Village Priests

Spending a day with two young priests in rural India

text by Paul Wachter
photographs by Cody Christopulos

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“After completing my public education, I decided it was better to live for Christ,” Father John Kalluvilayil said. It had been only one month since Father John, 26, had been ordained and sent to serve a cluster of parishes in the highlands of southern Kerala.

As is customary, he was working alongside an older priest. After a year, he would go out on his own. But for now he was assisting Father Edison Thomas Pallivadakkethil, 30.

“We have taken promises of chastity, poverty and obedience,” Father Edison said. “But this was a choice of ours, not a deprivation, but an exercise of freedom.”

Father Edison’s name originated from his father’s newspaper reading. “He came across the name of the inventor Thomas Edison, and even though he did not know who this American was, the name stuck with him.”

Father Edison was in the middle of a long discussion of the challenges, both personal and professional, of his work. As often happens during a talk with the bearded priest, his eyes grew mischievous and his lips curled into a smile.

“Without God’s help, though, we would not have the strength against the call of human nature,” he said. “That is why I say, ’God, show me your beautiful face or else I will search for other beautiful faces.’ ”

As Father John fidgeted, Father Edison erupted with laughter.

Sitting in the foyer of their simple rectory, a small concrete house, the priests sipped coconut water and prepared for Sunday liturgy at their compound in the town of Vattakarickam. Services would be held at St. Mary Syro–Malankara Catholic Church, the largest of the compound’s three buildings.

This Sunday’s duties were a welcome respite from the heavy travel of most Sundays, when they celebrate six liturgies – three each – driving 20 miles of winding dirt roads between churches. All told, about 1,000 people attend the priests’ Sunday liturgies.

But about once a month, Father Edison and Father John concelebrate at St. Mary’s, host a feast and arrange classes for children. About 200 parishioners attend and the festivities end in the late afternoon. And this Sunday, they would be joined by Father Abraham Parappallil, a catechist.

Fathers Edison and John live in relative isolation, far from the bustle of Trivandrum, the state capital and the seat of the Syro–Malankara Catholic Church, where both spent 10 years at St. Mary’s Seminary.

Life is ascetic. There are no sizable towns nearby, just farmland and small, poor low–caste communities.

Both priests rarely see their families, who live between 30 and 60 miles away, an imposing distance by dirt roads especially during the rainy season.

“When I first came here four years ago, I was bored,” said Father Edison, who like Father John had an urban, middle–class upbringing. “I am an energetic person. But now, I feel that the nature that surrounds us has something to tell me. When the sun rises through the forest each morning, it puts me in a meditative mood.”

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Tags: India Poor/Poverty Village life Priests Syro-Malankara Catholic Church