St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara: “Days on which you have not rendered any good to others will not be reckoned in the book of your life.”
St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, the first Indian male saint, who lived only for a short span of 66 years (from February 10, 1805, to January 3, 1871), did what many people together cannot achieve even during the course of many centuries. He was able to do this because, as he himself preached, he was guided by the conviction: “Days on which you have not rendered any good to others will not be reckoned in the book of your life.”
As a poet and a truly pious man, he reiterated that the love of God should translate itself as service to the poor, the illiterate and the destitute. It was precisely because of this that he was acknowledged by his contemporaries as a living saint during his life time. Even his own testimony at death revealed his inner innocence and sanctity: “I have never lost the baptismal grace.”
Immediately after his death, the members of the religious congregation founded by him were urged to preserve all things used by St. Chavara. Copies of Chavara’s testament were made and a few things that belonged to Chavara were distributed to all the other monasteries as sacred relics.
Personal tragedy at a young age
Now let us come to the life of St. Chavara and see how he overcame a major crisis in his life. It was with a lot of zeal and enthusiasm that young Kuriakose entered the seminary with the dream of becoming a priest. Shattering all his dreams, a few years after he joined the seminary, a major tragedy occurred:
His father, mother and his only brother died in a smallpox epidemic that devastated his village. Kuriakose, who was just 13 years of age at that time, came to know about the death of his near and dear ones only three weeks after the incident and because of this reason he was not even able to attend their funeral. He was heartbroken.
He prayed and wept at the tombs. But the faith he received from his parents, especially from his mother, helped him to withstand this crisis of enormous proportion. He strongly believed that God was his portion.
The death of his dear ones also posed a major challenge to him. Since he was now the only male member in the family he was advised by all — his siblings, relatives, neighbors and well-wishers — to discontinue his studies at the seminary and take up the responsibility of the family. One of his uncles who did not favor Kuriakose going back to the seminary even locked him up in a room. But God had definite plans for him. Another relative, whom none in the family dared to oppose, intervened and young Kuriakose was allowed to follow his wish of returning to the seminary.
Later on in life when St. Chavara had to face challenges, he firmly believed that with the help of the Lord he would be able to overcome. He was never heartbroken because he believed that nothing is impossible for God.
The road less traveled
St. Chavara had the courage to take initiatives and contribute to the Church and to society because of his strong faith in the providence of God. He was a man who took the road less traveled. He made initiatives where it was necessary. No obstacle could stop St. Chavara, who strongly believed that however mighty the obstacles were, they were nothing before the all-powerful Lord. He had the conviction that if he did his part the Lord would take care of the rest. His profound trust in the providence of God and the ardent desire to lead a more radical way of Christian discipleship led him to found the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate (CMI), the first indigenous Indian religious congregation, along with Fr. Thomas Palackal and Fr. Thomas Porukara.
His ability to be a trend setter is evident from the founding of the first Indian religious congregation for women, the first Sanskrit School, the first Catholic printing press and the preparation of the first liturgical calendar for the Malabar Church.
For the spiritual renewal of the people of God he started several seminaries, introduced annual retreats for priests and people, started 40-hour adoration, and gave special attention to the catechumens. Taking into account the needs of the people of that time, he also established a house for the dying and destitute and schools for general education.
It was only because of St. Chavara, who was appointed the first Vicar General of all the Syro-Malabar Catholics in 1861, that the Church could withstand the many threats to ecclesial unity caused by various schisms.
Once when St. Chavara came to know that a person suffering from smallpox wanted to receive the last sacrament, he immediately got ready to go to him. Even though many warned him against going, St. Chavara did not change his mind. He said, “Now it is my duty to take care of this person. God will take care of me.”
The year before his death he was taking rest and treatment in the monastery at Koonammavu. Disputes and quarrels were going on in the parish of Anackal relating to the Portuguese patronage. All efforts to reconcile the rival groups having failed, the parish chiefs approached the prior and said: “It is enough if you just come for peace to be restored.” He went with them and peace was restored.
Time and space for everyone
St. Chavara had space in his heart for every one — for the rich, for the poor, for the downtrodden and for the members of other castes and religions. He had space in his heart even for those who tried to harass him. This is well illustrated in his last testament. There was a man called Mathen who unjustly appropriated the land of Mannanam monastery and filed cases against St. Chavara in the court. In spite of all the troubles this man created St. Chavara still loved him and in his last testament instructed the members of his religious community to do all good to him.
Chavara was beatified by Pope John Paul II during his historic visit to India on February 8, 1986, and was canonized by Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square on November 23, 2014.
The miracle approved by the Vatican for his canonization was the healing of the eye of a girl, Mary Jose. The only cure for the defect prescribed by medical doctors was a surgical operation; but within a week’s intense intercessory prayer to Chavara, the girl received an instantaneous cure beyond scientific explanation.