BLESSED CHAVARA AND HIS UNIQUE CONTRIBUTIONS
TO THE CHURCH IN INDIA
Fr. Mathew Kaniamparampil, CMI
The Church in India is celebrating with great enthusiasm and fervour the bi-centenary of the birth of Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara, one of the great stalwarts in its 20 centuries old history. The uniqueness of Blessed Chavara emerges from multifarious angles and perspectives.
The contributions of Blessed Chavara are radically ecclesial, down to earth people-oriented, exceptionally prophetic and integrally and ultimately spiritual. We cannot but marvel at that golden personality which stands out ever luminous and unique in the Indian ecclesial and social arena.
Innovator of Religious Life in India
Blessed Chavara is closely associated with the foundation of the first indigenous Religious Congregation of India in the year 1831. He was the first Indian to make the profession of Religious Vows in this Church. That historic event took place on 8th December 1855. The first Indian religious Congregation he headed was the Congregation of the Third Order of Carmelites discalced, which was later redesignated Carmelites of Mary Immaculate i.e. the C.M.I. Congregation. It is to be observed that the Indian Church at that time was 19 centuries old. Almost two centuries later today, India is blessed with 95,000 religious belonging to about 300 Congregations. Therefore, he is the first and foremost among all the Religious in this land.
As regards the innovation of religious life in the Indian soil, Blessed Chavara is justly called the St. Benedict of India. From the perspective of the enormousness of services he rendered, he is compared to St. Teresa of Avila who imparted vitality to the Church during the middle ages. Like St. Therese of Lisieux who said I would be love in the heart of the Church, Blessed Chavara renewed the face of the Church during the 19th and the 20th centuries.
From the religious point of view, it was Blessed Chavara who initiated the first 7 Indian Monasteries. They are Mannanam(1831), Koonammavu(1857), Elthuruth(1858), Vazhakulam(1859), Pulincunnu(1861), Ampazhakad(1868), and Mutholy(1870). These Monasteries were the spiritual nerve-centres of the Church during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Blessed Chavara is also the innovator of the first religious congregation for women in the Syro-Malabar Church. It was in 1866, that, along with Fr. Leopold Beccaro, OCD, he initiated it at Koonammavu. He founded this Congregation for women at a time when education and empowerment of the womenfolk were not even dreamt of. It is to be specially observed that Mother Euphrasia, a member of this CMC Congregation was declared Venerable by the Holy Father in 2002. She is the spiritual granddaughter of Blessed Chavara. She personalized the charism of her Guru, lived it, and sanctified herself receiving inspiration from his life and teachings.
His ecclesial vision and mission
The basic current of thought running through the entire vision of Blessed Chavara was that he was a person filled with a deep love for the Church. He loved the Church and desired that all the faithful should lead an authentic and vibrant Christian life, centred on the Holy Eucharist and strengthened by the sacraments. His first and foremost concern was the pastoral care of the people. It is with this intention that he, along with his companions, went around the whole State and introduced retreat preaching and family visits. He also started regular retreats for the clergy who are supposed to be the leaders and animators in the Church.
Blessed Chavara is also the innovator of several devotional practices adopted from the global Church. Some of them are the Eucharistic devotion, Way of the Cross, and Rosary. All these practices fortified the faith of the people. He started the 40-hour Adoration in the year 1846, first at Koonammavu and then in all the Ashram Churches he founded. People used to flock at these centres of prayer from far away places during those years and received great spiritual sustenance. The ‘way of the cross’ inspired the devotees to repent and it also brought about a conversion of heart. Thus with a radical ecclesial vision, it was Blessed Chavara who brought vitality and vibrancy in the Kerala Church almost 200 years ago. What he did at this level of adopting devotional practices from the global Church shows his global and comprehensive vision. We cannot simply brand them as imitations of the West. In fact, these adaptations exemplify the basic openness and greatness of his heart with the radical Indian vision Let noble thoughts come from anywhere. It cannot be forgotten that so many souls of the Syro-Malabar Church were elevated to the portals of sanctity during the last century. There are 3 Blesseds, Blessed Chavara ranking the first in that series. There are 2 Venerables and 4 Servants of God in the waiting list to be raised to the honours of the Altar in accordance with the decision of the Church.
Realizing the importance of imparting systematic seminary training to the Clergy, he started a Major Seminary. It was at Mannanam in the year 1833. This was also the first Major Seminary in the Syro-Malabar Church. At the instruction of the ecclesiastical authority, this seminary was meant not only for the religious but also for the diocesan clergy at that time. There was a time when about 150 seminarians were trained at a time in this seminary. It remained there till 1894 when it was amalgamated with the Puthenpally seminary and shifted to Alwaye in 1932.
What prompted him to start a serious and systematic seminary formation was his deep conviction that the growth and well-being of the Church could emerge only through the instrumentality of priests, spiritually deep-rooted, morally upright, intellectually erudite, and well-trained in communication skills. The effectiveness of his vision of clerical training was very well manifested during the fight against the Roccos schism in 1861. That schismatic onslaught started shaking the very foundations of the Syro-Malabar Church. It was Blessed Chavara and those priests who were trained in the Mannanam Seminary who were in the forefront in defending and protecting the Church from a very possible disastrous division. Apart from being the Superior General of the Congregation, Blessed Chavara was also the Diocesan Vicar General in those years.
An educationist par excellence
Another uniqueness of Blessed Chavara is in the starting of the first school of the Syro-Malabar Church. It was started in Mannanam in 1846 and that was also in the Sanskrit language. The reasons why he started it as a Sanskrit school were: first, Sanskrit was considered to be the language par excellence since it was the Vedic language; second, English was a newcomer and there was an apathy from the part of the Catholics as it was considered to be the language brought here by the British Protestants.
The starting of the first school at Mannanam and the later order that came from Blessed Chavara in 1864 to start schools adjacent to every Church was prophetic and it triggered a great social change in the society in Kerala. The order that came from him as the Vicar General had far-reaching consequences. He was convinced that the faith of our people should not remain merely at the emotional level. It should be well founded on deep-rooted convictions As a result, several schools came up opening their portals to all children irrespective of caste and creed. Traditionally, only the upper castes were permitted to go to school and acquire knowledge. With the inception of several schools, the situation changed rapidly. The educational revolution initiated by Blessed Chavara caused rapid socio-cultural changes. Those changes in turn resulted in a boom in the economic fields too, inspiring well-educated young people to go abroad in search of greater job opportunities, further resulting, as a chain reaction, in greater economic growth of the State.
An innovator of print media
Blessed Chavara is also the innovator of the technology of printing and publishing in the Syro-Malabar Church. The education imparted to our people enabled them to be literate. However, they were to be given materials for reading. At that time there was hardly any spiritual book in Malayalam. During those years, there were only two printing presses in Kerala, one at Kottayam owned by protestant missionaries and the other a Government press at Trivandrum. He went to Kottayam in order to have a glimpse of the press, but was flatly denied access to it. However, he did not abandon his endeavour. He went to Trivandrum and received permission to see the press. Keeping its image in his mind, he came back to Mannanam and asked a carpenter to make a wooden press according to his direction. That was the beginning of a revolution in the field of printing and publications. That wooden press is still preserved in the Chavara Museum in Mannanam. It is from this press that later in the year 1887, the NAZARANI DEEPIKA, the first Malayalam daily started publishing.
A man with a deep concern for the poor and the destitute
It was also Blessed Chavara who started the first Charitable Institution in the Syr-Malabar Church. In the year 1869, he started a Home for the destitute at Kainakari. He advised his confreres not to abandon the aged, the sick, the orphans and the poor. The Chavarul can be considered the valedictory advice to his confreres and to his people. In that precious little book, he gives clear guidelines about the inevitability of the social concern we need to make our own lives sublime.
A sublime life embellished by personal holiness
Blessed Chavara’s activities were unique and unparalleled in history. His services and achievements were multifaceted and pioneering. However, the sterling quality that shines forth in Fr. Chavara is his personal holiness. That aspect of his life surpasses all the other achievements.
All his activities were natural expressions of his inner divine experience. Wherever he went and in whatever he did, he remained basically a man of God.
Blessed Chavara was radically a contemplative in action. His preoccupations and his enthusiasm to render maximum services to the Church and to the society around him did not dwindle or block his basic orientation to God. Just opposite was the case in his life. Wherever he went and got involved in the affairs of the people, he was burning with zeal for God and for his Church. There was a divine fire burning deep within him that prompted and empowered him for any action. In fact, that is the essence of the word enthusiasm. The etymological roots of the word ‘enthusiasm’ are from two Greek words: en + theos. En means to be in. Theos means God. Its derivative meaning refers to the intense joy, zeal, dynamism and vibrancy resulting from a basic and assiduous awareness of the indwelling presence of the divine deep within oneself. That awareness transforms every action, even unrelated to spirituality outwardly, holy and self-sanctifying. This was the secret of his personal holiness.
Blessed Chavara’s confreres certify that they have seen many instances in his life when he was rapt in contemplative trance. Even in the midst of strenuous activities, Chavara could maintain a hotline contact with God. This is integral spirituality: a spirituality that emerges from the awareness of the indwelling presence of the divine and a radical openness to the needs of fellowmen. It is not a spirituality alienated from the stark realities of everyday life, but a spirituality that is life-touching and life-transforming. Blessed Chavara practiced it in his life, making this the basic vision and mission of his entire life. The Church recognized his personal holiness and officially declared him BLESSED in the year 1986.
(From the Key-note address delivered at the inauguration of the Chavara Jayanthi Seminar organized in Bhopal, on 4-7, September 2004.)