The 4th August was the feast of St John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests. He was known for his simplicity and proximity to the people, especially the poor and disadvantaged.
It was no coincidence then that Gwalior diocese in M.P., sandwiched between Agra and Jhansi dioceses in U.P., and got a new bishop on that day. The See had fallen vacant a few months earlier due to the tragic demise of Bp Thomas Thennatt in a road accident. Thomas was also known to be a simple, loving and prayerful prelate. Pope Francis must have been looking for another like that when he chose Joseph Thykkattil of neighbouring Agra diocese. Gwalior, till 1954, was a part of Agra diocese and till 1999 in Jhansi diocese. As a diocese it is just 20 years young.
A bishop’s Coat of Arms usually reflects his priorities or aspirations. Thykkattil’s insignia has an extraordinary number of 10 symbols. Is he like St Paul trying to be all things to all men (cf 1 Cor 9:22)? Many of the symbols are commonly used. But there were two that caught my attention – a Green Cross symbolising caring for creation, air, water, flora and fauna, and a House symbolising a healthy family, spiritually, socially and materially; as the legend says. So has Thykkattil drawn inspiration from Sts Francis of Assisi and Vincent de Paul?
The episcopal consecration was held on the grounds of St Paul’s School, Morar, Gwalior, presided over by Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, one of the eight advisors to the pope, and himself a former archbishop of Agra. There were 6 archbishops, 12 bishops, over 100 priests, possibly 300 nuns and about 1000 laity, including 5 busloads from Agra and 150 from Thykkattil’s mother parish of Enamakkal, in the archdiocese of Thrissur, Kerala.
With such a concourse of humanity I was wondering how Thykkattil would find time for the interview that he had promised me. The service that began at 10.00 a.m. followed by a valedictory and lunch wound up at 3.00 p.m. So I was pleasantly surprised when I got a call from “Fr Joe” at 5.00 p.m. saying that he was free for the interview.
Something that Bp Raphy Manjaly of Allahabad (formerly also of Agra diocese) said during his homily echoed in my mind. He said that Thykkattil joined the seminary at the relatively late age of 30, having worked for some years in a school, and therefore made a mature choice. Raphy described him as a person with empathy for the poor, a good listener, and one who had the ability to reconcile differences. He was indeed a simple and humble person like Vianney.
After a gruelling 5 hour programme Thykkattil looked remarkably relaxed in a plain white kurta pyjama, sitting at a 2x3 ft office table devoid of episcopal paraphernalia. I immediately set to the task at hand.
I asked him what would be his pastoral priorities as the new bishop of Gwalior? He said that there would be two aspects. His first priority would be the spiritual well being of the people. He would like the Bible to be central to his ministry, for it to reach every family for prayer and reflection. He would try to have neighbourhood evening gatherings for this purpose and seek the co-operation of his priests in this ministry; as without them “nothing moves”.
Thykkattil also expressed his great devotion to adoration of the Holy Eucharist. He had a habit of taking a pen and notebook and just kneeling there, and thoughts and ideas would come to him.
He was also concerned about the material well being of the people. He would like to emphasise higher education and vocational training so that people could stand on their own feet. He strongly asserted that our schools are primarily for our own Christians. The day is not far off, he prophesised, when the Govt would question our “Minority Status” if we didn’t have enough students from the community. He would also like to ensure that every Catholic family had a house of its own.
As for the priests of his diocese (36 for a population of 4171), he would like to involve his clergy in social causes like tree plantation, garbage disposal, visits to prisoners, especially under trials who were rotting in jail because there was nobody to bail them out. Such humane activities would make his priests happy and fulfilled. They would escape the drudgery of institutionalized ministry that leaves priests spent at the end of the day and prone to hypertension and diabetes!
Thykkattil would also like to promote local vocations to the priesthood and religious life. He had a pleasant experience with candidates from villages in U.P. They were both bright in studies and creative. Since most of them lived in a totally non-Christian milieu he had embarked on a familiarization process by sending them to places in Kerala that had a long standing Christian tradition.
To realize the vision of a post Vatican II church he saw the importance of promoting small Christian communities, but that too required committed leadership, especially from the priest.
I queried him on the personal example of Pope Francis who lived in a two room guest house, used a small car, carried his own umbrella and briefcase, and exhorted clergymen to cycle around; that had little or no impact in India. He smiled and said that this was indeed a serious matter of perception. Many clergymen had begun to live upmarket lifestyles saying that they needed it for security or convenience. They gradually began to feel that it was the accepted thing. Like a child he said to me, “I can’t do without warm water to drink, and some fruit.” I’m sure that the people of Gwalior will not grudge him that little indulgence!
His message to the church in India was that there was an urgent need to empower the laity both spiritually and materially. He said that in pastoral work there are no short cuts to perfection. But that is what one must constantly strive for.
I am inclined to believe that, episcopal trappings apart, the man will continue to go as “Fr Joe”. Having known Bp Thykkattil for over 40 years I do believe that Gwalior has found a man like Vianney, who will be all things to all men.
My humble prayer for him is that he may be spared the hot (not warm) waters of which there are some ominous signs in the diocese (that I will keep under wraps for now), and that he may indeed bear abundant and abiding fruit (cf Jn 15:5).
(Published on 12th August 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 33)