Newsletter of the District of Asia

 November-December 1999

An Indian Marian Pilgrimage

The notion of Pilgrims, which at first conjures up images of the Mayflower, intrepid black-clad Puritans, and Plymouth Rock, is as old as Christianity itself. We are pilgrims from our Baptism, which makes us merely visitors to this mortal world, through which we make our journey towards Heaven. The great preachers used this image to animate their listeners to despise the passing things of this world, and not to become attached to earthly joys, which some day will necessarily torn from our grasp. It is an enduring image, and more so for those who have undertaken a pilgrimage themselves.

Pilgrimages are as old as Christianity: in fact, I have come to see that they are older than Christianity, forming part of the natural religious urge of humankind. Every year we see numerous Hindu pilgrims, traveling many days on foot to the chief temples in the South. In the age of Martyrs, Christians were visiting the Holy Land, the sepulchres of Sts. Peter and Paul, and countless local cemeteries, where the martyrs were interred. The various places where our Lady was devoutly invoked, like Compostella, and the Holy Land, and even the monkeries of the Thebaid in Egypt during that country's Christian hey – day, were sought out by Christians as places where their prayers and supplications would more easily reach heaven. We traditionalists can look with pride at the vast crowds at the pilgrimage of Chartres, and Auriesville, and CroaghPatrick, where the vitality of the faith of Pilgrim Catholics is displayed and strengthened.

It seems that the idea behind a pilgrimage is two-fold. Everyone knows that there are some places which are holier than others – the sanctuary is holier than the nave, the church is holier than the shop, and the priest is holier-than-thou. Places where great saints have labored in their sanctification, the sand where the martyrs spilled their blood, and the roads and hills sanctified by the footsteps of Our Divine Lord are quite evidently more sacred than our Town Square. But the pilgrim goes with a prayer, a supplication, petitions galore – favors to ask of Heaven which require more than the usual protestations of faith. So often, there is an arduous journey, during which we keep our thoughts always heavenward, and we clasp to our breast the desires of our soul, hoping that by offering up the sufferings of the journey, we will successfully move Heaven to grant our requests. It can be penitential, as well, when the penitent washes away the filth of his sins with the tears and sweat of the highway.

Several weeks ago, I had the idea to join with a small group of traditional Indian Catholics on their pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Vailankanni. This site has been sanctified by many miracles, and is the premier pilgrimage destination in India. The origin of the shrine is somewhat obscure, but as far back as 1565 there were devout Catholics going there for inspiration, invocation and divine intervention. Some 12 years ago, the Traditional pilgrimage started with only a small number of devotees: over time the number grew so that last year there were about 300 walkers, I say walkers, because the journey from Tuticorin to the shrine of Vailankanni is about 250 kilometers, and as reparation to Our Lady, the men walk, often barefoot, the entire distance, sleeping in churchyards at night.

Sad to say, the greater number of new pilgrims were Novus Ordo, and their lax ideas turned the pilgrimage of reparation into a pilgrimage of jolly-fication. They had lost the original spirit, so the original group quietly decided to go their own way, as they did, this year. So it was the smaller more pious group that I joined, at the town of Thondi, a few days after they had set out. (My duties did not allow me to do the whole thing this year.) But seven days walking, with Holy Mass, recollections, and hardships still made it a very worthwhile pilgrimage for me. (You were all in my prayers during that time.)

The first day was a good warmer-upper, with only 19 kilometers to the shrine of the great Jesuit martyr John Britto. The path was sometimes paved country-road, more often dusty ox-cart roads, and sometimes serpentine footpaths through dry paddy-fields. The shrine of St. John Britto is well-cared for, and the life, work, and martyrdom of this great saint is poignantly depicted in 38 sequential paintings, placed on the walls of his sepulchre-chapel. To read about the exploits of these missionaries of old from a padded armchair in an air-conditioned parlor can never convince us of their towering greatness. Only when you have trod in their footsteps, and realized (even as an SSPX missionary) how difficult it is to preach the Gospel of Christ in an alien land, can you really understand the greatness of their work. He traveled numerous times across the whole breadth of South India, with meager food and assistance – he preached with sympathy, unction, persistence – and when he was tortured and cast out of the kingdom, what did he do? He returned! His death was a true mirror of the Passion and Death of Our Lord: he was betrayed by his friends, scourged, racked, imprisoned and finally beheaded, his body being pierced on a massive wooden stake. Few people know of St. John Britto, but in my work, I shall always invoke his aid (especially in learning Tamil, which he mastered!!).

The pains of the journey increased, with the miles: two days of 40 kilometers and more, left us all walking like Frankenstein. Fr. Pancras, my host, told me that aside from him and two others, there are never seen priests in cassock making the pilgrimage through the coastal lands of Vailankanni. The towns we passed through were sometimes Catholic, other times Hindu or Muslim dominated. We passed two days amongst the salt flats, followed by a day and a half walking amidst vast fields of rice (which is the loveliest, greenest crop grown by man). The rains had not come, against their hopes, and a political squabble had reduced the water coming from the neighboring state for irrigation. The farmers, and especially the farmer's wives, would approach us and ask us to pray for rain, to invoke Our Lady's help to save their crops. "Two weeks without rain, and I'll be ruined", said one anxious farmer. At one place, a woman came, and with tears in her eyes, knelt on the hot pavement, taking the blessing from Fr. Pancras, crying, "Malai, swami, malai" "Rain, father, pray for rain".

A charming incident occurred to me, which highlights the simple, profound faith of the country folk. Around noon-time, we were walking through the rice-fields, when we passed a group of 4 women field-laborers. Seeing the blue uniform of the pilgrims accompanying us and the red sash of the priest, one old woman dared to approach, kneel down and ask for a blessing (a common thing). As we continued on, she followed us, carrying on a distant, one-sided conversation, "This is a very Catholic area – there is a church to St. Anthony just in the town...only 3 kilometers… And there is another church to St. Joseph if you follow the road to the left...the place is called Devaoor (God-town)" And slowly closing the distance with us, she humbly asked "Oh, please do come into my house – there is some fresh buttermilk – and you can sit under the fan and cool yourselves...Oh please come in..." It turned out that her house was just there, on the road side. It was a typical peasant house with low, narrow doorways, cool, dark interior, and collections of ancient decayed pictures of family and the Saints above the doorways. When we consented to enter, she was so taken away by excitement, she began calling out: “Ahn-deverei, Ahn-deverei” - “My Lord, My Lord!” (My secretary, with amusement, whispered to me "She thinks you are a Bishop. She is calling you Lord!") Sitting under the fan, I could hear the anxious old woman in the kitchen, dropping pans, and invoking every saint in Heaven, until she emerged with some cups of buttermilk and tea for guests. When that was finished, she snatched a big pot of water and (our feet being bare to cool off), she began washing our feet with great enthusiasm, all the time repeating the same small prayer. As she washed the feet of Fr. Pancras, she said: "Oh, just like Mary Magdalene – it reminds me just of Mary Magdalene, washing the feet of the Lord!” “Oh!” she said, “you have feet just like my son-yes, my son's feet.” My pale white feet received the same treatment, bucket after bucket of cool splashing water for our tired, aching feet. "Oh, such feet! Golden feet, yes, golden feet! You have the feet of a Brahmin lady! My Lord." The following day, we made a special procession of continuous Rosaries and hymns for the last 9 kilometers. We approached the church building, and I was amazed, yes, amazed by the perfection of its architecture, and the brilliant white of its immaculately maintained buttresses and high walls. Crowds of people streamed in the east and south doors, approaching the sanctuary, kneeling, praying, offering their gifts. It was extremely edifying to see how well the people observe silence in the church: it was as if the surroundings demanded reverence and awe. The venerable image of Our Lady, wrought according to the typical style of the Portuguese, occupied the niche over the main altar. The crowds in the south entrance brought their gifts, fat, moist garlands of rose petals, delicate chains of jasmine flowers, and countless other gifts. The sacristan reverently hung the garlands in front of Our Lady, ascending and descending the stairs hour after hour after hour. Pictures, cards, and candles were touched to the glass in front of the statue, deriving thereby some heavenly virtue. Legions of humble, white candles bowed down and immolated themselves on the side-altars.

The gothic structure was pure white, like the Immaculate Virgin, blazing in the afternoon sun. I was suddenly greeted by a group of men in blue, who looked very much like the men with whom I had made the pilgrimage. I scarcely recognized them. They gathered around me, eager to display their newly-shaven bald heads. Grinning and polishing their heads, they were going inside the church to offer their new tonsure in fulfillment of their pilgrimage intentions. Shortly, we came upon the official Shrine Tonsure Hall, where lines of people, male and female, went in to be scalped, in a traditional offering, by lines of barbers. The coils of hair, neatly braided, were being sold by vendors in the street, I think for good luck charms, but I haven't substantiated that yet.

Every so often, I would see young ladies, in their best sarees, bringing an ungainly coconut sapling, about 4 feet tall, into the church. This, it seems, is the typical offering for a baby, to ask Our Lady to make their marriage fruitful. They either grow the sapling themselves, or purchase it for this purpose. I was told that every day, there were several truckloads of these plants offered in the basilica. "Do they plant them in groves, afterwards?" I asked. "The land couldn't support so many coconut trees!" was the answer. Actually the same plants are carried by trucks back to the villages where they are sold, and they are re-used again. It was a well known fact, which doesn't cause any astonishment. In the museum attached to the shrine headquarters, one can really begin to appreciate the powerful faith which so many Indians place in Our Lady. The museum has 8 corridors of glass cases with the offerings and testimonials of thousands of people whose prayers were answered by the intercession of Our Lady of Vailankanni. The offerings are renewed every few months, showing that the stream of graces continue to this day.

The glass cases show a unique but perfectly natural expression of the gratitude of the people. It seems that when one makes a request of Our Lady, he promises something in return, which somehow redounds to Her glory. And so the cases are full of trinkets, models, boats, houses, offered to Our Lady in thanksgiving. Many couple ask for a baby, and offer as repayment skillfully wrought silver baby-carriage. An attached photo shows the happy couple with their baby posing with a life-size (and life-like) model of Our Lady of Vailankanni (a service offered in several shops in town.) Give me a house, and I will give it to YOU! is the idea behind one wrought silver model house. Silver trowels spoke of jobs obtained...Silver boats of amazing detail tell of a boat built or purchased by some Catholic fishing family. Most amazing of all are the wrought silver hands, feet, legs, eyes, hearts, and kidneys, displayed and given to the Queen of heaven in thanks for her curing their diseased bodies. It expresses such a natural and evident truth of religion: "give me my eyes, and as far as I can, even in effigy, I will give them back to Thee, O Lady." It was a wondrous pilgrimage, and a very edifying shrine. I look forward to returning to the shrine next year, God willing.

Tomorrow, we will have the joy of welcoming Mr. Isaac Moats, from the Seminary of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Winona. He will spend one year with us, helping in many ways. It will be an experience he will never forget, that I guarantee.

In Christ, we hope...
Fr. Thomas Blute.

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