Blason   Abbey of Saint-Joseph de Clairval

21150 Flavigny-sur-Ozerain


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February 18, 2000
Saint Bernadette

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

On January 2, 1871, the day before his death, Father Cyriac Elias of the Holy Family said to the members of the monastic institute under his leadership, «Why are you mourning? Every man, no matter who he is, must leave one day or another. The hour has arrived for me… Since my holy parents taught me to invoke often the holy names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, their patronage has constantly protected me, and I feel that, by the grace of God, I have never lost the sanctifying grace received at my Baptism… Do not be grieved or disturbed by my leaving. Submit yourselves fully and wholeheartedly to the Holy Will of God. God is supremely and infinitely merciful… May perfect charity reign here among you… If you act in this way, you will give God glory and souls salvation, and our Congregation will remain nothing less than flourishing.»

The Christians of Saint Thomas

Beatified February 8, 1986 by Pope John Paul II, the monk who thus spoke was born February 8, 1805, in the village of Kainakary, in Kerala (a province in southern India). His parents, Cyriac and Mary Chavara, prominent citizens of the village, already had a son and four daughters. According to custom, the child, named Cyriac after his father, was consecrated to the Blessed Virgin Mary the following 8th of September, the feast of Mary's birth, in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Vechour. Later he would write, «My mother taught me various prayers that she had me recite, kneeling beside her, in the early hours of the evening.» He thus received a most ancient Christian legacy. Indeed, Christianity in India dates back to the times of the Apostles. A tradition says that the Apostle Saint Thomas, who had arrived at Kerala, on the western coast of southern India, around the year 52 A.D., evangelized the area until his martyrdom on July 3, 72 at Mylapore, on the eastern coast. His tomb is kept at Madras, a city of the eastern coast. The communities which he founded are still flourishing, and their members are called «the Christians of Saint Thomas.»

Up until the sixteenth century, the liturgy of these Christians was celebrated according to the Syro-Malabar rite, an eastern rite which had come from Antioch, at that time in Syria (located in present-day Turkey.) The See of Antioch is, along with that of Alexandria, one of the two great Eastern Sees of apostolic origin whose patriarchal authority has been recognized since the Council of Nicea (325). The Syro-Malabar rite is therefore quite old; it is celebrated in the Syrian language. It differs from the Latin rite in the form of liturgical vestments, the calendar of feast days and fasts, the ceremonies of the sacraments, etc. At the time of their arrival in India in the sixteenth century, the Portuguese introduced the Roman liturgy (also known as the Latin rite.) Since that time, the two rites, Latin and Syro-Malabar, have coexisted.

From his earliest youth, Cyriac Chavara was very pious and exceptionally intelligent. From the age of 5 to 11, he attended the village school. His great ambition was to serve Mass (in the Syro-Malabar rite). When Cyriac reached the age of eleven, Father Thomas Palackal, finding in him the signs of a priestly vocation, took him to the seminary in Pallipuram, where he was the director, and in 1817, the boy received the clerical tonsure. Shortly afterwards, his parents and brother died. His uncles wanted to make him abandon the path to the priesthood so that he might attend to the interests of his family, and particularly of the little girl his brother left behind. But, after having provided for his niece's upbringing, Cyriac continued his studies at the seminary. One of his companions wrote of him, «At the seminary, Cyriac Chavara led an exemplary life of love of God, of gentleness, of humility, of obedience, and of fraternal love; all his friends admired him and loved him.» The young seminarian next went with two companions to the main seminary in Verapoly, where he studied Latin and Portuguese. Then he was ordained a priest at the age of 24, on November 29, 1829, by the Apostolic Vicar of the area, Bishop Stabilini.

Missionary monks

At the same time, Father Palackal and his friend, Father Perukkara, distinguished priests known for their talents and their holiness, considered withdrawing into solitude, so as to live in the manner of the hermits of times past. Taking this desire seriously, Bishop Stabilini suggested that they found a native religious institute. Cyriac, also fascinated by the same ideal, joined them with the bishop's approval. May 11, 1831, the first stone of the monastery of Mannanam was laid, and the building was dedicated to Saint Joseph. Several priests and seminarians entered the nascent community, which founded a seminary attached to the convent. Over half a century, this seminary would provide for the needs of the Syro-Malabars of Kerala, needs all the more pressing since the previous formation of priests, which had been too rudimentary, had brought about a serious lack of instruction among the faithful.

In 1844, the Apostolic Vicar of Verapoly put Father Cyriac in charge of the examination of all the clergy of his rite: admissions to ordinations, and faculties for hearing confessions and preaching. That same year, hoping to publish Catholic works in Malayalam (the language of the region), he had a wooden printing press made. Thanks to this tool, now out of use but piously preserved, numerous religious works were published, as well as a monthly review: The Flower of Carmel, and a daily newspaper, The Deepika. In 1846, the first two founders of the community having died, Father Chavara became the superior. Even while lending a considerable portion of their lives to contemplation, the fathers of the Mannanam Institute, according to the wishes of the Apostolic Vicar, gave retreats and parish missions. Father Cyriac himself traveled to nearly all the churches of Kerala for this apostolate. Thus the new community, combining the apostolic life with monastic observances, constituted a lively center for the edification of the Christian people.

Something radically different

The importance of monastic life for Christianity was stressed several years ago by the president of the Indian Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Powathil, Syro-Malabar Archbishop of Changannacheri, in Kerala: «The 'postmodern' generation seeks the experience of God in Eastern religions and demands a genuine spirituality. During the first millennium, religious life was intended to give an intense experience of God and a testimony to the world. This practice kept the contemplative and eschatological dimension of Christian life at the center of life. The monk was a privileged model of holiness. We must reestablish monasticism at the heart of the Church today, in the East as well as the West. The 'postmodern' world cannot be attracted by anything other than something radically different from its models of individualistic and superficial consumption. Only Christian monasticism can give it true authenticity and the communion it so desperately seeks (cf. The Church in Distress in the World, no. 87, 1995.) «Monasteries have been and continue to be eloquent signs of communion, welcoming abodes for those seeking God and the things of the spirit, schools of faith… for the building up of the life of the Church and of the earthly city itself, in expectation of the heavenly city» (John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Vita consecrata, March 25, 1996, no. 6).

Strong from its intense spiritual life, the institute which Father Cyriac Elias oversaw developed to the point that it was made a Congregation, the «Congregation of the Servants of Mary Immaculate of Mount Carmel,» better known under the name of «Discalced Carmelites of the Third Order,» on December 8, 1855, the first anniversary of the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. It numbers more than 1500 members today. During Father Chavara's lifetime, besides the convent at Mannanam, seven other houses of the new Congregation were founded.

A bishop of their rite

But a trial arose: in May 1861, Bishop Thomas Rocos arrived in Kerala, sent by the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, in order to learn more about the situation of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in this area. Indeed, up until the end of the sixteenth century, the «Christians of Saint Thomas» had been governed by Chaldean prelates from Mesopotamia. Since then, under the influence of the Portuguese, Latin prelates had succeeded them. In 1858, a conflict arose between the new Apostolic Vicar of the Latin rite in Kerala, Bishop Baccinelli, and Syro-Malabar priests. In their dissatisfaction, the latter had made an appeal to the Chaldean patriarch Joseph VI Audo, who asked Rome for permission to ordain a bishop for the Syro-Malabars. The response was negative, but in spite of that the Patriarch consecrated Bishop Rocos, then set out for Rome in hopes of winning his case there.

Upon his arrival in Kerala, Bishop Rocos applied himself to persuading the local Catholics of the regularity of his mission, saying that the Chaldean Patriarch had been ordered by the Holy See to consecrate him for the care of the Patriarch's Christian communities. His fallacious claims weakened the faithful and were a source of great divisions. Soon, the majority of Syro-Malabar parishioners had left their rightful shepherd of the Latin rite, the Apostolic Vicar of Verapoly, in order to place themselves under the authority of the intruder bishop. Indeed, faithful and priests alike were very happy to welcome a bishop of their rite, whom they had hoped for for some time, and they supported Bishop Rocos' aims and behavior as best they could. Of 154 Syro-Malabar parishes, 86 joined Bishop Rocos completely and another 30 partially; only 38 remained faithful to the legitimate authority.

Yet Father Chavara's monks did not support this beginning of schism. Bishop Rocos then tried to win Father Chavara over, and offered him consecration as a bishop, but the humble monk replied that he wished to save his soul, not to be bought in order to become a bishop. For his part, the Apostolic Vicar of Verapoly relied on Father Chavara in naming him Vicar General for the Syro-Malabars and giving him extraordinary faculties, with the intention of remedying the situation. He even wanted to have him named a bishop by Rome, but this desire was not fulfilled. Father Chavara sent the Pope a petition asking him to establish the line that the Syro-Malabars were to follow. The response, dated September 5, 1861, clearly indicated that Bishop Rocos had come to Kerala in spite of the interdiction of the Apostolic See. A few days later, even Patriarch Joseph VI Audo himself wrote from Rome to Bishop Rocos to request his return to Mesopotamia.

Father Chavara and the other priests of his Congregation set to work and went from parish to parish to thwart Rocos' claims and to lead the faithful to obedience to the true shepherd, the Apostolic Vicar of Verapoly. Then, making use of his talent and tact, Father Cyriac persuaded the intruder bishop to leave the country and convinced the Apostolic Vicar to provide the money necessary to pay for his trip home. Thus, after a year, all of the dissident parishes wrenched away by this disastrous schism returned to the jurisdiction of their rightful bishop. Bishop Rocos, who had been excommunicated by the Apostolic Vicar, likewise ended up submitting himself to him and obtaining his pardon. Pope Pius IX manifested his great satisfaction to Father Cyriac Chavara for having spared the Church this serious damage of schism. As «the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him» (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2089), schism appears to be, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, indeed the greatest of sins against one's neighbor (IIa, IIæ, 39, 2 ad 3).

Absolute fidelity

If Father Chavara knew how to see this work of reconciliation through, as well as the other works he undertook, it was certainly by means of his prudence, his exceptional gifts, and the efficaciousness of his eloquence, but much more so by the holiness of his life. All those who knew him were struck by his profound humility, his extraordinary charity, and his filial obedience to his bishop. He was absolutely faithful to the Catholic Church and to the Pope. He lamented, with tears in his eyes, the trials and persecutions endured by the Church and the Holy Father. He also burned with desire to make the light of the Gospel shine forth in order to establish the Church which Christ wanted.

«It is our holy mission,» said Pope John Paul II to the Christians of Kerala, «to construct the one Church which Christ desired in his priestly prayer: That all may be one (Jn 17: 21). In its most profound sense, the Church's unity is a gift from the Father through Christ, the source and center of ecclesial communion. It is Christ who has us share in His Spirit, and the Spirit enlivens the entire body, uniting and moving it. This internal unity is expressed wonderfully by the words of the Apostle: There is but one body and one Spirit, just as there is but one hope given all of you by your call. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all, and works through all, and is in all (Eph 4: 4-6). Splendid inspired words!

«In reality, these words proclaim the Church's mission in every age and in every generation. The holy duty of the Church is to preserve this unity, which is none other than the fullness of faithfulness to her Lord. And she must work to restore this unity, wherever it has been weakened or tarnished. This fundamental unity under no circumstances rules out legitimate variety. You are living witnesses of the variety of liturgical and spiritual traditions and of the ecclesiastical discipline which forms the model of the presence of the Church in Kerala…

«Brothers and Sisters, we are included in Jesus' prayer: That all may be one. But Jesus continues and indicates the condition of this fundamental unity. In His prayer, He says, I consecrate myself for their sakes now, that they may be consecrated in truth (Jn 17: 19). Unity is based on truth, on the truth of the word He has revealed, on the truth of each word from the Father…

«Our unity is the source of our joy and of our peace. On the other hand, division and disagreements and particularly hatreds, are utterly contrary to unity. They are evil and are ultimately linked with the devil. In the same prayer, Jesus asked the Father to keep his disciples from the Evil One (cf. Jn 17: 15). Thus, the sacerdotal prayer, which exalts the beauty of unity, becomes at the same time an ardent appeal that everything which is opposed to unity might be overcome. It thus becomes a prayer of reconciliation» (Homily of February 7, 1986).

Father Cyriac worked with all his strength in the apostolate of mercy and reconciliation for the eternal salvation of souls. In a work entitled The Testament of a Good Father, he composed a sort of song to glorify brotherly love. «The days when we have not offered service to anyone, are not to be counted among the useful days of our lives.» When contagious illnesses were rampant, many priests kept their distance. Father Cyriac, however, was always ready to visit the sick, to comfort them and administer the sacraments to them. He founded a house to welcome the poor and take care of them. However, he practiced charity especially towards those from whom he had received nothing but insults or ingratitude, harboring no ill feeling towards them, but cherishing them with special love and regarding them as his benefactors.

An angelic face

In 1866, responding to the wish of his Apostolic Vicar, Father Chavara founded a convent of Carmelites of the Syro-Malabar rite, origin of the «Congregation of the Mother of Carmel,» which today numbers more than 4,500 religious. A man of action, an indefatigable apostle, Father Cyriac was above all a man of prayer, filled with the Holy Spirit; prayer sustained his life, and his printed works and manuscripts indicate his union with God. During the sessions of communal meditation, he was so absorbed in his conversation with God that he would forget the time. In his community, he required, besides the daily recitation of the Rosary, the honor of the holy wounds of Our Lord, the sorrows of Mary, and the joys and trials of Saint Joseph.

He spent the majority of his free time before the Blessed Sacrament. When he was deep in intense contemplation before the tabernacle, his face was transfigured and took on an angelic appearance. In the houses of his institute, he had the Blessed Sacrament exposed during the week of the feast of Corpus Christi. He established the Forty Hours devotion in Kerala, a devotion in memory of the approximately forty hours which passed from Jesus' death on the Cross up to the Resurrection. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed during forty consecutive hours; special sermons and a set of pious exercises dispose the faithful to adore their Divine Master with greater fervor in the Sacrament of His love, and to atone for the insults which have been inflicted upon Him. This practice, instituted in 1534 by a Capuchin monk in response to Protestant attacks against the Eucharist, takes place usually during the three days immediately preceding Lent, days of carnival when people of the world too often give themselves over to guilty entertainment.

Thanks to Father Chavara, the Forty Hours devotion spread to the important churches and to all the religious communities of the country. Father Cyriac Elias' great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament earned him the name «the apostle of the Eucharist.» But in his zeal for divine worship, he worked as well on the revision of liturgical books, so as to reach a degree of uniformity in the various churches of the Syro-Malabar rite. He wrote in his own hand, with great precision, the entire text of a simplified office of the breviary, which was easy to read, and intended for priests. He had it published, along with the order of High Mass and Solemn Vespers. He likewise contributed to the revaluation of the Syro-Malabar rite, but not without the consent of Rome, for, as Pope Pius XII wrote, «the regulation of the Holy Liturgy depends entirely on the judgment and the will of the Apostolic See.» Indeed, «Since… it is chiefly the priest who performs the Sacred Liturgy in the name of the Church, its organization and regulation cannot but be subject to Church authority» (Encyclical Mediator Dei, 20 November 1947, no. 44).

Unity and harmony

From 1869 on, the health of Father Cyriac, who suffered from rheumatic pain, deteriorated in an alarming manner. On January 2, 1871, understanding that the end was near, he received the last rites. The members of his community, gathered around him, asked for a final blessing, which he gave them, pronouncing each word calmly and clearly. He then remained deep in prayer. On January 3, towards 7: 30 A.M., he rendered his soul to God.

On the occasion of Father Cyriac Elias Chavara's beatification, Pope John Paul II said, «No apostolic cause was dearer to the heart of this man of faith than that of unity and harmony within the Church. It was as if he had always at the forefront of his mind the prayer of Jesus, the night before His sacrifice on the Cross: That all may be one as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; I pray that they may be one in Us (Jn 17: 21). Today, the Church solemnly recalls, with love and gratitude, all his efforts towards resisting the threats of disunity and encouraging the clergy and the faithful to maintain unity with the See of Peter and the Universal Church. His success in these matters, as in all his many enterprises, is owing no doubt to the intense charity and prayer which characterized his daily life, his intimate communion with Christ and his love for the Church as the visible Body of Christ on earth» (February 8, 1986).

Blessed Cyriac Elias of the Holy Family, remind us that the Catholic Church is one Body, the visible Body of Jesus on earth, to preserve in unity, both where we are and in all the places we can affect. And lead to the perfect unity of Heaven all those who are dear to us, living and deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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