TORONTO—The life and work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta continue to inspire the people of India more than a year after her death, says an Indian Jesuit priest who recently toured the Toronto area.
Father Cherian Padiyara, head of the Darjeeling province of the Society of Jesus, met fellow Jesuits last month during a 10-day Canadian visit. The recent one-year anniversary of Mother Teresa's passing prompted him to reflect on the profound influence of the founder of the Missionaries of Charity in his native country.
“One year after her death, people in India still speak of her influence, not only in the Calcutta area, but throughout the country,” Father Padiyara said. “To the Indian people, Mother Teresa was the finest expression of the Gospel being put into action. She continues to be regarded as the most effective symbol of preaching the Gospel.”
Father Padiyara, who worked with Mother Teresa on several occasions, entered the Jesuit novitiate in Darjeeling in 1970 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1984. He described his pastoral work in northeast India as serving among the poorest of the poor — a clear reference to Mother Teresa's sterling example.
Despite his administrative responsibilities as Jesuit provincial, Father Padiyara devotes most of his time to “front line” ministry to the many poor and destitute in West Bengal.
“We try to serve in areas where no others want to go,” he told the Register. “Most of the people of the region are denied opportunities as basic as learning to read and write, so much of our work is directed to educating the very poor.”
His own call to a more active service was initially inspired by his father, who encouraged him to read about the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and Father Damien, the leper priest of Mokolai. Father Padiyara was also inspired by the efforts of Canadian Jesuits who opened a mission in Darjeeling in the late 1940s and who have since sent more than 50 men to work among the local people. He said one still-active Canadian Jesuit, Brother Bob Mittleholtz, is fondly described as the “Father Teresa” of West Bengal.
While acknowledging the resignation with which many destitute Indians accept difficult circumstances, Father Padiyara says they must be given opportunities for advancement.
Father Padiyara's work centers on education and basic health care. He is especially concerned with helping families break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty by encouraging even the poorest to learn basic reading and writing skills. He also assists at a small parish in Matigara, West Bengal.
The Darjeeling provincial said many of the people in his area are known as “stonebreakers,” semiliterate settlers whose only source of income is hauling rocks from riverbeds for use in nearby quarries. It is an occupation open to exploitation and abuse, but for thousands in northeastern India, it offers the only means of making even a modest living.
Teresa Ramnarine, 18, a senior at St. Joseph's High School in west-end Toronto, knows something of the stone-breakers’ plight. During a school trip to India and Nepal in 1996, Ramnarine and her fellow students visited Father Padiyara's parish in Matigara, and worked with some of the stonebreakers. The Canadian students borrowed the stonebreakers'tools and spent part of an afternoon chipping away at large rocks plucked from the riverbed. It was their way of experiencing something of the hard reality of stonebreaker existence.
Ramnarine said entire families spend hours each day hauling and breaking large rocks for use in cement plants and quarries. “The income from this work amounts to about $4 a month for each family,” Ramnarine said, “but there is no other work available for these people.
“The people seem happy enough despite the hardship. They may be impoverished … but they are content with simple things like work, a home, and a community.”
Father Padiyara is amazed at the people's perseverance in the face of such poverty and hardship. While acknowledging the resignation with which many destitute Indians accept difficult circumstances, Father Padiyara says they must be given opportunities for advancement. Chief among these is simple self-reliance.
“We are trying to teach the local people that despite all the hardships they face, there is a way out,” he said. “They don't always have to view themselves as victims, struggling with forces they can't control. Providing the tools of self-reliance is the key to ensure that the people won't be forever enslaved on the riverside.”
He identified literacy, work opportunities, and updated skills as the basic steps in promoting a sense of self-reliance among the stonebreakers. This approach is in line with an essential component of Jesuit spirituality: that missionary work and evangelization should be tempered with social justice.
As one of the documents of the Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation notes, “In order to feel the anxieties and aspirations of the dispossessed in a way [comparable to Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola], we need direct personal experience. We can break out of our habitual way of living and thinking only through physical and emotional proximity to the way of living and thinking of the poor and marginalized.”
While success is often modest, Father Padiyara has noted a slight improvement in the lot of the stone-breaker community.
“There has been a change in the lives of the people,” he reported. “Self-reliance is growing. There is increasing awareness of the rights of these people. And the problems of illiteracy and injustice are coming to others'attention.”
Father Padiyara and those he ministers to would likely take heart from a comment attributed to Mother Teresa shortly before her passing. She was asked if her work on the streets of Calcutta, where so many hundreds of thousands were sick and dying, was little more than a drop in a bucket. “Yes,” Mother Teresa replied, “but without that drop, the bucket is empty.”
Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto.