Blessed Chavara: A Heroic Model in Spirituality
Fr. Mathew Kaniamparampil, CMI
The Church in India has entered into the 200th Birth anniversary celebrations of one of its greatest stalwarts in its history. That great soul of our Country is Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara. He was an ecclesial leader unparalleled and unique in the Indian Church history on account of his intense love for the Church and the initiatives he took for its integral growth. His pioneering contribution to the Church was in the most important area of its spiritual renewal.
He is widely acclaimed as a great visionary who took several concrete steps in order to impart spiritual vitality to the 19-century old Church in India. He was also a great reformer and defender of the faith. He was aware of the crisis his particular Church was deeply immersed in since three centuries. The confusion and unrest caused by the arrival and interference of the Portuguese in the affairs of the local Church was immense. Certain decisions of the Synod of Diamper inflicted a traumatic experience among the St. Thomas Christians. There followed a centuries-long turmoil, divisions and disunity. Consequently, the main pre-occupation of the local Church was the restoration of the ecclesiastical identity and autonomy. All those struggles caused a serious and radical divergence and sidetracking of the real issue, namely, the spiritual growth of the people. On the one hand the struggle for the restoration of the ecclesiastical structure was on the boiling point, while on the other hand, the inner spiritual craving for a genuine ecclesial and sacramental life was facing a lamentable decline.
This was the background and the reason for the young Chavara to visualize a radical spiritual renewal of the Church. With a prophetic vision, Chavara dived deep into the multifarious and deep-seated problems and recognized the real blocks which strangled the genuine spiritual growth of the people of his period and region. Like an expert doctor, Blessed Chavara was able to make a diagnosis of those ills and limitations with their root causes. He gave the Church a prophetic and courageous leadership at a decisive time of its existence and brought it to the track of spiritual dynamism and vitality over and above all other considerations.
A great dream of his Seminary days
The most fundamental question that captivated, gripped and strained the young mind of Chavara even during his Seminary days was how to bring his 19-century old Church to spiritual vitality and dynamism. According to him, the spiritual revival of his Church occupied the greatest and paramount importance. He studied meticulously the history of his Church steeped in constant turmoil. Simultaneously, he learned from his teachers in the Pallipuram Seminary, especially from his Rector Fr. Thomas Palackal, the stories of great saints and spiritual stalwarts who brought about spiritual vitality and vibrancy in the global Church. The lives of those Saints fascinated him. Their teachings inspired him to do something beautiful for his Church in this Country too. Chavara firmly believed that a Particular Church could be considered vibrant only in so far as and as long as it has been capable to produce stalwarts of spirituality, namely, Saints. The vitality of a Church community can be judged by the criterion of its commitment to a genuine spiritual vision, a congenial spiritual atmosphere, and a consequent spiritual growth of its members. This basic vision finds realization in the emergence of at least a few heroic models of Christian discipleship from that community. Chavara had learned that the saints are those charismatic leaders of the Church who practiced virtues heroically. They are the most genuine and radical followers of Jesus and of his Gospel values. Officially recognized by the universal Church, they stand out before the world as powerful symbols of the spiritual vitality of a particular Church.
Chavara was also introduced to the stories of Religious Congregations which existed in the global Church and how actively they defended the faith, made the sacramental life of the faithful vibrant and imparted spiritual vitality to the particular Church. He also noticed that most of the Saints hailed from Religious Congregations. He studied thoroughly how those religious leaders reformed, defended and protected the mother Church, especially when divisions plunged the Church into deep crisis during the protestant revolution four centuries ago in the western hemisphere.
The young Chavara used to lament that his Church, which was as old as Christianity itself
with a long history of almost two millennia, was unable to produce even a single saint. Why this spiritual infertility? How can we bring about a substantial change in this situation? Is heroic practice of virtues and personal sanctification as well as religious life and asceticism possible only to the believers beyond the seven seas and out of reach for our Christian community in this ancient land of spirituality and God-experience?
Having been deeply moved and taken up by the above thoughts, the young Seminarian Chavara made a firm determination to bring his vision to realization, from the day one of his priestly life. The intention of his First Mass on Sunday, 29th November 1829 was that our land may receive from God a special grace for the starting of an indigenous Religious Congregation, in view of the reformation of the Church. Our land witnessed the realization of that great dream by the trio of the founding of religious life in the Indian Church. Those trios were Fr. Thomas Palackal, Fr. Thomas Porukara and Fr. Kuriakose Chavara, three diocesan priests belonging to the ancient Church of the St. Thomas Christians. That great event of the foundation of the first Religious House took place on the Mannanam hills on 11th May 1831. Fr. Chavara was a young priest of only 24 years at that time. During those decades, there was only one Bishop in Kerala, the Bishop of Verapoly. Despite his ill health, he was present there for that function. 50 Parish Priests, i.e., almost all the pastors at that time, irrespective of their Rites, participated in that foundation ceremony. It shows how enthusiastically the Church accepted and encouraged the inception of religious life in our land.
A Religious Congregation by the Church and for the Church
The newly established Religious Congregation, presently known as the CMIs, was totally dedicated to the spiritual renewal of the Church. From the very beginning, its members were earnestly engaged in various pastoral activities related to the faith formation of our people. The first spiritual endeavour they initiated was retreat preaching. They visited all the parish Churches, both Syrian and Latin, from south to north of Kerala and preached retreats for the benefit of the faithful. They used to go in groups of three or four priests. They stayed in those parishes for four days. During those days, they used to visit all the families. Wherever there existed any type of disunity, mutual hatred or any spiritual or moral disintegration, these priests would bring them back to the right path. The preaching of these Fathers as well as their family apostolate brought about a radical renewal in those parishes. The Parish Priests and the people were longing for their arrival earnestly. Through their presence, people were moved to repentance and reconciliation. Their sacramental life was revitalized. It became a custom that the Bishop used to request these Fathers to have their retreat conducted in all the parishes as an immediate spiritual preparation for making his canonical visitation.
People called these Fathers darsana pattakkar, namely, priests of God-experience. And that typically spiritual dimension of their new movement was the identity and secret of their success. Fr. Chavara and other leaders of this religious Congregation were very particular that all the external activities of their members must emerge from their asceticism and basic prayer experience. The name they gave the first religious House at Mannanam was darsana veedu, i.e., house of God-experience. Within a short time, the Church realized that the ultimate goal of all the activities of this Congregation was the spiritual renewal of the Church, and all their energy emerged from their own fundamental vision of personal sanctification. As a result, their lives became down to earth spiritual and people-oriented. They loved the Church and the Church loved them too.
Envisioning a radical programme
When Fr. Chavara and the other founding Fathers travelled through all the parishes and met with the people, they came to the realization that the real follow up of the renewal initiated would depend upon the proper and systematic training of pastors who are to be the leaders of the Church. For this leadership, there arises the need of a systematic seminary formation. The Priests should be holy, efficient and well trained. They should possess human and divine qualities. This required the starting of a formal Seminary for the whole Church in Kerala.
Fr. Chavara and the other founding Fathers launched their daring step in this regard in 1833 itself. The Bishop entrusted this great task to them by giving them the title ‘Professors’ or Malpans. There was a time when about 150 Seminarians were trained in the Mannanam Seminary at a time during those years. The priests who were trained in Mannanam were in the forefront when Blessed Chavara gave the leadership to fight successfully against the Roccos schism which affected the local Church in the year 1861. It was specifically on that occasion and in view of making a concerted effort to fight against the schismatic movement that Fr. Chavara was appointed Vicar General of the whole Syrian community. And the common Seminary, established in Mannanam, continued there till 1894, until it was transferred to Puthenpally. Later it was transferred to Alwaye in 1932.
During those times, the celebration of the Holy Mass and the Canonical Prayers were not well organized. Blessed Chavara realized how important it is for the sanctification of priests. In 1862, he prepared a complete manuscript of the Syriac Breviary. In 1865, he prepared and printed the first liturgical calendar of the Syro-Malabar Church. In the same year, he prepared the text of the funeral services in Syriac. In 1868, he prepared and printed the Thukkasa, the rituals for the elegant and devout celebration of the Holy Mass. These innovations helped the priests to grow in sanctity. Blessed Chavara believed that the spiritual growth of the faithful, to a large extent, depends on the personal sanctity of their priests. Fr. Bernard , who wrote the first history of the CMI Congregation in the year 1908, writes: “ Our founding Fathers knew that the spiritual growth of the people would depend upon the sanctity of the priests. Just as our people are reformed through spiritual retreats, Confessions and exhortations, the scholastics in the seminary also should be trained to transform all their daily activities into moments of virtues”. (CMI Congregation in the First Decades, Fr. Bernard, 1908, p. 128).
Emergence of a new spiritual enthusiasm
The great spiritual contributions Fr. Chavara and his associates introduced in the local Church were the following: First of all, the mode of ascetical life they initiated on the hillock of Mannanam became a beacon light of intense prayer and asceticism. Diocesan Priests as well as people from far and wide flocked to that mother house of Indian Samnyasa. The prayer life and asceticism of those fathers not only made their own lives luminous, but also they imparted extraordinary spiritual experience to the people who frequented there, an experience they were earnestly craving for.
Blessed Chavara and his associates popularized a great devotional practice called the Way of the Cross. They fixed 14 Crosses from the bottom of the hill to the top. Ascending the hill, meditating on the sufferings of Jesus, the Mannanam Fathers, led the people to great heights of repentance and transformation of life. It was a regular and solemn celebration which became very popular, and it remains popular even today, everywhere in the Church. Fr. Bernard describes an incident: “Our Fathers conducted a retreat in the main Church at Changanacherry. 5000 people participated in that retreat. On the last day of the retreat they led a big procession through the main road. A huge Crucifix was carried in front. On various stations, our fathers delivered speeches on the sufferings of Jesus. Moved by intense sorrow and repentance, people screamed loudly and shed tears. That was a rare spiritual experience for the people of that entire locality.” (CMI Congregation in the First Decades, Fr. Bernard, 1908, p. 131).
Another important innovation introduced by Blessed Chavara in the local Church was the Eucharistic devotion. It came first in the form of the 40 Hour Adoration. It started first at Koonammavu in 1866 and then to all the CMI Ashrams established by Blessed Chavara. People came from far away places for participating in it. The solemnity and the devotional atmosphere created by these adorations impelled the people to a radical conversion of heart. Hundreds of people made their Confessions and received Holy Communion. More people used to go for the Holy Mass. Those three days of the solemn adoration of the Eucharistic Lord were indeed days of great spiritual experience and renewal for everyone. The local people used to accommodate them in their own homes as guests. Now a days, especially since last four decades, there has been a serious set back in the Eucharistic devotion, for various reasons. The recent papal encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia emphasizes this devotion saying how it helps to build up the Church. Moreover, the Holy Father has initiated a Eucharistic Year, and that is a preparation for the forthcoming Bishops’ Synod in Rome next year.
All the above devotional practices, together with the other practices which emerged simultaneously, i.e., the Rosary, the Evening Family Prayer, etc. became also instrumental in promoting religious, priestly, and missionary vocations from the local Church. This is true especially in the second half of the 20th century. It is an evident fact that almost 75% of the missionaries serving in North India today are hailing from the Syro-Malabar Church. This is another excellent and practical expression of the spiritual vibrancy of this Church.
Blessed Chavara, along with his spiritual Director Fr. Leopold, OCD, initiated in the year 1866, a religious Congregation for women. That was the CMC Congregation and it was the first of its type in India. The first Convent was established in Koonammavu. His long experience of leading the CMI Congregation so far helped him to impart to the new Congregation the same spirit of asceticism and deeper prayer experience. His intention was that in future, these well-trained Nuns would become catalytic channels of family apostolate, especially for the spiritual growth of the women folk and little children of the Church.
Golden years of the Church
Blessed Chavara’s innovations in the local Church for four decades starting from 1831 till his death in 1871, are golden years in the history of the Indian Church. The Church in India must be thankful to this great soul of India for the spiritual vitality he brought about among the people in the 19th century. The faith formation he imparted the people a right direction and an impetus for greater spiritual growth. The devotional practices he introduced, embellished their Christ experience. It strengthened their desire for spiritual perfection. People had greater enthusiasm to participate in the Divine Liturgy, as the source and summit of all spiritual experiences. They were impelled to more active sacramental life. Christian life in general entered a new era of vitality and vibrancy. The religious congregation he headed for about four decades became a source of inspiration for the emergence of scores of other congregations in the Indian Church.
Chavara is also acclaimed to be an innovator in the socio-cultural fields during that century. It was he, for the first time, who impelled the cause of education among the people and triggered the growth of literacy. It was he who started the first printing press of the Catholics. It was also he who started publishing books for the benefit of the people. However, these innovations too were not unrelated to his fundamental spiritual vision. His ultimate intention was the strengthening of the religious experience of his people. He would have thought that the faith should not be merely a matter of feelings and emotions. They should be established on the strong foundations of knowledge, wisdom and personal conviction. Only such a faith will have consistency. With a prophetic vision, he also visualized that the Christian community should become a model before others for an integral development of the human nature. At this point, one is reminded of the great St. Iraneus of the Apostolic times, who said, God’s glory consists in man being fully alive.
Holy Father Pope John Paul II, on the occasion of the beatification of Blessed Chavara on 8th February 1986, said: “Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara is raised to the ranks of the Blessed in the great communion of Saints. This member of the Syro-Malabar Church advanced to great heights of holiness through his whole-hearted cooperation with the grace of God….
All of his 65 years of earthly life, he laboured generously for the renewal and enrichment of the Christian life. His deep love for Christ filled him with apostolic zeal and made him especially careful to promote the unity of the Church. With great generosity he collaborated with others, especially his brother priests and religious in the work of salvation.” On that great occasion, the Holy father also recalled the unique contributions of Blessed Chavara in the spiritual field. He said: “ Blessed Chavara contributed to the Syro-Malabar Liturgy and spread devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the Holy Family. In particular, he dedicated himself to encouraging and counselling Christian families, convinced as he was of the fundamental role of the family in the life of society and the Church.” The Pope’s final words on that occasion were very inspiring.
He said: “ Truly extra-ordinary is this day in the history of the Church and of Christianity on the Indian soil. It is the first time that I have the joy of raising to the glory of the altars a son and a daughter (Blessed Alphonsa) of the Church in India. Holiness is the work of divine grace. When we proclaim it solemnly in the midst of the people of God in this land, we give glory to the Most High. In the words of St. Augustine, we praise God, saying: In crowning merits, you are crowning your own gifts.” (Cfr. Herald of the East, January 3, 1992, pp.82, 83 and 86). The above words of the Holy Father are a directive and a challenge for the Church of today. Receiving inspiration and enlightenment from the spiritual vision and great mission of this great son of our land will only give a boost to our ecclesial endeavours.
It is against the above background and the reformation initiated in the 19th century, that we have to evaluate the blossoming of several flowers of sanctity in the local Church during the last few decades. The global Church has recognized recently several Blesseds, Venerables and Servants of God from among the ancient St. Thomas Christians of our Country. All of them belong to the past two centuries. It is surprising and it looks providential that the list is topped by the name of Blessed Chavara himself, who earnestly longed for a spiritual fertility in this land. It was in 1986 that Fr. Kuriakose Elias Chavara of the CMI Congregation was beatified along with Blessed Alphonsa of the Clarist Congregation. It was the most golden moment in the whole spiritual history of the Indian Church. It was followed by the beatification of Blessed Mariam Thresia of the Holy Family Congregation in 2000. Mother Euphrasia, C.M.C. was elevated to the ranks of the venerables in 2002. Fr. Augustine Thevarparampil, a diocesan priest who was full of missionary zeal, was declared venerable in 2004. The present Servants of God in this particular Church are the following: Bishop Thomas Kurialacherry, Archbishop Mathew Kavukatt, Fr. Mathew Kadalikattil and Fr. Joseph Vithayathil. Indeed it is great and beautiful. All these people are flowers of sanctity. They are also expressions of a dynamic and vibrant spiritual patrimony. They will inspire many more souls for many more generations to strive after heroic practice of virtues and become beacon lights of the faith in our land.