An apostle of reconciliation
Born in Abadiano, Spain in 1887, professed as a Discalced Teresian Carmelite in 1904 at Larrea, in the Province of Navarra, and ordained priest in Rome in 1912, Fr Zacharias of St Teresa was a missionary in India from 16 September 1912 until his death there on 23 May 1957. The “positio” of his cause for canonization was presented to the Sacred Congregation in 2000 and this year (27 January 2014) Pope Francis approved his heroic virtues and declared him venerable. The person of Fr Zacharias is extraordinary, as a Christian, a Carmelite, a priest, a missionary, a theologian, a teacher, a formator, a scholar in Indian philosophy and spirituality, a social worker and a lover of the poor. His life in India was spent for the formation of priests especially as part of community of St Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary of Alwaye, one of the largest seminaries in the world, for the promotion of missionary vocations and activities especially identifying himself with the cultural values of India, for the affirmation of true faith through conferences and writings especially in the context of ideological confusions created by Marxism and atheism and for the involvement in social and pastoral issues outside the seminary. Fr Zacharias lived three essential aspects of his existence uncompromisingly to the full: by call he was a Christian, by consecration he was a Discalced Teresian Carmelite and by mission he was an Indian.
As the Church is celebrating the Golden Jubilee of “Ad Gentes” of Second Vatican Council this year, it is very relevant to remember that the missionary path pioneered by Fr Zacharias was an authentic foreshadowing of the Second Vatican Conciliar teaching and the revolutionary new path opened up in the Church thereafter. His missionary life and work were a pure and transparent concretization of the teachings of Jesus. His missionary path is a springboard for the evangelizing mission today.
The missionary personality of Fr Zacharias is a mosaic of three essential dimensions: Christian, Carmelite and Indian. All these three elements have creatively contributed to the formation of a very deep and dynamic missionary consciousness and spirit in Fr Zacharias. In him all the three essential moments of his earthly pilgrimage — call, consecration and mission — were coordinated and integrated through his personal intimate relationship to Christ and faithful commitment to his dream, the kingdom of God. He came all the way from Spain to India in 1912 as a missionary and everything he did here in India up to his death in 1957, on various levels, as professor, formator, vice rector, writer, preacher, social worker, organizer, spiritual father, consultor, apologist, vocation promoter, chaplain, founder, delegate superior, and so on, are multifarious expressions of his missionary spirit and zeal. It flowed from his conscious living of Christian existence, Carmelite consecration and Indian identity.
Fr Zacharias was a defender of the faith. He was categorically uncompromising with regard to the basic tenets of Christian faith, above all, Christocentrism. This attitude is revealed both in his life and in his teachings. Two books are relevant here namely, Synopsis of Lectures on Dogmatic Theology (1941) and Christianity Vindicated (1944). The Christocentrism was beautifully reflected in his life through the attitudes of love, selflessness, service, hard work, humility, obedience, poverty, compassion, fatherly concern, tolerance and endurance in suffering. The apologetic speeches he has given on different occasions especially in response to “The Supremacy of Pope” written by K.N. Daniel and Parur Conferences in reply to the atheistic views which were prevailing over the lives of many believers in Parur, creating confusion and skepticism in their minds and the famous rejointer to the book of Diwan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy namely “World Religions: A Study in Synthesis” published as Christianity Vindicated are outstanding and exquisite testimonies of the Christian experience and Christocentric life of Fr Zacharias. He believed and esteemed all these as missionary activities.
Fr Zacharias, a linguist, had mastered Sanskrit language and thus had easily found access to the most important door to Indian cultural heritage namely the ancient Indian Scriptures. Delving deep into the spiritual and philosophical traditions of India, both as a Professor of Indian philosophy and as a spiritual person, he was never satisfied with a superficial or mediocre knowledge, but insisted on a thorough and complete knowledge. He had thus become an authority on the subject. It is pertinent to remember at this juncture that the major part of the writings of Fr Zacharias covers the themes concerning Indian philosophy, Hindu spirituality and Indian culture with around 7 books and more than 30 scientific articles.
The Carmelite charism contains missionary spirit as its essential dimension coming from the experience and teaching of St Teresa and continues through the history of the order. The present OCD constitutions synthesize this spirit in the following words: “the evangelization of the world, so intimately part of the very nature of the Church, in as much as it is to be accomplished primarily through love and prayer, has always been a priority in our Order’s apostolic work. Our Holy Mother St Teresa passed on to the Order the ardent missionary zeal that burned within her heart and it was her wish that her friars should also undertake missionary activity. This missionary zeal should be faithfully fostered, all should have the missions very much at heart, and vocations to the missions should be encouraged throughout the Order”.
Vocation to Teresian Discalced Carmel is incomparably unique and uniquely rich because it embraces and integrates in the heart of the one who responds to it daringly and enjoys it unsparingly, the drops of essences of all the diverse vocations in the Church, both contemplative and active. A Carmelite heart is full of stillness of pure contemplation, of listening empathetic silence, of the dew of compassionate love, of alert sensitivity to the other, of soft delicacy of one’s conscience, of conscious attention to the pulse of nature, of penetrating reason that delves into the depths, of enchanting poetic feelings, of healing and soothing sincere words and of dynamic positive energy for transformative actions. In the life style of Fr Zacharias we have a beautiful reflection of Jesus who climbs the mountain to go to the Father with people in his heart and descends the hill to go to people with God in his heart. In the unique personality of Fr Zacharias we have the fidelity of an authentic son of St Teresa of Jesus and the devotion of a true disciple of St John of the Cross.
In fact, Fr Zacharias is the formator who instilled in the hearts of seminarians a burning zeal for mission work which in turn ignited first in some of them, later in many of them the desire to go as missionaries to North India, and even to Latin America and Africa. In this process of awakening and nourishing the missionary consciousness of Kerala clergy, he was sharing his Carmelite missionary charism which had found a very fertile ground in his life and had blossomed fully and fruitified plentifully. This fruitfulness off-shooted in concrete decisions to establish the “Mission Circle” to facilitate the deepening of mission spirit among the seminarians, “Malabar Mission Seminary” that organized the formation of missionary priests, “St Joseph’s Mission Home" that channelized the surplus vocations in the dioceses of Kerala to the mission dioceses, “Malabar Missionary Union” for nurturing mission spirit among the diocesan clergy and to publish “Preshithakeralam”, the magazine that served as a news bulletin among the missionaries and as a bond of unity and “Katholikakudumbam” to promote the proper study of correct Christian doctrine.
The unique and charismatic personality of Fr Zacharias challenges and inspires us in the context of inter-religiosity and inter-culturality, understood and misunderstood, interpreted and misinterpreted, being the very context of our missionary life and task not only in India and Asia but in all the continents. He was convinced about his Christian faith and therefore he was open to religions and cultures. He knew deeply the tenets of Christianity and therefore he could learn from religions and cultures. He had depth-level experience of religiosity that became personal spirituality and therefore he could dialogue with religions and cultures. He authentically lived his faith and therefore he could daringly proclaim it. The more Fr Zacharias lived his Christianity, the more interreligious and intercultural he became. The more interreligious and intercultural Fr Zacharias was, the more Christian he became. And thus he became an authentic missionary in whom openness to diversity and fidelity to universality were harmoniously blended.
*Definitor General of the Order of Discalced Carmelites, Rome