Saturday 29th March marks a significant event in the history of the Church, Christianity and human spiritual understanding. The Keralan priest, Fr Canisius Thekkekara CMI, will be declared a ‘Servant of God’ by Mar Pauly Kannookadan, Bishop of Irinjalakuda in St. Teresa’s Monastery Church, Ampazhakkad as advised by Pope Francis earlier this month. Why is this so important? Well, as the second Indian Carmelite of Mary Immaculate to be declared a ‘servant of God’ – the first step on the road to canonisation (the other is Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara) – the event illustrates how the spiritual axis of the world is now slowly moving away from Europe. The election of Pope Francis himself was but one dramatic manifestation of this, the slow raising to the altars of these devout Christians from India is another. Earlier this year I was honoured and privileged to give the memorial lectures at Bangalore founded in honour of Fr Canisius. I was touched by all the many stories of kindness and humility that this Servant of God had inspired. Accordingly I am sharing below an account of the life Fr Canisius from Fr Jose Nandhikkara CMI, Dean of Philosophy at Christ University, Bangalore who has kindly given his permission for me to post it here. I also share his photograph I took as I visited one of the Buddhist monasteries of Bangalore on my visit. The account will form the preface to my lectures which will be published as ‘Picturing the Soul: Revisioning Psychotherapy and Spiritual Direction’ by Dharmaram Publications, Bangalore and publicly launched at the ceremony tomorrow.
Fr. Canisius Thekkekara – Pray for Us!
Life and Holiness of REV FR CANISIUS THEKKEKARA CMI
Rev Fr Canisius Thekkekara CMI, the first Indian to have the degree of Doctor in Sacred Scripture (DSS) from the prestigious Biblical Institute, Rome in 1952, was a committed religious who led a Christ Centred life in the service of the Word of God in the Church for the Glory of God and well being of all. With unparalleled devotion and dedication, he served the CMI congregation and Church at large as Professor of Sacred Scripture and Spiritual Father at Sacred Heart Seminary Chethipuzha (1953-57), Professor of Sacred Scripture and Spiritual Father at Dharmaram College Bangalore (1957-60), Rector of Dharmaram College for two terms (1960-1966), CMI Prior General (1966-1972) and Provincial of Devamatha Province (1972-1975), Superior of Dharmaram College (1975-1978) and Vicar General of the CMI Congregation (1978-1982).
All through his life Fr Canisius was convinced of the fundamental principle that one should lead a life according to the Will of God expressed through the legitimate superiors. His motto was always: “God’s Will: All of That and That alone!” and he lived this ideal wholeheartedly and faithfully. This humble and noble religious could give this testament in My Life Experience (Ente Jeevithanaubhavangal): “As all the decisions pertaining to my higher studies and appointments to several posts of authority were all fully in God’s will for me, so insignificant and weak as I am, I approached the Lord in person and in all confidence for some solace and inner strength, without wavering amidst the vagaries of life situations. As I kept on experiencing His faithfulness in His promises, I had the good fortune to grow in personal relationship with him.” Fr Canisius who taught Pauline Writings has mastered not only the scholarship in Pauline theology but also St Paul’s ideal: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13).
2. Early Life and Vocation
Fr Canisius was born on 12 May, 1914 as the seventh and the youngest child of Thekkekara Pothaparambil Lonappan and Mariam in Anandapuram, Kerala. According to Fr Canisius he learned the ideal of his life, “God’s Will: All of That and That alone,” from his parents. With gratitude he testified: “The most important grace that the Lord had bestowed on me is my father and mother. Their law of life was this: God’s Will: All of That and That Alone.”
As early as a boy, before starting his High School studies, Ouseph had the longing to become a priest and had his state of life chosen with clear vision and firm conviction. As per the account of his sister, Rev. Sr. Sarseela F.C.C. young Ouseph once experienced the apparition of the Mother of Carmel holding a scapular in her hand, while he was praying for discernment of his vocation. He felt then in his heart a strong inner attraction for the CMI Congregation. Without any hesitation he uttered his fiat to the divine will and told his parents: “I want to become a priest, and I want to become a religious priest in the Carmelite Order.” He joined the CMI congregation as an Aspirant at Pavaratty. After the Novitiate at Ampazhakkad he made his First Profession on 24 November 1935. He was given the name Canisius of St. Theresa. He completed his philosophical and theological studies at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Mangalore, and was ordained a Priest on 21 December 1942.
3. A Bible Scholar and Writer
After the Priestly Ordination, Fr. Canisius took his Doctor of Divinity degree at Kandy, Sri Lanka in 1945 and in 1952 he secured D.S.S. (Doctor in Sacred Scripture) from the Biblical Institute in Rome. His doctoral thesis was Cardinal Seripando: an Exegete and Biblical Theologian. Thus he became the first ever Indian and second Asian who was awarded with doctorate in Sacred Scripture. Fr. Canisius has authored a few books, rich in content and theological insights and a four volume short biographical sketches on Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara and prayer books.
4. In the Service of the Word of God: His entry into the official life was as a Professor of Sacred Scripture and Spiritual Director. He loved teaching the Word of God and as a teacher he was held in high esteem and respect in the Sacred Heart seminary at Chethipuzha and Dharmaram College, Bangalore. Even after his retirement he taught Bible with zeal and devotion in private and semi-official institutions. Above all, the Holy Bible became invariable part of his life. His exhortations, speeches and conversations were all ‘Word based.’ He was devoted to the Word of God and committed himself in the service of the Word of God until he breathed his last.
5. Apostolate of Administration: Rev. Fr. Canisius, though considered himself not an able leader or administrator, was elected to and entrusted with many administrative posts in the CMI Congregation. His services as Seminary Rector (1960-1966), Prior General (1966-1972), Provincial (1972-1975), Dharmaram Superior (1975-1978), CMI Vicar General (1978-1981) were glorious and praiseworthy. He devoted himself for the renewal and adaptation of the CMI congregation after the charism of the founding fathers in the light of the II Vatican Council. He was successful in guiding the congregation and to make it relevant in its life and ministries for the Glory of God and the well being of all.
6. Apostolic Delegate: Recognising the effective religious leadership of Fr Canisius, he was appointed as the Apostolic Delegate in 1972 to the Society of Catholic Medical Mission (MMS) sisters and in 1974 as Delegate of the Oriental Congregation to the Congregation of Sacred Heart. Relying on divine assistance, Fr Canisius could help both congregations in their growth and development. He took great pains to visit all the convents of sisters, discussed the issues with them and submitted reports with suggestions for their growth.
7. Twilight Years
On 4 April, 1975, Fr Canisius wrote to the then CMI Prior General, Rev Fr Theobald with the request to allow him to spend at least one year ‘in prayer, penance and humble service in an atmosphere that give witness to the simplicity of life and poverty of Christ.’ Though the Prior General admired the ideal, appointed him as Superior, Professor and Spiritual master at Dharmaram College (1975-1978). Fr Canisius later wrote: “I have accepted as the divine will the decision of the major superior.”
In 1978, he was elected to the post of the Vicar General of the Congregation. After three years as Vicar General, Rev Fr Thomas Aykara CMI, the then Prior General, granted permission for Fr Canisius to spend time in prayer and recollection at the newly established Sakshatkara, Centre for Spiritual Realisation at Pariyaram, Chalakudy. Fr Canisius was deeply involved in the vision, mission and establishment of this Centre. From 1981-1996, Fr Canisius spend time in prayer, preaching retreats, and in giving spiritual guidance. Besides his Eucharistic Celebration, Canonical prayers and other spiritual exercises required by the CMI constitution, he spent at least five hours in silent prayer daily before the Blessed Sacrament, during those fifteen years.
Besides ailments typical of age, since 1984 he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. As the pain of the disease grew excruciating, to make matters worse, he caught Spondylitis as well. Consequently he was unable to walk, sit, eat, write and even bathe on his own. He was transferred to St Theresa’s Monastery, Ampazhakad, in 1996.
During the last days of his life at Amala Hospital, sisters frequently visited him, and according to his desire they used to sing “come, come Lord Jesus”. Even on the last evening of his life on earth the sisters sang that song in the company of Fr. Canisius. Later he told to one of his spiritual sons: “The time has come for my departure; my end has come.” On 29 January, 1998 he moved his residence to the heavenly mansion prepared for him by his Master, Jesus the Lord in His Father’s house.
He wrote in his Testament in 1990 “...despite our insignificance, foolishness, ignorance and immaturity, when one is resolutely committed to do it, it is quite possible with God’s help, to lead a life with a pure heart, cheerful face and innocence in God’s presence, closely observing the values of religious life. This I pass on to my brethren in all joy.” Indeed Fr Canisius lead a heroic life with pure heart, cheerful face and innocence in God’s presence, fulfilling ‘God’s Will: All of That and That Alone.’
8. A Life of Holiness
Fr Canisius was convinced that his vocation is to be a saint and his only desire was to fulfil the ‘Will of God: All of That and That Alone.’ CMI religious life was his chosen path for the realisation of his vocation. He had steadfast confidence in the loving providence of God. He testified in his will: “God is faithful in His promises. It’s my heart’s desire to keep proclaiming the supreme truth always and everywhere in the world that in accordance with the new covenant, God, our true Father in His characteristic paternal loving care, has made all arrangements in place so as to facilitate the growth of each of His children quite proper to His plan and perfection.”
9. Ardent Seeker of God’s Will
Holiness, as we all know, is manifested through a life of prayer and service. Fr. Canisius, a man of payer, did everything guided by and in conformity and compliance with God’s will, as given by his ecclesiastical and religious superiors. He always suggested to people, especially to the priests and religious who sought his advice, the following means to discern the Will of God: a) Prayer, b) Meditation on the Word of God found in the Bible, c) the Constitutional rules and directives and decisions of the Congregational authorities. Often he would tell them that he would give his advice after praying over it. What he wanted to make sure and insisted upon is that the decision should be in accordance with the ‘Will of God: All of That and That Alone.’
10. Love for the Poor
Fr. Canisius is known for his simple life and consideration and care for the poor. He wrote: “It engenders in me sympathy and concern beyond measure to see brethren put to various sufferings. What I would immediately do then is to offer them to the Divine Lord and persistently pray to Him to give a hand with their problems. But I must confess that I do not possess the necessary knack, ingenuity and the divine charism to make me rush to their help by giving them solace and counselling…It is not my presence that is essential to them, but the presence of the divine Master. Therefore I will compel him to bless them by his helping presence…” During his tenure of office as Prior General and Provincial he led the way in chalking out special plans and programmes for the uplift of the marginalized.
11. An Exemplary Priest and Committed CMI Religious
According to him “every member of the religious community has accepted the divine will, all of it, and that alone as the only enthusiasm of his life” (Notes on Religious Obedience). In his notes Ente Jeevithanubhavangal he wrote the following towards the close of the part with the subtitle ‘Praise of God’: “The legacy our Congregation has passed on to us is a beautiful one. The kind of formation it has imparted to us is also precious. It is not that we do not have limitations. We have to make self-criticism and then make brave decisions for renewal taking into account the new challenges we face.”
12. A Man of Prayer
Fr. Canisius used to be called ‘a praying priest’ and even the ‘personification of prayer.’ He really took great delight in prayer. Besides saying the community prayers without fail, Fr. Canisius would spend long hours in prayer before the tabernacle, especially on days when he was to officially take major and serious decisions. Prayer was for him delight, rest and duty. It was also his ministry all through his life, especially during his retired life at CSR.
Fr. Canisius had prepared and delivered a detailed paper on the Governing Ministry and Prayer Life, in which he stressed the need for the superiors to become guides and models of prayer life for the community.
He was a spiritual guide and teacher, who guided people to God rather to himself. Regarding his prayer life he has testified: “What I am capable of and what is delightful for me is a life of prayer.” Even after the night prayers he would continue to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. He used to pray long hours in company of those who were there in prayer. If someone suggests him, taking note of his physical exhaustion and discomfort, ‘Father, why not go and have rest for a while’ he would say in reply, ‘Prayer is my rest.’
13. Salvific Suffering
God provided Fr. Canisius an in-depth experience and sense of the mystery of suffering. Hence he wholeheartedly welcomed the sufferings as his beloved friend. The son of St. Teresa of Avila seemed to make his own her motto, aut pati aut mori (either suffer or die). He used to tell thus his spiritual daughters who came to him with their problems: “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fulfil it.” One may find in him a living and loving portrait of the suffering ebed of Is.52:13-53:1-12. The logic of suffering for this suffering servant of the Lord is clear: “The one who suffers may feel that everything is lost. In fact the person is actually harvesting a lot of blessings. There is only apparent loss; even if there is a loss, it is merely temporal ... it is a loss only here in this world. The gain is hundred times. ”
During his last years he had a lot of physical sufferings which he bore willingly. Besides ailments typical of age, he suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic disease, characterised by stiffness and inflammation of the joints, loss of mobility, weakness and deformity and tremendous pain. He could not stretch out his hands and legs as well as bend them. This saintly soul suffered all the pains without any trace of impatience and murmur, and told the bystanders with a smile, “let the divine will be fulfilled.” Once he told the sisters who promised him their prayers, “please pray, but not for the cure, but for the strength to suffer the pains.” At the insistence of Fr Joseph Elias, he gave his reasons: “It is the will of God that I should suffer. You are going to pray that God should take away the chalice of suffering from me. I cannot agree with it. If you pray, God may though unwillingly relent. However, it is not the divine plan concerning my sanctification. I want that the divine will be fully accomplished.” As Paul the Apostle he also rejoiced in what he was suffering. He wrote: “Let us with patience and joy accept the suffering and thank God for it.” “Whatever God the Father gives, is the gift of his paternal love.” In his great suffering he could say: “What a great joy! When we are fully poured out as an offering, the objective of our life is accomplished. Praise to Him!”
14. Conclusion: In his final years he wrote on his decision in My Life Experiences “Briefly speaking this was my firm decision – to be only there, where the Lord demands me to be; to do fully whatever He asks me to do, without any further worries. I have tried my best to firmly persevere in that determination, without caring what the flesh and blood were saying. This was also my attitude towards accepting responsibilities and their execution.”