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Franciscans Spread Good News in Asia

AN OCTOBER 18-28, 2010, seminar on the Franciscan mission charism gathered 57 Franciscans from 14 countries in Karukutty, Kerala, India. This “Comprehensive Course” included presentations ranging from “The History of the Franciscan Movement” to “Encounter With Muslims.” During breaks, I interviewed separately the six Franciscans introduced below. But before introducing readers to them, I would like to recognize another Franciscan, Father Andreas Müller, O.F.M. Father Andreas, who lives in Würzburg, Germany, has been a key force behind the course. For many years, his program has helped numerous Franciscans around the world better understand the charisms or values that enrich their lives as missionaries.

Father Mathew Purayidom, O.F.M.Conv. (India)

Advocate of Peace and Dialogue

Father Mathew was the official host of last October’s inter-Franciscan seminar. The meeting took place on the lovely grounds of a retreat center run by the Conventual friars; he is their provincial minister.

Father Mathew is a native of Kerala, the state in India with the largest percentage of Christians. In Kerala, 25 percent of the population is Christian, with 80 percent of these being Roman Catholic.

“India is a country of many different faiths and cultures,” Father Mathew says with enthusiasm. “And these faiths and cultures generally exist together in harmony.” He acknowledges that a
good part of his Franciscan work is devoted to peace and dialogue.

“A number of our friars are involved in interreligious dialogue. This includes Hindus and Muslims. They invite us to their big feasts, and we invite them to our celebrations of Christmas and St. Francis Day. We give an annual ‘Spirit of Assisi Award’ to someone who has made outstanding efforts for peace, dialogue or similar efforts.” The award could go to a Hindu or a Muslim, as well as to a Christian.

Father Mathew, of course, is also proud of India’s Christian traditions. He spoke highly of a famous Catholic church and shrine located in the state of Goa, to the north of Kerala. Popularly known as the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier, it’s the final resting place of the saint’s bodily remains. St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was one of the great missionaries to Asia and one of the greatest Christian evangelizers of all time.

Once every 10 years, according to Father Mathew, the coffin of St. Francis Xavier is lowered from its place above the altar and opened up. At this time, especially, thousands of Christians from Kerala and other Indian states go on pilgrimage to venerate the saint’s remains and pray at this holy

Sister Stella Baltazar, F.M.M. (India)

Empowering Women

Sister Stella lives in the Indian city of Coimbatore, east of Kerala, and is the superior of a 40-member community of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (F.M.M.). She holds master’s degrees in theology and sociology. Besides teaching feminist theology in seminaries and religious institutes in India, she gives retreats on Indian spirituality. One of her talks is “Building Bridges of Understanding Among Mahatma Gandhi, Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi.”

Since 1985, she has been very active in efforts focused on the empowerment of women at the village level, as well as at the national level. “On the village level,” Sister Stella says, “women are often culturally isolated and made prisoners in their own homes.”

Too often, “the Indian culture says, ‘Your husband is your God,’ and women are expected to be totally obedient to him. What we try to do is to allow women to create their own space—to establish an identity for themselves and to establish a collective identity as women in their community. They draw strength from unity, which helps them break through culture-bound traditions and barriers.

“My aim is to assist not only Catholic women but also women belonging to different religions, castes and linguistic groups. The basis of our unity is that we are women. When women come together as a group, they become sisters.

“Then they can share their difficulties. They can stop customs such as wife beating, for example. They can get the government to create day-care centers for children so that the women can get out of the house and find work to help support their families. Or they can speak out for building water facilities
in their village and for better roads.”

Women feel powerless in instances of rape, Sister Stella notes. In such cases, she says, “They can protest the apathy of the police when they fail to take action against accused offenders.”

Referring to recent developments, Sister Stella points out: “I’ve been employed by the Diocese of Coimbatore to organize women in all villages of the diocese. This applies not only to Catholic women, but women of other religions as well.” She lives in the villages two weeks each month.

“For me, to be a Franciscan means to be committed totally to the empowerment of the marginalized and oppressed, whether they are Muslims, Hindus or Christians. Work for the Kingdom of God has no boundaries,” Sister Stella says.

“It’s all about setting people free of oppression. Only when we get involved on the side of the poor can we be the hands of Jesus lifting up the dignity of women and of other oppressed people.”

Father Tony Marshall, O.F.M. (India)

Being Friends of the Poor

Father Tony is the associate pastor of St. Sebastian Church, which he describes as “one of the biggest parishes in Chennai.” Formerly known as Madras, Chennai is a major city on the east coast of India.

The Parish of St. Sebastian, named after a famous Roman martyr of the fourth century, is located on the outskirts of Chennai and serves some 2,500 families. According to Father Tony, the parishioners are a mixture of English-speaking Indians and Tamils. The Tamil-speaking people are mostly from Burma and many of them are poor.

“The reason we chose this parish,” says Father Tony, “is that it was a poor parish, and as friars we see ourselves as taking an option for the poor. One of the projects we started was an industrial
school to help provide technical jobs for those in need. We also built an orphanage for poor boys who study in the industrial school. Also in times of calamity, fire and flood, the parish helps rebuild houses for those who have lost their possessions. And we help provide education for poor children.”

The parish has also organized a good number of small Christian communities, the friar points out. These little communities gather once a month to share the word of God, and they engage in different activities in their zone. “Each zone,” Father Tony says, “celebrates the feast of the patron saint of their small Christian community, and that community provides food for the poor in that area.

“Our Franciscan lifestyle is very simple and friendly. This helps the people feel free and comfortable with the friars. We also stay in relationship with the rich, because they can help us provide resources for the poor,” Father Tony says.

On the Feast of St. Sebastian, the patron saint of his Franciscan parish, there is an immense celebration. Novena services before the feast draw large crowds, and on the feast itself, “The people overflow onto the streets,” the friar says.

A big procession of cars also goes through various sections of the city. And as Father Tony points out, “Hindus and Muslims request that the car procession come through their neighborhoods also.” This is a good indication, he says with a smile, that the parish and the friars have a way of “creating family” even with those who follow other religions.

Sister Teresia Lukang, F.S.I.C. (Malaysia)

Caring for Creation

Sister Teresia, a Franciscan Sister of the Immaculate Conception, is based in eastern Malaysia in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. She is one of six counselors leading her 126-member religious congregation.

She also heads a group of the same sisters who are especially devoted to environmental concerns. Divided into groups of two to four, these sisters go from Catholic parish to Catholic parish to talk about the care of creation—the same care our Creator showed to the world he had just created, as described in the Book of Genesis.

A key environmental issue these sisters take up is that of opposing excessive deforestation in their country.

Another goal is to encourage citizens to find a better way to “get rid of their trash and garbage instead of scattering it along the roadside.” They are urged, rather, to use it as compost for fertilizing crops, following the “three R’s formula: recycle, reduce and reuse.”

Another responsibility of Sister Teresia is that of ministering to the youth of the Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu. “I work in the youth office every day,” she says, “seeing to the faith education of the youth of the archdiocese.” Part of her job is to teach young people to put their faith into action.

She also arranges for youth to be sent to remote villages to teach catechism.

“In the Archdiocese of Kota Kinabalu, only two percent of the people are Catholic,” notes Sister Teresia. “Many Catholics are ignorant of their own religion.” Increasingly, some are converting to Islam, which is the predominant religion in that area.

“We are free to celebrate Mass in our compound, but not on the radio,” she points out. Such open propagating of Christianity is forbidden.

At the same time, she says, “We have cordial relations with our Muslim brothers and sisters. We invite Muslim friends into our homes for Christmas and they invite us into their homes during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.

“The spirit of Franciscan joy can be catching,” says Sister Teresia, affirming that Franciscans have the potential for building family, which can be beneficial to the whole society.

Father Liangde Chen, O.F.M. (China)

Bringing Peace to People of Goodwill

Father Liangde was born in Qinghua, Shaanxi, a small town in northwest China, about 800 miles west of Beijing. He grew up with his parents and a brother and a sister. The Catholic family attended Mass every Sunday when the priest came to their town.

“Ever since I was six years old,” says Father Liangde, “the priest talked to me about becoming a priest. When I was an altar boy, my family encouraged me to do the same. During my last year in high school, I left the school and went to the Franciscan formation house. After three years, 23 other postulants and I entered the Franciscan novitiate. I was ordained a priest, along with six other Franciscan friars, by a diocesan bishop in 2003.”

After ordination, Father Liangde went to the Philippines for further studies in pastoral theology at the University of Santo Tomas and to work on his English. “In 2008,” he says, “I returned to China to assist young friars preparing for ordination and giving them courses in Franciscan spirituality.
I also promoted Franciscan vocations in other dioceses.”

Father Liangde also visited poor parishes in the region where his fellow friars were ministering. “I helped them by celebrating Mass in churches where Franciscans were helping the diocese. These were often poor churches and the people welcomed me warmly.

“Given our unique Chinese situation,” says Father Liangde, “we engage in a variety of Church activities. We train laypeople to work in their parishes, care for the sick, organize programs for youth and teach Scripture classes.”

Father Liangde thinks it might also be good for Chinese Catholics to start creative projects in their parishes, such as dramatizing the lives of Jesus and St. Francis through stage performances
at Christmastime or on the Feast of St. Francis. He also believes Catholic parishes could make use of mass media by developing parish Web sites, for example, or by showing good movies at their parishes from time to time.

If a parish has not already started the Secular Franciscan Order, Father Liangde believes, it would be helpful for them to start “a group of lay Franciscans to promote projects for the poor and other activities that would benefit the larger Chinese society.”

According to Father Liangde, “We could also begin dialoguing with non-Christians and collaborate with them on social works that would benefit all. On Christmas Eve,” he suggests, “Catholics could invite non-Christians to come to their church to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, who comes to bring peace to all people of goodwill.”

Fe Corazon de la Rosa (Philippines)

Guide for Secular Franciscans

A native of the Philippines, Fe Corazón de la Rosa is the mother of two married daughters and the spouse of Dr. Martin de la Rosa, medical director of a large Manila hospital. A Secular Franciscan for some years, Fe is often on the road, giving talks on Franciscan values in Manila and various other places in the Philippines.

She often gives presentations with Maria Renita Fabic, who is also a native of the Philippines and a friend of many years. “We give talks mainly to members of the Secular Franciscan Order and
Friends of Francis and Clare,” says Fe. “Friends of Francis and Clare are people who do not wish to become Secular Franciscans but who clearly admire the saints’ values and spirit.”

As Fe points out, “We sometimes get into ecological issues, such as improper trash disposal. This problem, of course, can cause harm to the environment and to people’s homes and property—as in the case of landslides and floods. We also encourage people to take care of their environment and not clutter it up with plastic bags and other litter.

“We encourage the practice of shoppers bringing their own bags to the market instead of encouraging market owners to supply more and more plastic to their customers. During a recent typhoon in Manila, big hills of plastic caused all kinds of trouble by preventing the water from draining into rivers. This resulted in excessive flooding and even drownings.”

Fe says that she also touches on issues of the empowerment of women and of women’s rights in her talks. “We make our listeners aware that they can go to the police and local officials to protest the abuse of women and children. Offenders can now be put in jail because there are laws in place for their protection.”

A central focus of Fe’s message is: “God loves all of us and wants us to treat each other and the whole of creation as loving brothers and sisters.”

Sidebar: The Tomb of St. Thomas the Apostle

During our interview, Father Tony Marshall happily shared information on the popularity of St. Thomas the Apostle in Chennai. “The cathedral church of Chennai,” he says, “is dedicated to St. Thomas the Apostle, and beneath the church is a tomb containing some of his bodily remains.”

Another popular church of the saint stands on St. Thomas Mount nearby. It is believed that the saint lived there and that “it is the place of his martyrdom,” says Father Tony.

The Feast of the Solemnity of St. Thomas, Father Tony also pointed out, is celebrated throughout India.

Although it is commonly believed by Catholics in India that St. Thomas brought the Christian faith to this country, not all historians agree.

On February 5, 1986, however, Pope John Paul II visited the Cathedral Basilica of St. Thomas the Apostle in Chennai. Lending support to the tradition that St. Thomas brought the faithto India, John Paul II addressed the people, announcing: “It is an honor and a special grace for me to come to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Thomas the Apostle here in Madras. As so many pilgrims before me have done, I too come to venerate the tomb of the apostle to India.”


More about the Comprehensive Course on the Franciscan Mission Charism can be found at