As a student he was destined for a banking career, but was always dominated by the desire to be a missionary to the poor of India. His encounter with Calcutta and Mother Teresa changed his life. We speak to the first missionary of charity, co-founder along with the future saint of Calcutta, of the contemplative branch of the Missionaries. First in a series.
Rome (AsiaNews) - With the upcoming canonization of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Sept. 4 at the Vatican, and the AsiaNews international symposium on the figure of the saint on September 2, we want to offer our readers first hand accounts of the influence that Mother Teresa had - and continues to have on the Church and the whole world.
Today we begin to present the story Fr. Sebastian Vazhakala, who is considered the co-founder of the contemplative branch of the Missionaries of Charity, the priestly branch of the Mother's congregation. Born September 2, 1942 in Vayala (Kerala) from a Catholic family of the Syro-Malabar rite, Fr. Sebastian kindly sat down for a lengthy interview at the Casa Serena, where he and his brothers offer hospitality to homeless people. His life, destined for a banking career, was overturned by his encounter with Calcutta and Mother Teresa. Our interview with the priest will be also available soon on video. Below part 1 of his story as told to AsiaNews operator Gian Luca Lulli.
My vocation began before I was born! According to the Bible our vocation begins when God creates us. I did not begin my vocation, I simply discovered it at a certain time.
God says to the prophet Jeremiah, who found so many excuses not to go on a mission for God ( "I'm young; I can not speak; ..."),: "I knew you even before you were formed in the womb" (cfr. Jeremiah 1.4 to 10). This means that our vocation is from before the foundation of the world!
I began to discover my personal vocation through my father's experience. He was very involved in helping others. Then there was the religious formation in catechism. When I was 19-20 years old, I found a job in a bank, but I always had the desire to go on a mission ... That was back in 1962. In that year I went to attend a vocational retreat for the priesthood. But my father did not want me to enter the seminary. I needed the help of the bishop, and so in July 1962 I went to study at the seminary.
After two years, I moved to the mission in North India, in Ranchi (Bihar) and continued my studies there. And It was there, in Ranchi, that I met Mother Teresa. Not really personally: she had come there for a conference and I heard her speak. It was in March 1966.
Mother Teresa was not popular then as she is now, but I was struck by what she and how she lived the Gospel, such as how she worked as assisting the poor. The day after hearing her speak, I went to my spiritual father and told him: Father, I have found my final vocation. But he did not want to believe me and advised me to continue my studies for another three years. However, he granted me permission to go to Calcutta to have at least a little practicle experience.
The plunge into Calcutta was a shock. Although I'm Indian, I was not prepared for a vision of such a special city. After India's independence and the division between India and Pakistan (1948) and after the division between East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (now Pakistan), in 1971, millions of people had come to India from Pakistan and were concentrated in Calcutta. This former capital of the British empire had become a "city of poverty" (the one that later was defined by an author "the city of joy”). And there I met Mother Teresa in person: it was November 30, 1966.
I said: Mother, I really like helping the poor, to serve them, have this social commitment.
She told me: We do not do this kind of social work; we work for God. I did not understand the difference. She explained to me: We do this for a person: Jesus. For He said, "I was hungry and you gave me food ... Every time you do this to the least of my brothers, you do it to me "(cfr. Matthew 25).
This explanation entered my heart. In fact, there is a difference between one who works with the poor as a profession, for a job, or to an assistance program and one that does it for Jesus. Maybe those who do it for a living will do even better, but we do it for Jesus. In our rule there is a fourth vow, that of the "gratuitous service with all your heart" for the poorest of the poor. Not just a service, but a gratuitous one with all my heart and for the poorest of the poor.
The explanations that Mother Teresa gave me were enough: I had decided that this would be my way of life.
I finished my studies, but during the holidays I spent some time in Calcutta and on April 7, 1967 I moved to Calcutta. From that day on I was together with Mother Teresa until her death, September 4, 1997.
From 1967 onwards I studied four more years in Pune, then I was transferred to Los Angeles for two years; then to New York, where Mother came to visit me.
On June 2, 1978 I arrived in Rome and March 8, 1979 I went to Borghetto Prenestino. It was then that we started the night apostolate: we went around to different districts to bring food, clothes, covers, blankets, especially in winter. There were about 40 volunteers; we would divide into three groups each night and did rounds to three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The apostolate carried us to many neighborhoods: Forlanini, Trastevere, Colle Oppio, Ponte Casilino, Tiburtina station, Termini, Piazza Vittorio ...
Because there were so many who continued to sleep in the street, we decided to build a shelter. We applied for a construction permit in 1989, but due to bureaucracy, we were passed from office to office, and only received permission on March, 10, 1992. Meanwhile, we met an architect who asked us: What can I do for you? We saw it as a sign of Providence. This happens often among us: when we need something, Providence intercedes. I told him about our project and he agreed to do the work for us. He managed the entire project and has never asked for a penny or euro!
This is how we built Casa Serena. Mother Teresa came for the inauguration on May 29, 1993. Since that day Casa Serena has offered overnight accommodation for the poorest of the poor of Rome. We have 72 beds and we would like to expand the center, but we lack the permits and the material means. Every day we have about thirty people come to our gates and we give them sandwiches or clothing. Every month, on the last Saturday of the month, we distribute food. There are about 100-120 people with a minimum pension who can not survive. They come from Laurentina, Ostia Lido, Tor Bella Monaca, Maura Torre, Casal Bruciato, Torpignattara. Once they were only old people. Now there are also many foreign migrants among them.
On the first of September, all those who come to take our packages, have been invited to the celebration for the poor, which will be held at the Santa Cecilia auditorium in Rome: we have already given out the tickets!