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Benedict Mar Gregorios, India’s Renaissance Man

text and photos by Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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Benedict Mar Gregorios is a man who hurries in a heat of hope!

The Syro-Malankara Archbishop of Trivandrum is an elegant, thin man in perpetual motion. When introduced, he mocked his wispy beard by telling us that children often asked why he never cut it. He laughingly responded, “Would you trim a flower?”

Picture his residence in Trivandrum, Kerala, India – a wooden building with breeze-collecting porches surrounded by exotic plants and flowers, gardens bursting with crops (some unknown and untried throughout his country), rubber trees, animal shelters, chemical laboratories, distilleries for making honey syrup and wine, quail and chicken coops, hybrid-seed-processing areas, libraries and research rooms…picture this, and you will “see” just a small portion of his world.

Our first meeting with Mar Gregorios was at a luncheon. Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Sister Kathryn Callahan, C.S.C., Kamini Desai Sanghvi and I were served quail (grown on his farm), fresh pineapple (grown on his farm), cashew nuts (grown on his farm), honey spread on sweet bread (credit bees with the honey but the bread was home-baked), and coconut milk (you guessed it).

During the meal, Mar Gregorios quoted literature from half the writers of the Western world. He quoted Horace’s poetry in the original Latin. He is fluent in Malayalam and Tamil, the languages of his archdiocese. He also speaks fluent Italian, French, Portuguese and English.

He maintains correspondence with scientific societies and academic associations throughout the world; collects the latest research on plant life, agricultural techniques, fast-growing trees, mushrooms, small game; breeds dairy cows, anthurium flowers, cacti and roses, spices. You name it, this 76-year-old priest has studied and knows it.

He charmed our group with tales of his travels and exemplified the concept that cheerfulness is the most visible sign of wisdom. Most of all, he made us think.

Mar Gregorios is the major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, a community that achieved full communion with the Church of Rome in 1930. Ordained a bishop in 1955, his efforts to renew the Syriac liturgy within a truly Indian context has led to the Church’s tremendous growth. Today more than 300,000 people are baptized members. When the archbishop was ordained in 1955, the Syro-Malankara Church numbered just over 70,000 members.

Mar Gregorios has initiated programs with the Tamils in the south, and with the dispossessed – the so-called “untouchables” – in his own state of Kerala.

We met the archbishop on several of his visits to New York and were certainly familiar with his projects funded by the benefactors of Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Now we were seeing him for the first time on his own turf.

We came to see what we might do. We left feeling he had done much for us.

This simple priest/erudite scholar insists, “Our Lord didn’t come to save souls alone, but to save people! We must realize that the God who gave us a body and who himself assumed a body, cannot be thought of as indifferent to our material needs, for he made us to live in human dignity – dignity that presupposes a certain material well-being.”

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Tags: India CNEWA Kerala Poor/Poverty Syro-Malankara Catholic Church