The Call that changed a Life

8 Dec

                Listening to an inner voice made all the difference

                                      The story of Radha

 

The burning desire

She was young, attractive and friendly. She had beautiful black hair, long and braided. She was the joy of her parents and the pride of her teachers. Her mates just loved her because she was friendly and kind, and had time for everyone. Yet deep down in her heart, soon after she left school and especially during her teacher-training days, there was a burning desire to do something for God and for others. There was an inner urge to step away from the comforts that surrounded her, from the security of her upbringing, from the solace of an over-protective society.

‘At an age when most of my friends were getting married,’ Radha recalled, ‘I felt an urgent and constant call to meet up with this person who wanted to enter my life.’ She then continued speaking with passion, ‘I felt a burning desire to know him, love him and follow him. It was almost like an incredible power asking for all my attention and devotion.’ It then all happened to her, almost like a benevolent tsunami overpowering her, when she began her life as a teacher of English and Social Studies in a convent school at the age of just 24. The institution, run by the Canossa Sisters, the Daughters of Charity, exposed her to the pious, dedicated lives of the Nuns that seemed to fascinate her. She began to follow them closely in all the little things they did: their daily duties, their prayer routines and their spontaneous friendliness. It wasn’t long before she was truly smitten.

Radha soon discovered that these Nuns lived their lives of simplicity and commitment because they were really ‘in love with Jesus, the person’, as she put it in her own simple way. ‘That only urged me to find out more about this Jesus. That of course was not easy for me. Even though my love for Jesus began growing and I felt a deep desire to know him, love him and serve him, I still felt very confused and a little afraid as I didn’t belong to his chosen group of followers, who were really of another religion. ’

‘I didn’t quite know how to go about it all. I loved my teaching and yet there was this almost haunting call from someone who I felt was pursuing me somewhat relentlessly. This pursuit was interfering with my teaching work, the preparations I had to do, my family commitments and my regular routines. No, it wasn’t in the way a boy friend tracks down his love-target. This was like a powerful ad that keeps coming up on the TV screen, like a message flashing across the dashboard of a driver racing through a fog-ridden highway, like a pilot desperately trying to land his aircraft through a smog-filled runway. It was all getting in the way of my obligatory tasks and my teaching commitments. I just didn’t know how to handle this call that seemed to come persistently relayed from some divine masthead.’

The message

‘Yet, the message was simple: Come follow me. Many years later I was to discover that this same Jesus had used the very same message to recruit his team, his followers. I did find out, quite a long way down the line, that he had brought on board the youthful John, the smart Mathew, the rustic Peter and even the doubting Thomas. Was I to be his latest catch? I couldn’t see myself anywhere near enough even to touch the hem of their garments. I knew I wasn’t worthy to belong to that circle of chosen disciples. I had too many issues clogging the way before I could even try to grasp the hidden agenda behind this call that seemed to be dogging me constantly. Yet there seemed to be something urgent about the message that appeared to have been packaged similar to a Christmas gift, looking quite like a hazy cloud behind a silver lining. It was so much like a glowing diadem at the far end of an enveloping mist, a glittering diamond attracting me to the end of a dark tunnel.’

‘I decided I had to do something about it. One morning rushing into school, just about in time for the morning staff briefing, with my marking pile almost bulging quite clumsily over the top of my hessian bag, I whispered to the senior Nun, who happened to be standing right next to me just inside the door of the staff-room. She had now retired from active teaching yet was always around attending the briefings, often strolling around the classroom corridors encouraging the students with her smiles and supporting fledgling teachers with her inspiring words. I just about managed to get close to her to whisper into her ear, Can I see you for a few minutes, at the morning break?

‘Yes, of course, my dear,’ came Sister Tecla’s spontaneous response. ‘That perhaps started me off to a journey that is now well on its way to what it was perhaps destined to be ,’ said Radha as she spoke of the experience of her life as it had panned out over nearly thirty-five years since it had all happened to her.

Facing the music

Yet it wasn’t quite music to Radha when she began her long journey following the beacons of her call. To begin with she was not an official follower of Jesus, a Christian. She was Radha Krishnan, a Hindu Brahman, the fourth daughter of this high caste family. Her elder sister and her three brothers were all Hindu too. When she taught in the Canossa convent in Mumbai in 1971-1972 she never imagined that she would get her world turned upside down with her family and friends spinning around in circles of disbelief and shock.

Radha, after more than 30 years with the Canossa sisters began to unravel the details of this fascinating tale, which was really not very different from that of Saul, who turned into Paul, after the same Jesus tracked him down on the road to Damascus some centuries back. She began telling her story in bits, somewhat embarrassed to speak of her personal encounters with the Jesus she was drawn to. She started by saying, ‘I enjoyed teaching these young teenage girls in school, but this calling to be with Jesus never faded. I just had to run away from home and all that I was involved with. I was first baptized Radha Maria Krishnan. I then joined the Canossa Order.’

Then, almost with a tinge of sadness and pathos she continued, ‘My family was completely shattered. I had brought shame and embarrassment on the family, especially on my parents. I had to suffer humiliation from my relatives. We were from a very traditional, Brahmin Iyengar family.  Converting to Christianity was a very big blow to our family pride. My parents suffered immensely. My elder sister was already married but she too had to bear the taunts of our well-intentioned relatives. My mother particularly was a very religious person, a devout Hindu.  Her morning began at dawn performing religious rituals. Her afternoons were spent reading sacred Hindu scripture.’

Finally, after repeated requests Radha plucked up enough courage to speak to an interviewer about the inner strength she had to live up to the call she had received. She spoke with a glow on her face, ‘But Jesus never fails his beloved. Over the years my parents, especially my mother, came to terms with my vocation as a Christian and as a Carmelite Nun. Both my parents have died, but were completely at peace with me and with my call. My brothers and sister too gradually accepted me.  Their children too are very happy and reconciled to the way I chose to live. Now they are all at peace with me and my way of life.  My relatives too are now reconciled not only to my being a Christian, a Catholic, but also with my commitment as a Nun.’

‘What gives me great joy is that the family too, in a wonderful way, is united in reconciliation. In fact, occasionally they come to the monastery with their own children – this is a matter of immense joy for me. My Spouse (Jesus) takes care also of my feelings for them and helps me cope with this separation that I have to live with. Even though all of them are still Hindu we all still feel united in quite an amazing way: and I do believe that it is Jesus who has made it all happen.’

Living up to the call

‘After joining the Canossa convent, I was sent for further studies to obtain a master’s degree. However, academic studies left me with very little time for prayer. This made me feel unfulfilled and quite restless. I had a deep desire to devote my day and night to being with Jesus, praying, meditating, sharing, doing everything, just living for Jesus. This busy academic life left a yearning within me. It was at this point that my calling to the cloistered life was discerned. I joined a cloistered Order in May 1977. These last 30 years have been the happiest and most joyful years of my life.’

Radha, at 61 years of age, is now Sister Mary Joseph, and lives in the Discalced Carmelite (cloistered) Order in Mumbai. She would be pleased if people prayed for her rather than tracked her down to get more of her story. She is happy to pray for the world, for people in suffering, for the many needs of the church and of society. She is aware of teenagers going off the rails, of marriages breaking up, of countries going to war, of grown-ups misbehaving, of parents not looking after their children and of society that needs constant reminders to live exemplary lives with those eternal values that make for good living and healthy values.  Sister Mary allowed this insight into her life to be published so that people would thank God for making things happen in her life and would pray for her to continue her commitment to prayer that she truly believes she should do. The interviewer [NC], who feels privileged to have been taught by Sister Mary in that Canossa convent school, is pleased she was able to get Sister Mary to tell her story, and prefers to remain unknown.

[Retold by T.D’Souca for Trodza Blog][Story from ‘Asia News’-November 2008]

 

Boyhood dreams shape the Chindit

4 Dec

 

                       Living through the War in Burma
The Story of Charles Stephenson written by Trophy D’Souza

Charles Stephenson grew up trying to cope with a difficult childhood. His parents thought they might control his boyhood exuberance by sending him to boarding school. That didn’t sort him out, and the unfriendly methods of discipline used left him disoriented and unreceptive to any learning.

He may have lacked motivation but he probably didn’t deserve to be one of the victims of the harsh learning systems used to deliver academic values. These methods may have worked for some rebellious or failing children in Burma but not for Charles who had all the makings of a sensitive, delicate child. Unfortunately his father too was a disciplinarian who also believed that only corporal punishment could lead to academic achievement. Guidance, counselling, understanding and support-learning were not on the agenda of either home or school those days.

Charles had it rough all the way: from home and school right through to the army and war. Perhaps there was a certain built-in resilience in Charles that helped him cope with pain and failure. It may have stemmed from an inner belief or strength he had, occasionally manifested in the way he spoke of his trust in the Divine. He endured punishment and humiliation without losing hope or looking for redress.

The trials he endured in his early years in many ways prepared him for the hardships of army life. His near-death escapes however left their own scars in the lack of confidence he occasionally showed or in the fear of the unknown that developed in later years.

In a strange way the skills he acquired in his boyhood adventures served to hone the techniques required in battle situations. They made him a soldier who was willing to take risks and to take the lead in very difficult circumstances. His gregarious instincts kept him close to his buddies and made him a mate his colleagues could rely on. His linguistic skills contributed significantly towards the intelligence required by the British army fighting an enemy hidden in the vast terrains of Burma.

He was proud to fight in the British army and was glad to have benefited from the time he spent in training and in combat. His loyalty to ‘King and Country’ as the British put it, helped to keep his enthusiasm alive and his mind focused. The story of Charles resonates with the drums of World War II even if the agonies and ecstasies take place in the peaceful and harmonious settings of the lush-green mountains of Burma. The flowing narrative helps to blend the unpleasantness of war with the softer side of life which helps to make this a truly human tale.

Trophy D’Souza who writes the book for Charles has five other books which also speak of human endurance but in dysfunctional situations. The protagonists survive or evolve through seemingly complex situations. Their resilience and self-belief also help them find solutions through unexpected human or divine intervention in their lives.

Amazon and Google sites tell you more about D’Souza’s motivating books which should really be on the bookshelves of families, homes, institutions and libraries.

Charles’ story however is really special. It is one for the road –one that has to be read and appreciated before it gets forgotten on the shelf.

The Book also has a Kindle version and is on Amazon, Google and other sites. Trophy’s sixth book was published on 13th October 2014.

Voice of Peace

13 Oct

A precious child
When she was born in 1997 Malala’s father believed he was blest to have to bring up and nurture an innocent angel. Little did he realize that she was more than a little jewel that would sparkle in dark and difficult times. Indeed the 12th July, the day she was born, was memorable in more ways than one for her father, a school teacher (and later a head teacher) who believed in the potential that this beautiful girl born into his family could bring to a developing world. Perhaps it was his poetic and parental instincts that believed that his precious one would sail through life unscathed. Poets can be naive but the rude awakening he faced would soon throw him in at the deep end. He had to quickly put on his thinking cap and his protective gear to come out to strengthen and support his daughter when she needed it most.

His daughter’s early years went by almost without incident. But dark clouds that had been floating over for sometime soon engulfed her, her family and the community around almost with volcanic ferocity when she was barely 10 years old. The picturesque mountains which Malala Yosafzai called home soon became the explosive operating zone for a fundamentalist group that believed it was their right to control and colonize people’s rights and freedoms. The group first came on the scene with messages that people would believe: those of hope, of peace and of religious beliefs. Gradually their preaching in this Swat valley in Pakistan took on the form of mild cautions and very soon they became instructions that would affect the lives of hundreds of people who had lived in peace and harmony for decades.

Facing local trouble
Soon it got more serious than the village elders could handle when the terrorist group turned dominant to show they had clout. It would seem that most of their warnings were directed at women’s role in society. One could perhaps assume that this male-dominated, gun-wielding minority felt threatened by the organized intelligence of their female counterparts. They felt they had to assume brutal control and it wasn’t long before women were ordered to cover their heads, and later their faces. Then women were not allowed to go out shopping on their own. Soon it got more stringent when girls were not allowed to get educated. They quoted religious texts to impose their restrictions, and used their unchallenged armed authority to intimidate the population. In some cases they got rid of protesters and those who stood in their way. In one word, they brought in a regime of fear!

The serene surroundings in which Malala had been brought up did not even remotely suggest that there could have been any fighting spirit in our Pakistani Joan of Arc. Yet though only 11 Malala decided that this group would not stop her or her mates from attending school. She soon had the girls of her village and of the surrounding area rallying round her to keep going to school as they had always been doing. Soon organizations like the BBC got interested in her fight for education, and at just 12 years of age helped her to start a blog where she described the activities of this extremist group that was hell-bent on banning girls from education. This brought her international attention.

Our 12-year-old Malala took up the challenge and began speaking out on behalf of 57 million children around the world who are unable to attend school. In 2011 she was given Pakistan’s National Peace Award for Youth. Accepting the honour, she made it clear that she was not a member of any political party but hoped to found, at some time in the future, a national party of her own to promote education. A secondary school was named in her honour. In 2012, at just 15, she made plans to create the Malala Education Foundation, to help poor girls attend school.

Campaign for Children’s rights
For nearly four years Malala continued her campaign to support the rights of children and of women, and it was quite surprising that she had been allowed to get on with her work as the terrorist group had attacked men and even women but had not touched children. But on October 9, 2012, when she was just 15, a young gunman from the extremist group shot her at point blank range as she rode home on a bus after taking an exam. The bullet that went through her head and neck, lodged in her shoulder near her spinal cord. Surgeons at a military hospital in Pakistan removed the bullet but her life still hung in the balance. She had to be air-lifted to Birmingham in the UK for further life-saving treatment. A five-hour operation on February 2, 2013 reconstructed her skull and restored her hearing. The extremist group who seemed thwarted in their purposes didn’t seem to have given up on their vicious plans and were on record to have said, “If we found her again, we would know how to deal with her.

On July 12, 2013, her sixteenth birthday, barely six months after her attack, she made her first public speech. Appearing at the United Nations, she said, “The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions, but nothing changed in my life. Weakness, fear and hopelessness died.
Strength, power and courage were born.”

International recognition
Malala has been named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.” Her autobiography, I Am Malala, was released in October 2013 to coincide with the one-year anniversary of her shooting. Even though she did not get the prestigious award, she was the youngest nominee in history for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2013. On Thursday, 10th October 2013, she was named the winner of the EU’s Sakharov prize, which is considered Europe’s top human rights accolade. Earlier on 27th September, 2013, she was awarded the Harvard Humanitarian award.

When asked why she would risk her life, she said, “Why should I wait for someone else? Why should I be looking to the government or the army, that they would help us? Why don’t I raise my voice? Why don’t we speak up for our rights?” She challenged the UN: “Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.”

Former First Lady (of USA) Laura Bush has compared Malala to Anne Frank, who wrote: “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Malala is indeed today’s inspiration to young people to stand up to dominant forces that can harm or cripple genuine development.

Nobel Peace Award
The 2014 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Malala Yousafzai, from Pakistan, and to Kailash Satyarthi, from India, for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people for the right of all children to education. Only 15 women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize so far. Malala is the youngest Nobel laureate ever.

“Children must go to school and not be financially exploited,” The Norwegian Nobel Committee stated in a press release. “In the poor countries of the world, 60% of the present population is under 25 years of age. It is a prerequisite for peaceful global development that the rights of children and young people be respected.”

“I think of it often and imagine the scene clearly,” Malala said on her website. “Even if they come to kill me, I will tell them what they are doing is wrong, that education is our basic right.” After her treatment in a British hospital she said that being shot had only strengthened her resolve. “They can only shoot a body, they cannot shoot my dreams,” Malala said. “They shot me because they wanted to tell me that, ‘we want to kill you and to stop you campaigning’, but they did the biggest mistake: they injured me, and they told me through that attack, that even death is supporting me, even death does not want to kill me.”

[facts from Denison Forum, Huffington Post and Wikipedia : Edited by T,D’Souza ]

Petals and Pebbles

28 Jan

‘Petals and Pebbles’ (Trifles Matter) is a programme of life. The Author, Elias Dias, uses his experience as a counsellor and pastor to examine everyday life situations in very realistic terms. The honest evaluations and the friendly style in which the facts are presented make the book enjoyable reading. The glossary and the references help to make the book one  that can be read in the comfort of one’s home, or for more serious study, or perhaps even while commuting to work. The short chapters and the subtitles offer even the casual reader the possibility of browsing or of reading just the chapters or sections that are most relevant.

A friend of the Author, who has been a teacher in secondary school in Canada, said, ‘This is an invaluably handy guide for teachers and counsellors.’ A youth worker in South Africa, involved in guidance work, said, ‘It is such a useful companion to have when I travel around for my talks and sessions.’ A Pastor in the Philippines said, ‘This is a book I would like to recommend to my priests in active ministry. They have such a wealth of information and guidance in the book. The Author deserves praise for making the book such a handy and well-written volume.’

Fred Gomes, an active and committed Christian in Eastern Australia, believes that ‘Petals and Pebbles’ is a lovely compendium of facts, anecdotes, events, incidents, situations…put together to offer the reader thoughts on sound moral principles. The author’s experience as a preacher and a teacher has helped in presenting these inspirational thoughts for anyone looking for values in life. The book , which is an excellent guide and resource, reinforces the advice offered with quotes from the works of great thinkers, writers, sages and saints. It is book that should help bring change to many hearts and minds.

Matt Thomas from Australia, who spent many years as a lay pastor, thinks the book has ‘a lot of the friendliness and pastoral style of Pope Francis’ in it. ‘I am recommending the book to many pastors I know, either directly or by email,’ he said.  The stories in the book relate to the day to day lives of everyone no matter where the person is. Many aspects of the life of an individual are brought into the context of Jesus in the Gospels. The language of the stories is also very simple and clear. I am sure that the book will be of great assistance to group leaders, managers, priests, religious and everyone who is involved with young and old people. The book is clearly one for the 21st. century. The book sticks to the truth, but does make everything relevant and up to date, as much related to Vatican II as to Pope Francis’ messages to the Church today.

The Editor, Trophy D’Souza, has added a touch of friendliness and realism by helping to refine the fine details both in language and in content, making it a volume that managers, who deal with ordinary people in different walks of life, must have in their collection.

This edition of ‘Petals and Pebbles’, which has been edited ( and largely re-written ) by Trophy D’Souza, is Trophy’s fifth book. It has been published by  www.Amazon.com and will be available  from February 2014. The original edition was published by Tejprasarini, a Don Bosco organization in Mumbai, India.

They called him ‘Capo’

8 Dec

They called him ‘Capo’

A Hidden Gem

On one of my business trips to Kolkata, I caught up with an old school friend.  We were just delighted to chat about old times while trying out a delicious Chinese in the sort of China Town haunt of Kolkata, Tengra. In fact we chatted away the hours on that December afternoon, in late 2010, focusing mainly at the profound past of a hidden gem, a teacher who had left a lasting impression on our lives. His passing away in May 2009, at 82, in a Kolkata hospital after a period of illness borne with great patience, was the starting point for our recall.  In his earlier days my friend had worked alongside this great teacher whose colourful career had truly endeared him to us.

‘By the way, Chetan,’ I started off after a sip of green tea, ‘why did they call him Capo?’

‘Oh that’s the name everyone liked to call him. Not quite sure why. And I think he too liked it,’ said Chetan.

‘I thought Capo was part of a guitar, or perhaps it meant Head, in Italian?’ I replied.

‘Yes, you’re probably right. He might have gone with it because he felt happy to be the sort of ‘available man’ (in a good sense), ready to help anyone who needed assistance…He kind of knew how to take charge of the situation when someone needed help in his areas of ‘availability’, or was in a sort of tight corner.’

‘Sounds plausible,’ I said. ‘But, another thing: why did he blush all the time?’ I asked again.

‘Well, that’s his shyness. I think he must have missed out on drama classes at school,’ said Chetan.

‘Now, that’s silly. I’m sure he’s had solid training before coming out to India.’

‘Yes, you’re right. In fact he’s did what some would call ‘solid training’, back in Italy, including a Licentiate in Philosophy. ’

‘Then why was he sent to a school? Of course we were lucky to have him, but shouldn’t he have been sent up there to the Darjeeling College to teach Philosophy and some of the more serious stuff?’ I prodded again.

‘Well, well. You’re a bundle of questions today…Actually this is what happens in religious Orders. You just have to do what you’re told to do. You don’t really have a choice. Well, we know he got there eventually. He spent more than 20 years teaching in the Darjeeling College.’

‘So, what shall we order?’ Chetan asked.

‘I think I’d like chicken noodles in oyster sauce. How about your order?’

‘Maybe I’ll order a stir-fry mixed veg, and then we could kind of try a little of each other’s dishes.

‘Sounds great to me. And if we want we could order again,’ I suggested.

‘Yes, perhaps that’s the way to go, since we’ll be in here for a while.’

Beginnings

For the devout Italian couple, Tomaso and Zorsi, and their seven children, living in the somewhat remote hamlet of Santa Giustina in Colle, only 6 km from Padua, in northern Italy, nothing could have been more gratifying than to have had four of their children devoting their lives to the service of others. Tomaso occasionally brought home a few files from his work as a clerk, only at weekends of course. Usually it was some unfinished notes or plans he had to work on that his eldest son, Feliciano (without any confidentiality being broken), might have helped him tidy up. Yet, somehow when the children were growing up there was noticeable a sort of a focus of the parents, and of the elder children, on Beppi, the youngest boy. He seemed a plucky kid quite the ‘faithful companion’ of his mum, keeping her company with some of her chores or perhaps walking her occasionally to the grocer’s or the stores on the side streets of Santa Giustina.

Everyone in the family noticed that in spite of his helpful ways and his humorous spirit there seemed to be a serious streak in him, a quiet and thoughtful side that he never seemed to reveal. Until, one day, our little hero surprised them all. He had seen his two elder sisters go on to lives of commitment and that perhaps strengthened his resolve to do something special for God! In fact, he took the boldest step of all: to devote his life and energy to the service of people in distant shores.  The loss of his elder brother during World War 2 in 1942, when he was in training to serve in foreign lands, did shake Beppi’s composure but not his commitment.

The Quiet One

At school he was friendly with his mates, even if only in a gentle way , good at his books and trusty as a mate, as his younger sister, Imelda, (now a nun) reported, ‘He didn’t really stand out as being someone special in school or in the Verzotto family when he was young. But he was one we were all really fond of.’ Many years later she added, ‘We couldn’t believe he would actually go off to distant lands. It nearly broke the hearts of Mum and Dad when he left for India. They took a long time to get resigned to the fact that they might never see him again.

His parents found him a most genial child to have around, pious, affectionate and devoted.  He was glad to run errands for his mum and even in his early years showed rare patience in helping his dad with his off-duty chores. In spite of all their fondness for him, his religious parents and his elder siblings did not put any pressure on him to make his life choices. However, it would seem quite probable that when the two elder sisters joined up religious Orders the seed of religious dedication must have been planted in the heart of Beppi. Perhaps what he didn’t realize then was that he too would inspire his younger sister, Imelda, to join a convent.

The Journey

When he felt that the time was right for him, in 1953, Beppi had to have that memorable conversation with his parents that was the equivalent of a fond farewell as well as of a quiet proclamation of one setting out on the journey of a lifetime! He had decided to devote his life to people he hadn’t met, to lands he hadn’t seen and to commitments he didn’t have a clue about. He was in some ways like Damien° of Molokai, Teresa° of Kolkata, Flanagan° of Boys’ Town, or perhaps Ravalico° of Assam:  people who totally dedicated their lives for others. In reality, Beppi’s dedication was no different. Even after years of untiring work and selfless service he decided he would not take the ‘home leave’ legally granted to those who chose to work overseas, which in his days was a two-month leave every five years. He was giving up his life for others and he wanted it to stay that way!

‘Mama,’ he said as he embraced his mother, ‘I’m going to miss you, but I’m going to have you in my thoughts and in my heart…You have shown me how to love, and I want you to believe that I want  to share that love with other people.’

‘Papa,’ he said as he asked for his father’s blessing, ‘I want you to be proud of me. I want you to know I have loved every moment with you, and have learned from you more than I can ever give to others…You have been a shining example to me by your dedication to work and by your love for me. You will be with me every day of my life because you taught me how to live.’

‘But, we’ll see you again,’ said his mother. ‘You must come on your holidays, after five years.’

‘I’ll do my best, Mama, but it’s so far away.’ As he saw his mum’s tears rolling down, he tried to assure her with, ‘But I’m going to try….I don’t want you to worry. I’ll be fine, and you’ll always be in my thoughts and in my prayers…Mama I don’t know how to thank you….’ His assurance apparently didn’t really help as she let her feelings be drowned in copious tears.

‘Beppi, you’ve got to make it back sometime,’ his father reminded him. ‘The other priests and nuns all take their turns for home-leave. Come at least for a few weeks, for a bit of a breather in the middle of all the hard work you will no doubt be doing….at least to find out how our pasta tastes and how our wine keeps us healthy and cheery!’

Well, the fact is that even when his bosses, his Provincials and Superiors, did their best to coax him to return for a holiday he believed that staying around, at his regular chores, or perhaps at some special activity of administering to the sick and those in need of spiritual assistance, was his holiday. Deep in his heart it was unshakable commitment: it was Damien, Teresa, Xavier° and Thomas° (the Apostle) all rolled into one!

The Commitment

In fact from 13th August, 1953, when he first landed in Mumbai till his passing away in  Apollo Hospital in Kolkata, on 6th May, 2009, Beppi, (meaning Joseph), the name Father Joseph Verzotto was affectionately known by, never really took a holiday. However, as records show, he actually did a few forced battle retreats!  On a few occasions, almost under orders from his Provincial Superior he was almost ordered back home: once for the funeral of his father and at other times because of family pressure. On these occasions his colleagues almost had to pack his box and push him off (sort of waiting till the plane actually took off), because true to his ideals he was always reluctant to abandon his post and his obligations. Quite in keeping with his style he stayed barely a month each time and was back at duty once again: almost in inimitable total dedication shutting off even grieving and closure, e.g. at his father’s passing away, to be where he felt urged he had to be –at his duty or at his accustomed post of availability.

He seems to show a sort of strong resemblance to ‘the boy stood at the burning deck’ in Casabianca. He didn’t have to stay that totally bound. In large organizations there is always provision for support, replacements and standbys. But he just felt he didn’t want his burdens of duty thrown onto others (in this case his teaching commitments at college and his ministry to the local Nepali people he lovingly catered for). But that was the brand of steel that this blessed sword (Capo) was made of. Its sharpness and its simplicity also cut through the complicated battle lines of arrangements and conventions, or even of doubts and uncertainties. He wasn’t hampered by any cramped style or hedged in by others’ opinions. He did what he felt inspired to do for his community and the people he served, always ensuring he was at peace within his own soul. Perhaps he went with one of the sayings of the great Saint Francis of Sales°, ‘Niente ti turbi’, which in Italian means ‘Let nothing ruffle you.’

The Trail

Beppi was not just a regular at his church obligations back home when growing up.  He was eager to listen to the talks and discussions by ‘returnee’ pioneers who used to speak at Churches in Padua. Padua, the home of the holy man of Padua, Saint Anthony, was also quite a focal point of social and religious activity in the north east of Italy. We could be led to believe that the life of simplicity of Anthony of Padua must also have left an impression on his own desire to strive for holiness in simplicity. Sometimes some of these special talks from pioneers who were on home leave or on promotion tours got their sessions outsourced to Santa Giustina, a sort of outpost to the main centres of Padua. Beppi would give up quite a lot of his free time, sometimes hurrying back after school, to listen to and often talk to some of these great men and women who came to speak at his church or parish hall. It all helped to feed and strengthen his desire to go overseas to serve others.

Back on his own he tried to find out more about India, which seemed to fascinate him more than Africa perhaps.  It wasn’t just the elephants and the Himalayas there. It was particularly the challenge of the cultural and social diversity that the country seemed to offer that attracted him. For him they were people who might benefit from his friendly presence and his tiny contributions. He also believed that he could learn valuable lessons and teachings from these great peoples, their beliefs and traditions.  He was eager to learn some of their languages and customs. Above all for him they were souls he wanted to gain for Christ. That is where the zeal of Xavier and of Ravalico° (one of the great Salesian° missioners from Italy, who did pioneering socio-educational work in India) truly showed. It all soon became a reality when he opted for  the ‘Salesian’ missions In India when he took his vows in the Order of Saint John Bosco, (also known as Don Bosco), the modern educator whose life had more than captivated his heart.

In fact, it would take several volumes to speak of the incalculable good this humble priest did for adults as well as children, to simple folk as well as to academic specialists over the half-century he spent in India. As a priest he spent most of his life in India teaching at Seminaries: first, for a few years in Bandel (near Kolkata) in the Junior Seminary as Head of Studies and Spiritual Director and then for 22 years as teacher of Philosophy, Spiritual Counsellor and Capo (as we’ve described him) in the college in the Darjeeling area. Here in his own unassuming way he also worked with the local people, learning Nepali and dealing with people’s issues of ordinary family living, something quite different from the disciplined lectures on philosophy and ethics to the college students.

Always ‘Capo’

He then spent the last 20 years (of his 56 years in India) serving very much as almost the ‘anchor’ man (or ‘Capo’ perhaps) in the Provincial House in Kolkata helping out (almost unobtrusively) with his expertise in different areas (from postal advice to funding tips) and especially offering his priestly ministry (and spiritual counselling) to his fellow priests and religious and to several convents of nuns, particularly to the Sisters of Mother Teresa. Besides his Bandel and Darjeeling days he also did a stint in what could be called (socio-educational)‘rural centres’, in the Krishnagar area, about 100 km outside Kolkata, where he had to learn a new language, Bengali, to be able to do his work.

His family will certainly miss Beppi, their fond relative, while his friends and students will feel the loss of their affectionate ‘Capo’. His presence used to light up any room even if he stayed in the background. And even if he seldom projected himself or his views his winning smile spoke volumes. He always kept busy doing things for others and helping his community. If our ‘Capo’ were alive in 2013 he might have looked to Pope Francis°, the Pastor whose humility and simplicity are as powerful as the great teachings he presents to the world.  He might have been Capo’s model and inspiration. I’m sure Saint Peter° , who for me is the ‘Minister for Home Affairs’ in the Lord’s kingdom, will have figured out a role for this tireless worker, this hidden gem, who could very well function as ‘Capo’ even up there!

Trophy D’Souza – www.trodza.wordpress.com

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°Damien (1840-1889): Belgian priest who spent his life working for lepers in Molokai, Hawaii.

°Flanagan (1886-1948): Irish priest, Joseph Edward Flanagan who started Boys’ Town for orphan children in Nebraska, USA.

°Francis de Sales (1567-1622):The French Saint known for his  calmness, amiability and kindness, after whom some religious Orders have been named, including the Salesians of Don Bosco (‘Salesian’ comes from ‘Sales’).

°Peter:Saint Peter –Apostle (d.64 AD). He was the sort of ‘Prime Minister’ among the Apostles: the one Christ chose at crucial points in His life. This is perhaps what let some traditions fondly believe that he is the ‘bouncer’ at Heaven’s door!

°Pope Francis (b.1936): the present Pope of the Catholic Church, Pope since March 2013 (originally from Argentina): has shown by his humility and simplicity of life that he cares for the poor and those who need God’s mercy and compassion.

°Ravalico (1906-1967): Italian priest, Aloysius Ravalico: who joined the Salesian Order (sdb: Salesian of Don Bosco) and did tireless pioneering socio-educational work with several groups in North-Eastern India.

°Salesians: The Order founded by Saint John Bosco (1815-1888) in 1857, known as ‘Salesians of Don Bosco’ (sdb), working in over 130 countries, with over 16,000 members: in schools, colleges, universities, orphanages, youth centres and parishes.  

°Teresa (1910-1997): Albanian nun, Mother Teresa, who set up works of charity in Kolkata for the poor and the destitute. Her 4500 Sisters (nuns), and the other Orders she founded, now work in 133 countries around the world..

°Thomas: Saint Thomas: (d.72 AD) one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus Christ, who brought Christianity to India (in 52 AD).

°Xavier: Francis Xavier (1506-1552): who spread Catholicism in India and in the Far East and was also the –co-founder of the Order of the Jesuits (with Ignatius of Loyola) –a religious teaching Order.

Home is where the heart is

7 Dec

Home is where the heart is

Personal Journey

Almost tiptoeing out of the house, early one summer morning, he took just a little suitcase and a side bag and left for the 7.30 am train that would take him to a destination only he was sure about. That was indeed a difficult move for a boy to be able to leave home almost against the wishes of his Dad who controlled not only a close-knit family but also the trains at the railway station. His father, besides being a caring organizer of whatever went on at home, was also the Station Master of Mariani, a vital link railway junction in North East Assam (India), particularly in the aftermath of World War II.  So it must have taken meticulous planning for this 16-year-old (high school graduate) to make all his travel plans in May 1947, without giving away any clues to his Dad.

But, why the secrecy? In fact, he found it not too difficult to slip away from everyone’s attention as all the focus that day was on his youngest sister who was born early that very morning, 27th May. Well, his Dad wasn’t eager at all for this promising young man to be going off to be, as he put it, ‘locked away in some monastic enterprise’. He wanted his son to be the proud inheritor and master of an exciting world that he would be privileged to organize for his first-born. There were three more boys born after him (and three girls too), but this was the prized one of the family and his Dad wanted to ensure he was groomed to take on an exciting career.

So, what were the boy’s plans? Jarlath’s heart was set on spending his life for the people he felt needed his expertise and his dedication. Like ascetic-minded men before his time, like Anthony of Padua° or Ignatius of Loyola°, he had no interest in a career in the world. He knew what he wanted and he was eager to follow his dream. He had spent his teenage years growing up with the Holy Cross Brothers, a teaching Order, in Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal in undivided India), and their life of commitment had seemed to suit his plans for a life of service.  After nearly 48 hours of travelling, connecting by train and by bus, he was finally able to present himself to the Superiors (Managers) of the CSC Order in Dhaka.  He was the first one of Asian/Indian backgrounds to join the Order (CSC –Congregazione Di Santa Croce –Congregation/Order of the Holy Cross) that was founded in Canada.

After his training years he moved up the ranks from supervisor and teacher to managerial positions. He spent many years teaching in Barisal, Chittagong° and Dhaka, and was for many years Principal of Saint Placid’s High School in Chittagong. He was also for a few years the Provincial Superior of the Brothers’ Order in Bangladesh. The Brothers and the Priests run separate Orders under the same title ‘CSC’.

But over all those years Jarlath never lost sight of his desire to serve where people needed him most. After many years in the teaching profession, and while at teaching, he started a few socio-educational movements and also got deeply involved in helping others with his advice, his counselling and his commitment. His expertise was also valued by the leading Scouting movements in the country, while Church organizations sought his advice in their developing plans. His many years in the education sector linked him up with students and parents who maintained healthy links with him, while his patient efforts at peace and justice initiatives, through BICPAJ and his presence on other committees, singled him out as a valuable ‘resource person’ on matters educational, social or religious.

Peace Initiatives

In 1983 he helped found BICPAJ [Bangladesh Inter-Religious Council for Peace and Justice]. This inter-faith and human-rights-oriented organization was established by a group of like-minded Muslims and Christians. He took the lead in this and was and still is the central point of reference in all that the organization is and does.

BICPAJ, one of the oldest organizations of its kind anywhere in the world, is a religious non-profit NGO, which deals with justice and peace issues. The council also runs projects for youth and poor children. BICPAJ’s peace education centre has staff trained in conflict resolution, in social education and in women’s empowerment.  Training programs focus on young people, women and the ethnic tribal people of Bangladesh.  BICPAJ is not sponsored by or affiliated to any church, mosque or similar body. Though it runs an ‘open-membership’ policy, the Chair-Person and most of the members are Muslims, men and women.  The ideology is very much Bible-inspired and with Liberation Theology leanings.  BICPAJ also uses and promotes the philosophy of Gandhi’s Non-Violence and the thinking of people like Paulo Freire° and Martin Luther King°.

In trying to achieve its objectives, BICPAJ engages actively in the campaign for adult literacy, which it sees as the key to social development and human understanding.  BICPAJ runs 30 schools for adults in Dhaka city and in other places. It uses its own textbook, Ja Chai (What I Want), based on the methods of Paulo Freire.

The slogan of this organisation is ‘Peace and Justice’.  John P Hastings, a British pioneer, played a pivotal role in establishing this organization together with Brother Jarlath. Since 1951 John was involved in development activities in West Bengal (India), particularly for improving the life of the Santals. During the Bangladesh war of independence (1971), Hastings provided health services at the refugee camps in Salt Lake, Kolkata, where millions of Bangladeshis were sheltered. He saw a need for this organization in Bangladesh, and so set up a network to promote inter-religious friendship, which is what BICPAJ does today. Brother Jarlath as Secretary of BICPAJ is fully in tune with the drive of Hastings to fight illiteracy and to promote learning, peace and justice. In fact besides promoting schools Hastings also wrote 8 books for the courses conducted in these schools. ‘We try to make them think differently,’ says Brother Jarlath, ’and dream of a better future.’

Jarlath, who was born in Chittagong, has spent more than 35 years of his life as a teacher and social expert in Bangla culture, which has won him the respect of ordinary people and of organizations.  He has been the Secretary of BICPAJ for over 25-years, writes and lectures on peace and human rights and is active in interfaith dialogue. Brother Jarlath D’Souza CSC can be contacted:  in Dhaka, Bangladesh. at: bicpaj1@gmail.com

Lectures and Media

Jarlath has written many books on the social settings in Bangladesh and has also written several poems. One of his books of Poems is, PHOENIX-LIKE, HOPE ARISES, published by BICPAJ in August 2007. In the poem, ‘Phoenix-Like’ he speaks poetically of the ease with which he can relate to noise as well as to peace, as both co-exist in a world that continues to ‘live’.

Jarlath is a member of the Association EATWOT [Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians] and contributes to their magazine/journal: Voices from the Third World. In the June 2009 Special volume (that had for its theme: Eco Crisis –Theological Visions) he wrote a thought-provoking article, ‘Water, Earth and Theology for another World’.

In 2010, on Nov 9th, Jarlath delivered a lecture as part of the prestigious ‘Nostra Aetate’ series on, ‘Toward a Theology of Indigenous Peoples of Bangladesh’ at Saint Edward’s University in the USA, at the invitation of his Order. Saint Edward’s is a liberal arts university in Austin, Texas in the Holy Cross tradition, with over 5000 students from diverse backgrounds. Reverend Edward Sorin, CSC, who also founded the famed Notre Dame University, named Saint Edward’s after his patron saint when he started the university on farm lands south of Austin in 1878.

Jarlath is also involved in FOR [Fellowship of Reconciliation] and writes for their publications or delivers lectures at their forums. The FOR organization have been working for peace, justice and non-violence, since 1915. He contributes to the ‘Holy Cross International Justice Office’ (based in Notre Dame, USA) which brings out reports and developments on peace and justice efforts of the Order worldwide.  He sent in thought-provoking contributions during the Iraq war.

In1992 Jarlath co-authored a book with Philip Gain, published by SHETU, on the Rohingyas. The

Rohingyas are an ethnic group who practice Islam and speak Rohingya, an Indo-European language,  closely related to Chittagong Bengali. The origin of this group of people is disputed with some saying they are indigenous to the state of Rakhine (or Arakan) in Burma and others contending that they are Muslim migrants who originated in Bangladesh, and migrated to Burma during the period of

British rule. The Rohingyas are linguistically related to the Indo-Aryan peoples of India and Bangladesh.  As of 2012, 800,000 Rohingyas live in Burma. According to the United Nations, they

are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. Many Rohingyas have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, and to areas along the Thai-Burma border. More than 100,000 Rohingyas in Burma continue to live in camps for internally displaced persons, forbidden by authorities from leaving.

In 1997 Jarlath, as the coordinator from BICPAJ, organized ‘Non-Violence Training for Buddhist Women’ in the Chittagong area, supported by BPFB (Peace Fellowship of Bangladesh). Nearly all the participants were Buddhist tribal women. The programme which focused on the disturbances in the Chittagong hill tracts offered strategies that could be used to cope with situations using non-violent means. Role Play and other practical methods were used to develop the communication skills of the participants who had mixed literacy levels. Methods used by Mahatma Gandhi°, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela° were highlighted. The entire programme was supported by the Women’s Support Group of IFOR (International Fellowship for Reconciliation) Netherlands and Caritas Bangladesh.

Jarlath is a ‘General’ Member [registered] of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh and contributes articles to its journals and newsletters. In 2009, on 7th February, Jarlath attended the re-union of the OPA (Old Placidian Association) of Saint Placid’s School Chittagong (founded in 1853), and delivered a speech that recalled his experiences in the school as a student in the 40s and a headmaster in the 60s. He said, ’It makes me proud that the school has scaled newer heights of excellence in the last half-a-century’.

Epilogue

Jarlath continues to be the sort of ‘dark horse’ figure (often in the background) who would appear to influence more lives than one would imagine. He certainly left an impression on the many who came into contact with him through his Scouting days (especially when he was Chief Scout of Bangladesh) or when he spoke on peace and reconciliation at important meetings (in and outside Bangladesh), or when he spent all those years as Principal of Saint Placid’s School (Chittagong), or perhaps over the years he has led the BICPAJ movement (from Dhaka) almost single-handed. Or perhaps it is just his unassuming ‘spiritual’ charm that touches hearts ‘more than words can say’. Whatever it is, ‘Brother Jarlath’ as he is known today, continues to exert a salutary influence (that he himself is perhaps not aware of) on people’s lives and to energize the thinking of the many people, ordinary or learned, who interact with him. For Jarlath ‘home’ is his ‘mission’, to be at the service of others.

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°Anthony of Padua (1195-1231): born of a rich, noble family in Lisbon, Portugal, who spent his life in Padua. He left to join the Franciscans against the wishes of his family.

°Chittagong, Dhaka and Barisal: cities/towns in Bangladesh.

°Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556):born to a rich & noble family, in Spain, who gave up a successful career in warfare to found the Order of the Jesuits that has influenced the Church and the world.

°Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948):Indian leader and freedom fighter, and pre-eminent exponent of Non Violence.

°Martin Luther King:(1929-1968):a humanitarian and a leader in the African-American Civil Rights movement in the USA.

°Nelson Mandela (1918-2013):South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, promoter of forgiveness and reconciliation.

°Paulo Freire:(1921-1997)Brazilian philosopher and educator ,leading advocate of ‘critical pedagogy’, best known for his influential work ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.

Airline Lunches

10 Oct

I put my carry-on in the luggage compartment and sat down in my assigned seat. It was going to be a long flight from Gatwick* UK, London’s second largest airport.
‘I’m glad, I have a good book to read, Perhaps, I will get a short sleep,’  I thought.   Just before take-off, a line of British Army Youngsters came down the aisle and filled all the vacant seats, totally surrounding me. I decided to start a conversation. ‘Where are you blokes headed?’ I asked the young man, seated nearest to me.   Cyprus. We’ll be there for two weeks for special training, and then we’re being deployed to Afghanistan. After flying for about an hour, an announcement was made that lunches were available for five pounds. It would be several hours before we reached Cyprus, and I quickly decided a lunch would help pass the time.   As I reached for my wallet, I overheard a soldier ask his mate if he planned to buy lunch. ‘No, that seems like a lot of money for just an airline lunch. Probably wouldn’t be worth five Quid. I’ll wait till we get to Cyprus.’  His mate agreed.   I looked around at the other soldiers. None were buying lunch. I walked to the back of the plane and handed the flight attendant a fifty Pound note.
‘Take a lunch to all those soldiers.’ She grabbed my arm and squeezed it tightly.   Her eyes wet with tears, she thanked me. ‘My young bloke was a soldier in Iraq. It’s almost like you are doing

it for him.’ Picking up ten lunchboxes, she headed up the aisle to where the boys were seated. She stopped at my seat and asked, ‘Which do you like best – beef or chicken?’  ‘Chicken,’ I replied, wondering why she asked.  She turned and went to the front of the plane, returning a minute later with a dinner plate from First Class. ‘This is for you.’  ‘Thanks.’

After we finished eating, I went again to the back of the plane, heading for the rest room. An old bloke stopped me. ‘I saw what you did. I want to be part of it. Here, take this.’ He handed me twenty-five Pounds.
Soon after I returned to my seat, I saw the Captain coming down the aisle, looking at the aisle numbers as he walked, I hoped he wasn’t looking for me, but noticed he was looking at the numbers only on my side of the plane. When he got to my row he stopped, smiled, held out his hand, and said, ‘I want to shake your hand.’   Quickly unfastening my seat-belt I stood and took the Captain’s hand. With a booming voice he said, ‘I was an army pilot a long time back.  Once, someone bought me lunch. It was an act of kindness I never forgot.’ I was embarrassed when applause was heard from all of the passengers.   Later I walked to the front of the plane so I could stretch my legs. A kid, who looked about 18 was sitting about six rows in front of me, reached out his hand, wanting to shake mine. He left another twenty-five Pounds in my palm.

When we landed, I gathered my belongings and started to depart. Waiting just inside the aircraft door was a man who stopped me, put something in my shirt pocket, turned, and walked away without saying a word. Another twenty-five Pounds!   Upon entering the terminal, I saw the soldiers gathering for their trip up to their training area. I walked over to them and handed them seventy-five Pounds. ‘It will take you some time to reach your training area. It will be about time for a sandwich. God Bless You Blokes.’

Ten young blokes left that flight feeling the love and respect of their fellow Brits. As I walked briskly to my car, I whispered a prayer for their safe return. These soldiers were giving their all for our country. I could only give them a couple of meals. It seemed so little.   A British Serviceman is someone who, at one point in his life, wrote a blank cheque made payable to ‘United Kingdom’ for an amount of ‘up to and including my life.’   That is Honour, and there are way too many ‘foreigners’ in this country who don’t understand it.’

Hope you have the strength and courage to pass this along to everyone on your email list….

Or perhaps just get them to read this blog: www.trodza.wordpress.com

(AA-pl) (Edited by T.D’Souza)

(*GatwickAirport: was once a Manor, then a Goat Farm and later a Race Course.)

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