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07 November 2007
(Thanksgiving Mass, St. Arnold’s Seva Sadan, INC Provincialate, Indore / Homily by Fr. Superior General, Antonio M. Pernia, SVD / Readings: Lev 25:10-12; Rom 13:8-10; Lk 14:25-33)
Today we gather to celebrate 75 years of SVD presence in India. Today our thoughts go back to 1932 when the first SVD missionaries arrived in Indore, or even a few years before that when the superiors of the Society considered the request of the Propaganda Fide to take up a mission in Central India. Fr. General William Gier and his council, along with the pioneers chosen for the new mission, must have done what the gospel reading this afternoon proposes. They must have sat down to calculate the cost of the mission in terms of the Society’s financial and personnel resources. But beyond considering the calculable, they must also have reflected on what is fundamentally incalculable – faith in God’s grace and guidance and confidence in the generosity of the people’s response. They critically examined the present, but also courageously looked into the future.
And so, in the words of the today’s gospel, a great tower has been constructed and a formidable army formed. Today we see in India four SVD provinces and one region with a variety of apostolates and ministries – parishes, schools, research institutes, retreat centers, communication outlets, formation houses; ministry with dalits and indigenous peoples, orphans and street children, the poor and people with HIV-AIDS; outreach to people of other cultures and religions. Today we count some 850 Indian Divine Word missionaries – not exactly the ten or twenty thousand that the gospel speaks about – but the second largest national group in the whole Society of the Divine Word. More than 200 of these work as missionaries in other lands, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with people of other nations, cultures, and languages.
The beginning was small – first two, then four more, and then seven more. The beginning was difficult – learning the language, adapting to the culture, primitive conditions, a huge area, long distances, limited resources. In a certain sense, it was a repeat of September 8,1875 in Steyl when the Society of the Divine Word was born. St. Arnold Janssen, the founder, had only four men with him in a yet untransformed inn. The guests who gathered for the inaugural mass were skeptical of the project that was being started. They sat on improvised furnitures and used borrowed utensils for the feast afterwards. The founder was not unmindful of all this. In his homily at the mass, he said: “The simplicity of this beginning should not discourage us .... We know that with our present resources we cannot accomplish our task; but we hope that the good Lord will provide everything we need. May he do with us as He wishes. If this seminary succeeds, we will thank the grace of God. If nothing comes of it, we will humbly strike our breast and confess that we were not worthy of the grace.”
The pioneers of the Indian mission had learned well from the founder. They had little resources. But they had great faith – a profound trust in God’s grace and an abiding confidence in the generosity of the people. Like in Steyl, something has come of that small and difficult beginning. A great tower and a formidable army. But all the result of God’s grace and the peoples’ generosity. Today, then, we celebrate not so much human achievement as God’s grace, not so much missionary success as the people’s generous response. Thus, our celebration today of the Platinum Jubilee of the SVD in India can only be a celebration of thanksgiving. We come together today to thank God for the grace, and the people for their generosity.
But as we do so, we also pay tribute to the pioneers of the Indian mission, and the generation of SVD missionaries, from abroad and from India, who came after them. We pay tribute to their vision, their courage, their dedication. But above all, we pay tribute to their unflagging commitment to the following of Jesus, the Divine Word. Indeed, the words of today’s gospel apply to them. “If any one comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”. Not so much a rejection of family, but putting Christ above all else and above everything else. Making Christ their only treasure, their only love, their only master. That is, in fact, the meaning of the evangelical counsels – poverty, chastity, obedience. Making Christ our only treasure, our only love, our only master. And so, following Christ fully and to the very end. Sharing His cross, passion and death. “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple”.
The last general chapter reminds us that our call to mission entails a “call to the cross”. The cross in the sense of suffering and hardships, renunciation and deprivation. But above all, the cross in the sense of gratuitous love. For Christ on the cross is the ultimate sacrament of God’s self-giving love. The cross is a powerful statement of who God is – Deus Caritas Est, God is love. And it is because of this that God reaches out to the world in dialogue. It is because of this that there is mission. We, who are called to mission, are called to the same gratuitous love. If our participation in mission is a participation in Missio Dei, God’s mission, then it must be an act of gratuitous love, a giving of ourselves to others, an act of self-emptying, a process of dying to oneself. In this way our mission is a sharing in the cross of Jesus and a participation in the reality of God who is love. Mission is an act of love, or it is not mission at all.
In the second reading today, St. Paul tells us: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”. Love, by its nature, is gratuitous. It is given without expecting anything in return. It is given without conditions, without measure, without counting the cost. It is the only debt that we can truly have. All other debts can be repaid. But the debt of love remains. And it is this debt that impels us to mission. Caritas Christi urget nos.
Dear confreres and friends, as we gather to pay tribute to the pioneers of the SVD in India, we also take time to celebrate with those of our confreres who mark this year a milestone in their lives as SVD religious missionary priests – Bro. Robert (Peter) Kullu (50 years of religious life); Fr. Clement Moolamkuzhiyil, Fr. Lawrence Pereira, Fr. Berly Pallan (40 years of priesthood); Fr. Basil D’Souza, Fr. Devprasad Ganawa, and Fr. Sebastian Mattappallil (25 years of priesthood). For them and for all of us, today is a day of thanksgiving. Today the entire Central Indian Province, indeed, all of SVD India, joins them in thanking the Lord for the gift of fidelity – their fidelity to God throughout all these years, but above all God’s unfailing fidelity to each of them.
Many years ago, the American sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, wrote a book entitled, “For A World With Windows”. It was, as it were, a commentary on our contemporary society, where men and women act as if the only reality there is is this world, as if total human fulfillment is to be achieved solely in this world; in other words, where men and women live as if in a closed world – in a world without windows. Religious, I think, are the windows of this world – windows through which we catch a glimpse of the reality of God and of his Kingdom; windows through which God's unconditional love begins to break into this world. Today, 7 such windows are opened anew – thanks to our confreres who celebrate their jubilee with us.
Dear confreres and friends, about six years ago, during the Synod of Bishops of 2001, the Holy Father, then Pope John Paul II, had the practice of inviting everyday a small group of Synod participants to lunch. One day, it was the turn of the superiors general to have lunch with the Pope. I presented myself by saying: “Holy Father, greetings from the SVD (missionari Verbiti)”. When the Holy Father heard the word “SVD”, he showed a sign of recognition and said: “Ah, the SVD! A great family”. The italian was “una grande famiglia”, which means either or both “a big family or a great family”. Since I was the only SVD then, the words of the Holy Father at that time did not have any special ring. But now, surrounded by so many confreres and friends and in the presence of the our jubilarians, the words of the Holy Father come alive today. Indeed, we are a great family.
Today, this great family, the whole Society of the Divine Word, rejoices with you as we mark the Platinum Jubilee of SVD presence in India. In the name of the general council in Rome, and indeed, of the whole SVD, I congratulate you all on this happy occasion – you, dear confreres and sisters, and all our friends, benefactors and partners in mission. As we thank God for all his graces over the last 75 years, we also ask him for his continued guidance and presence among us. And may the holy men and women of our Arnoldus Family look kindly upon us today. May Sts. Arnold and Joseph, Blessed Maria Helena and Mother Josepha, and our blessed Martyrs, pray for us.