Plunging into the Unfamiliar

NOV 09

An Interview with Sr Dorothy Fernandes PBVM

Sr Dorothy Fernandes PBVM has worked among the marginalized and poor of Patna, Bihar, for twenty-two years as a foot soldier fighting for their right to shelter, food, literacy and the government schemes allotted to them. Presently she is on the advisory team of the social wing of Sewa Kendra, Patna, an active member of the FORUM of Religious for Justice and Peace and of the Executive team of WANI (Women Awake New Initiatives), a network for rural and urban women in North India.

In 2010 she was elected to the provincial team of the Presentation Sisters in India. From 2012 to 2015, she served as Vice Provincial of the Indian Province. She was interviewed for MAGNET by Sr Celine Vas BS, our Associate Editor.

Magnet: Sr Dorothy, I attended the 3rd Conference of the Religious and Migration in the 21st Century series, at Don Bosco, New Delhi, on September 10, 2018. You spoke about your struggles to move from the familiar ground to the unfamiliar. What is it all about?

Sr Dorothy: Moving out of institutional living and from the teaching profession in our school in Delhi, I realized that I need to pitch my tent with people in need. I was restless, till I responded to the Inner Voice calling me to leave the familiar and to move into the unknown.

It was not easy to get permission from the leadership.  It was a four-year long struggle, years of being misunderstood; the inner voice was so strong that I felt I would have to apply for exclaustration.  It was God’s blessing that I was alert to what was being told to me…I was asked to write that I have a crisis of vocation but, when I reflected, I became aware that it was not a crisis in vocation. What was at stake was the choice of ministry.  I was being called to work for and with the people on the margins, so I immediately said that I will write this and so there was no exclaustration but continual turmoil within.

Magnet: So, you got permission to opt for the missions in Patna?

Sr Dorothy: No.  When God calls, He also tests us. After sharing all my struggles with not wanting to work in schools, I was offered a transfer to different communities with higher posts. I stood my ground.  Not being heard after speaking my truth was very painful. Finally, one night I got a call that I would be sent to a very remote village in Madhya Pradesh. I had not bargained for this—to go from a city like Delhi to a remote village without electricity or furniture,  with fire wood as our only means of fuel; the cow dung floor our ground… among the Gond tribals.

Magnet: You wanted to work with the poor, and you got it.

Sr Dorothy: I hesitated to say “Yes” as I didn’t know if that’s what I was asking …but it was a challenge to say “Yes”, now or never, so I said my “Yes” and walked into the unknown.  Today, when I look back, those two years were the happiest years of my life, something I would never exchange with anything else. We lived amidst the people, incarnated into their life, dressed like them… ate their food. We were four and we lived on a stipend of Rs 1000/- given to us by the diocese. This was our decision….it was preparing me to face life to discover my inner strength and to trust in God’s Providence.  We attended to the following ministry:

Work among the rural poor of Madhya Pradesh from 1987 to 1991. I worked among the tribals (Gonds) in Chindwara district of Madhya Pradesh workingfor their rights and education; organized the youth and enabled them to benefit from government schemes; organized women for their rights to be able to take their rightful place in society.

After two years I was recalled, I came back on one condition that I would regain my health…so I kept true to that Inner Voice but I remained disturbed till in 199, as I moved out from school never to go back…My mission field became clear to me over the years.

Magnet: What is the mission you undertook from 1991?

Sr Dorothy: Worked with the urban poor of Delhi at Sanjay Amar Colony, Delhi, organizing the urban poor for their rights from 1991 to1997. Also worked with Caritas India as part of the animating team from 1991 to 1993. From 1994 to 1997, I was convener of Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace for Delhi region.

Magnet: Were you supported by your Congregation and province?

Sr Dorothy: Yes. I had decided that I would need to be open to life and respond with the same passion; open to the stirrings of the Spirit’s Movement and listening to the Inner Voice. I adopted dialogue and discernment as a way of life as promulgated in our Congregational documents. Being in Patna and away from the Presentation Family, I needed a mentor to make sure that what I was moving into was God’s design for me. I have been fortunate to have had good mentors – Fr Abraham Puthumana SJ,  Fr TK John SJ, Fr Tom Kocherry CSSR, Sr Amala SND and Bro Varghese Thecknath SG, who inspired me and enabled me to be faithful to God’s call.

Magnet: Did you have any priority in rendering your service?

Sr Dorothy: The women who live on the margins have always been my reference point and have contributed greatly to shaping the woman I am.  In working with women, I invited them to look at some of their practices which have enslaved them and from where they arise. This challenged me to look at the practices we also have in Religious Life. In particular, I began to understand the vows in the light of the communities with whom I am engaged. It is not so much a negation of what should not be but rather how we should be free to be at the service of the people with whom we are engaged.

Magnet: Do you mean to say that in the process of liberating other women you got liberated from your own comfort zone?

Sr Dorothy: True, as Mahatma Gandhi said ‘Be the change you want to see in others.’ The whole perspective of looking at my religious consecration got changed. I am fortunate to belong to a very progressive congregation and our congregational documents gave me the mandate to move ahead. I am very grateful for the Trust the congregation had in me and for permitting me to respond to that Inner Voice.

Magnet: What was your new mission with new meaning?

Sr Dorothy:  I worked in Patna among the rural and urban poor from 1997 to 2018. The work included the following:

  • Full time in the social sector organizing the urban and rural poor of Patna for the Right to Shelter, Right to Food and Right to Livelihood. In 1997, I began work in the rural sector in Maner Block with twenty-five non-formal centers for children.
  • In 2000 I worked for a year with UNICEF-Patna to do research on commercial sex workers.
  • From 2002 to 2004, I worked with ACTION AID Patna as coordinator of Mahila Adhikar Morcha and later on urban initiatives.
  • In 2001, I began a school in Islamganj in the Kita Chauthar panchayat. Now we have a primary school in a concrete building from LKG to Class V. This school caters to children from the far-flung villages, like Haldi Chapra, Saat Anna, Hulasi Tola, Dudhila, Islamganj.
  • Got a society registered in 2003 under the name of Jan Kalyan Gramin Vikas Samiti, which has given us the credibility and a public face for our work.
  • We have been engaged with the Urban poor of Patna in eight Municipal Wards of the Patna Municipal Corporation and have been educating and organizing the urban poor for the implementation of the JNNURM scheme for housing of the urban poor in Patna.

Magnet: Do you feel that your leap among the poor was recognized by your congregation?

Sr Dorothy: I was elected as a delegate for the 2001 Congregational Chapter in Ireland and one of the decisions was “Single Living” for the sake of Mission. I took this up with the leadership and, to my good fortune, I was on the leadership team. We got the permission of the archbishop of Patna, who stated that I could live alone and he was open even to have some women be part of this endeavour.

In 2006, at the next Congregational Chapter, the mandate was for forming communities among the poor. This was again in my favour. Though I lived singly, I formed communities with people wherever I went, in the slum with the people, in the office with my team, in the neighborhood with religious communities.  So, I was never lonely, never felt alone, and always experienced the power and companionship of God, who was calling me to walk new paths.

Magnet: Do you feel that in walking into the unknown path your heart responds to the promptings of the spirit?

Sr Dorothy: The Catholic Social Teachings of the Church have inspired me and enabled me to walk the path that was gradually unfolding to me each day. The life of Nano Nagle, our Foundress, and her parting message, “Spend yourselves for the poor” have been the reason for me to continue to speak and act with and for the marginalized.

Magnet: Do you see any other challenges or hurdles that you come across in your mission?

Sr Dorothy: One of the biggest challenges for me was the face of patriarchy, be it Caritas India, the Regional Pastoral Centre, Patna, Action Aid Patna, etc. Enough is enough. I thought that the time had come to me to come out of all these and start my own organization.  So we are into “Aashray Abhiyan” – campaigning for shelter Rights: Right to Livelihood, Right to Food. Our work is with “Service Providers”—construction workers, domestic help, vendors, sweepers, rickshaw pullers, homeless communities. We have been educating them about their rights, organizing them to demand their rights, and campaigning for their rights.  This will lead us to freedom.

One of the many blessings I enjoy is a very dedicated team of young and middle-aged people, women and men, of all faiths—a pluralistic community.  We have taken up the cause of the poor and have adopted all democratic processes—sit-in dharnas, rallies, press conferences, people’s parliament. This way we have earned the trust and belief of the communities.

I promote Gandhi’s saying:  Be the change you want to be.

My life is the life of a pilgrim, a journey….which keeps unfolding each day…The God of my journeys is with me and will never let me down….

Magnet: Thank you, Sr Dorothy, for sharing your journey of faith and trust in God’s Providence and the strength of the poor.


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Sr Celine Vas BS

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Acharya Sachidananda Bharathi


In 1982, John, a forty-one year old Squadron Leader of the Indian Air Force, was involved in an air crash during which he went through a near-death experience. He came out of it a transformed man, with a new sense of call and mission. He learnt from reputed Christian and Hindu gurus, and became a sanyasi, and later an acharya in a new tradition. Here is what he shared with MAGNET.

”I was a happy-go-lucky Air Force Officer enjoying my life with the big dreams of starting my own airline and airship industry when I met with an air accident. A personal encounter with the living Spirit of Christ after that transformed my life radically,” says Swami Bharati.

  1. Please introduce yourself and your mission.

I am an Indian Sanyasi disciple of Sadguru Jesus Christ according to the Chaturashrama Parampara,  and an Acharya of a holistic ecological school of thought named ‘Dharma Bharathi.’ My mission is two-fold; to promote a ‘Dharma Rajya Movement’ for helping to establish abiding peace and sustainable development on earth  based on the Dharma Bharathi  school of thought, and to help promote an ‘Indian face’ of the Christian faith, also based on the Dharma Bharathi  school of thought. 

  1. Please explain the term

The term ‘Sadguru’ here implies the True Guru who can lead us from falsehood to truth, from darkness to light and from death to immortality in answer to our prayer, ‘Asathoma Sadgamaya, Tamasoma Jyotirgamaya, Mrityorma Amritamgamaya’.  The qualities and attributes of the Sadguru are defined in the Viswasara Tantra as:

 “I bow to the True Guru

Who is the embodiment of the bliss of God, who bestows supreme happiness, the Absolute who is wisdom incarnate;

Who is beyond any duality, who is vast like the sky, whom ‘Though Art That’ and similar Scriptural verses have in view;

Who is the One, the Eternal, the Pure, the Immovable, the Witness to all;

Who is beyond all bhavas, devoid of the three gunas.” 

I accept and present Jesus of Nazareth as the Sadguru, just as he was accepted and presented by the Greek as the ‘Christos’ (anointed one of God) in the beginning of Christianity.

  1. You said that you are an Indian Sanyasi disciple of Sadguru Jesus Christ according to the Chaturashranm Parampara. Can you please explain ?

I am now a ‘senior citizen’ of India. I am economically sustained and supported by the Government of India with a good monthly pension for the services that I had rendered to the nation as an officer in the Indian Air Force. I was just a 41-year old Squadron Leader when I had sought and received ‘premature retirement’ from active service in May 1989 to devote myself fully for my new-found mission of peace-building as a disciple of Sadguru Jesus Christ, the Prince of peace. Today I am a 70-year old Indian Sanyasi. I am ever grateful to God for giving me birth in India. I consider being an Indian a great blessing.

The Chaturashrama Parampara of India is an ancient tradition that sees human life in this world as a pilgrimage from the womb of one’s human mother to the womb of Mother Earth with four distinct yet continuous ashramas (stages). ‘Chatur’ means four. ‘Parampara’ means age-old tradition. All human beings are called to follow the Chaturashrama Parampara in their lives. There is no religious connotations involved in this call. It is open to all people of goodwill. It will save the world from the temptations of consumerism and materialism. The four ashramas are Brahamacharyashrama (stage of celibate student life), Grahasthashrama (stage of married family life), Vanaprasthashrama (stage of contemplative life in the forest) & and Sanyasashrama (stage of total renunciation as a preparation for the final departure from this world). I have modified the third stage as ‘Sevashrama’ which is envisaged as a stage of selfless, voluntary and grateful service to the society for what we have received from the society. The one who is living in the Sanyasashrama is termed a ‘Sanyasi’. I am a Sanyasi according to this ancient Indian tradition. I am also an Indian who has been striving incessantly to be an authentic disciple of Sadguru Jesus Christ.

  1. You have also said that you are an Acharya of a holistic ecological school of thought named Dharma Bharathi. Please explain.

The term Acharya here implies a teacher who propounds and promotes a new school of thought.

I have initiated the Bharathi Chaturashram Sanyasa Parampara. I am also the Acharya of this new Sanyasa Parampara which has Pancha Vratha and Pancha Dharma as its ‘Rule of life’. Pancha Vratha consists of Ahimsa, Satya, Ashteya, Aparigraha & Brahmacharya (Non-violence, Truthfulness, Frugality, Non-possession  &  Celibacy). Pancha Dharma  consists of Prarthana, Padhana, Pravarthana, Prabodhana & Protsahana ( Prayer, Study, Action, Instruction & Appreciation).

I was known as Squadron Leader N. V. John. ‘Squadron Leader’ was my Rank in the Indian Air Force. After my encounter with the living Spirit of Christ following a near death experience in an air accident in 1982, I was guided by the Lord to Fr. Bede Griffiths OSB at his Saccidananda Ashram near Trichy in Tamil Nadu. Fr. Bede Griffiths was a British Benedictine monk who had made India his ‘spiritual home’ and took the Indian name ‘Swami Dayananda.’  I received Sadhak deeksha from Swami Dayananda in 1984 with the name ‘John Sachidanand.’ I was also given Acharya deeksha by him in 1990.

I entered the Sanyasarama in 2001 with the written permission of my wife and the blessings of Swami Ranganathananda, my Hindu guru who was the International President of the Ramakrishna Mission at that time. I received two sets of saffron dresses from him on 25th Nov 2001 in Belur Math, the International Headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission. One was old and the other was new. They signified that I must be rooted in the enlightened spiritual and cultural traditions of India and yet fully open to the new developments in human thought. He suggested to me that, as I do not come within any of the established traditions of Sanyasis in India at present, I should initiative a tradition of my own. I initiated the ‘Bharathi’ Chaturashrama Sanyasa Parampara in 2003 and took the Sanyasa name ‘Swami Sachidananda Bharathi’.  I am the Founder and Acharya-guru of Dharma Bharathi school of thought and ‘Bharathi’ Chaturashram Sanyasa Parampara.

  1. You have also been promoting a ‘Second Freedom Struggle of India.’ What is it?

Though India had won her political freedom in 1947, she is yet to win the economic, social and moral freedoms if she is to achieve the goal of ‘Purna Swaraj.’ Mahatma Gandhi had also pointed out this fact. Political freedom, economic freedom, social freedom and moral freedom are the four pillars of ‘Purna Swaraj’. Out of these, we had won political freedom. But with 30% of India’s 1280 million population still living below poverty line, we are far from economic freedom. With the divisive and violent casteism and communalism in India, social freedom for us remains an utopia. With the all-pervasive corruption and injustice, moral freedom is also only a mirage.

“Congress has won political freedom, but it has yet to win economic freedom, social and moral freedoms. These freedoms are harder than the political, if only because they are constructive, less exciting and not spectacular.”  These words of Mahatma Gandhi call for a Second Freedom Struggle to win the remaining economic, social and moral freedoms that are yet to be won for India.

In 2006 I received an ‘inner call’ to leave our Dharma Bharathi Ashram at Mulanthuruthy near Kochi in Kerala (where I was staying at that time) and undertake a year-long pilgrimage of peace across India during the 60th anniversary of Indian Independence with the message of a Second Freedom Struggle for a ‘hunger-free, caste-free and corruption-free India’. This year-long pilgrimage of peace was termed ‘Desh Vandana-2007.’

During it, I travelled across the length and breadth of India for a whole year and addressed and interacted with staff and students of 26 Universities and more than 100 Colleges and High Schools in the country. I also interacted with a large number of NGOs, Religious Communities, Civil Society Groups, Youth & Women Organizations, Rotary & Lions Clubs, YMCAs & YWCAs, Gandhian Organizations, etc.

The Second Freedom Struggle for a hunger-free, caste-free and corruption-free India was initiated in the concluding interreligious prayer meeting of Desh Vandana-2007 at Gandhi Mandapam, Kanyakumari, on 30th January 2008.

After that, I wrote a book titled The Second Freedom Struggle of India. A Hunger-free India Campaign was also initiated. Over the years our Dharma Bharati Mision has been doing a great amount of work to achieve this goal and has received a number of Awards for its dedicated service for the poor and down trodden in the slums of Mumbai. (See for details).

I came to realize that without interreligious cooperation and communal harmony the Second Freedom Struggle will remain only an utopian dream. Tyagarchana Shanti Mission (TSM) was started by me in 2014 to promote interreligious cooperation and communal harmony in India. I have been working in UP for 3 years for promoting the goal of TSM.

My latest book is titled Vision 2030: Purna Swaraj. It presents the outlines of a vision, ideology and action plan that can help us to win the Purna Swaraj for India by 2030. My forthcoming book, Second Freedom Struggle, presents five Christo-Gandhian principles and three Core Campaigns for the Second Freedom Struggle to achieve this goal.

  1. How can we combat the growing communalism in India today?

We need to present and promote an inclusive vision and a holistic philosophy. Without it, sectarian narratives will gain strength in the country, leading to conflicts and violence. ‘He drew a small circle and kept me out. I drew a large circle and brought him in.’ This wisdom of ancient India needs to be given practical expressions in our present context. The Hindu Rashtra vision and the ‘Hindutva’ ideology are sectarian narratives. They have no roots in India’s enlightened spiritual and cultural traditions. We need to promote in their place the inclusive vision of a Dharma Rajya and the holistic philosophy of Dharmodaya which have deep roots in our spiritual and cultural traditions. This is what I have been trying to do. Also, we need to bring about radical changes in our socio-economic and political systems and institutions. This calls for a Second Freedom Struggle, much more difficult and challenging than the first.

  1. What is the initiative called Khushhaal Bachpan Abhiyaan that you launched recently?

 Khushhaal Bachpan Abhiyaan is termed ‘Happy Childhood Campaign’ in English. It is an interreligious campaign of love for happy and healthy childhood for all children below eighteen years of age in India based on the ‘Happy Childhood Pledge’ adopted in the first Interreligious Parliament for Peace & Sustainable Development organized by Tyagarchana Shanti Mission at Patna on 4 & 5 Aug 2017.

Khsuhhaal Bachpan Abhiyaan is the first non-violent campaign of the Second Freedom Struggle, just as the Champaran Satyagraha was the first non-violent campaign of the first freedom struggle of India. It  has four objectives: caring love, nutritious food, creative learning & playing, singing and dancing for all children.

  1. Why do we need this campaign in India today?

Because the children in India today are the worst affected victims of injustice, exploitation and oppression.

The condition of children in India today is miserable. In the name of ‘education’ we are ruining the lives of our children. They are burdened with books and subjects that have very little relevance to their life. We are denying to our children the simple joys of childhood in the name of ‘education.’

India has the largest number of children suffering from malnutrition and ill health in the world today. An estimated 6000 children die daily in India due to sicknesses caused by malnutrition. More than twenty million children in India go to bed hungry every day. India also has the largest number of illiterate children in the world.

It is also a shameful and painful reality that India accounts for the largest number of children forced into child marriage and child labour. Further, India also has the largest number of children victimized by child trafficking and sexual abuse. Delhi, the Capital city of India, has become the most unsafe place for children in the world.

  1. Why does this campaign need to be interreligious?

It is because India is a multi-religious country and nothing in India really grows unless it appeals to the religious sense of the Indian people. Attitudinal changes and value-orientations can be achieved better in India through a religious approach.

Children are the most precious gift of God to humanity. “Every child comes with the message that God is not discouraged of man,” pointed out Rabindranath Tagore. “If you want peace in the world, begin with the children,” taught Mahatma Gandhi. The future of the world is the legacy of the children. Children are pure and innocent. In, with and through them we can see the face of God who is ever active in human history and in the whole creation.  It is in the purity of our hearts that we can see the face of God. Children are embodiments of purity and innocence. Because of their purity, children reflect the face of God more visibly and clearly than anyone or anything else in the world.

Happy, healthy and peaceful children will constitute the best measure and most reliable standard of a nation’s true development. They will also constitute the strongest foundation of a culture of abiding peace and sustainable development on earth. The United Nations & G20 have now come to realize the need of inter-religious cooperation. The Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders in August 2000 that signed the ‘Commitment to Global Peace’ and the UN Summit in 2015 that adopted the 17 ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ are fruits of this realization by the United Nations.

  1. You are now withdrawing from all national activities and shifting back to your Kerala Ashram. Then how will the Second Freedom Struggle be taken forward?

I had already announced that I would be withdrawing from hectic activity involving a great deal of travel after my 70th birthday, which is on 25th November 2017. I have now shifted from our Navasrushti Ashram near Nagpur to Dharma Bharathi Ashram near Kochi in Kerala with the hope of working to give concrete practical expressions to my vision and mission in the limited context of Kerala. My roots are in Kerala and in the Syro-Malabar Church. Hence, I feel called to devote the twilight years of my life in Kerala working with the Syro-Malabar Church for the Second Freedom Struggle, which is the first stage in the Dharma Rajya Movement envisioned in my earlier book, The Air Plot. Kerala seems to be a fertile ground for such a focused mission.

  1. What do you think is the role of the Church in the mission promoted by you?

The mission promoted by me is not my mission. It is the mission of the living Spirit of Christ. Hence, it is the mission of the Church. The Lord has only used me to initiate it. I had never even imagined I would come into such a mission and life-vocation.

What I am today and what I have done, and what I have written so far…. all this has been basically inspired by the living Spirit of Christ. But my own limitations and weaknesses also have crept into them. The Lord will correct and purify them in course of time through others who are more holy and enlightened than me.

What the Lord has begun through me is for and on behalf of the Church. I am a son of the Catholic Church and a member of the Syro-Malabar Church. Hence, I will try to inspire the Syro-Malabar Church to take it forward as guided by the living Spirit of Christ.

I have also founded and registered an ecumenical communion of love termed ‘Disciples of Christ for Peace’ (DCP) that will try fearlessly and prayerfully to take the mission forward.

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optimism, joy and leadership tips


In this interview, Sister Saroj Amaladoss SCB, Superior General of the Sisters of Charles Borromeo, shares her own vocation story, and her views on serveral issues affecting many religious orders today


The gift of life God has given, invites me daily to journey towards him. Life is a journey and the experience each one has, has much to teach us. When I look back at my own life, I have only feelings of gratitude for God’s blessings and graces. It is my joy to share them.

I was born in a God-fearing, loving catholic family in Veeravanallur, Palayamkottai Diocese, Tamilnadu. We were six children—four  girls and two boys. My parents were generous to give four of their children to serve the church. One brother and one sister chose the married life. We, the first three girls, joined the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo and my brother joined the priesthood in our diocese. My elder sister (nun) and my married brother passed away some years ago.

Today  I take delight in seeing God’s hand in every step of my life. We have many religious in our family. My maternal aunt, especially, is a great inspiration to us, but, the decision to be a religious was purely mine. From my childhood I was interested in reading all sorts of books and magazines. I had a special interest in reading the Bible and The Imitation of Christ. Even when my parents called me to have my meals, I wouldn’t respond. Such was my interest in reading. One day my father remarked, “Saro is writing in her journal that she reads the Bible. But the devil is writing that she does not obey her parents.” After my father made this remark, I would get up and have my meal with the others.

One day I was reading Mathew, 11: 25-30: The verse, “I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” and the verse, “no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” spoke a lot to me. My curiosity was aroused about what that revelation could mean. Over the years I understood his invitation, “Come to me” and I am still learning to wait for his revelation.

After my studies I got a job in the postal department and worked as a clerk for six years. I  remember my novena to Our Lady of Poondi and am grateful to mother Mary for giving me a job. My colleagues were very good and I learnt the art of working together from them. Life offered me many choices. However, my mind was focused on the word ‘revelation’. Today I can boldly and trustingly say that the WORD OF GOD is alive and active. For forty-one years I have been a religious sister. But my thirst is not quenched and my heart is in search for God.

In 1973, I decided to join the Sisters of St. Charles Borromeo, in which congregations my sisters were already. I continued my formation taking leave from the department. After my profession, my superiors asked me to continue working in the postal department and I did so. It was a good and enriching time. For the first six years my goal was to earn money.  When I joined as a religious, my goal changed to being a witness in the governmental non- Christian milieu in which I worked.  Initially I went through a certain amount of uneasiness because of the repeated questions and queries of my colleagues and the public. My superiors and the community were so supportive, encouraging and trusting. I received encouragement from the Salesian fathers at Tirupattur, Jolarpettai and Yelagiri Hills too. I had many friends then. We  shared our inner experiences. It was a rich experience to interact with Hindus and Muslims. I  learnt a lot by listening to them and sharing with them. The truth I learned then is that every person is a temple of God, once we understand their reverence, respect, fear of God, desire for service, commitment along with their struggles. The desire for the Divine is expressed in many ways, especially through their service.

Religious life consists in being honest and committed to the person of Christ. Following him gives tremendous joy, contentment and fulfilment. I belong to the family of St. Charles, and am committed to love my sisters, to serve those in need, be with the suffering, neglected, unwanted. These bring me energising moments along with a sense of holiness. I thank God for His call and all those who are part of my religious vocation.


The trust and affection I received at home; the sacrifices and understanding of my parents are inspiring me even today.  When I was young, I heard my mother advising a young couple saying, “You may hate the negative quality in the other, but should never hate the other. Forgive and try to love.” This is the first and the best seminar on forgiveness from my mother. This gives me tremendous strength on my life journey.

Apart from this, the affection of my family members, nature and its beauty, the faithfulness and warmth of the elderly sisters, the sharing and upholding of one another in the congregation, the spontaneity and generosity of the youngsters, the strong support of friends and their concern are my daily inspiration. The reality of the world’s struggles and the sufferings of people inspire me to be kind, courageous and accepting. The sharing and upholding of one another I experienced in our family as we grew up together makes me to appreciate my community and my sisters better today.


Of course, there were difficult situations and challenges. Health was a challenge. At the age of twenty-eight, I underwent a lot of problems with my legs.  Initially I could not accept that suffering and my inability. The understanding of my superiors, the support and care of the sisters, prayers of my parents and dear ones helped me to accept suffering as part of my life. The biblical injunction from Hebrews, 12:12, “Lift up your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees” prevented me from getting discouraged and kept me cheerful. The wise counsel of my sisters in the congregation gave me tremendous enthusiasm.


Our congregation, like all others, is made up of differences. Especially I notice differences in thinking and setting of priorities between the older members and the younger ones. The elderly sisters’ words and actions communicate their wisdom and experience. The younger generations are daring and ready for challenges.  Only, they want instant results. Modern technology is making them seek immediate results. What is required on the other hand is fidelity and commitment, patience and sacrifice on their part, which will in turn help them to set the right priorities. Life will teach them the wisdom of the past and the marvels of the future. I take delight in listening to the youngsters, as I have lived through the same age with similar feelings and the desire to achieve what I wished.


I believe that God has many ways of drawing the younger ones, and his action still continues. When the call is heard within, the youngsters need strength and readiness to say yes at times they do not receive the support they need. Today’s youngsters are free and want to achieve something great in their lives. Daring and ready to pay the price if they decide. A few do have the hidden desire to become professionals, and the main purpose of seeking God and serving his people is overlooked. Perhaps, a few still need to discern their vocation after being professionally trained. They face the same temptation, whether to choose God or money This is another testing period when they have to prove their first Yes to God.

Young girls do see in the convents love and laughter, caring and sharing, consoling and comforting and the selfless services rendered through different ministries. Praying together and the quiet time they are able to take for themselves do touch a few. The family spirit of St. Charles Sisters, their hospitality and their warm approach attract the youngsters to be Sisters of St. Charles.  Of course, the young face many temptations in the modern world, which is fuelled by the progress of technology.


Youngsters are pulled towards the new technological world. They most often take personal responsibility for their lives, which is good, but at times it leads to an individualistic attitude among them. In small families today, parents try to fulfil all the needs and wants of their children, which will not help them to learn what it is to make sacrifices and the joy born out of it. To some extent hard work is disappearing. In many parts of the world, faith in God, joy of living together in the family, family prayer and the need for the Sacraments are disappearing.  Only energetic and faith-filled persons with their persuasive power and trusting prayer will be able to instil in them reawakening of the hidden desire for the Creator.


Recently, our congregation shifted its Generalate from Belgium to India. As Superior General of an international congregation I found it easier to function from India. There is a reason for this. The majority of our apostolic centres and communities are in India. Attached to the Generalate we have a home for senior citizens and they remind us of the realities of life. Many of our Indian sisters are working in the overseas missions, along with sisters from that area. Apart from visiting them, communication is much easier these days.  In fact, a few Superiors General have shared their appreciation of our decision to shift our Generalate from Belgium to India. India is a source of hope for new vocations even now, whereas in Western countries vocations are on the decline.  Considering this phenomenon, other congregations may follow in our footsteps too by shifting their headquarters to India.


 My experience is that all the congregations are enthusiastic about promoting vocations. They find new ways of attracting young women to the religious life and their institutes. If a young woman is offering to be a religious, it means there is a desire in her which needs to be appreciated and strengthened. Accompaniment, listening and understanding the person from her point of view are very important. Time spent with such girls is time gained, I would say. God’s personal love for each one of us needs to be taught again and again through Biblical stories.

However, we need to help the candidates to purify their inner motivation. Following Christ is Joy. As we share with the candidates their joyful situations and celebrations, we need to tell them that each one has a cross to carry. This is not to frighten the young minds, but the realities need to be explained. The truth that the protection of God of his chosen ones is always there needs to be stressed with Biblical references. There is a need to challenge them, too, with the congregation’s history and telling them about the sacrifices and difficulties our elders have gone through to keep the charism of the institute alive.


Now moving on to leadership models we should adopt, participatory leadership is most effective today. Every person has something to share and a desire to share. There is more wisdom in many voices than in a single voice. This increases one’s listening capacity, the availability and readiness to be present to others. One’s patience is tested by the time spent with the other. People of honesty and commitment are courageous enough to do what they say. Their ability and willingness to risk, their high hopes, are all assets in a participatory model of leadership. Their contribution to the sharing of ideas and implementing the decisions through struggle, increases joy and creates one mind and one heart in the community. Mutual appreciation and trust in one another grow in such an atmosphere and the joy of working together is experienced. At times the process may be delayed. At such a stage what is needed is more understanding and upholding of one another.


We all belong to one family. What we are today is what we have learned from others. Today’s laity are often more enthusiastic than the religious to proclaim Christ. Their sacrifices and enthusiasm touch me a lot. I have learned a lot from them and really appreciate their dedication. The promise of Jesus in John 10: 16, “Then there will be one flock, since there is one shepherd” will be realised soon as the contribution of the laity is more nowadays.

Similarly, today’s youth energize me a lot, I must say. The majority of them are serious about their future and are trying to do all that is possible to have their dreams fulfilled. Their struggles and failures do not discourage them and the efforts they make give some high hope, as the future is in their hands. May God bless their efforts and enthusiasm. Thank you for reading.


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Tansformed By The Streets


In this interview, we listen to a pioneer in the ministry among street children, who sought a meaningful religious life, learnt much from the youth he served on the streets, and developed a new form of research based on direct action for change. Meet Fr. George Kollashany SDB, unconventional youth minister and life-long learner


The original inspiration is linked to my own vocation, and is associated with the social and ideological ferment of the early seventies. We, young religious, had questioned the ministry of Salesians (and of priests) then, who according to us were largely enjoying institutional positions. Caught up in this debate, some left; one joined Mother Theresa’s; one is now with the ‘Little Brothers.’ In response to my own questioning, I was sent to the Salesian presence in Vysarpadi (a very poor area of Chennai). Part of that complex was a centre for leprosy patients. I suppose the superiors wanted me to see and be impressed by our work with such poor persons. Yet, I was not impressed; for I considered it an exception and a one-man initiative.

However, the inspiration of the gospel on my sixteenth birthday was momentous for me. It was from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 4, verses 16-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,     because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” This, combined with the stories of early life of Don Bosco, made me continue to stay on with the Salesians.

Thanks to Fr. Varghese Menacherry SDB, who started the Sneha Bhavan in Kochi for the homeless, I began to look at Salesian life and my vocation differently. In fact we debated such issues in our formation house in Yercaud.

I started this mission way back in 1975, by making a deliberate commitment as a young Salesian. In my subsequent search and involvement and discussions as a youngster, I was able to evolve a new design for such an apostolate. We did this together with some friends during our theology studies in the early 1980s. In 1983, I wrote to the Provincial Council, asking that I I be assigned to work on the streets of Bangalore.

The same original inspiration has recurred in very providential ways to sustain my vocation. In fact, I had always felt that I was not sent to start some kind of “new work.” It became slowly evident that I was linked to the renewal or going back to the roots of the Salesian vocation. I saw that what I had to do was nothing exceptional or special; I just went with the flow. I never saw myself as a “pioneer,” for we were always a team. The image may have come out of the fact that I happened to be there at the right time and over a long period of time, consistently. May be my own limitations have perhaps hampered that progress and renewal of this ministry.


Here is one.

About two months ago, a young IT professional tracked me on Facebook and put me in touch with his father (Kumar), with whom I had lost contact for twenty-five years. Kumar had run away from his relatives who had murdered his father and mother and had changed his name and painstakingly concealed all details of his family and his story for almost eight years and had disappeared from my life, when I came to know some of the truths.

There are many stories of run-away youngsters returning home. The reunions are heart-wrenching. One child (Prasanth) returned home after ten years—only to discover that his place among the siblings had been taken over by a stranger. He was told by his own family that “the lost son had already returned much earlier” and is now the breadwinner and married and the rightful inheritor.

The young Prasanth persisted long enough for the mother to respond to her vibes to test both of them, asking both to show the scar on the thigh, which had been for her the birthmark of identification. Prasanth proved his identity, for he alone had that scar.

What to do now? Whom to accept into the family? Soon a solution was reached: The mother pronounced this judgement: Both are her children: one lost till now, but found, and the other by having grown in the place of the absent child.


Yes, it had its origins when we were students in the eighties, when five of us formed a group that used to meet every Tuesday to discuss the “praxis” of what we were learning as students of theology. We wanted to understand better our experiences and challenges, as well as what the youngsters faced, so as detect the undercurrents and deeper causes.

After twelve years on the streets of Bangalore, I was asked to go abroad for studies. I chose to do my studies in India. It was also to help upcoming “start-ups’ and organisations to learn from their experiences on the street and thus to evolve strategies, by coming together regularly—at least once a month—and reflecting on their experiences. We called it the “Street Educators Training Program thorough Action Research.” In the following year (1994), the same program was taken up by Amsterdam University as a model and was globally implemented for three years as “Participatory Action Research” (PAR).

The relevance of this approach is that it sustains quality of service and ensures that the leaders of the program as constantly growing and changing as required. Two of the  projects that joined PAR—Navajeevan of Viajaywada and Sathi  of Bangalore—have gone on to win national awards as the best NGOs working for children for the respective years. One project (Buddivantha of BOSCO, researched by Ms Mallika) was taken up by UNESCO, Geneva, as a path-breaking educational model. Three of the “peer leaders” (those who were once child labourers or “street” children) have gone on to become committed activists working for others in similar situations. One of them (Mr. Anandraj, who shared his stories as a child-labourer), is the founder of  Margadharsi of Gulbarga, which has won the Karnataka Government award for the best NGO in the state for the year 2016.

Now, I am in the struggle of converting the same concepts and experiences into an institutional sharing and as communities: Integral Design of Experience And Learning (titled db-IDEAL).


I think the examples I have just given can answer that question. In fact, I would say that doing ministry without learning—without being challenged by struggles and problems to change ourselves and to shift our paradigms—is no ministry at all. Working on the periphery, especially with the young risk-takers, is the best way to grow and remain productive. The experiences of those on the fringes provide the best class room environment.


Several precious lessons:

  • Risk-taking youngsters are shaping the future of humanity and our own lives. That is nature’s law.
  • Being with the young and learning from them is the best way to grow, without losing our own adolescent passion and child-likeness.
  • It is at the periphery, with those on the fringes and among those young people most away from the mainstream, that the pulse of society can be touched, that the core of a community can be tested and its values purified, as in a fire.


Young people and children who take risks in life.

Look at what some of them are facing right now:

There is a sixteen-year-old who is struggling to write his SSLC exams privately, after having dropped out in class five. In the meanwhile, he has cleared a debt of two lakh Rupees left by his father; after working as a rag-picker to earn about three hundred rupees a day to feed his bed-ridden grandma and his invalid mother who was once burnt with kerosene by his father. All this while ensuring that his brother has a cycle and all the necessary means to go to school daily. Now I am inspired that he has networked with people so intensely that he is building his own house (with money lent to him from his well-wishers).

I feel inspired, energised by many such young risk-takers. Another youngster killed his own drunken and abusive father—misled, as it turned out, by his own mother. He is now struggling to manage the reins of his life.  Though I play a mentoring role to him, I am inspired by his story and struggle. I am also moved by such stories from the past—Don Bosco, the orphaned child worker; Jesus the missing and run-away adolescent; Moses, the youthful killer and social outcast; Joseph, the abandoned and trafficked adolescent. The list is long.


This type of work demands that we not only change approaches, structures and services, but also challenge existing programs, schemes and policies of the government. It demands our own attitudinal change.

Policies and systems need to be changed:

In the 1970s, the Juveniles Act saw the youngsters as delinquents, and treated them as criminals. It had to be changed. Now, with the 2000 Act, such youngsters and children have come to be considered as being in need of care and protection (though the 2016 Act has regressed a little!). There is no such term as “delinquents” or deviant” children any more. They are not really criminals. Indeed they are “children in need of care and protection” now. Running away is not a crime; it is simply the immediate response of a child to abuse or a locally unacceptable situation or an adolescent attraction for something new. Thus, to see “truancy” not as a crime but as part of the growing-up phenomenon, as an adolescent response, was something that I myself found difficult to accept in the beginning.


So much. Impossible to put into words.

For, those learnings can only be “caught” in a relational and experiential context and not so much talked about or discussed.


Education to me is not mere knowing… far from it! From my “street” experiences, I have learned much: about how to access energy and inspiration.

To me, accessing and channelizing energy is a basic component of education.

So too, the pivotal role relationships and emotions have in the development of any student in education is slowly gaining acceptance is scholastic circles.

Influenced by the Western over-emphasis on professionalism as the most tangible result of “education,” we have lost the value of relationships, emotions and commitments as the more important components of education. All these I learned from the streets.

Learning from experience is so fundamental for “education.”

Extending ourselves and taking risks, exploring the spiritual and delving within are important components of education and growth—practices I need to make a habit of. This is something I learnt from my exposure to the streets.


The sixties and the seventies of the last century was the era of youth. In India, we had the angry “young man” born into the free India; in the West they had the youth ferment symbolized by the “Beatles”, “Rock and Roll”; the related life style expressions; and the ferment of the revolutionary spirit that was in the air.

Now, we are approaching a generational shift, with the “millennials”—the adolescents born in this century coming of age, entering the stage of youth. It is time for us to partner their aspirations, help them channelize their energies and thus shape the future, with wisdom that is the fruit of experience. The “generation next” is a new world beyond our (and today’s leaders’) imagination and capabilities and which we can hardly speak of. For, as Khalil Gibran says, “their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, even in your dreams.”

Readers, you are welcome to join our humble attempts to build platforms for the coming together of such youngsters.   “Youth for Youth” and “Risk- takers of the 21st century” are communities that are taking shape. They are small initiatives and the faltering steps in the direction of providing a platform and to act as a community, to usher in this new era. Welcome to join!

– Fr. George Kollashany SDB, is currently initiating a “Community of Risk-takers of the 21st Century,” an Institute of Ecology, Experience and Learning

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A Small Presence, a Big Difference


Interview with Sr Clara Animoottil SJC (Sisters of St Jospeh of Chambery) who looks after homeless children at Itarsi railway station

Before we come to the interview, a few questions to our readers:

What would YOU do if you came across any of the following situations?

The stories are all true. The names have been channged.

Pramod, a seven-year-old boy, is so frustrated and hopeless that he has cut his hand with a blade.

Fourteen-year-old Deva brought his two younger siblings, aged 9 and 7, to Itarsi, where they stay under the railway bridge. Their mother had died. Their father sent them to the forest to look after goats. When one one goat was missing, the father chased the boys from the house. Now, Deva is weeping bitterly, because his seven-year-old younger brother is shivering with fever.

A boy is fainting after sniffing chemicals.

Ten-year-old Sneha screams and throws stones if a man approaches her. She refuses to eat or drink. Reason: She was sexually abused when still younger, and is terrified of men.

Two children, aged five and eight, are cleaning the floor of the train, one with a broom the other with his shirt. A passenger kicks them and chases them away.

Twelve-year-old Remya was trafficked from a mela, and is now with a sadhu at the railway station.

Ten-year-old Salman sleeps under the water tank. One leg is full of sores, and his body crawling with lice.

 These are some of the children Sr Clara has befriended and helped. Here are her replies to our questions.


Rescue and rehabilitation of children found at railway stations and on the streets.

Some twenty-five to thirty children come to Itarsi railway station every month, mostly from other districts of Madhya Pradesh. They do any work they can get. Some are also taught to sell drugs.

What we are trying to do is to provide a safe home for them that provides food, clothing, shelter and some basic training. We teach them life skills, and try to get them reunited with their families.

We have 35 boys and 30 girls in our homes today.


Children never took bath for months, since the station has no facility to change clothes. So, body lice make holes on their legs, head, behind the ear. These become festering wounds. Several have scabies. When deeply frustrated, some of them cut themselves with blades. Since the first one to enter a train can grab the empty water bottles for resale, they rush in, and some of them fall down and get seriously injured. Almost every child is sexually abused. They are afraid to go for treatment, since doctors will ask them questions which they do not know how to answer. Some get beaten up by the police. If there is any theft at the station, these children are often blamed. Their own gangs often force them to drink alcohol, or take drugs.


Yes, in most cases. When a child disappears from home, some parents search frantically, and ask God’s help. When we trace the family, and go there with their child, they tell us: “You are God to us. We had been praying to get our child back.”

In some cases, the child recognizes the parents, but the parents do not recognize their son or daughter, since they have grown up and changed. Then the child “proves” the truth, by telling them the names of the school, of teachers, landmarks, etc. If the child’s family does not take back their child, we keep them in our home.


My love for Jesus and to serve Him as a missionary motivated me to be a religious. The example of our founder, Fr. John Peter Medaille, challenged me deeply to reach out to the marginalized.

One day, when I was on Itarsi railway platform, I was moved with the miserable plight of children. Back in the convent, I came across the following Scripture verses: “When Jesus saw this large crowd, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” These quotes touched me.

Other experiences that influenced me: A paper I wrote for my MSW on the psycho-social development of railway platform children; the year I spent at the shelter home run by the Salesians at Wadala, Mumbai; the motivation provided by Fr Xavier Devdass SDB, who took me to Dadar Station and gave me valuable guidance; the month I spent with Fr Anthony SDB in Uttam Nagar, Delhi. He had started in a small rented room, and his passionate love for the poor inspired me. These persons were my spiritual guides in his ministry.


Mission experiences in Bihar, teaching deaf and dumb children in Bhopal, mission work with Koruku tribal people in Khandwa, teaching in a school, two years of village work in Jhabua, one year as assistant director of the Indore Diocesan Social Service Society.


In 1999 I started working at Itarsi Railway station, just sitting at different platforms and surroundings, moving along with children for a month or so. The work started at the platform without money, without space, but trust and confidence in God, the creator of these children.

The Railway Mazdoor Union Officer gave me their room to be used free of cost during the day. Thereafter the Railway was a great support and was very appreciative of the work with the children.  The General Manager and the Divisional Railway Manager found it a very good welfare activity and even promoted the same to Jabalpur and Katni stations with our help.

The Nagarpalika Collector, the SDM and the Education Department also cooperated in getting admission for the children in school.

 After the Implementation of Juvenile Justice Act in Madhya Pradesh 2012, the government approach changed. They offered us the Government grant to run the homes but when applied they asked for 20% as commission, which we were not able to give them without a receipt. They filed an FIR against me. This case has now been dismissed.


God is infinitely good; is very much concerned about me. God’s providence and co-incidences are my touching experiences round the clock.   The Railway Mazdoor Union, Itarsi, gave their office to be utilised as a day care centre. About 80 to 90 children visited this centre and availed the facilities of food, shelter, recreation, medical care etc.

Some experiences may sound strange to you.

A small boy wanted to save ten Rupees. He dug a pit in the ground and hid it. The next morning he went to take this money and got only a small piece of it. Rats had eaten the rest.

Now, children have their bank accounts. Some have savings of over Rs. 20,000/-.

I have experienced the love and support of good people—Sisters who help in this work, couples that have got involved, our Mother General who visited us, and told me she sees our charism being lived here.


I begin the day with the Eucharist. Jesus made Himself the bread of life to give us life.  end the day with the examination of consciousness. All the children too evaluate the whole day.  I don’t think that I could do this work if I didn’t have God-experience and union with Him.

Jesus has very clearly said in the gospel. “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me.”  Again, Jesus has said “Come, blessed of my Father, take the seat in the kingdom prepared for you, because I was hungry you gave me food, I was thirsty you have me drink, I was naked you clothed me, I was homeless you took me home and I was sick you visited me.”

And I am just doing that. I do it for Jesus and Jesus alone. When you do that, there is joy, unity and love.

Secondly, the children have taught me to be more patient, kind, forgiving and loving. Their joy gives me energy to go head.


Two Junior Sisters (Sr. Carmela and Sr. Anima) and a team of 20 to 25 committed lay workers. Six religious brothers from KPRP Seminary, Bhopal come on Saturday and Sunday as volunteers. The Railway Police, GRP, Ticket Examiners, porters, vendors—so many collaborate so actively. We partner with Railway Children, Miracle Foundation and Butterfield.


In doing the will of God, there is no disappointment as such. Nevertheless, sustainability of the organisation is quite a concern. As a contemplative in action I trust that He will sustain us all through. I have entrusted my life to Jesus. The work I do is important, but what matters is not the person doing that job. I do this through Jesus and for Jesus and that is why I love it. I am not able to do everything. I always pray for all who are in need and miserable. I count on the Providence of God and somehow during difficult times He takes care.


Here is just one.

As a small boy, Raj loved to go to school, but his mother forced him to beg in the temples. One day Raj and his younger brother ran away from home. They were 10 and 8 at that time. He got into a train, and, before he could find out where the train was going, it started.

The train reached Itarsi station. Someone made him sell tobacco at the station. A good man who knew Jeevodaya, met the boys and took them there. They thrived. Raj later completed his ITI, got a job as a mechanic, and married. Today, he is a responsible married man and father.


  • Be happy in whatever you do. Suffering and difficulties well accepted will produce fruit.
  • Take calculated risks, trusting in the Lord.
  • The ultimate source of happiness is not money and power, but warm-heartedness.
  • A simple word of love, a warm hug, a beautiful smile can bring a difference in a person’s life.
  • Do not be afraid to walk alone.
  • Get out of the charity mode and empower the poor through education and life skills.
  • Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly (Micah 6:8)
  • Let us get out of our comfort zone of four walls and reach out to the poor and the needy on the streets and in the slums.

– Sr Clara Animoottil SJC works for the distitute children she befriends at Itarsi Railway Station

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Maintain the Past or Follow a Vision?


A conversation with Brother Philip Pinto CFC, the former Superior General of the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

“A life not reflected on is wasted.” The wisdom of the ancient Greeks is so very apt. I have been invited to share some of my life journey in the hope that others might also take a look at the way their own lives have been moulded by the Spirit flowing through the universe. Nothing happens by chance, and every leaf that falls fulfills a purpose.

Tell us something about your personal journey of growth and of faith—significant people and experiences that have molded you.
There have been some very strong influences in my life. The first was my mother. She was a Parsee who became a Catholic shortly before her marriage to my father. In those days such inter-religious marriages were not viewed favourably, and both families disowned them. While bridges were mended before long and relations re-established, I can imagine the loneliness the young couple felt and how they had to rely on each other.
One of the results of that early time was a recognition that religion and God might not always be on the same page. I grew up recognizing that God was greater than religion, that God was larger than any religion and even than all religions put together.
The second great influence in my life was an Irish Brother who has guided me from my novitiate days. He was the one who taught me how to read the Scriptures. He was a mystic and one who had set out very deliberately on the mystical path as a young Brother. The mystical path is not an easy one, because one has to be faithful to the life of prayer, particularly when God seems distant. He knew from experience about the different stages on the mystical journey and the rigours of the Dark Night so well described by St. John of the Cross. This Brother taught me how to pray, how to use time in prayer and how to stay at prayer. His wisdom and sanctity have been with me all through my life until his passing a few weeks ago.

Why did you join the Christian Brothers? What does it mean for you to be a Brother, and a member of the Christian Brothers?
I grew up in Delhi and went to the Christian Brother School, St. Columba’s, in the Capital. I have no rational explanation as to why I joined this group of men. But I do know why I have stayed with them over the years. It is a choice that is repeatedly made and one which I have never regretted. At the beginning I enjoyed the traditional work of the Brothers: teaching, working in schools with children, training them in games, going on walks or sitting and chatting with them. The innocence and spontaneity of children reveals why Tagore could say that every child comes with a message that God has not despaired of humankind! Children bring hope and constant optimism – necessary ingredients for today’s world, which needs reminding that life is essentially beautiful and worth the effort.
I also gradually realised that being a Brother was about much more than teaching children. It was about discovering what it meant for me to be fully human. I knew that in this way of life I would be able to follow the path of discipleship advocated by Jesus. Being a Brother allowed me to become the type of person God wanted me to become. People ask me why I never went on to be a priest, and I say, “then I wouldn’t have been able to be a Brother!” More than ever before the human race needs brothers and sisters – an egalitarian relationship. It is a prophetic challenge to patriarchy and hierarchy.
You were an educator, then a provincial and later superior general. What would you like to tell educators in India today?
When I look at the numbers of private schools mushrooming all over the country, I realise that education has become so highly commercialized. Recently the schools in the city here had admissions for the Kindergarten Class. I saw parents running along to fulfill the requirements asked for from the different schools. It was not enough to enroll in one school, as admission is not guaranteed. It is actually a lottery! Years back schools managed by religious congregations were sorely needed and were great opportunities for our Catholic children to make their way in life. The children got a good education and also grounding in their faith. I am not sure if that is the main reason religious congregations run schools today. It pains me to see the arrogance and high-handedness of principals, the way staff is treated, and the very dubious standards and practices in many of our institutions.
I believe that a Catholic School is one in which the whole school community – children, staff, parents –is encouraged to experience God the way that Jesus experienced God. Is that happening? Are our schools actually communities of growth? In what ways is the search for God at the centre of our educational enterprise? Do we have to have our Brothers, Sisters and Priests as principals in our schools – particularly when we have more competent lay people available? These are questions that need serious airing and discussion.

What are the main strengths you see in organized religious life today? What weaknesses? What would you like to tell religious superiors today?
In the early 90s, at one of the annual assemblies of the Conference of Religious in India, I recall saying that Religious Life as we had known it was dying. I do not believe that many in the audience thought it was true. Well, nothing in the interim has made me change my mind. I truly hold that the form of religious life that I was brought up on is a thing of the past. I know that in the West it is far more apparent than it is here in India, but the decline is obvious.
We know from the life sciences that when organisms cease to interact with their environment and learn from it, the organism chooses extinction. It is the same with religious life – and indeed with organized religion. As the Internet, social media and other technologies continue to evolve, we religious also need to redefine our traditional ways of relating, our connectivity to other like-minded groups, our institutions and our culture. To ignore this is to court disaster.
So many of our religious leaders are just trying to sustain the present. The change that has overtaken us simply is too much for them and they cannot handle it. New ways of operating in the ministry of leadership is called for. God is at work in our world – as God always is. The problem is that we think the world will always be the way it was, that human beings will continue to live and relate in the same way and that we know what the future will be: a mere extension of the past. But we live in an evolving universe where change is the name of the game. To refuse to change is to seek death.
The task of religious leadership is to hold the vision for the rest of the members. But how many are even conscious of the vision, caught up as they are in the heavy task of maintenance? I deal with so many groups of religious today – wonderful people, strong and generous. But they are, for the most part, caught up in maintaining the past.
The new forms of religious life will only evolve in the actual seeking for today’s God, in new forms of relating in community, in new ways of collaboration and connection in ministry, and in a commitment to walking the road to Jerusalem keeping alive the “dangerous memory of Jesus.”
I believe that we are being called to a new fidelity to the contemplative vision of life. So many of our religious brothers and sisters want to pray, but they do not know how to do it. Our structures encourage the saying of prayers, the practice of devotions, the attendance at rituals and the fidelity to many practices that are ‘part of our heritage’. But we need to really pray once more, not just say prayers. That is why so much of our life is superficial. I see this in my own life, that of my Brothers and in much of religious life in the country. We need to commit to this search for God in a very real and sincere way. And we need help in doing so.

What should be our priorities in the coming decades? Any striking experiences or initiatives that we can all learn from? What are the most pressing issues facing humankind today? What answers are the church and members of religious congregations offering to these challenges?
“The third millennium will be dominated by the ‘religion/spirituality paradox’: the decline of organized religion on one hand coupled with a growing interest in spirituality and wisdom on the other. . . . This demands a reordering of priorities in terms of the spiritual, and an urgent need for a relevant faith. . . . By relevant, I mean a faith that speaks to the current and future concerns of our time.”
“The devastation taking place cannot be critiqued effectively from within the traditional religions or humanist ethics. We find ourselves ethically destitute just when, for the first time, we are faced with ultimacy, the irreversible closing down of the Earth’s functioning in its major life systems. Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and geocide, the devastation of the Earth itself. . . . The human is at a cultural impasse. . . . Radical new forms are needed.
Caleb Rosado, ‘What Is Spirituality?’
Thomas Berry, ‘The Great Work: Our Way Into the Future’
These two quotations are for me the great priorities for religious life in the coming decades. These are also the most pressing issues for humanity today. In a sense, Pope Francis is drawing attention to the plight of the planet and to the inadequacies of the present human mindset to deal with it. His first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, clearly speaks about the inherent deficiencies in our modern culture: the economy of exclusion, the worship of money, and the growing inequality which gives birth to violence. All these work against the wellbeing of our planet, the only home we have. In Laudato Si, the Pope makes a passioned appeal to make care of the Earth a central issue in our lives and ministries. Theology that does not take this into account is irrelevant to our world today. In India we are continuing with our traditional ministries, ignoring this great threat to our future. With the installation of Donald Trump as the 45th American President, the threat is magnified and we can no longer sit on the fence. Ignorance is not an excuse. I love the words of the poet Drew Dillinger:

It’s 3.23 in the morning, and I’m awake,
Because my great, great, grandchildren
Won’t let me sleep.
My great, great, grandchildren ask me in dreams,
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
Drew Dillinger, Hieroglyphic Stairway

The day of individual salvation is long gone. I am not saved alone. My salvation is interwoven in the salvation of all species of my planet – the human being but one. The very word salvation is far greater than being forgiven for my sins or reaching heaven in the next life!!!
At the moment there are only isolated attempts by some individual religious and lay groups in this direction. The Indian Church has a vast road to traverse, and to my thinking it is not even aware of the journey.

Finally, I am an optimist. From the above you might think I hold little hope for our Church or world or Religious Life. On the contrary. I am fully convinced that the Spirit of God permeates our Universe and is actively creating the future. I am also convinced that there are enough men and women who think differently, who are slowly being the leaven in the dough. The leaven, as in Jesus’s parable, “contaminates” the whole dough and makes it rise. These men and women are spreading the message of a new face of God alive in our world, inviting people to a fresh release of Spirit for a vibrant and exciting future. May this corruption thrive!

– Brother Philip Pinto CFC was a principal, provincial and then general of his religious order. After completing his term, he returned to India, and is actively engaged in on-going formation programmes and other animation services for religious.

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From the Huts of the Poorest to Leading the Leaders


We launch this feature with an interview with a very inspiring religious who spent years among the poorest of the poor in Bihar, then worked for them with the government, and was elected superior general of her order. Evidently a woman of God for whom Jesus means much, she has much to teach us.

Recently you addressed the Meeting of the Superiors General of women
religious in Rome. What points did you insist on?

In May this year, I was privileged to address the International Union of Superiors General in Rome on the theme: “Solidarity for Life on the Periphery.” I found the theme very pertinent, but challenging.  Although I touched on several important issues concerning this theme, my emphasis was on the following three points: spirituality, the context of our mission today and our call to a culture of solidarity.

I believe that the fundamental pre-requisite for living solidarity on the peripheries in the spirit of Jesus is our rootedness in the heart of God and in the realities of our world: being women and men in pursuit of spiritual depth and soul-vision. Jesus always found time to be with his Abba in quiet contemplation and solitude.  If we believe our call is to be Christ to the world today, then our model can be none other than Jesus, who was profoundly contemplative and, at the same time, intensely human. His ministry was characterized by many radical and prophetic options that placed him on the margins. His life and mission was all about relationships.  This sustained, divine intimacy is the fundamental requirement for each of us as religious to engage with one another in solidarity, and to move to the peripheries with the heart and mind of Jesus.

In my UISG talk I often referred to Pope Francis, the Pope of the peripheries! With a sense of urgency, he continues to call us to re-image religious life and mission in a radical way and find our true identity on the peripheries with the peripheralized people. How right he is when he says this is what will get us and the whole Church out of our “self-absorption.” It is time for each of us as Religious to put our heads and hearts together to search for a new way of being religious, a new way of engaging with the world.  I believe that the poor will continue to lead us to the heart of our mission, to where we belong and, indeed, to the very heart of God.

Another important point that I highlighted was Solidarity across congregational, cultural and geographic boundaries. Genuine solidarity requires heart-level understanding of our prophetic call and a radical commitment to the Jesus movement for the integral liberation of every human person. Today, you and I are challenged to identify and cross over the tightly held, comfortable boundaries of our religious life and move to the peripheries. Risking some periphery-focused questions can lead to the essence of true solidarity.

Tell us something about your own journey of faith—from your childhood until now. Who has (have) inspired and influenced most? What drew you to religious life?

It was in my deeply religious family that God provided me with roots and wings that continue to hold and ground me and to sustain me in my journey of faith. What I learned from my saintly mother and father and the witness of their faith in action are foundational to my own relationship with God and with others and my life as a religious. My earliest memories are so much centered around the beautiful way my mother taught us to ”talk” to Jesus as our closest friend and guide. Hers was a spirituality of relationship. There was a very transparent and credible integration of the divine and the human in her life of faith and action.

Witnessing is not about what we say or do; it is more about who we are and how we live. Among the many Christian values inculcated in us by our parents, there was great emphasis on a life of prayer, forgiveness and compassionate love for the poor. These values continue to guide my life. How true it is that the Gospel, as it is embodied in us, carries much more credibility and power than all our dogmas, reasoning and preaching. Even in the most adverse situations, we can always witness to the message of Jesus by embodying it in our lived reality.

My attraction to Religious life came from a sustained inner desire to offer my life to Jesus, especially by serving the poor and needy in some remote place where not many people want to go. In addition, my parents and my close relatives who were happy and committed missionaries had a great influence on my decision to become a missionary.

You worked among the poorest and most marginalized groups of people in Bihar. What led you to do that?

Although from my very young age I had persistent dreams about living with the marginalized and sharing their life, it was only when, as a young Sister, I pitched my tent among one of the most deprived groups of Dalits in Bihar, along with my two companion Sisters, that my eyes were opened about the implications of my call to mission on the peripheries. Until and unless we touch, smell and feel real poverty, it is not possible to enter the world of the poor. For me, incarnation takes on a whole different meaning when we are with the poor. During the initial phase of our life with the poor, we went from house to house, meeting the poor, listening to them, eating whatever they could offer us, sleeping in any little space that was made available for us. We had no agenda except that of establishing relationships with the people.  The longer we lived among them, the more realized that these relationships lead to mutual transformation and engagement with the poor in their struggle for integral liberation.

My life experiences with the poor changed my own understanding of my call to religious life, community and mission. As a small community inserted among the poor, we developed a pattern of regular prayerful reflection on the meaning and the consequences of living our consecrated life in our present context; in the Gospels, we always found the answer. It was this experience that gave us the inner freedom to keep going forward although we lacked even the very basic facilities like clean drinking water, toilets, bathing facilities, a little room of our own, electricity and such things which are considered the basic necessities of daily living. I believe that if all of us religious, especially those called to leadership, would risk sharing the lot of the poor, even once in a while, it would nurture compassion in us and propel us to work for justice and peace in the spirit of solidarity from a new perspective.

What lessons did you learn from this experience?

Sharing the lot of the poor day after day can, indeed, be a powerful eye-opener for us who take it for granted that having middle class (or even higher!) comforts and conveniences are our right, part of our promised hundredfold, because we have left everything for the sake of Jesus!  What have we really left behind and for whom?

The poor have rich inner resources that can touch and transform us, if we are willing to learn from them. The poor who live in the most hopeless situations have the best definition of hope, compassion and solidarity. From their inner resources, they seem to cope with what could otherwise be devastating. Sharing the life of the poor will impact our prayer life, our spirituality, lifestyle, and our understanding of community and mission. My lived experience among the marginalized people in Bihar has helped me to understand better the Gospels and my consecrated life from their perspective. This experience has made a radical impact on my convictions, priorities and commitment as a Religious. The options before us are very limited: either we live a prophetic religious life with all its consequences of witnessing to the life and mission of Jesus in real terms, or we disappear as an irrelevant reality.

You were superior general for twelve years. Any tips for major superiors in India today?

One of the things I believe is a great need today is to model participative, servant leadership. I began my ministry of Congregational leadership with five councillors and several other sisters in the administration who represented various cultures and nationalities, none of whom I knew. The first thing we did was to begin the process of becoming a leadership team. In the first week of our taking charge, we set aside three days to be together in quiet prayer and solitude, to contemplate our new call to serve. Then, the next two days were spent in getting to know one another by sharing our stories, our lights and shadows, our spiritual journey, our hopes and dreams as we entered into the new leadership ministry.  By then, we were already experiencing a sense of bondedness and energy among us.

We then spent another day to write our personal vision statement as congregational leaders. The final part of the process was to merge together our individual vision into a shared, integrated vision based on the current realities of the Congregation, the Church and the world. In retrospect, I can clearly see that the whole experience of that week was the beginning of an apostolically vibrant leadership team. Establishing a pattern of regular team meetings for sharing our  ”God-moments” and for reflection on our ministry and issues connected with it, from the beginning impacted our ministry effectiveness, spiritual growth, shared commitment and also provided us with many healthy recuperative experiences.

An important area is the witness of our life.  Today we are challenged to be leaders who bear the mark of Jesus, the transformational servant leader, whose integrity, inclusivity and humble attitude drew out the best of vision, creativity, commitment and leadership from his close followers. As leaders, we need to ask ourselves if there is a certain sense of adventure, prophecy, and risk-taking in our style of leadership or we are functioning as mere ’maintenance’ leaders.

Another important question is: Are we preparing those we lead to be contemplatives in action, who will live a prophetic life with all its consequences? How we can awaken and gather together the transformational potential in the hearts our membership is a constant search and concern for those called to leadership.

We need to pay much attention to our leadership style in our drastically changed modern realities. We are called to lead more from the heart than from the head because, at the heart of our leadership, is the person and our mission. Many a time we behave like glorified “CEOs” who are a poor reflection of Jesus, our Servant Leader! Professionalism and even talents can be purchased from the market today, but only an intimate relationship with Jesus can teach us his style of leadership! From Jesus we learn to be “person-centered” and mission-focused leaders.

Congregational leaders need to find creative ways of nurturing a culture of life-giving relationships and solidarity among the membership across congregational and geographical boundaries. It is a time to “widen our tents” and think “outside the box!”

You worked as the State Project Director of the Women Empowerment
Department of the Bihar Education Project for several years. What has been your
experience of working within a Government department?

It was when I was living in a Musahar village that I received an invitation from Shri. Anil Bordia, IAS, the then-Education Secretary, Government of India, asking me to be one of the founding members of the Bihar Education Project, which was funded by the UN and the Government of India. I was introduced to him earlier during a National Literacy Mission Meeting in Delhi.  He was a man of extraordinary vision, committed to empowering all, especially women and girls, through quality education.

The thought of moving away from my familiar life with the poor to work within the government’s bureaucratic structures was rather intimidating for me, and I was apprehensive.  What helped me to plunge into this totally unknown world was the support of my superiors and sisters, as well as the encouragement of my good friends and the strength of my years of experience with the poor. From the beginning, I could see great possibilities in the project for a much wider involvement with the marginalized, especially women and girls. Working within such a large government project opened many doors for me to get directly involved with the victims of dehumanizing poverty, illiteracy, conflicts, exploitation and marginalization, homelessness, human trafficking, migrants; all these women and girls were our first priority in all these situations.

I was entrusted with the responsibility of establishing the Women Empowerment Programme (Mahila Samakhya) within the Bihar Education Project (BEP). My years of experience in working with the poor, especially women, was a great help in pursuing this task. I felt that my presence and sincere commitment was recognized and valued even by those who did not approve of us “missionaries.” As we worked alongside them, they began to realize that somehow we were different and there was something in us that took us beyond just being “officers.” From the beginning, I promoted mutual accountability in my department by engaging in the reflection-action-reflection process on a regular basis. I had the freedom and the space to contribute my best to the programme, and I felt enriched by the whole experience.

From my experience of being a government employee, I can say that it was a great opportunity to witness to what we stand for and our reason for being Religious. What I learned from this experience is that we religious need to enter into appropriate services in the government sector as well as with other like-minded NGOS; we can be a transforming presence and make significant contributions for the much-desired systemic change. The time has come for us to prepare our younger generation of religious to think beyond our congregational boundaries when it comes to serving God’s people who are most in need.

Are you happy and enthusiastic? What is the secret of your joy and enthusiasm?

I have always been happy and enthusiastic about my life and mission. Along with the Psalmist I want to say, “You have put into my heart a greater joy than abundance of corn and new-wine…” and I have received all that I need to live a happy, committed and fruitful life. Even as a young girl I was fascinated by the “reckless” love, radical inner freedom and simplicity of Jesus. Gradually that fascination was transformed into a personal call to l follow Jesus as a Sister of Notre Dame. I am still struggling to understand and live the greater implications of that call.  Even amidst the struggles and challenges of my consecrated life, I continue to experience inner joy and freedom. I think it is impossible to be lethargic and unhappy if we truly love our vocation as Religious and keep our focus on Jesus and his mission! A religious without “fire for Jesus and his mission” is a contradiction in terms.

I always find great joy and hope when I am in the company of those who live their lives with prophetic commitment and vision. As a member of an international congregation with multiple ministry demands, I am not always able to do ministries that I desire the most. But somehow I always find joy and meaning in whatever ministry I am engaged in. When we know that we are at the right place, at the right time, we become enthusiastic and energetic. I am sure there will be more joy and meaning in our life as Religious when we live out of a deeper spirituality, radical simplicity and Gospel poverty and risk a more incarnational involvement with the life struggles of our people on the peripheries.

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