12/04/2004, 00.00
INDIA
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From policeman to clergyman, just to be like Jesus the Good Shepard

Mangalore (AsiaNews/UCAN) – For many reasons, parishioners in St Joseph parish in Shirady, Karnataka (southern India), find Fr Sebastian Muttathupara an unusual priest. He is their 'Police achan', their 'police father', a title they gave him because he was once a police officer in neighbouring Kerala state.

Like the policeman he once was, Father Muttathupara's wants to be close to his parishioners, fighting alcohol abuse and poverty. Mariamma, an elderly woman, is one of them. She remembers that he "had hardly been five months in the parish that he had already visited my home at least six times". In those visits, he helped her son Jose quit a 30-year drinking problem. "I'll always be indebted to the priest for that," Mariamma said.

Other parishioners in Shirady have similar stories of how 'personal visits' by Father Muttathupara helped solve problems. Some days ago, 13 of them gathered in the home of one of them to thank him for restoring peace in their families by 'rescuing' them from years of alcohol abuse.

Some of his predecessors had dubbed St Joseph the 'most difficult' parish to manage in Belthangady diocese. But Father Muttathupara said he volunteered to work in the 'notoriously difficult parish' because "I could leave the police and fulfill my desire to become a priest. It is for such people that I became a priest and my mission is to search for lost souls".

For the 43-year-old priest, becoming a policeman was his childhood dream. "I was," Father Muttathupara remembers, "a strict policeman who believed more in punishing a criminal than forgiving him". Never the less, as an officer enforcing the law, he would ask himself why and how come each person he arrested became a criminal. "Very often, my enquiries ended with this question: Is he not more a victim than a villain?" he said.

"As a policeman I knew I could never pardon anybody, only punish. But as a priest I can take on the role of Jesus," Father Muttathupara explained.

The parable of the adulterous woman whom Jesus forgave caught his imagination. And his priestly call, when it came, was like an "order from above, and I could not resist it," he added.

Emmanuel Thekkedathu, a St Joseph  parishioner and former alcoholic, knows all about Father Muttathupara. "For ten years, I did not go to church. But I started attending services after Father Muttathupara took over as parish priest and left 'all other good people' to search for me," he said. "For me, he is like the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd".

Father Muttathupara has not finished dealing with criminals though, but "now I don't punish them," he said. "I just help mend their ways through Jesus". (LF)

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