A champion of faith
During the Year of Faith, Pope Francis published his first Encyclical Lumen Fidei in order to intensify the faith that everyone receives in baptism, to face the realities of life, and to help them stand firm with the Lord. It is in this context we see the example and relevance of Blessed Chavara, a priest of the Syro-Malabar Church in India.
Fr Chavara was the Vicar General of the Syrian Christians of Kerala during the time of Vicar Apostolic Msgr Bernadine Baccinelli. He was also one of the founders of the Syrian Men TOCD in collaboration with Fr Thomas Palackal and Fr Thomas Porukara and the founder of the Women TOCD with the help of an Italian missionary Fr Leopold Beccaro OCD. He was a man who lived his faith, protected the faith of the Church and cultivated faith in the minds of many.
Born in Kainakary, in the Archdiocese of Changanacherry, on so February 1805, he was baptized eight days after his birth. After his preliminary education, at the age of 15 he entered the Seminary at Pallippuram and was taught and guided by the Malapan Fr Thomas Palackal. During his early years of seminary studies there was an epidemic in his native village in which he lost his parents and only brother. He resisted the pressure of his uncles to leave the seminary and take care of his ancestral home. With firm faith and trust in God, he left everything behind and entrusted the care of his sister-in-law and niece to his own married sister. He returned to the seminary by acclaiming aloud: "God is my portion and my cup" (Ps 16:4).
Though very young, Chavara was strongly attracted and inspired by the austere life of his malpan Fr Palackal who aspired to monastic life. Fr Porukara, the bishop's secretary was also a zealous priest and of the same mind as Fr Palackal. The Church of Kerala in spite of receiving Christian faith in the first century itself from St Thomas the Apostle was deprived of monasteries and convents. Both of them approached Bishop Maurelius Stabilini to seek permission to lead an austere life. They received permission to establish a monastery in 1829. Chavara was ordained on 29 November 1829 and offered his first Mass with the intention, as he says in the Chronicles of Mannanam monastery: I "asked God to bless their efforts to establish the monastery at Mannanam". The fruition of the cherished dream of the fathers with the laying of the foundation stone for the monastery at Mannanam on is May 1831 marked the very important event in the history of the Church of Kerala.
The beginning of the monastery at Mannanam witnessed the hard toil of the three fathers who faced much opposition and. many tragedies on the way. Bishop Francis Xavier who succeeded Msgr Stabilini transferred Fr Chavara to a south Pallippuram parish which was far from Mannanam. Thus he could not concentrate fully on the construction of the monastery. Moreover, the fathers, Palackal and Porukara, who were like two hands to Fr Chavara, died respectively in 1841 and 1846. This was a great blow to Fr Chavara. Yet he continued with firm trust in the heavenly Father whom he addressed as Appa (Abba). He wrote in his Colloquies as follows: "Oh my Appa (My Father)! My heart however tells me to call you by no other name than my Appa". Such was his deep relation with his heavenly Father. After the death of the Reverend Fathers, the whole burden of the construction of the monastery fell on Fr Chavara. In spite of his busy schedule as a parish priest, retreat preacher, teacher of the seminarians he could complete the construction of the monastery. Together with some' fathers and seminarians he started gradually an austere and pious life in the monastery. On 8 December 1855 he made his religious profession canonically and the other 10 priests made their profession.
Fr Chavara's trust in the Lord enabled him to take up new ventures. He opened a Sanskrit school for children in 1846 and admitted everyone, irrespective of caste and creed. It was the first public school in Kerala. Thanks to the generosity of those around him, he acquired a field for cultivating paddy (rice fields) in order to provide a midday meal for the poor children in view of encouraging them to come to school. It was a very challenging and innovative attempt and was unheard of till then in the history of Kerala. He provided the study materials, clothes etc. for the children. He did all this "out of nothing" depending only on the treasures of the heavenly Father who is the creator and provider of all. Another significant endeavour was the establishment of the first Catholic press in Kerala. The hardships he took for it were tremendous. The non-cooperation he encountered from certain people didn't deter him and he went ahead holding the very powerful hands of God. He was successful in his effort to establish the first Catholic press of Kerala at Mannanam.
Fr Chavara yearned for the establishment of a convent for women after the construction of the first monastery at Mannanam. He writes in the Chronicles of Koonammavu Convent "...for those women who desired to live a chaste life had no way to embrace such a life-style". He hoped and prayed unceasingly to God who hearkened and answered his prayer. At the request of the Bishop, Fr Chavara, was staying with the provincial delegate Fr Leopold at Koonammavu monastery. Divine Providence brought them together. Fr Leopold happened to meet a widow called Eliswa and her daughter Anna at the Confessional, who were willing to lead a chaste life. They entrusted themselves to the parish priest, Fr Leopold. He consulted Fr Chavara who was the most experienced religious in the land of Kerala and the prior of all the five monasteries of Syrian men, as how to help the women to lead a chaste life. Fr Chavara, happily offered his whole-hearted cooperation for providing a convent for such women. As the Vicar General, Fr Chavara from his visit to parishes found women like Eliswa Puthengady, Vaikom who desired the same way of life. Fr Chavara and Fr Leopold moved with one mind to find the means for constructing a convent. And soon they were able to start construction of a small bamboo-mat convent in the land of Anna, the daughter of Eliswa, a land with a considerable debt which was cleared by the Fathers. Fr Chavara collected funds from different parishes and persons with the help of Fr Leopold and finally constructed a two storied convent building with a boarding and a residential school in a new plot within a year.
Fr Chavara was a man of contemplation and action. One can imbibe his deep spirituality from his own writings like the Compunction of the Soul, Letters and Colloquies. His deep spirituality can be summarized in the following words: "Abide in the love of Jesus Christ; always sit before his face; walk along with him; converse with him unceasingly". His union with God was total submission to his will. Like a child he entrusted himself to the providence God.
When we delve deep into the very life of Blessed Chavara we sec that he was a man of deep faith in God as well as in people. He could approach God as his Father so the people as his children, hence, his brethren. This vision of universal fatherhood and brotherhood enabled him to 'initiate and continue many unheard of endeavors for the benefit of the human beings.
Yes, he was the light of the Kerala Church and the mirror that radiated the rays of faith. As he himself testified before his death, that "the devotion to the Holy Family inculcated in me by my parents helped me to keep safe the grace that I received in baptism". This is the testimony of a true man who lived the faith in its fullness.
*Sister of the Congregation of Mother of Carmel