Sometime ago the Visitors of Spain had been invited to travel to India to celebrate the centenary of the arrival of the first missionaries of the Congregation from Spain. The distance, however, as well as scheduling difficulties, led us to delay making a decision. Finally, we decided to attend and so we departed on December 10th, accompanied by Fr. Benjamin Rayappan (Province of South India) and Frs. José Manuel Villar and Santiago Azcárate. It was a long journey but, after the lived experience, it must be affirmed that it was worth the effort.
Frs. Mathew Nayak and Anil Thomas Karackavayalil, the Visitors of India North and India South (respectively), awaited us and greeted us most cordially. During our travel, we met Father Paul Parackal (Econome General, member of the Province of India South) who had come to India in order to participate in the event. We are able to rest briefly in the Provincial House in Berhgampur before participating in the Eucharist and joining the confreres for dinner.
Sunday, December 10, was a very emotional and memorable day. We traveled to Mohana, a mountain village where Fr. Valeriano Güemes is highly esteemed by the members of the local Christians community. We celebrated the Eucharist in the town parish, adorned for the occasion and filled to overflowing (many faithful participated from the adjacent square). Bishop Varghese Thottamkara, C.M., the Bishop of Chullu, in Ethiopia, presided at the celebration and was accompanied by three other bishops, the Visitors from Spain and India as well as many other priests of the Congregation and of the various dioceses. It was an emotional, enthusiastic, and very heartfelt celebration. The people, sitting on the ground, participated through the use of gestures and the singing of hymns in the Oriya language. The Visitors were honored and had crowns placed on their heads. We traveled to the cemetery to honor the remains of Fr. Güemes and pray before his grave. People, with great simplicity and joy, came to us to touch us, asked us for a blessing, wrapped us in their love. They were very grateful for the work of the Spanish missionaries and very pleased with our presence. We had untaken this journey with an awareness of how well our missionaries had served … they had to have encountered enormous difficulties due to the terrain, the language, the poverty, the distances … but they overcame all those obstacles and left a very flourishing, joyful Christian community with simple but very deep faith. Truly amazing and admirable!
In the afternoon, at the Residence and Retreat House of the missionaries in Gopalpur-on- the-Sea, we had a provincial gathering. There was a video on the history of the Congregation in India that began with the arrival of the first missionaries. The abundance of vocations and the diversity of significant works were underlined and highlighted dedication to teaching (the two Provinces have some 20 school with more than 35,000 students). Bishop Thottamkara and the last Visitor of the then only one Province of India also spoke, extolling the work of the Spanish missionaries and the rich Vincentian heritage they left behind. In this context, we were impressed by the great affection that the members of the Congregation in India, the Daughters of Charity and the faithful people manifest to our Spanish ancestors in the mission. It must be affirmed that these individuals had to be men of great faith.
Monday, December 12, was the day set aside for the celebration of the Centennial. To do this, we move to the Missionary Formation House in Gopalpur (Aquinas College). The Archbishop of Cuttack presided at the Eucharist and was accompanied by five other Bishops, the four Visitors and almost a hundred priests (most of them members of the Congregation of the Mission). The Visitors from Northern and Southern India and many women religious were also present. Seminarians and members of other religious orders also attended. Since Father General was unable to attend, Bishop Tomás Thiruthalil read the homily that Father Tomaž had prepared for the occasion.
The celebration continued with a cultural act enlivened by typical dances and appropriate songs. In this context, tributes were paid to the two Visitors from Spain and various missionaries. A booklet about Father Güemes and a hymnal in Oriya. The morning closed with a shared meal with the six bishops of the Archdiocese and the rest of the guests … a meal shared in an environment of great cordiality and joy.
On December 13 and 14, we visited different places that had been evangelized by our confreres and where fertile Christian communities took root and are fully alive. People in areas that were familiar to us (such as Raikia, Mondasoro and Surada, or Aligonda and Kattinga) welcomed us with great joy. The same scene was repeated in places where school children, together with the Daughters of Charity, sang songs while they adorned us with the flower necklace, the cake that we all shared and gave to one another, the time of lively sharing with the sisters, a tour of one of the works administered by the Daughters and the visit to the cemetery to pray before the grave of our missionaries. There we read the names of Frs. Echávarri, Venancio Marcos, Blas García, Epifanio Yániz, Florencio Larrión, F. Bears … we admire all these individuals; we remember them and we pray for them. These individuals served in various works: parish ministry, schools, dispensaries, student residences, orphanages … They ministered in isolated areas where access was most difficult (where elephants and tigers stalked about and monkeys appeared everywhere). The presence of the Church and of the members of the Congregation of the Mission and the Company of the Daughters is Charity is very significant and prophetic.
Other notable events during these days include the visit to the Provincial House of the Daughters of Charity in Berhampur (a sign of the closeness and trust between the Sisters and the Missionaries), undoubtedly inherited from the Spanish tradition; the celebration of the annual Missionary School Day also in Berhampur, a school that receives 3,023 students (most of them of the Hindu religion). These students organized a wonderful festival of about three hours, very varied in dances and song and the Visitors were honored as special guests.
On December 15, we traveled to Calcutta where we visited the tomb of Mother Teresa, as well as the General House and the Provincial House, in addition to the first house in which Mother Teresa welcomed the outcasts who were living on the street. ¡Impressive to witness the ministry, faith, charity, the dedication of these women! Look at the simplicity with which they live, the spirit with which they serve, the condition of the men and women whom they serve night after night, welcoming them into their homes … and healing and feeding them. One of the Sisters told us that they minister to men and women in dire situations and often these individuals die in three or four days.
On December 16, after so many lively and incredible experiences, we departed India, on our way to the Philippines. The trip and visit were worth all the effort that had to be exerted on our part: we owed this to the first missionaries, and we owed it to the two Provinces that have such great love for the Spanish confreres. We have received a wonderful lesson in faith, spirituality and missionary mettle and have been enriched on a human, spiritual and Vincentian level. We are most grateful and what to extend our gratitude to Fr. Mathew Nayak, Visitor of North Indian who was most concerned about all the details of our visit. Our vocation is strengthened and we pray that God bless all the people of India!
Santiago Azcárate Gorri, C.M.