Mumbai (AsiaNews) - "At Swarga Dwar, Christmas is an important day. We bear witness to Jesus before our guests and friends, who are mostly Hindus and Muslims. And his message becomes theirs," said Fr Vijay Rayala, regional superior of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in India, as he talks about the Heaven's Gate ashram, a residence and rehabilitation centre in Mumbai for people with leprosy founded in 1983 by Fr Carlo Torriani, also a PIME missionary.
In the past few years, the facility has also run a hostel for the healthy children of the ashram's residents, as well as for orphans. Now, after seven years as head of the centre, Fr Vijay will be away from Swarga Dwar this Christmas.
"I will miss it a lot," he told AsiaNews, "because celebrating the holiday with our guests and their friends is a special moment. Sometimes students from the nearby college spend three days with us, helping with the preparations and the decorations at the hospital. It is a very important experience for them."
For the past three months, Fr Balaswamy Thota, a PIME missionary, has been the new head of Heaven's Gate. He cannot hide the fact that he is "very excited" for his first Christmas.
The ashram currently is home to about fifty people, including 22 leprosy patients and 24 children at the hostel, one of which has recently developed the disease. Most of the residents are Hindus and Muslims with some Christians.
However, many other people are invited for Christmas celebrations. "We will have about 300 people," the priest explained. "On the evening of the 24th, the children's parents, relatives, benefactors and friends arrive. We have dinner together, celebrate midnight Mass and have a sleep over here with us."
Christmas day will begin with a big breakfast together, Fr Balaswamy said. This will be followed by "cricket and football, and various games for the children. The kids wait for this festival with joy. They like to prepare the tree and put the star on the crèche."
"At noon, all together we have Christmas lunch and then we open the presents. They are beautiful days, because they show how much we are one big family." In their packages, children find dresses, shirts and "everything that can be useful."
In order to teach them the meaning of giving to each other, the kids make greeting cards in the preceding weeks, which will then be sent by mail to the ashram's friends and benefactors, or hand-delivered on Christmas Day.