They have come five and a half thousand miles and they are one of the refreshing untold stories of post-Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
We aretalking about the arrival in the North since around 2,000 of a significant number of Syro Malabar Catholics, formerly known as the Church of St Thomas Christians, from the state of Kerala in south-west India not far from Sri Lanka a little to the south east.
They enjoy full communion with Rome and their leader, known as the Major Archbishop, is Mar George Alencherry, Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, a cardinal who participated in the conclave which elected Pope Francis.
Over a weekend in Belfast last month 1,400 Syro Malabar Catholics converged on St Louise’s College on the Falls Road for a Bible convention and retreat organised with the help of others by their chaplain in Down and Connor, Father Antony Perumayan.
It was one of the most striking demonstrations of faith in Belfast in recent times and at the invitation of Fr Perumayan a famous Syro Malabar missionary priest, Fr Xavier Khan and two lay assistants travelled from India to conduct it from August 2-4.
Louvain educated with a doctorate in medical ethics, Fr Perumayan doubles up as curate in St Paul’s parish on the Falls Road under an agreement between his Church authorities back in India and the Diocese of Down and Connor.
There are 500 Syro Malabar Catholic families in the North, that is around 2,500 men, women and children in places such as Derry, Portadown, Omagh and Enniskillen but the bulk of this faith community, some 380 families, reside in Down and Connor principally in Belfast, Lisburn, Bangor and Antrim.
There are more than 1,000 families in the Republic mainly based in Dublin and, outside of Europe, the biggest community is in Chicago which has around 100,000 souls. In India itself there are just over four million Syro Malabar Catholics in a population of 1.2 billion, mostly in Kerala where Christians account for 19 per cent of the total, behind Hinduism, 56pc, and Islam, 25pc.
These Syro Malabarians are a highly educated people seeking employment mainly in the medical profession and to a lesser extent in engineering according to Fr Perumayan and they were uncomfortable about coming until peace took hold. In previous times such people went to the Gulf States looking for work.
“The peace process made all the difference. Before that they would have felt very uncomfortable about coming, as I would have been when I was in Louvain 1990-96. From about the year 2000 they started arriving in big numbers to find jobs they could not get at home and they have been very well received here,” says Fr Perumayan.
The first Northern Ireland Mass in Malayalam, the native language of Kerala was celebrated in Clonard Monastery in 2002 and by 2005, under Bishop Patrick Walsh, a decision was taken in principle to appoint a Malayalam priest to meet the spiritual needs of the new migrants.
However, this took longer than expected and Father Perumayan arrived in Belfast in January 2011 following an agreement between Bishop Noel Treanor and his Church’s then major archbishop, the late Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, CSsR.
“I am here on loan to serve the Syro Malabar Catholics but also assist Fr Tony Devlin, the PP in St Paul’s under the agreement with Bishop Treanor,” says Fr Perumayan.
He adds: “Your local Church is on the look-out for available priests from outside and there is a happy common interest and a combination of circumstances.”
The undoubted highlight of his ministry here so far has been the Bible convention and retreat held last month with the help of 150 Syro Malabar Catholic volunteers and families in Belfast who hosted pilgrims from elsewhere in the North and from parts of England including Birmingham.
“This was an event to mark the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict. A great opportunity for re-evangelisation and renewal.”
In the months preceding the event there were regular prayers of intercession for its success and Fr Perumayan says there was a magnificent response from his community all round.
Over three days there was a packed programme including rosary, confession, adoration, healing services, spiritual talks, counselling, culminating each day in the celebration of Mass with up to nine priests in attendance.
Fr Perumayan expressed his thanks to Bishop Treanor for his attendance on the Saturday and for his “memorable homily”.
“Bishop Noel exhorted us to explore, to experience and to express our faith,” he said.
Adults attending used their native Malayalam language which they are more comfortable with but the 350 children aged 5-12 who took part in a specially tailored programme for youngsters did so through English which is their first language.
Fr Perumayan recalls that on the Sunday afternoon 1,500 people took part in a Eucharistic procession the short distance from St Louise’s College to St John’s Church for a final concelebrated Mass by eight priests. They sang the Divine Mercy prayer in Malayalam as they walked along the Falls Road.
“The whole weekend was a wonderful experience and one sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit throughout. Afterwards I felt a great sense of fulfilment,” he recalls.
Fr Perumayan clearly enjoys his ministry and appears to have an intimate knowledge of his flock.
He has a detailed rota for getting round his people explaining how he meets their needs area by area. Mass in Malayalam is available on the second, third and last Sunday of each month in St Paul’s, on the last Sunday in Antrim, in Lisburn on the last Saturday, and in St Colmcille’s, Ballyhackamore on the first Friday.
In addition every month he has a rolling programme of monthly visits to different areas where church members “meet, pray and eat” and he blesses the homes of the 380 families in his charge each year.
When he is not serving his Syro Malabar Catholic community he conducts the normal duties of a curate in St Paul’s parish which with 3,049 homes and an estimated Catholic population of 14,500 is by far the largest in Down and Connor. Also assisting PP Fr Tony Devlin is a third priest Fr Sean Keeney, CSsR from Clonard.
You would be correct in assuming that Fr Perumayan’s presence in Down and Connor presupposes a surplus of priests in his home country but one is not prepared for the incredibly healthy figures he presents when asked about vocations there.
He discloses that in his home diocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly 170 to 200 young men apply to train for the priesthood each year “but we have only room for 30 after screening”.
He adds: “We could take on many more, perhaps 70, but we just don’t have the capacity, we can’t afford to.”
At a time when vocations in the affluent western world, including Ireland, are in such decline many will wonder what the Irish Church and others could be doing to pursue and assess such potential candidates for the priesthood.
Fr Perumayan is one of seven children and three of his sisters became nuns, two of whom are deceased.
Asked to try and explain why vocations are strong in Kerala and not in Ireland he is careful in his language clearly not wishing to sound judgemental. However he does cite “the fidelity to family values and the institution of marriage” as being an important factor.
Fr Perumayan stresses that “religion and the practice of religion is still highly esteemed in Kerala” but he can already see some slippage in values in his home country that may not augur well for the future.
According to tradition St Thomas the Apostle arrived in south west India 52 AD and was martyred there in 72 AD or 73 AD having founded seven church communities.
St Thomas is widely venerated throughout Kerala and also in the adjoining state of Tamil Nadu. It is said he was martyred on St Thomas Mount in Chennai, formerly Madras the capital of Tamil Nadu and that his tomb is under the Basilica of the National Shrine of St Thomas also in Chennai (where St Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits is also honoured).
Both holy places were visited by Blessed John Paul II in his 1986 voyage to India which gave a great boost to Syro Malabar Catholics.