06 July 2008

Forgive me father

All major religious traditions carry basically the same message that is love, compassion and forgiveness the important thing is they should be part of our daily lives.
- His Holiness The Dalai Lama

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.
- Mother Teresa

Finally a Christian
Normally, people can not remember events before age 5; but with authors, poets and semi talented writers (like me) it is a different matter. They can remember events much before age 5, or at least imagine what would have happened.

When I was about to be baptized I clearly remember the priest asking – “I am sorry, what’s the name again?”

“It is - Ravi Lobo - father” my parents replied in unison.

“What kind of a totally uncreative, moronic, non-catholic name is this?” he muttered, and reluctantly added, “Do you guys need a 5 minutes time out to come up with a better name?”

“No father, we are kind of finalized on this one” my parents replied.

That’s how the name stuck to me, even though my parents had a second chance to think about it.

Never the less the priest said some more prayers, and sprinkled cold water on me! What kind of person sprinkles cold water on a baby less than 2 months old? But I guess that is the only authentic way of becoming a "real" catholic.

This childhood incident subconsciously created a kind of bond between me and priests I would come across in future.

A soldier of Christ
Father Bernard was probably one of the toughest priests I had ever come across. He was really big, physically as well as matters of the heart. Students were scared of him. There were rumors that he had a gun! Hence in a sense, he was kind of true soldier of Christ!

What ever it is - there is no doubt that his intentions always were good for his people and students. In short he was like coconut – tough outside, nice inside!

One time he noticed, few people attending mass standing outside, even though the church was practically empty. Some of them were smoking. Bernard stopped the mass, went to the guys standing outside, "you guys either go home or come inside," he hollered. They really wanted to go home. But none of them had the courage, quietly they entered the church.

Another time, for some silly reason students went on strike. The whole college was on the road, classes were empty. Teachers were in the canteen not knowing what to do. There was a kind of tension in the atmosphere. When Bernard came to know about this, he went directly into the mob.

“Who ever wants to go on strike step forward, rest go to their class” he said, standing among the huge student crowd. Being a literal person I was about to step forward. “Are you crazy? He will kill you” my friends stopped me. No one stepped forward; everyone went back to their class.

Another time a bus driver made a mistake – he either hit a student or did something wrong. The next day evening, students were playing in the ground “Boys,” Bernard shouted, “Follow me, we need to stop a bus”. I was reluctant this time, but he was real.

An enormous student crowd lead by Bernard stopped the bus from its evening trip. Bernard gave a small lecture to the driver on student safety – “careful with my students” he warned the driver, “Okay boys back to school!”

Some students felt sad, they wanted some action. But Bernard won’t give them any action, when there is really no need for action! The whole thing resolved peacefully.

Old man
Often, in a rectory there will be only three people, parish priest, assistant parish priest and an important member of the trio – The butler. In my childhood there were wild and imaginary anecdotes about this threesome. I will talk about those things, may be another time in leisure.

All parish priests are almost similar. They are old, hence mature. They have seen life; hence nothing can really surprise them. After all these years they just want a simple life, no controversies, and no complications of any sort. They quietly want to finish the business of this world and depart to the one which is supposed to be even better.

There used to be an old priest during my time, a real nice guy, an ascetic to the core. Auto drivers won't take money from him. “No, please take the money,” he would force, “You little devils, you guys are tempting me for these luxuries!”

He was not the kind of person who would make a grand entry at a gathering. Often he was unseen in a crowd; a grass root person. Once he was chief guest at a function. He went without the cloak. A volunteer promptly stopped him at the gate.

“Old man, do you know where you are going?” volunteer asked.

“Do I know where I am going?” old man repeated the question for no one in particular, pondered for few seconds, “A profound question, for which I am searching an answer myself” Later someone recognized him standing beside the gate, and led him inside.

Old man’s mother was buried in the cemetery. Often he was seen late nights near her grave, talking to her for long hours. A group of youngsters tried to attack him near the grave yard once at night time. “Boys, what are you doing?”

“We thought you are a Ghost” they said.
“It is sad” old man pondered “that Ghosts and priests have to wear similar attire!”
“Father, please forgive us” they begged.
“Forgiven and forgotten!” he said philosophically.
“You mean you are not really angry?”
“Angry about what? I can’t remember. I have already forgotten you see!”

Sometime people come to him for land issues. “The land doesn’t belong to you,” he would point to the first party, “Nor to you,” immediately point to the second party, “The whole world belongs to God” he concludes. But people won’t understand his utopian solutions, they go to the court, fight life long and finally realize may be the old man was right. After all, world does belong to God!

Then there were quarrelling couple needing his solicitation. Matrimony was not really his domain. Catholic priests lead a celibate life. Still they are expected to resolve issues creeping in marriage.

“I don’t regret my decision of becoming a priest!” he joked to a couple who came to him over a dispute, “When was the last time you saw the sunrise together?”
“Father, what sunrise has to do with the problems in marriage?”
“It has much to do. Now answer my question” thus he would start his session.

Young priest
Old man was content with life. He forgave people for their trivial mistakes. Some time youngsters used to pull his leg.

“Why don’t you punish them?” some good people would ask him.
“I was worse at their age. This is Gods punishment for me!” Old man would reply.

He used to conduct a catechism class before the children’s mass on Sundays. Normally he used to conduct alone. But that day he was accompanied by a new much younger assistant priest. As usual teenagers started pulling his leg.

“I have a two part question.” One asked. “What is heaven? How do non Catholics get an entry to it?”

There was more of a mockery in the question than a zeal for religious knowledge. The old priest either didn’t realize this or chose to ignore it. “For all these years, I have asked this question to myself numeral times, finally I feel heaven is nothing but a state of mind,” He continued, “And for which religion will get the entry and which will not – I believe, a true Christian is also a Hindu and a true Hindu is also a Muslim.”

The youth could not digest this mysticism. There was a small uproar and cacophony.

“Excuse me father, Can I elaborate your point?” the new assistant priest requested.
“Go, ahead” he was given permission.

The younger priest started from Nietzsche and death of God, quickly moved to Spinoza and his biblical criticism; Kant and his answer to what is enlightenment?; Meditation and J Krishnamurthy; Darwin’s religious skepticism and eventual theory of evolution; Osho and his unique user-friendly way to attain mokshya. He was jumping from Indian mystics to western philosophers and God knows where all he was intending to venture, if not the old man intervened.

“Father Henry, father Henry,” old man implored.
“What?” reluctantly the young one stopped.
“The child must have got the answer for his query, by now”
“O I see, any more questions?” he asked the crowd. No one raised a hand.

Later when I was alone with this new guy, he said “Next time when some young idiot meddles with me, I am going to kick his ……” suddenly he stopped. “Oh, Jesus, religion has tied my hands, can’t even use a bad word!”

77 times
This assistant priest became immensely popular. People welcomed his dynamism and new ideas. Often he was seen in the fish market. Fisher woman, who would bargain for hours over 25 paisa, won’t do that with this God’s man in civilian dress. Deep in their heart they had a small hope that in an emergency this man could make 5000 fish out of 2 - a feat achieved 2000 years ago by his CEO and founder member.

“Father, did you ever regret your decision of becoming priest?” occasionally a girl from choir group would ask.
“Not until I met you!” he would say coyly,” Now if you excuse me, I have an appointment with Jesus!”
I was an altar boy those days. I started hanging around with him.
“People like you a lot, there is a large crowd today for the mass” I told him one time just before the mass.
“I don’t know how much true it is. There is a poll after the mass to vote whether to have beer stalls for the parish feast or not; hence the crowd. All the drunkards have come today!

Some time I feel like throwing them all out” he said.
“Like Jesus?”
“Yeh, like Jesus” he resigned.

“But Jesus also said you have to forgive people as much as 77 times.” I tried to inform him.
What ever he was thinking, suddenly he became alert. He gave me a stern look.
“Well well well! Do we have a biblical scholar here? You want to discus 77 times? Fine, let’s meet after the mass”

I made the mistake of challenging the priest in his own domain. I had two sermons that day; one during the mass, one after it.

Never the less he gave a wonderful sermon on implementing teachings of Jesus in current times. But no one listened to him, they were only interested to know whether there will be bear stalls or not for the parish festival.

A visit from Satan
One day on my way home from school, assistant priest stopped me. He was on his bike. “Hop on” he said. I climbed the bike “where are we going?”

“Got an emergency call, Satan has come over Inthru” he said.
“Do you know how to drive away Satan?” I asked skeptically.
“What do you think I am? I am a priest not an exorcist!” sullenly he replied.
“Police is after Inthru” I informed him.
“Is it? Looks like, even the Satan is after him. Let’s check what the moron is up to”

We stopped the bike near the road side; walked along the paddy fields of Paul. Paul was working in the field.
“Good evening father” he recognized us.
“God evening Paul, as a matter of fact it may not be a very good evening. The point is, it has come to the notice of church that you are poisoning the peacocks! You can not do that, Paul. It is against the law. Peacock is our national bird!” he said in one breath.
“Well Father, your national bird is ruining our harvest. They come in groups at night and spoil the whole thing. All the farmers are fed up with peacocks. You know, farmers are backbone of this country!” Paul lamented.
“Oh I see, a serious case of national bird meddling with nation’s backbone! This is a paradox,” he said, “I wonder how Jesus would have handled this predicament.”
“Never the less,” he continued, “At the moment Inthru is priority, I will handle you later”

So we moved ahead. There was a large crowd, gathered in front of inthru’s house. Inthru was an incarnation of Satan, he was dancing and wailing, ferocious and looked dangerous. People were scared to go near. Priest went directly to Inthru muttered something in his ear, after which dancing and wailing stopped at once. Suddenly Inthru was normal. It was my first miracle!

“Let’s go” he told me. One the way back, I asked him “What did you mutter in his ear?”
“Told him, I will call the police if he doesn’t stop the nonsense”

“That is not a religious way to drive away Satan” I felt somewhat let down.
“Religious or not - it is effective!” he replied.

Road less traveled
Rectory is like a jail. Day to day life is boring. One has to be a great person to tolerate long monotonous days of a rectory. How interesting life could be with 3 males and debatable company of God?

Life in the rectory is highly unpredictable. As a priest, one can not really plan anything. Someone would die at odd hours and as a vicar you need to be there. Or Satan will come over someone. There will be people claiming to seen the devil, some claiming to seen God, some believe they are God. All these mental cases need to be handled delicately.

On an average priests study for 12-14 years. Average people don't read a single written page once they complete their education. Hence there is an intellectual difference between the congregation and the priests. Often priests are very good source of knowledge and intelligence. With their intellect they can tackle complex predicaments of the congregation. They are ever-ready to solve the problems. Unfortunately often problems of the local people are meager, sometime down right stupid.

“Father, I need your unbiased opinion” someone would come in a hurry.
“How can I help you?” priest is ready to test his vast knowledge of theology.
“Santhanam’s pig trespasses my rice fields regularly, and spoils the crop, what should I do, tell me frankly?” the person demands. Priest is irritated by this trivial question. He starts,
“Probably you should forgive..”
“Forgive whom? Pig or Santhanam?” retorts the restless man.

Such is the irony of life. As a priest you can’t even laugh at the silliness of your people. Probably you can laugh at yourself, and probably wonder what more tests from God you need to clear before entering his Kingdom.
Note: If you liked this memoir, you might like the others in the series as well. Click Here. 

This article was previously published in Daiji.


  1. the most important question that people forget to ask themselves is whether they are God-loving or God-fearing?