'This is our life. We are missionaries'

Sr. Lissy Maruthanakuzhy with Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil at a church meeting in Guwahati in 2010 (provided photo)

It was the desire to become a missionary that brought me to the Daughters of St. Paul in Mumbai, western India, more than four decades ago.

There, I learned the first lessons of a media missionary through theory and practice. Our mission was to proclaim the Gospel through the media of communications, we were told.

Our classes included some training in the printing press section. While my companions composed text for printing, I proofread or operated a machine that folded the printed sheets of a book. "Every sheet can redeem a soul," our formation director told us, to instill in us concentration as well as the importance of what we were doing.

We were also introduced to the importance of art, films and audiovisual materials.

Our trainers told us to be patient and reminded us what our founder, Blessed Fr. James Alberione, an Italian priest, had said in the beginning — that we would never see the fruit of our mission.

Although I was happy and contented in all that I did, the desire to be a missionary who worked among the poor in unknown places still tugged at my heart.

It was ironic that, for my introduction into such a mission, I was sent to Kerala, my native state in southern India. In Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram), the state capital, I got a chance to visit families of fisherfolks in the coastal areas as part of parish renewal programs.

There I encountered stark poverty that challenged my existence as a missionary. While our media mission caters to the elite and intellectual, missionaries among the poor attend to their physical and economic needs. They help fill the hungry stomachs because Jesus also cared for such needs. These missionaries find immediate results in the joy of the people they help.

The house visits inspired me to spend even my leisure time for the needy.

I now think that all of that was God's way of preparing me for a still bigger mission.

That came when my provincial asked me to work with a missionary archbishop in northeastern India. I had not seen Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati in person until then, but I knew of him since we had published one of his books. I asked my superior what I was expected to do. "You will have to accompany the archbishop on his village journey," she answered.

Sr. Lissy Maruthanakuzhy on a visit to Chhaygaon, a village near Guwahati in Assam in 2014 (provided photo)

I had heard about the archbishop's famous mantra for missionaries in Asia: "Whisper to the soul of Asia. No loud proclamation of faith, but gentle nudging at the heart of your neighbor in silence and love."

This is what he does when he visits villages, I learned after joining him in May 2008. To be honest, I dislike travel, but I was willing to join the archbishop's journeys just to know what he did with villagers.

Thus began my two journeys — one to interior villages and another into my own inner self.

A missionary's debut

The archbishop told me that his trips offered him opportunities to know his priests in their workplaces and villagers in their real-life situations.

My village journey began the day after my arrival. We set out to a village at 6:30 a.m. and returned after midnight. As he dropped me at the convent, Archbishop Menamparampil told me to be ready by the next afternoon to go to missions in the opposite direction.

As I was tired, I skipped the morning Mass. "Archbishop Thomas inquired about you," my sisters returning from Mass told me.

I felt ashamed. The archbishop, who is much older than I am, celebrated Mass at 6:30 a.m. even though he was more tired than I was after the previous day's long journey. I could visualize a faint smile on his face, thinking of a missionary's weakness.

That day I promised not to repeat that behavior. The archbishop, who has spent nearly six decades as a missionary in northeastern India, taught me that a missionary needs determination and commitment the most. No obstacle should stop a person committed to his duty to proclaim Christ to the poor.

Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil with a lamb during a village mission visit

We began the second day with me thanking the prelate for his understanding. He had given me enough time to revamp for another tedious mission trip. On the way he stopped at different mission places — first to meet the sisters and priests because, they seldom got visitors, and then to replenish ourselves.

While the priests and nuns vied with each other to attend to him, the archbishop was much concerned about me, a first-timer on a tough mission terrain. But I had already become a "tough" missionary, at least in my mind.

We reached our destination around 5 p.m. After refreshing ourselves, we set out with the parish priest to an interior village. There was no proper road, and our vehicle swayed on the uneven path. It zipped past forests and villages. The parish priest later told me that underground militants stayed in those villages.

He then asked the prelate, "Archbishop, you were in a five-star hotel two days ago and now you are in this jungle. How do you manage this?" He knew that the archbishop had just returned from an international meeting in Rome.

"This is our life. We are missionaries," he answered as the jeep skidded through a paddy field, making me wonder if we would ever reach the destination.

Capturing the world

Soon a thatched house and a few people came into our view.

After the vehicle stopped, the driver turned to me and asked, "How is your back?" I was touched by his concern for my bad back. But I felt quite well and refreshed that night. Healing had taken place with my willingness to venture out into the unknown for the sake of Jesus.

The archbishop told me such miracles are part of a missionary's life. Miracles are not only in healing the sick or multiplying loaves. They are also about refining perceptions, transforming hearts or opening eyes to deeper meanings.

Mass in that tiny, thatched village chapel was amazing. I felt so much at home in the May heat, sitting among the villagers in their worn-out clothes. They offered rice, vegetables and live chicken at the offertory. The joy I felt that night is still fresh in my mind. I felt as if I had captured the world. No one in my community had this unique experience.

Cultural programs followed the Mass and it was around 10:30 p.m. when we reached the catechist's house for dinner. Seeing my discomfiture with the saltless meal, the archbishop said, "Over the years, missionaries develop a missionary stomach that helps them adjust to everything."

That was my second lesson in missionary life in two days.

A bamboo house under water in a village in Tura, Assam (Lissy Maruthanakuzhy)

Would I be able to develop a "missionary stomach," I asked myself while walking sleepily through paddy fields after dinner to the place where we stayed.

It dawned on me that one needed more than a "missionary stomach" to survive in those villages. To answer nature's call, I looked around for a toilet and found none. The open fields came to my rescue.

Since the place had no toilet, I decided to get up early in the morning. Alas, even at 4:30, the sun was up and the villagers were already out with their cattle. So, I had to wait for our return to the parish house at 8:30 a.m. to use its newly built toilet — a pit with two fresh banana stems placed across it. One slip would recreate the scene from the movie "Slumdog Millionaire."

I enjoyed being so close to nature, drawing fresh water for a bath. It was fine for a day or two, I said to myself, but those missionaries lived for years in this situation.

The sacrifices the missionaries made to keep their people rooted in their faith are inexplicable. They would walk miles to teach catechism to prepare people for first Communion or confirmation. They would live in a one-room hut with a family for a whole week and forgo a bath because of water scarcity.

Agony of the masses

With every trip to a village, I was slowly converted from a city missionary to a village missionary.

A couple with their child in a village in Tura, Assam (Lissy Maruthanakuzhy)

It was again Archbishop Menamparampil who explained a village missionary's joy amid inconveniences. What drew people to Jesus was not his impressive eloquence, but his ability to enter into the agony of the masses who were like "sheep without a shepherd," unable to see meaning in their distressing condition.

The journeys helped me understand how missionaries from other cultures adjusted to the local lifestyle.

The archbishop's voice resounded in my ears: "A strong sense of mission gives meaning to one's life. One is able to stand any trouble as long as one sees meaning in what one does."

All I can say to that is "Amen."

[Lissy Maruthanakuzhy is a member of the worldwide Congregation of the Daughters of St. Paul in India and a correspondent for Matters India, a news portal that focuses on religious and social issues.]

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