CongregationThe Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, a religious Congregation within the Roman-Catholic Church, was founded in 1856 in Paris by Saint Pierre-Julien Eymard. It is an apostolic Congregation of Pontifical right, composed of priests, deacons and lay-brothers, with representatives in 29 countries in 5 continents. It is structured into Provinces and Regions and a central government, the General Council, which is based in Rome. Every six years a General Assembly, the General Chapter, which is the highest authority in the Congregation, is held. It takes the necessary decisions to foster its mission and elects the General Superior and the members of his Council. The Congregation follows a Rule of Life, which was approved by the Holy See in 1984. The total number of its members is around 868. The official name of the Congregation is Congregatio Sanctissimi Sacramenti and the members put the abbreviation SSS behind their name.
History of Blessed Sacrament Fathers in India
Although the Blessed Sacrament Congregation was founded in 1856 by St. Peter Julian Eymard in Paris, France, and spread rapidly to other countries in and around Europe, it took more than a hundred years for it to reach the sub-continent of India. It was a circuitous route that was followed: the Canadian Blessed Sacrament Fathers founded the American Province who in turn carried the torch to Australia. The occasion for its being planted in India was the 38th International Eucharist Congress which was to be held in Bombay in 1964. The then Archbishop of Bombay, Valerian Cardinal Gracias desired to have a memorial of this historic event in his Archdiocese and so invited the Blessed Sacrament Fathers whom he knew very well in Rome and elsewhere.
Wishing to avail themselves of this God-given opportunity to be planted on Indian soil, the Blessed Sacrament authorities were, on their part, keen on sending a group of SSS religious to start a foundation. However, the Indian Government would permit only men of American or Australian nationality. Since the American SSS had recently made a foundation in Manila, Philippines, the Australians were given the privilege which they took up readily. Fr. Len McKenna the Provincial of Australia at that time came across to Bombay in early 1964 to finalize the details and by end July that year, the first group of four Australian SSS religious stepped off the plane and were taken to St. Pius College at Goregaon, as the place chosen for them at Colaba wasn’t quite ready yet.
Not long after, having taken up residence at St. Francis Xavier’s Chapel, Middle Colaba they began establishing their routine of prayer before the Sacrament and also helped in the preparations for the Eucharistic Congress. The first few weeks were difficult as they desperately endeavoured to adjust to the climate, food, people and the entire new and strange setting around them. However, several ‘good Samaritans’ came forward to help the small band of determined and enterprising Aussies and soon a regular programme of Adoration was established. By the time the Eucharistic Congress commenced, the SSS group had already established themselves; some had even taken up the daunting task of learning Konkanim for a start, as it was the language used by several of those who frequented the Chapel for services – other languages would follow. Besides, their native Aussie accent had to be modified so that they could be understood by not only those fluent in English, but also the simple people who didn’t know English too well.
Soon a regular round-the-clock service of Adoration was established with the help several units of the Legion of Mary comprising enthusiastic young people in the vicinity. Holy Hour booklets were printed, and gradually a hymnal was compiled – all of which made the little forlorn Chapel a place buzzing with spiritual activity. Regular visits to nearby homes by the Fathers and Brothers brought them into contact with the local gentry, all of whom were most eager to put their shoulders to the wheel and get the little place moving.
At that early part of their existence in Bombay, the setting up of a SSS community was pretty much routine – adoration round the clock was the objective and the way to achieve that had been clearly specified. So, wherever in the world a new community sprang up, the procedure was pretty much the same. But then, Vatican II literally upset the applecart demanding that SSS religious should focus on the “entire Eucharistic mystery and not just the prayer of adoration alone.” This left many of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation all over the world totally at sea and understandably resulted in the loss of many existing members and a considerable drop in new recruits coming in.
1971 saw the approval of an experimental new Rule of Life for SSS embodying the new approaches of Eucharistic theology and practice and in keeping with the demands of the Congregation for Religious. For those steeped in pre-Vatican thinking, understanding and accepting this new world proved to be a Herculean task, but most made very generous efforts to ‘update’ themselves – some faring better than others, of course. On the level of the Congregation various efforts were organized: updating seminars, informative circulars and texts, retreats on the new approaches, frequent visits by those in authority, and the like. While all these helped, the progress was predictably slow and tentative.
For the little isolated band of SSS in Bombay (the nearest SSS community would be in Colombo, Sri Lanka), the most significant upshot of all this internal upheaval was a standstill regarding vocations. Bro. Pascal Godinho was the first to join in 1969 as a brother, followed not long after by Fr. K. Y. Anthony who did his formal training abroad while attending to higher studies. These two persevered unlike several others who came, saw, stayed for a while and eventually moved on. 1972 saw two more who would endure: Fr. Erasto (already a diocesan priest for six years in the Archdiocese) and Bro. Peter Paul.
From the start, it was decided that all the training required for those joining at Bombay would be done in India itself. This was partly based on the experience had so far of those who were sent abroad for initial training but generally did not last – instead they settled down in the foreign land itself. But soon, we had the anomalous situation in which there was a trained formator available from 1974, but very few trainees. Hence, the novices from Sri Lanka (where the situation was the opposite: several trainees but no trained formator) were invited to join for the novitiate until such time as they could have their own novice-master – which was till 1982. One of the Sri Lankans who began his novitiate in Colombo but completed it in Bombay, is today the Bishop of Badulla, Sri Lanka – Bishop Winston Fernando.
Tragedy struck early when Bro. Conrad, one of the pioneers returned to Australia. In 1974 further loss was sustained when Fr. Paul Raper died in tragic circumstances and not long after when Fr. Joe Geran had to return to Australia for health reasons. Bro. Alexander, another of the pioneers who had captured the hearts of the youth around Colaba, made his way back to Australia to study for the priesthood. However, he did not persevere till the end and eventually abandoned religious life altogether.
The severely depleted community continued nevertheless, and was noted for the efforts made to make the post-Vatican Eucharistic celebration relevant to our people. Weekly ‘special’ teaching Eucharists were held and even though the people attending were not that many, yet it proved a useful instrument in the formation of our own young novices.
New Rule of Life
1981 was an important year for the entire SSS Congregation as they sought to finalize the text of the new Rule of Life and present it for approbation to the Holy See. All the SSS communities worldwide were involved in drafting the text and suggested various approaches and formulations. The Chapter held in Rome that year worked out the new text, and it was approved almost unanimously before being presented to the Vatican. After some important amendments, the new Rule of Life was promulgated on August 1, 1984 – that being the feast-day of our Founder, St. Peter Julian Eymard.
The new Rule gradually brought stability and a clearer sense of identity to many in the Congregation. The effect of this was seen in the rise in vocations world-wide. Having opened up a new foundation in Madras with Fr. Anthony spearheading the effort in 1978, the number of vocations to our Indian sector began increasing rapidly. When in 1982, the last two Australians, Fr. Len McKenna and Bro. Francis had to return to Australia because of age and ill-health, (the Sri Lankan novices had already left earlier that same year) the community was further depleted but became ‘all-Indian’ and was thrown back on its own meager resources.
Difficulties, shortage of vocations and members, financial constraints – the usual obstacles in the path of any fledgling group, were the lot of the indigenous Blessed Sacrament Community in those early days, yet we struggled valiantly and gradually the situation began to brighten. Yet, being a young group with no “roots” or traditions, it was very difficult to steer a middle course between the various approaches to the Eucharistic mystery, all of them legitimate, especially to the different ways of interpre
GROWTH AND EXPANSION
1985 April saw the ordinations of the first two young men to go through the entire range of formation: A. Michael and B. Arputharaj. From then on, we have had a trickle of vocations and ordinations almost every year with a few gaps in between. With the increasing numbers of zealous and enthusiastic young members, the number of communities also increased. The first off-shoot of course was the Students’ House in Chennai.
With a view to collect more vocations and also establish the SSS in the south Fr. K. Y. Anthony took up residence at Annanagar, Madras. Soon a steady flow of vocations from the area was a regular feature. The shifting of the novitiate to Agashi, Virar came next in 1987 and eased the congestion at Colaba. While the proposed plot for the Novitiate was being developed and the construction underway, our novitiate was temporarily placed at Vinayalaya – the Jesuit training Centre. The Jesuits Fathers very graciously and generously offered us the use of their old novitiate section and it served us admirably while we awaited the completion of our own novitiate building at Agashi, Virar.
Our first parish venture under the leadership of Fr. Arputharaj was in 1992: St. Anthony’s parish at Kamarajapuram, an offshoot of the extensive Pallavaram parish near Madras airport. Another formation house at VelappanChavady, Madras followed and prepared candidates for the novitiate while they attended to the college studies. Called “The Cenacle”, this community took over from the initial establishment at Anna Nagar and was able to house many more students. Later since most of the students were from Tamil Nadu, it was decided to have them do their Seminary formation in Chennai itself. And so, the members hailing from that area also resided at VelappanChavady, while doing their Seminary studies at Sacred Heart Seminary, Poonamallee, about 4 kilometres distant.
The quasi-parish of St. Anthony at Tembipada, Bhandup West, in Bombay which was accepted in the late 80s, provided varied opportunities for young and energetic priests and religious. Another parish also dedicated to St. Anthony at Thundathuvilai in the Kanyakumari district, taken up not long after, offered a more structured set-up, ideal for the initiating of new priests into the efficient running of a parish in a way that attended to almost all facets of parish life, including dealing with the laity who have a certain say in the running of affairs in the parish. Still further developments saw us accepting chaplaincy at a sub-station at GaunsavaddoSiolim, Goa – in 1994. Next, we ventured into another parish, this time under the patronage of Our Lady Help of Christians, at Mannurpet, Chennai in the year 2000. The most recent house opened was a Scholasticate to house our seminarians in the Pius X complex at Goregaon, courtesy of the Biomedical Ethics Centre there. The Siolim venture was shifted to Bambolim and the Thundathuvilai community was closed in 2004.
Currently, we receive a fair number of candidates who join us after completing their ‘Plus Two’ (Std. XII). Recent efforts have fetched us students from Chennai, Andhra and Maharashtra. A better mix of students hailing from different states would be more helpful as this makes the challenge of living the Eucharist in mutual love and acceptance even more real. By now several of the structures of religious life are in place and we see ourselves overcoming one obstacle after another as each passing year offers us fresh challenges as also new and resourceful personnel.
From roughly 1987 the Australian mother-Province sought to afford us greater autonomy, giving us as much as we were able to handle responsibly. Along these lines we moved from being a “Sector” in 1987 to a “Region” in 1993. This period of ‘apprenticeship’ provided us the needed experience in self-government and gradually we have been shouldering more and more responsibility and learning from our mistakes. We now look forward to the next step : being erected to the status of a Province at the General Chapter to be held in May 2005. With this we accept full responsibility for our area, basically the whole of India and hope to expand to cover the major dioceses and face the varied yet rich challenges that our Indian religious situation offers us.
Looking back we can proudly say that the “teething” years are behind us now and we look forward to better times as we function as a full-fledged Province. What we are today we owe to the members of the Australian Province who selflessly toiled among us to put the Blessed Sacrament establishment on a sound footing. Each of them contributed in their own unique manner, making us gradually self-reliant in all ways, particularly financially so that we can face the future confidently.
Contribution to the Dioceses where we work
Mumbai was the first place we were planted in and over the years our contribution to the Archdiocese has increased. Beginning originally as a little Blessed Sacrament Shrine where people from all over the Archdiocese would come to celebrate Eucharist and pray before the Sacrament, we now have three communities in the Archdiocese: St. Francis Xavier’s Chapel at Colaba, St. Anthony’s Church at Tembipada, Bhandup and the Scholasticate at Goregaon in the Pius X Seminary Complex.
Tembipada which began as a sub-station of the Powai parish, is gradually taking shape and will soon be raised to the status of a full-fledged parish. Plans are afoot to extend the modest Church structure so as to enable the crowds that frequent the place to worship in greater comfort. The Goregaon community is entirely a student community – the main focus is on the proper and all-round formation of our young seminarians who attend lectures at Pius X Seminary.
One of our Fathers has been looking after the “Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration” work in the Archdiocese and from having roughly 8 parishes when he took over in 1992, the Archdiocese now boasts of almost 85 Adoration Chapels spread throughout the length and breadth of the diocese. The result of this of course, has been that less people frequent the Colaba Chapel itself for prayer before the Sacrament; but it is heartening to see that in Chapel after Chapel in the Archdiocese, a regular flow of adorers spends fairly long periods of time in fervent prayer.
In the earlier years, the Lenten adoration for the Clergy and Religious used to be conducted at our Chapel, every Thursday in Lent. Later, as it was found to be more convenient for priests to gather at the Seminary in Goregaon, the venue was shifted. Similarly several groups would come, on a regular basis, to pray before the Sacrament, but now barring one or two like the Legion of Mary, most make their prayer in their respective parishes where the Adoration Chapel has been set up. The Chapel still caters to the spiritual needs of the people around even though it is only a semi-public oratory. The emphasis in all our Eucharistic celebrations is on active and intelligent participation of the faithful. Our desire is to make the Eucharist relevant and meaningful. We also preach at novenas in preparation for the Parish feast, and on the occasion of the Eucharist year, a lot of teaching on the Eucharist was given both by way of preaching and also through articles in The Examiner. The Chapel is still known and frequented for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for a confessor is available on request at almost any time of the day.
The mid-day Eucharist celebrated at 1.15 p.m. Monday to Saturday was a regular feature of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel until 1982 when the staff at Colaba was reduced to the bare minimum. Several parishes in the vicinity took up from where we left off, and the mid-day Eucharist continues to be very popular among all office-goers in South Bombay. Currently, the midday Eucharist is held at the Colaba Chapel only on First Fridays and on Fridays in Lent.