and M.L. Thomas, who shared some beautiful thoughts with them, especially how their sponsors love them very much. Thomas even referred to those of you sponsors as their “aunties” and “uncles.” I was very proud of both of them, as team members of our CNEWA family. The children all send you their love and promised their prayers for you, their aunties and uncles.
From the orphanage we headed to the town of Palai, which is famous for the incredible number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life that have come one parish there. Over 145 priests have been ordained from this parish and many bishops have grown up here, of whom I have met a number.
But the purpose of this visit was to experience the very large Palai Girls Town, run by the Snehagiri Missionary Sisters, a community founded in 1969 that already counts 500 professed sisters.
Guess what kind of welcoming reception greeted us as we entered the rather large compound: A large, beautifully bedecked marching band made up of about 35 girls who live at this orphanage. They led us into a large and immaculately clean auditorium where we were given the ceremonial bouquet of flowers. A special treat of this visit was to meet the founder of the congregation, Father Abraham, and the sisters’ superior general, Mother Virmala. Father Abraham is 98 years old and is still sharp in mind, albeit limited in mobility. What an honor to be in his presence!
The girls also presented some absolutely professional-grade dancing entertainment. They were dressed in classical Indian garb, displaying intricate moves, and were well disciplined in their every move. The superior told me they have won a number of competitions. There are about 175 girls at this institution and CNEWA has been a major donor in support of the wonderful programs offered to the girls. In many of these “orphanages,” the girls are not necessarily orphans in the traditional sense, but are nonetheless in need of some type of support. Some have lost a parent; others have parents who cannot care for them. Some have been abandoned; others have parents too involved with caring for the ills of another family member.
We were tired after much travel, some emotionally-packed visits with the poor, high energy events in a thriving mountain parish and joy-filled experiences with God’s little ones.
After a dinner with some of our Vincentian hosts, we returned to the Provincial House for a good night of sleep. CNEWA and its extended family are blessed to be remembered by the poor in India. The children will remember you in their night prayers tonight and countless others will pray for you daily. You are all loved and before I turn out the lights (or perhaps the familiar power outage will do it for me), I, too, promise to remember you in my prayers.
2 March 2012
Tags: India Msgr. John E. Kozar Orphans/Orphanages Indian Christians
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In this photo taken in 2007, Tomy and Elsama Runnanthanamy are seen by their family’s hut. Thanks to a house building project funded by CNEWA and implemented by Diocese of Kottayam Social Services in villages of Wayanad district, Kerala, they were able to move out of their house.
(photo: Sean Sprague)
Day 4, 2 March 2012
Today, Thomas and I traveled to the outback, to areas deep in the south Indian countryside. Since CNEWA has been involved in a number of projects here, I was very happy to make this visit.
We arrived very early in the morning at the hilltop parish of St. Mary, a Syro-Malankara Catholic church in the village of Podiyattuvila. We were surprisingly met and greeted by the parish priest, and a delegation of some 50 parishioners. Our purpose was to review the construction work being done to replace the previous church that was almost completely destroyed by fire in late 2010.
It was delightful to see the church under construction and to see the pride in the eyes of the parishioners who led us on a tour of the construction site. It was obvious that this was a dream being fulfilled. And how they shared with me their gratitude — many times over — of how CNEWA was such an important partner in helping this dream to be realized.
Father Stephen, who is the parish priest, told us that the parish includes 100 families — all of whom attend the Sunday Divine Liturgy, which is presently held in a temporary hall. Additionally, daily liturgy is well attended and there are parish activities every day. A personal highlight for me was the singing of some of the Malankara hymns in Malayalam rendered by the women of the parish.
After a variety of photo opportunities and a light repast, we bid our host a fond farewell and I assured them I would return someday to concelebrate a liturgy in their beautiful new church.
Only a few kilometers away, but on an unmarked road, we were led by one of the priests to a mountainous area that has no community name, no zip code and no street address. In fact, our vehicle could only go so far and then we had to walk the rest of the way. Our purpose in this visit was to offer our solidarity and support to the poorest of the poor for whom we are helping in the construction of homes. By the way, these people are of the Dalit group, which means they are the so-called “untouchables” in India’s illegal but powerful caste system.
The project of building these homes is a combined effort of CNEWA, the Indian government and the parish outreach; in some instances, a very modest share is borne by the poor themselves. To understand the contrasts between the hovels in which these dalits live to the beauty and dignity as witnessed in the homes under construction is impossible. One mother showed us her one-room shanty — that housed five people — that was about the size of a small bathroom in Canada or the states. Even though her new home is still under construction, and very rough in appearance, she beamed with pride as she took us through the modest dwelling.
We had the good fortune to visit with two other families whose new homes are under construction. We were accompanied visit by two priests, who related very comfortably and beautifully with these, the poorest of the poor. On your behalf, I accepted the heartfelt and emotional expressions of gratitude for the generosity of CNEWA in giving these supposed “untouchables” dignity of life for the first time in their lives.
These visits were perhaps the high point in my visit so far as they reflected so well the best efforts of CNEWA in reaching out to the poor in this part of the world.
Following this full morning of activities, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and proceeded to our base of operations for the next few days, the Vincentian Provincial House in the city of Kottayam. Since I had visited here as a guest early last year in my previous job with the Propagation of the Faith, I felt very much at home being greeted by the provincial and dear friend, Father George Arackal.
After settling in and unpacking, we enjoyed a brief rest at the provincial house and the customary break for tea. We then traveled to Changanacherry to participate in the completion of a “Popular Mission Retreat.” As Father George explained, a popular mission is the culmination of one week of dynamic preaching and catechesis in a given parish. The closing of this popular mission happened to be in the cathedral parish, the largest parish, in the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Changanacherry. The parish was divided into ten centers and a team of 33 Vincentian fathers prepared the people for this solemn closing event.
If you can imagine: There were 10,000 people who solemnly processed from various parts of the city and arrived in an amphitheater setting in front of the cathedral. I was privileged to sit in a seat of honor next to the archbishop and to offer a word of greeting from all of you. Something that really impressed me was the tremendous variety of participants in the closing ceremony. There were thousands of little children, young people, parents and very many old people. All of them responded with great energy and vigor at the charismatic style of program that was shared with them. The ceremony lasted over three hours and I was tired just watching the energy of the participants in a very hot and muggy environment.
Although we had to hurry to return because of the huge traffic, I was very touched by so many people, especially mothers, who ran up to me to receive my blessing and to receive a blessing for their small children. As a priest, it was a special moment and a satisfying reminder of my vocation.
It is very late and it has been a tiring, but most fulfilling day. I especially remind you of the power of the prayers of the poor; that power was evident to me at every turn. May God bless you and may He bless the poor.
1 March 2012
Tags: India CNEWA Msgr. John E. Kozar
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In this photo taken in 1998, novices of the Bethany community prepare food at their residence near Kottayam, India. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Day 3, 1 March 2012
Early this morning we left Trivandrum for the town of Marthandam in the state of Tamil Nadu. There we joined Vincent Mar Paulose, the Syro-Malankara Catholic bishop, for a delightful breakfast. Mar Paulose had honored us with a visit during a recent trip to the states, so I looked forward to spending some time with him on this pastoral visit. He introduced us to his vicar general, who had served in Philadelphia for a few years, and also four deacons who are anxiously awaiting their day of ordination in the middle of April. By the way, these deacons specifically asked of you, the CNEWA family, for your prayers as they approach this momentous day.
After our breakfast, Mar Paulose gave us a thumbnail sketch of his eparchy, which is relatively young and began with no Catholics. He also shared with us that his priests are very young and he is blessed with more than 50 seminarians, and expressed profound thanks to the CNEWA family for our sustained assistance in support of seminarians, needy children and many other outreaches. He ended our visit by promising to remember all of you in his prayers.
One of the highlights of the day followed when we visited Vimala Orphanage. Here, we were warmly greeted by the house superior, Sister Rose Francis, and the house director, Sister Savio, and a bevy of beautiful young girls. Sisters led us inside where about a 140 girls — all orphans or abandoned and neglected — were assembled to greet us. This contingent of smiling girls represented three different orphanages, all of which are directed by the Daughters of Mary.
The main feature of our visit was to be entertained with songs and dances by these very special children. Their intricate hand and foot motions, their obvious delight in sharing their gifts with us and their genuine happiness overwhelmed me. The simplicity and the sincerity and the faith of these children were an inspiration to all of us.
After the entertainment, I had the privilege to chat with the girls. I shared with them a very simple message: That each one of them is a part of God’s family and that God loves each and every one of them as he loves children everywhere. I further shared with them that they have family in North America, in Canada and the United States, members of the CNEWA family who lovingly support them. Some of them even referred to you as their aunties and uncles to whom they have written. Please know how much they love you and how they promise to remember you in their prayers.
After completing a tour of the facilities, which included a visit to a beautiful museum dedicated to their founders, we departed for Thiruvithancode, where we visited the famous “half church” built by St. Thomas the Apostle. This was a very interesting visit and its history extends to the year A.D. 63, when according to tradition the doubting apostle built this edifice. After many years of change of administration, it is presently being well maintained by the Syriac Malankara Orthodox Church.
Our next stop was to join the Daughters of Mary in Pilankalai, where they run a home for the physically and mentally challenged. We stopped for lunch and a brief tour. The sisters went all out to make us welcome and to remove any hint of hunger on our part.
After driving for nearly two hours, we arrived in Kanyakumari at St. Joseph’s Balika Bhavan to be greeted by the Bethany Sisters, formerly known as the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, and a delegation of the orphaned girls who reside there. These lovely girls also had prepared an entertainment program for us of song and dance. Their poise and their skills in every facet of this entertainment were very enriching. Afterward, we spoke about me, my role at CNEWA, the work of CNEWA and their important role in the future of India. Here again, I stressed with them that each one is special in God’s eyes and I also reminded them of God’s call to do something special for him and his people.
The girls then insisted on leading us by hand to show us their residence. They were very proud to show us their dining room, their kitchen and their laundry facilities — with great pride they spoke of being part of St. Joseph’s Balika Bhavan. As I found out later, some of these girls are the children have Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy. And although their parents are cared for at another Catholic institution, they themselves are not able to live with their parents.
Less than a mile away we paid a visit to Stella Maris Social Center, which is administrated by Sister Anila Christy of the Daughters of Mary. Sister Anila is no stranger to CNEWA or to New York as she served in the Archdiocese of New York and its chancery and canon law offices for a number of years. This humble woman, well educated in canon law, is at her best working with the poor.
Sister Anila and her colleague, Sister Monica, who is the former mother general of the Daughters of Mary, welcomed us and introduced us to two other sisters working at Stella Maris. After our fifth coffee break of the day (!), we were taken on a tour of the rather extensive campus. The sisters’ outreach includes community development, programs to empower women, care for people with Hansen’s disease, housing for abandoned people, vocational training and even a piggery, where the animals are sold for income. Being introduced to a group of women in training to be community leaders, it was obvious that they had great respect appreciation and admiration for Sister Anila. We certainly look forward to see Sister Anila again, and she has promised to visit us at our offices in New York this summer.
Much emphasis today was related to God’s little ones, especially those who are orphans. I share with you again their profound thanks for your sponsorship and support and their promise of prayers for each of you. As I end this day, which has been a very long one, I say a prayer of thanks for having been blessed to be in the presence of these children. May God allow us to be like them.
29 February 2012
Tags: India Sisters Orphans/Orphanages Indian Christians Thomas Christians
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In this image from 2005, Syro-Malankara parishioners process to their new village church. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Day One, 28 February
It is a personal pleasure to welcome all of you, our CNEWA family, to join me on this pastoral visit to southern India. Accompanying me on this journey is Thomas Varghese, who as a vice president in New York oversees CNEWA operations in India. He previously served as the regional director here, so he brings great knowledge and insight on this visit.
After a 35-hour trip, we arrived safely in the city of Trivandrum, where we were warmly greeted by our host M.L. Thomas, commonly called ML. Also welcoming us was another member of ML’s staff in Ernakulam, Eby Joy, who will serve as our driver and assistant for the duration of the visit.
From the airport, and to my surprise, we traveled “traffic free” to the residence and chancery of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Archeparchy of Trivandrum. The reason we had no traffic was a national strike, not an arrangement made by ML with government authorities as I would have thought it.
We were very cordially welcomed by His Beatitude, Baselios Mar Cleemis, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which is one of the Eastern churches in full communion with the Holy Father. Concerned about the rigors of our travels, he immediately invited us to have tea with him and to meet his chancery officials. All were most welcoming to Thomas and myself.
Following lunch with Mar Cleemis, we had a wonderful quality visit with him, in which he illumined me about with the missionary thrust of the Syro-Malankara Church. I was particularly moved when he explained how the Syro-Malankara Church reaches out to the dalits — “the untouchables” — and to the Nadar Catholics, “those who have converted to Christianity.” These two groups, as he explained, are basically rejected in society and receive nothing from the government because of their embrace of the Gospel.
Mar Cleemis said something that really resonated with me: “In the Syro-Malankara Church, we may never fulfill our own needs, but as we wait to do so, we reach out to help others.” He shared with me the missionary presence of Syro-Malankara priests and sisters working in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, the Emirates — in Ethiopia and even in my own country. What a wonderful way to initiate our visit, walking in the missionary foot steps of St. Thomas.
Following our visit with the major archbishop, we traveled to St. Mary’s Major Seminary, where we were greeted by the rector, Father John Kochuthindil. Father John prepared for our visit by giving the seminarians the day off from classes and exams so they might be more relaxed to enjoy pastoral visit. I was very impressed with this gesture of welcome to this, the seminary responsible for the formation of Syro-Malankara Catholic priests.
The highlight and the honor of this visit was to celebrate a Latin Rite Mass in English with the seminary community. Although this is not their traditional liturgical practice, I was taken with their wonderful participation in the liturgy. And part of the honor was also to preach to the seminary community.
Following the liturgy, I engaged all seminarians in an exchange in which they could ask questions about me and the work of CNEWA. Father John had introduced me for this segment by giving them a rather complete biography of myself and the many facets of the work done by CNEWA. A prominent feature in his remarks was to thank all of you, friends and benefactors in the CNEWA family. The seminarians, too, expressed their profound gratitude to you and to CNEWA, acknowledging the importance of our sponsorship in their lives.
Thomas, ML and I were then invited to join all of the seminarians and staff for dinner. It was very touching to me to see how warmly all of the seminarians relate to each other and to the administration and faculty. I had an opportunity to greet each one of the 149 seminarians and I can share with you that as seminarians everywhere, they were very good eaters.
Finishing our seminary visit, we made the trip back to the residence of our host, Baselios Mar Cleemis, where shortly after arrival we were delighted to have our first night of sleep in several days. Before ending the day, I offered a prayer for each of you and thanked God for his kindness and asked that we be kept safe as we trace these missionary footsteps of St. Thomas.
Day Two, 29 February
After a plentiful breakfast and more wonderful conversation with the major archbishop and his chancery officials, we headed out to the mother house of the Daughters of Mary, one of the larger congregations of women religious in the Trivandrum Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
Waiting at the doorway was our host, Mother Roselin, D.M., the superior of the community. After a coffee with Mother and other council members, she proceeded to give us a mini tour of the facility and to introduce us to a lovely, smiling group of novices, postulants and aspirants — about 50 in total. The joy and happiness of these young girls and sisters was infectious. They greeted us with songs and kind expressions of welcome. And I was invited to share with them about my own life and the work of CNEWA.
Our visit with the novices was a special feature in that they were just completing a 40-day retreat in immediate preparation for taking their vows. I kidded them and told them their halos were very bright as they were on retreat for so many days. They made a point of thanking all of you for assisting them in their journey to become religious sisters. They also asked for your prayers as they approach this significant turning point in their lives.
It was a delight for me to hug all of the sisters as an expression of your love for them and to receive from them the warm glow of their smiles. In my remarks, I told them that they are part of our family and I was visiting with them to share the love and the support of all of you as I proceeded in this pastoral visit.
Mother Roselin took us to the oratory, where she explained that sisters come for seven days of silent prayer as an important form of personal renewal. From the more than 1057 sisters in the community, there were always groups praying in this oratory. Even outside there were some shrines where the sisters could partake in prayer even in the night time. With the power of such prayerful sisters, we are blessed in having them as a part of our family.
The sisters made a strong petition to me personally that I would return on a future day, and I assured them I would. Again, they assured me of their prayers in gratitude for all that you do.
After another full lunch with the chancery staff, Mar Cleemis gave me a gift as an expression of his thanks for the work of CNEWA. I offered my personal thanks and the thanks from our entire CNEWA family to the major archbishop and for his leadership of the Syro-Malankara Church.
We then headed about 45 minutes outside of Trivandrum, through lands filled with coconut plantations to visit the parish mission of St. Mary at Plankeezhu. Located about two miles off the main road, I was very surprised to be greeted warmly by several hundred people who welcomed the major archbishop and me and led us in procession about 200 yards to the actual mission church. The reason for welcoming was to bless the newly renovated chapel. Although there are only 20 families in the parish, the spirit, enthusiasm and faith of the people was very evident.
Baselios Mar Cleemis led the people in many prayers and chants, calling upon God’s blessings for this lovely sanctuary. In his remarks to the congregation, he again thanked CNEWA for its continued assistance. On your behalf, I expressed our mutual love for all the people here and assured them of our continued prayers.
One image that remained in my mind was the sight of an elderly woman who approached the archbishop for his personal blessing. Prior to receiving his blessing, she pulled from her side a piece of cloth, very neatly folded. Upon opening it, she took 100 rupees and placed it in a donation container on a table. She, as well as all of the participants in the blessing ceremony, were very poor and most of them work as day laborers, performing menial jobs. But in every instance, the same people made a donation to their parish as an expression of their faith. What a beautiful reminder of how our Lord has asked us to give in our need.
More than a mile away, we entered the grounds of a very large complex run by the Syro-Malankara Church, which includes a general hospital for the poor, a facility for people with H.I.V. and AIDS, a facility for the treatment of leprosy and a parish church. The highlight of this visit was an entertainment program provided by the children who are H.I.V.-positive. As such, they are outcast in society, in schools and sometimes even in their families. Most of them are either orphans or have been abandoned by their extended families. These wonderfully loving children presented some songs and dances for Baselios Mar Cleemis and me, and for the many parishioners and workers who were also present. Their dancing was superb, but there was one star to be sure: A four-year-old boy who demonstrated an amazing sense of poise by trying to dance along with the older boys and girls. His attempts to imitate them brought warm laughter and applause from everyone. When the program was finished, I hoisted him high in the air so that all might give him a proper acclaim.
Arriving during the entertainment program, and visiting with us afterwards, was Bishop Joshua Mar Ignathios of Mavelikara. He has been a regular visitor to the CNEWA office in New York and expressed his thanks to Monsignor Stern and to all of you for your abiding support. He also shared with us the exciting missionary dimension of his eparchy and how many people have been received into the Catholic faith, especially because of the great social works done by the church, as evidenced here at the St. John’s Health Centre. We assured the good bishop of our sustaining support especially in the form of our prayers.
After a very long day, and a number of electrical outages, we arrived home and ready for bed. Before retiring, I commend all of you to the Lord and ask that he fill you with his love and peace.
28 December 2011
Tags: India Msgr. John E. Kozar Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Indian Christians HIV/AIDS
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Msgr. John Kozar (left) meets President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas (center) at a reception hosted by the Franciscans in Bethlehem. (photo: CNEWA)
Christmas Eve in the Holy Land began with a visit to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Archbishop Fouad Twal, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, and Msgr. William Shomali, the patriarch’s auxiliary bishop, hosted a brief reception, which included Father Guido, several chancery officials and myself.
During the reception, Patriarch Fouad politely warned me: “There will be many more such receptions today, so pace yourself on Arabic coffee and sweets.” It was good advice, as I had already experienced the remarkable hospitality of the Holy Land’s residents over the past three weeks. Everyone serves coffee or liqueur with chocolates or cookies.
Patriarch Fouad then treated us (about eight in total) to a lovely lunch, during which we engaged in pleasant conversation. Afterward, we headed to a reception hall, where the patriarch greeted about 150 parishioners and a huge contingent from the press corps. On behalf of all present, the parish elder formally greeted Patriarch Fouad. I had the honor of standing beside the patriarch, personally greeting each member of the delegation.
After this event, it was time to get the “procession” in order for Bethlehem. Procession, here, means about 50 cars in Jerusalem and another 100 cars, chauffeuring local dignitaries and elders, which joined the cortege along the route to Bethlehem. I had the privilege to ride in the second car, immediately behind the one driving Patriarch Fouad.
Military and police vehicles escorted the procession, which departed from Jerusalem’s Old City. The traffic in Jerusalem was blocked at all intersections, allowing us to crawl toward the city’s limits. I say “crawl” because there were so many cars in the motorcade that it moved very slowly.
On the way to Bethlehem, we made several stops, where Patriarch Fouad greeted elders and parishioners. Again, I was honored to greet them alongside the patriarch.
Once inside the city of Bethlehem, more cars joined the procession. As we arrived in the city’s center, we had to stop many times to allow the thousands of boy and girl scouts with colorful flags and band instruments to enter and lead the procession.
Bethlehem’s streets were jammed with people — Christians and Muslims alike — who came out to watch the procession and celebrate Christmas. Local authorities estimated that more than 100,000 people came to Bethlehem for the holiday.
The mood among the crowd was very warm and welcoming. People smiled and waved at us as we passed them in our cars; some asked for our blessings. The patriarch was a popular attraction and he often opened his window to invite people to come closer for a photo or a warm handshake.
The crowd was very mixed: Bethlehem residents and pilgrims from all over the world; elderly and hordes of young people; shoppers and merchants. One sight that caught my eye: Four young men in their twenties, locals I presume, sat in front of a little cafe, smoking a hookah pipe. As our motorcade passed, two of them made a reverent Sign of the Cross with the pipe’s mouthpieces.
We finally arrived in Manger Square at about 3 p.m. (about one and a half hours late), where tens of thousands of people and hundreds of members of the media gathered. Everyone surged to greet the patriarch and his entourage. The police and clergy in charge did their best to open a small lane for us to enter the Basilica of the Nativity.
Inside the basilica, leaders from the other local Catholic and Orthodox churches as well as members of the Muslim community greeted the patriarch.
I must tell you: the local hierarchy had me all dressed up as an honorary canon of the patriarchate. I had on my monsignor’s cassock and sash, over which I was asked to put on a very finely woven surplice with red sleeves and much lace. As the coup de grace, I wore a rabbit fur shoulder cape and an accompanying purple sash and hood. Never having worn such an outfit, I needed Msgr. Shomali’s help to vest properly.
About an hour later, we participated in a ritual, which included a brief visit to the grottos underneath the main basilica. I cautiously hunched over to enter the steep, low-ceilinged entry of the crypt and visit its four ancient altars and the altar in the new church overseen by the Franciscans.
This was a very special moment for me. I was so overwhelmed by this visit to these most holy altars and spaces that, when I returned to New York, I retraced my steps with the help of some guidebooks to appreciate more fully their significance.
However, I was most touched by the famous “star,” which is embedded in the stone to designate the place where Jesus was born. How does one describe that moment? Not with words, to be sure. And the stone niche, where Jesus was laid in a manger? For a believer, it doesn’t get any better than this.
Later, Bethlehem’s Franciscan community hosted a reception and dinner. Many dignitaries attended the event, including President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas, to whom the patriarch personally introduced me. Patriarch Fouad also introduced me to Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. It was a very warm and welcoming gathering, typical of events hosted by the Franciscans.
Midnight Mass actually began at 11 p.m. with matins, the traditional early morning prayer of the church. The celebration continued with the Solemn Eucharistic Liturgy, led by the patriarch and concelebrated by seven other bishops — Latin and Eastern — along with several hundred priests. Most of the priests were foreigners, who had traveled to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas as a part of a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.
The liturgy was beautiful and the basilica was packed. Television crews from all over the world filmed the Mass. The Palestinian Authority televised it live, to feeds around the world, which I believe was a first.
I am very happy to tell you that Father Guido and I remembered all of you in our Mass intentions, especially those who sent their intentions to our office beforehand. Thanks to Bernadette Wallace, my administrative assistant, we received and brought with us all of these names and intentions.
The Mass ended about 2:15 a.m. and we retired to the adjacent Franciscan monastery for a few winks of sleep.
Early Christmas morning, Father Guido and I visited the place of our Lord’s birth, which was a very special, silent moment for me to reflect on the significance of where I was standing.
Soon after, we attended a morning Mass in Arabic — celebrated by Patriarch Fouad — along with local parishioner and many pilgrims. Again, numerous members of the media were present and the basilica was filled to capacity. People even stood outside in the rain. The Mass in Arabic was most glorious and the music, most energetic.
Afterward, I had the opportunity to meet and greet the many pilgrims and foreign workers in Bethlehem, who gathered at this cherished site to celebrate their own special Christmas. Many Sri Lankans, Indians and Filipinos asked me to have their photos taken with yours truly — in my monsignor’s cassock and red sash. They were all so happy, and delighted to know that I have visited all of their countries in my previous work with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
My visit to Bethlehem ended around noon and we returned to Jerusalem for the remainder of the day.
Shortly after midnight, Tony Za’rour, our Jerusalem office’s driver and general services associate, drove Father Guido and me to the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. We said our goodbyes and caught our flight back to New York.
Rather than add additional comments about the grandeur, splendor and overwhelming excitement of this series of pastoral visits and pilgrimages, I will let my previous reports to you say it better, each as they unraveled in rapid succession.
I am grateful to CNEWA’s Communications Department, for reviewing and editing my posts, videos and photographs and helping me share my adventures with all of you.
Thank you for joining me on my journey to the Holy Land. The CNEWA-Pontifical Mission family is truly ONE. God bless all of you and God bless the poor of the Middle East and Holy Land whom we serve.
Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal of Jerusalem conducts a blessing as he arrives at the Basilica of the Nativity for Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in Bethlehem. Msgr. Kozar stands directly behind Patriarch Fouad. (Photo: CNS/Reuters)
23 December 2011
Tags: Holy Land Jerusalem Ecumenism Pilgrimage/pilgrims Msgr. John E. Kozar
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Our final day of pastoral visiting and pilgrimage began in a most special way: Father Guido arranged for us to celebrate Mass at the Mount of Calvary located in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. It was a cherished moment for me to know that over this very location Our Lord was crucified. There were some pilgrims who joined us for the Mass and it was obvious in their faces how they, too, were so much in awe of the moment.
From there, we proceeded to pay a visit to the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Antonio Franco. We enjoyed a very animated discussion with him and he was most cordial in extending to me his best wishes in my new role as President of CNEWA. He shared with us some helpful insights on the complexities of working for the Church in an environment of conflict and tension. He said that after more than six years in Jerusalem, as the Nuncio for Israel and Palestine, he still understands only a little bit of the many problems that are part of daily life here.
After that visit, we shifted gears into the pilgrim mode, to visit some holy sites. I was blessed to have Father Guido as my guide along with Tony Zarour from the office as our driver. We visited many sites in about six hours, so I will just mention some of the highlights.
First we headed to the Dead Sea, which at 350 meters below sea level is the lowest place on earth. We saw the famous sight of people floating in the salty water. The sea has receded so much, but still maintains its beauty and health-related benefits, as evidenced by the many skin treatment products from there that are sold throughout Israel.
From the Dead Sea, we traveled to the Qumran cave. This is where a shepherd in the 1960's found ancient scrolls nestled in earthen jars that had been buried for many centuries. These famous Dead Sea Scrolls opened to the world a first-hand glimpse of life in the ancient Essene community. The geography here is breathtaking: a mountain range which has a dramatic escarpment, the view to the cave itself, and the recently excavated early community with its very sophisticated system of water storage and irrigation.
Then it was on to Jericho to visit the oldest city on earth and, like the Dead Sea, a place situated more than 300 meters below sea level.
A little gem and a favorite site for Father Guido was next on our pilgrimage: an ancient monastery named for St. George, located in a extremely remote part of the desert, between Jericho and Jerusalem, but down a deep gorge and hidden from view of the nearest road. There are just two monks living there at present and one of them has trained his donkey to go up to the nearest Bedouin village to get milk and bread. Once loaded up, the donkey is sent back down into the steep gorge with the supplies. This is a new concept in home delivery!
Then it was on to Dominus Flevit Church, built on the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem. From this spot, we had a magnificent view across the valley looking to the walled Old City.
Gethsemane was our next site, where Jesus spent his time in prayer before being arrested. Here we remembered Jesus and his agony in the garden.
Our final stop took us to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, where tradition holds that Jesus was denied by Peter and where he was also imprisoned before his crucifixion.
This is a most brief commentary on what was a very intense and memory-laden experience, too much to reflect in these few words. I was so grateful to have seen so much. I know that on successive visits here I will be able to visit more holy places, so I leave fully satisfied. I have been extremely blessed to have experienced so much of the best of the Holy Land.
(I also know that when I get home, I will enjoy reading some good guide books and reviewing some maps and relating them to the almost 3,000 photos that I have taken on this pastoral visit!)
Our day ended with a most uplifting video conference call to everyone in our office in New York. This was the third one during this pastoral visit. I was so excited to share some of my experiences with my staff. And it afforded the staff an opportunity to know much better our local director Sami El-Youssef, who gave a very impassioned reflection of what our visit meant to him, his staff and the people of Palestine and Israel.
I have the honor tomorrow (Saturday, December 24) of accompanying the Latin Patriarch to Bethlehem, where it will be my most precious privilege to concelebrate with him at the Midnight Mass at the Basilica of the Nativity built over the site where Jesus was born. You will all be remembered in my prayers during that Mass. Our special intention for the Palestinian people and all the people we have visited will be for a lasting peace.
I will share a final post with you after I return home on Monday, December 26. Until then, be blessed in Gods love. Merry Christmas. That expression means so much more to me now.
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