This weekend was Mission Sunday in our parish. As is usually the case, our Pastor was on vacation, so he arranged with the Archdiocese to have the annual mission priest come to the parish to say mass. Our visitor today was Fr. Binu Ratahppilly, VC, a member of the Vincentian Congregation. This is a religious community founded in India in the 19th century. It draws its inspiration from St. Vincent de Paul and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which its founders encountered while studying in Paris. They are centered in Kerala in southern India, and do missionary work in East Africa. I felt a special joy at his visit, since my wife and I have been supporting seminarians in India for the past fourteen years, ever since a different priest from this order came to our parish on Mission Sunday. Currently, “our” seminarians, Father Jose and Father Shinto are doing mission work, and Brother Ajith will be ordained in a couple year.
Fr. Binu recounted that he spent eight years in the missions in Africa, studying theology there so he could learn the language. At 28 he was made a pastor of parish whose size boggles my imagination: it comprised 12 churches and must have contained thousands of faithful. Each week he said mass at four different churches, visiting each church once a month. He didn’t say much about his physical plant, except that his church was an sheet-iron roofed shed. He did explain that his pastorship was a great improvement for the congregations. Before the creation of his 12 church parish, two priests were responsible for a parish that contained 55 churches and that must have been the size of a typical American diocese. A priest would visit a give church once or twice a year. Besides saying mass, there would be long lines of children to be baptized and to receive first communion, weddings to bless, confessions to be heard.
He is now stationed in India, where he is in charge of an orphanage with 250 children, ranging in ages from 6 to 16. He commented wryly that he gave up everything for the kingdom and God repaid him hundredfold, as he is now “father” to 250 children. He also said that his congregation has been blessed with vocations: they current have over 500 priests, their last group of ordinandi yielded 35 new priests, and 50+ men have just started seminary.Like all mission priests he spoke at length: his homily last a lot longer than the requisite eight minutes that American priests believe is all that a typical congregation can handle. He also took his time praying the mass, though I think this is in part a lack of familiarity with our translation of the Roman Missal. It would be hard to characterize him as either liberal or conservative: like many priests from Africa and India I have met, he does not fit comfortably onto our liturgical spectrum. I wish I could have had lunch with him: it would have been fascinating to get his perspective on the upcoming Synod of the Family and the many problems facing the Church today.
It is easy to romanticize the work of his congregation and the many religious and diocesan priests working in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But I think it is a useful anodyne to our world weary and some times cynical American Church to get some exposure, however brief, to a different way of being Catholic. His presence conveyed something ineffable, something that fails to come through even the most detailed and earnest article in Maryknoll or some other mission magazine. And certainly, if I ever again hear an American pastor complain about how hard it is to be a pastor of a large suburban parish, with “only” one priest (plus a deacon, a full time DRE and pastoral associate, and a fully renovated physical plant), I will think of Fr. Binu’s work in Africa. Our problems are real (being pastor of a large parish is undoubtedly hard work) but they need to be kept in perspective.
May God continue to bless and watch over the Church throughout the world, and may He pour his grace upon the Vincentian Congregation and all their works.