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ROME COMES TO PURI
“Rome has come to Puri!” This was how our confrere, Fr. Marian Zelazek, greeted me when I arrived in Puri the other day. The reference was to the two cities considered “holy” by followers of two world religions – Rome by the Catholics and Puri by the Hindus.
Puri is located in the state of Orissa on the East Coast of India. Part of the city lies along the scenic Bay of Bengal which attracts tourists from all over the world. Puri, however, it not just a tourist attraction. It is, more importantly, a pilgrim destination. Puri is one of the most holy places of Hinduism. It is known as the city of Lord Jegannath, the Lord of the Universe. Life in the city is, in fact, centered around the temple dedicated to Lord Jegannath, a temple which counts some 9,000 Hindu priests. Everyday about 10,000 pilgrims from all over India and from abroad flock to Puri. The city is, however, also home to small communities of Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and people of other faiths.
Not far from the center of the city, a Catholic ashram dedicated to interreligious dialogue has arisen. Known as the “Ishopanthi Ashram” (Ashram of the Followers of Jesus), this Catholic ashram purports to be a center of spirituality which offers a way of following Jesus through the Indian traditional threefold paths of Jnana (knowledge of the Truth), Bhakti (loving devotion to the Divine), and Karma (life-giving action). The community which forms the staff of the ashram assists in promoting the experience of the Divine through these threefold paths. The inspiration behind the ashram comes from the words of Jesus: I am the way, the truth and the light; one who follows me will have the Light and Life (cf. Jn 8:12; 14:6).
The moving force behind the ashram is our confrere, Fr. Marian Zelazek. Originally from Poland, Fr. Marian is now more than 50 years in India as an SVD missionary. It was in 1950 that Fr. Marian first came to India, doing the things that most missionaries do. But somehow the fascination of Puri became implanted in his heart. And so, when the possibility of working in Puri was offered, Fr. Marian immediately volunteered and moved to this holiest of Hindu cities in 1975. Fr. Marian began to feel that Puri, the center of Hinduism in India, should also have a Christian presence in the spirit of service and dialogue. Thus grew the dream of a Catholic ashram or a spirituality center in Puri.
The realization of this dream came in stages. First, Fr. Marian took over a Catholic church in the city which he eventually built up into a parish with a beautiful church building. Beside it, he started a dialogue center which became in time a Catholic library. Secondly, in 1980 he built up “Karunalaya”, a leprosy care center which today cares for about 1,000 leprosy-affected people. Then he opened the Beatrix School, a school for the children of the leprosy patients who were not admitted to other schools. Thirdly, then, Fr. Marian constructed the “Ishopanthi Ashram” which aims at promoting religious harmony, dialogue and spirituality.
I write this letter from Jharsuguda, seat of the INE Province, where I am attending the province assembly and chapter en route to the inauguration of the new Guwahati Region. The two-day break between the assembly and the chapter gave me an opportunity to accept the invitation to participate in the blessing and inauguration of the spirituality center in Puri. A beautiful ceremony was prepared and a good crowd turned up for the blessing and inauguration - a Catholic bishop, priests and religious (SVD confreres and SSpS sisters among them, including the SVD provincial superior of Poland), the First Secretary of the Apostolic Nunciature in New Delhi, Catholic laity, a Protestant pastor, a Hindu guru, other Hindu and Muslim friends, collaborators from Italy, boys and girls from the Beatrix School. The mixture of the crowd said much about the nature of the building that we were blessing.
By now the entire Society knows Fr. Marian Zelazek, after he was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. This was an initiative of his friends from his home city of Poznan in Poland and supported by many collaborators and other friends in India and elsewhere in the world. Although he did not win the Nobel Peace Prize, Fr. Marian did receive other awards - among them, the Sergio D’Mello Award and an honorary citizenship of his home city of Poznan.
Fr. Marian attributes his missionary zeal and energy to an experience he had as a prisoner in the concentration camp in Dachau. Once, a young man condemned to die, came to him for advice. This young man constantly repeated that he regretted not having had the chance to do enough for Christ. When Fr. Marian was eventually liberated from Dachau, he felt he was being given the time to do enough for Christ. Fr. Marian, as we know, was brought to the concentration camp along with our other Polish confreres who are now beatified martyrs of the Church. Why he was not executed along with them, he can only consider as a miracle and attribute to God’s love and mercy. Fr. Marian now says that he had died a thousand times in Dachau, and his liberation from the camp was an opportunity given him to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
Obviously, the happiest person in the crowd that evening in Puri was Fr. Marian himself. He was visibly elated at the fulfillment of a dream. But ever the humble missionary that he is, he constantly repeated in his speeches that the vision behind the ashram is not his but the SVD’s, that he has only tried to give concrete shape to the SVD vision in the context of the multi-cultural and pluri-religious reality of India in general and Puri in particular. Indeed, there is truth to what he said. For what came across to me as I watched the crowd and followed the interreligious ceremony of blessing and inauguration was “Fourfold Prophetic Dialogue”. There in “Ishopanthi Ashram” were faith-seekers from Italy, children of leprosy patients in Puri, people of various cultures from East and West, and followers of various religious traditions.
My secret prayer that evening was that this spirituality center may indeed help promote peace and harmony in the world through interreligious dialogue based on our experience of the Divine. Congratulations, not only to Fr. Marian and our other confreres in Puri, but also to the entire INE Province. May God bless your efforts. Fraternally in the Divine Word,
Antonio M. Pernia, SVD