Consecrated Life: Joys and Challenges
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath SVD
Self-revelation is risky, but I am willing to take that risk. A fellow Divine Word Missionary, Father Engelbert Zeitler SVD, used to say that a superior should have a skin of a rhinoceros to absorb all the favorable and unfavorable shocks. Since I was provincial and bishop, I have acquired a doubly thick skin.
I was born in 1934 in Pallisseri, India, and completed my high school education in 1953. That same year, I entered the minor seminary of Divine Word Missionaries in Palda. I professed my first vows in 1957, perpetual vows in 1963, and was ordained a priest in 1963 also.
I was assigned to formation houses for nine years: four years at the minor seminary in Changanacherry and five years at the major seminary in Pune. I was the novice director for the second year novices for three years. I was elected provincial in 1972, and I was elected the first Asian consulter general. I was ordained bishop in 1974.
Simple way of life
The religious life demands a radical way of following Christ. It means for me a simple way of life in imitation of Christ. In my attitudes, I remained a man of few words and a man of few needs. I also did not have greater aspirations for positions, special posts, studies of my choice, and so on. This enabled me to be joyful and contented. This situation changed slightly after I was persuaded to become a bishop, which added a lot of fanfare to my life externally.
When I was ordained a bishop, some said that “Cheenath need not keep the vows of poverty and obedience.” Chastity everyone has to keep. But I have tried to keep all three vows, even as a bishop. What are important are not the externals, but personal decisions. My religious life can be epitomized in two words: simple life—for Christ and his people. As provincial and bishop, there were ample opportunities to enter into a comfort zone. But I tried to remain simple.
The principle of spiritual life
The foundation for this simple way of life is based on my intense religious experience I had in the novitiate days. It reads like this: “God knows everything. He permits everything to happen in my life. So he will also get me out of any mess in which I may be in.” This principle is based on the Gospel of Mathew 6:25–34, and it has led me safely for the last fifty-nine years as a priest and bishop.
During the super-cyclone in 1999 that hit the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, thousands of houses were destroyed and between fifty thousand to one hundred thousand people were washed out. Similarly, the persecution of Christians in Kandhamal in Odisha in 2007 and 2008 was a tragedy. But I was not unduly disturbed on these occasions. My novitiate experience kept me cool and resigned. People were surprised to see me undisturbed and composed. The secret of my religious commitment is that I found joy, peace, and security in the providence of God. I learned in a hard way to interpret all the happenings in the light of God’s intervention in my life. “God knows, and he will get me out of this mess.” This attitude has become a permanent feature in my life. This includes ups and downs, excitement, confusion, and patient and prayerful waiting to know God’s will.
In the first year of my novitiate, I was often sick and used to meet the doctor occasionally. One day my novice master, Father Stanislaus Wald SVD, told me, “Raphael, you cannot stand the strain of this type of life. So you better go home.” I felt that I was hit by a thunderbolt. I had never even once thought of abandoning my vocation. Then he told me, “Come and meet me tomorrow.” I prayed the whole night in the chapel. The next day, I explained the whole matter to the novice master. Then he told me, “If it is so, you stay.” During those tense hours, I realized that the most effective means to help one to be faithful to the religious life is prayer (meditation, contemplation, community prayer, and any other form of prayer). In the novitiate, I learned different methods of prayer. In the course of years, by error and trial, prayer has become a form of dialogue with God, dialogue on whatever happens in my life, success and failures, facing easy and difficult situations.
The dialogue takes place with all the distractions, dryness, temptations to cut short the time of prayer, or to drop it. At the end of the day, everything is offered to God as my own. This final offering gives me a peaceful, undisturbed mind because I have given to God what I am, as I am.
A radical way of life means to refuse nothing to Jesus. It is to respond positively to the demands Jesus makes on me. It is Jesus who demands and dictates. I only respond. It means availability to Christ and to his people. My motto as bishop, “To become all things to all,” also reflects this. It meant continuous sacrifice of a lot of personal interests and conveniences, for instance, needed rest and sleep, special studies, and demands made by my relations. Living up to it was challenging.
Yes, God’s ways are unpredictable. I was just led, but knew nothing about where I was going. For instance, I was elected provincial in 1972 for a three-year term. After six months, I was elected the first Asian consulter general for five years. My superior general, Father John Musinsky SVD, asked me to go to the Philippines for visitation. After a few days, he called me back to India where I was named bishop of Sambalpur in the state of Odisha, a diocese where I had never worked. I did not know the missionaries, the languages, or the people. It was a strange land indeed. There I was ordained bishop in 1974.
When I came directly from Rome to Odisha, I looked like an “imported” bishop. The Diocese of Sambalpur was divided five years later into the dioceses of Rourkela and Sambalpur. Then I had to from my residence in Rourkela to Sambalpur, where accommodations consisted of one room in the parish. After six years, I was transferred to the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar as its archbishop. In that “messy archdiocese,” I survived for twenty-six years. I retired in February 2011 and in April was transferred to Mumbai, my original province, after an absence of thirty-nine years. After three years in Mumbai, I was diagnosed with cancer. Even though it disturbed my retired life, I accepted it as a gift from God.
Refusing nothing to God and others was not easy. I had to excuse myself only once when I was officially asked just before my retirement whether I was willing to be administrator of a vacant diocese. I said “no” for very valid reasons.
I landed in a religious house without fully knowing what it was. Guided by God’s providence I grew up in it. I let myself be guided by it.
There is a Latin saying: Honores mutant mores (Honors change the attitude of a person). I did not fall a victim to this. My attitudes remained the same during various changes of office, frequent transfers, natural calamities, persecution of Christians in Kandhamal, and much more. God helped me not to yield to the temptations of a comfort culture, secularism, and mediocrity.
Now I am waiting for an airline ticket so I can fly to the real comfort zone of eternal bliss.