Ordained last year, the priest has worked in parish outreach in Italy and with street children in India. "I learnt to attract young people,” he explains. His institute has asked him to set up a parish in the Diocese of Bagdogra. “I have prayers and faith to comfort me,” he says.
Bagdogra (AsiaNews) – Fr Prasanth Kumar Gunja, a missionary with the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) in India, is a pioneer of evangelisation in Bengal through spiritual youth outreach.
The priest, 32, was ordained a year ago. PIME chose him "as a young youth worker" to start a new mission in Bagdogra, Darjeeling, thus re-establishing the institute's presence in Bengal. Despite his youth, doubts and innumerable challenges posed by such a demanding task, he accepted with enthusiasm.
"I am alone with a great responsibility,” he told AsiaNews. “But I have prayers and faith to comfort me. I am moved when I see the efforts workers or seniors put in to come to the church to pray. I think they are more faithful than me."
During the first months in the Diocese of Bagdogra, an area known for its tea, Fr Prasanth was not without challenges. "After eight pm, there are no buses or rickshaws and it is dark because the road is not illuminated. There are elephants and snakes, and if you don't have a torch you risk falling into holes or stumbling over stones into the mud. Not to mention the mice that walk on the roofs of the huts, the monkeys or dogs that bark all night.”
"But I am happy with this experience because this is also part of the mission and I have learnt to accept it. One day for example I went to celebrate evening Mass and we used mobile phones for lighting. At that moment I thought about the life of the first missionaries and I imagined being one of them. This has pushed me even further."
At present, he lives at the cathedral parish but has started to visit nearby villages. In one of them, Kadu Banga, PIME wants him to open a church.
The institute arrived in the area in 1855, setting up the historic Bengal mission that stretched from Krishnagar (West Bengal) to Dinajpur (Bangladesh), and further north to Jalpaiguri (West Bengal) and Shillong (Meghalaya).
Later, when the British Empire was partitioned in 1947, some missionaries decided to remain in Dinajpur (East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), while in India they opted to boost the pastoral work in Andhra Pradesh.
The clergyman describes himself as a "product of PIME". He was born in Duggirala, in the Diocese of Eluru. From an early age he had contact with the missionaries and nuns of the Immaculate, the female congregation associated with PIME. From them, he learnt the history and work of evangelisation of the institute. He graduated in economics from Tiruchirapally University (Tamil Nadu), later studying philosophy and spiritual training.
At the age of 25 he went to Bangalore to help the Salesians and work with street children. "We went to the train stations,” he remembers, “to get abandoned children or runaways. We enrolled the older ones in vocational training and tried to take home those who had a family.”
“That period was a year of grace in order to understand what I wanted from life. Seeing how these kids lived, their poverty, I said to myself: ‘See how much you are helping as a lay person; imagine how much you could do as a missionary’."
In 2013, Fr Prasanth entered the PIME seminar in Monza (Italy). During his four years of training, he worked as an apostolate at the San Giuseppe Parish in Sesto San Giovanni, where he was in charge of the oratory. "I thank God who gave me the gift of dancing, singing and music. Thus, it is easier to reach out to other young people like me.”
The oratory experience was decisive "because there I learnt to attract young people". Getting in touch with kids ‘isn’t easy. Nowadays, especially in secularised West, you can't just say ‘Come and pray’; you have to show something else. We must get them to participate via their worldview, putting yourself in their shoes. Speaking in practical terms, in Italy I started with a dance or a piece of music, then invited them to a moment of prayer and reflection.”
“The same is true in India. Since the kids do not come to Sunday Mass, I go to the villages on Saturdays, I bring a drum for the music, the bongo, and we celebrate. Then I invite them to pray and listen to the history of PIME. The kids are amazed because they see that they (the missionaries) are like them, and come closer. Even when I arrived in Bagdogra, people were impressed by my behaviour, and told me I had a different charisma.”
After a brief stay in Eluru, and a few months in Pune to learn Hindi, Fr Prasanth travelled to Darjeeling in October 2018. "At the beginning I did not know that I had to prepare the ground for the new parish in Kadu Banga, which covers a territory of nine villages with 380 Christian families. But then Providence wanted me to be here as an outreach guide, so I was asked to stay. The irony of fate has meant that it was the children who taught me the language, which is now much improved,” he said.
“I visit the villages and I talk about the PIME, and people remember the old priests. In this village, there are many tea farmers, very poor, who work 8-9 hours a day for little money. The most beautiful thing is that in the evening, when it is time to pray, they are always there.”
Speaking about his work, Fr Prasanth notes that "I have been called to be a missionary not only actively through prayers, proclaiming the Word of God and the teachings of the Gospel, but also by offering my life as a sacrifice for the Passion of Christ. Such spirituality drives me every day and I'm happy to be here." (A.C.F.)