Jerry Novotny, OMI: As I look out the window this morning, the world seems to have a surreal appearance. The feeling I sense in Japan is a quiet calmness before the storm hits. The effect of the Coronavirus pandemic will eventually touch all of us in some way. Hopefully, the world will come to realize the need “to work together” and “to put God back into society.” Without this, life will only continue to get worse.
The 22nd Asia-Pacific Conference on Faith, Life and Family, a biannual ProLife Congress, was held in Kerala, India, January 17-22. Over 600 participants came from 18 countries, with 80 international delegates and the remainder from India.
India has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. The alarming 15.6 million Indian abortions put the country on a par with communist China and its forced abortion policy. Fully one-third of all babies conceived are killed before they see the light of day. Like other countries, sex has become just another pleasurable pastime leading to many social problems as seem in ASPAC 2020.
The Congress theme focused on “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut 30:19). The Pro-Life delegates base their resolve on the experience of Christ’s early disciples. If you recall, Jesus got angry with them because they were hindering the children from coming to Him. Jesus said, “Let the children come to me” (Matt 19:14). Meditating on this experience, Pro-Lifers realize the importance of working for the welfare of neglected children, in particular, the unborn who are being killed at an alarming pace.
Pope Francis states that all baptized are “agents of evangelization.” In Evangelium Gaudium he strongly reiterates, “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.”
Related topics discussed at ASPAC 2020 ranged from preventing abortion (56 million each year) to post-abortion ministry, from the perils of pornography (destroying relationships, marriages and families) to Sexuality, from Euthanasia – (ridding society of unproductive people, the elderly, the terminally sick) to Gender Identity, from responsible parenthood to the Dignity of Life.
We were blessed to meet experts who preached the gospel of life based on scientific principles. In addition, we were also inspired by the lives of those who proclaimed the culture of life through their real-life testimonies. It was encouraging to see hundreds of Asian delegates gathered together motivated by the same Christian values to protect life.
The ASPAC Congress strength the resolve of the delegates to continue their work as pro-life missionaries for the unborn. As John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae points out, let us all “respect, protect, love, and serve life, every human life!” The Pope’s words are even more powerful today because he now can intercede for us, petition God for us.
The second part of my trip began on the evening of the 22nd as I boarded a plane for a ten-day ProLife lecture tour of the Oblate Institutions in Chennai and Bengaluru.
One hour later, at Chennai International Airport, I was met by Fr. Chinnappan (Provincial) and Fr. Benedict (OMI lawyer). The Provincial House, only 15 minutes away, is situated on the path of planes arriving and departing the Airport. At first the shattering 10-second noise was difficult to adjust to, but gradually it blended into the daily routine and became live-able.
The next day was open. Although it was still winter, the daily temperature averaged 34 degrees Celcius. I was told that when summer arrives, the temperature goes up 10 degrees. One always carries water since this is the dry season and the air is very dry.
On the 24th, Fr. Chinna (short for Chinnappan), in his 14-year-old land Rover, drove me to De Mazenod Institute of Philosophy for the first lecture. The House of Philosophy has 24 students from seven states in India, who speak seven major languages and minor dialects.
Upon arrival, I was met by Fr. Harry Immanuel, the Rector. Then without any prior explanation, he painted a red spot on my forehead and asked me to stand in the school entrance. The students had gathered there and began singing a song in their native language. Another student stepped forward and held out a burning candle before me. On completion, Fr. Harry wrapped a colorful shawl around my shoulders, presented me with a bouquet of flowers and said, “Welcome Fr. Jerry to our community”. It was explained later that this was a traditional Indian custom when welcoming a guest.
In earlier days, the lighted lamp was placed between the host and guest to make their facial expression visible to each other, removing all barriers between the host and guest. The flowers discharged a pleasant fragrance which placed the guest in a good frame of mind for the visit. A red dot on the forehead represented Shakti (strength) and also symbolized love. Finally, it’s a practice to honor the guest as a mark of respect with a shawl.
The 25th was rest and preparation. After lunch with Fr. Varam’s brother and family, we went to the National Shrine of St. Thomas, the apostle. St. Thomas had come to India in A.D. 52, died a martyr in A.D. 72, and was buried in Chennai with the blood-soaked earth and lance that killed him. A huge Basilica is built over his Tomb. The grounds include the cave where he hid before being captured and executed, a stream of drinking water still flowing through the cave, a peace monument and much more.
The next day we drove to Aanmodaya Ashram to visit Fr. Chinnappan Maria Susaik, OMI, who is the only Oblate Guru. After the traditional welcoming ceremony, we toured the shrine and Fr. Susaik explained the 30-year history of Oblate involvement. Fr. Swami Amalraj Jesudoss, OMI, the founder and Guru from 1991 to 1995, visualized the Shrine as an expression of the Beatitudes of the Gospel.
The name given to the Ashram is “Anmodaya”, meaning “Self-Awakening”. The Oblates, along with other “Seekers” both men and women, live a life characterized by deep interiority and simplicity which reflects the Ashram life of India. Fr. Swami Joseph Samarkone, OMI, the Guru from 1995-2016, stated, that through Ashram “Aanmodaya” we radiate God’s Light, Life and Love to all; therefore, “Our life in all its dimension is a prayer that, in us, and through us, God’s Kingdom Come!” (OMI C32).
On Jan 27th, Fr. Benedict accompanied me to St. Paul’s Institute, OMI Scholasticate in Poonamalle, Chennai. The lecture here was organized by the rector Fr. Tomy Thomas, OMI and his team. Attending the lecture were OMI Scholastics and Religious living in the area.
Following the lecture, we visited St.John the Baptist Church, the largest Oblate Parish in India. A perpetual adoration chapel near the Church is opened to both Hindu and Catholic visitors 24 /7. The parish of 1200 families are migrants from the countryside in search of work in the big city. Due to the strong Hindu culture, converting people to Catholicism is extremely difficult. Permission from the local authorities and much paperwork is involved, taking a minimum of six months or longer. Fr. Cyril Joseph Augustin, OMI, a very energetic and dynamic Pastor, has only one assistant. True missionaries in a difficult situation.
Early the next morning on the 28th, Fr. Varam and I boarded a train for Bengaluru. We arrived just in time for lunch. The talk was held in the evening at the Indian Oblate Juniorate, situated in the heart of the city. Fr. Arockiasamy Rayappan, OMI, the Rector, organized the program. There was an excellent turnout including Doctors, Nurses, Priests, Sisters and married couples. After the question/answer period, the students presented a traditional war dance, taken from one of their villages.
The Juniorate is a 2-year pre-seminary school where the students study a variety of courses, including special classes on Eugene de Mazenod, the Oblate Congregation and Indian Christian forms of Prayer and Mediation. In brief, the school offers an “Oblate Come and See Programme”. On completion, they decide their vocation to Oblate way of life…
On the following morning (29th), Fr. Rayappan asked me to say Mass. After breakfast, an informal gathering was arranged with the students and he asked me to speak on Oblate life. I introduced them to the Oblates working in Japan and Korea using a PowerPoint presentation. The atmosphere was relaxing and the students asked a ton of questions. After lunch, Fr. Varam and I boarded the train for the 6-hour trip back to Chennai.
Friday (31st). Most of the day was preparing for the evening lecture at the Provincial House. A tremendous turnout had people standing outside of the hall. After a welcoming speech by Fr. Chinnappan, Fr. Varam introduced me as the Apostle of Unborn Babies. I never looked at it that way, yet thinking about it, all Oblates are Apostles of the poor, the voiceless, the unwanted, the unimportant individuals in the world.
The final day in India had finally arrived on Feb 1st and my last PowerPoint presentation. The lecture took place at a convent for the Sisters of Maria Auxilium (SMA). Later that evening, I was on a plane heading back for Japan.
After three weeks in India, I brought back fond memories of the Oblate hospitality and kindness extended to me, not only at the Provincial House but also by other Oblates I encountered while traveling. My heartfelt gratitude especially to Fr. Chinnappan, Fr. Varam and Fr. Benedict who rotated being drivers, some trips taking 4 hours one way due to the heavy traffic. I am also indebted to the many Oblates who organized the talks. All were very generous with their time. Rather than a stranger passing through, I genuinely felt part of the Oblate communities I encountered. To be part of the global Oblate family was a good feeling. Thank you India!