03/19/2007, 00.00
INDIA
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Hindu convert to become priest

by Nirmala Carvalho
Stephen Maria never went to Catholic schools but an act of forgiveness by a Christian friend towards a student who defrauded him of money led him to know more about Jesus. “The love of Jesus is not only for Christians,” says archbishop who will ordain him next Saturday.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Born in a Hindu family and educated in Hindu schools, Stephen Maria discovered Christianity when a fellow student forgave another boy who had taken his money. Next Saturday he will be ordained priest in the Archdiocese of Mumbai.

“I was born Annamalai K. on August 25, 1966, in Amaiyagaram (Villuparum district), Pondicherry, a Union territory in south-eastern India. I was the second oldest of six brothers and my parents were devout Hindus. I studied in Tamil at a degree college and all of my friends were Hindus.”

His life changed when he was 14 after he befriended a poor Christian boy, Daniel Jayraj, at school.

Daniel’s parents gave him 300 rupees to pay for examination fees but he gave the money to a fellow school mate on condition the money be returned. The next day when the boy was supposed to give the money back he refused. Daniel was pained by it because 300 rupees was a good sum for his poor family.

“I’ll beat him and get the money back for you,” Annamalai K told Daniel, “but I was surprised when Daniel told me that Jesus loves him and forgives him. Let the money go.”

Later he visited his Daniel’s small house and “his parents, too, said the same: ‘Jesus forgives the boy; Jesus loves him, so we also forgive him.’”

“I just couldn’t understand this love of Jesus which empowered this poor family to forgive someone who had taken such a large sum of money,” Annamalai K said.

“In 1990, after completing my college education, I came to Bombay [now Mumbai] looking for employment. I found a job at Malad (W) and since the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes was not too far away, I began going to the Church whenever I was free,” he said. “I would sit in Church for hours, wanting to learn something about this Jesus. ‘Help me know Jesus’ was my constant prayer.”

“As Providence would have it, this Church has a large Tamil congregation and after some time, I met Father Lourdswamy, the Tamil chaplain, and expressed my desire to learn more about the Christian faith. I joined the Tamil choir and began attending RCIA classes.”

“During this time of preparation, I wrote to my parents of my desire to become a Christian and they were angry and very hostile and for two years did not speak with me. This did cause me much suffering, but I received much consolation by praying to Mother Mary for her protection. I even began praying for my family, that they may understand what I was doing and the deep sense of inner fulfillment and happiness and calm I was experiencing for the first time in my life.”

“In 1992 I was baptised Stephen Maria. I was overjoyed. It was one of the happiest days of my life. [But] my family found it very difficult to accept my decision. When my parents received news of my conversion to Christianity they said: ‘We consider you are dead to us.’ For four years I was the only Christian in my village.”

“In 1996, I entered a seminary in the Archdiocese of Bombay and my family’s rejection intensified. However, during all this time of pain and separation, I felt the close presence of our Lord Jesus. I sensed His friendship and the guidance of His Spirit.”

“I prayed to be reconciled with my parents and yet thought I might never meet them again. When I visited my hometown, my parents did not welcome me. I was allowed to stay in the house, but no one spoke to me.”

“This home visit was a tremendous challenge. Without any cross or Marian statue, it was a difficult time. I would sneak out into the fields and take out the crucifix (which I always carry on my person) and pray fervently for grace and strength.”

“Unknown to me, my father followed me and watched me from afar. After a few days he met me in the fields and told me it was okay. God is known under different names. And over time my mother and the villagers came to accept my decision. That was a great moment for me.”

“Now, I am known as a ‘swami’ (or holy man) in the village. I sensed that my parents had discovered me again in a new way. Our love for one another has deepened and I feel so happy. My parents came for my diaconate, and are coming for my ordination.”

“The words of Jeremiah (1, 9-10)—‘Behold, I have put my words into your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’—have always inspired me.”

“I sense the Lord calling me as well, to spread the values of His Kingdom in some small way through the talents and charisma He has blessed me with.”

“In particular, I would like to empower the marginalised and motivate children and youth to realise the leadership potential they possess. God is indeed full of surprises and I am sure the best is yet to be.”

Next Saturday Stephen Maria will be ordained by Mgr Oswald, Archbishop of Bombay, who talked to AsiaNews about the event.

“Many people are touched by the love of Christ,” he said. “The love of Jesus is not restricted only to Christians. Others also experience this love through the lives of people. We do not specifically go out to “convert’ people, or engage in ‘proselytising,’ but we do announce Jesus.”

“Brother Stephen did not study in either a Christian school or a Christian college, his first meeting and experience was of Christ’s love and forgiveness.” Like him, “people hear about Jesus, and see the love of Jesus in action in and through the lives of others. True joy and happiness mean knowing that God loves you. This is witness: through their lives people reveal who Jesus is and what His teachings are. The presence of Jesus, His love, His compassion should be seen in our own behaviour.”

“Jesus on the Cross is ‘forgiveness’ and this spirit of forgiveness that he [Brother Stephen] witnessed in his early teens made him embark on this journey towards finding the source of that ‘forgiveness.’”

As for Brother Stephen sneaking out into the fields and praying with the Crucifix, Mgr Oswald said: “The crucifix is the source from which we can draw spiritual grace to build and heal. The greatest manifestation of God’s love is found in the Cross. He is the source of the spirit of love and forgiveness that helps us heal wounds and let go of grudges.”

“It is by looking at Jesus who died on the Cross that we can know that God is love. It is also by the testimony of the ‘impact’ that forgiveness has on people, that one can see the ‘spirit of forgiveness’ become a concrete example of the love of Jesus, which can transform the heart of humankind and build a civilisation of love in the world.”

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