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Archbishop Abraham Viruthakulangara: A man of God who followed his heart
(Apr 23, 2018): For the third time in my life, here I am, writing about Archbishop Abraham Viruthakulangara. The first time was around ten years ago, in the Heart Talk column of the Jesus Youth International Newsletter. Fresh from the experience of a trip to visit him in Nagpur, I quoted the chorus of a popular Malayalam hymn. Even though I knew the hymn was about Jesus, I wrote: “ Whenever I return from a meeting with the Archbishop, I ask myself: “How much must I grow up to become as small as you? What must I do to love like you?”

The second time I wrote about him was in July 2017, on my return from the Ruby Jubilee celebration of his Episcopal Ordination. He was the first Indian blessed to serve 40 long years in office as a Bishop, and definitely one of the very few who could lay claim to such a privilege in the universal Catholic Church itself. At the young age of 34, Archbishop Abraham was ordained as Bishop of Khandwa, and after 21 years, elevated as the Archbishop, he moved to Nagpur, where he has been living in service of the people for the last 20 years.

Never for a moment did I imagine that I would be writing about him so soon. Last morning, several of us woke up last to be greeted with the shocking news about the demise of our Archbishop Abraham. I wonder whether he knew that it was His Master’s night – and that his Master was going to visit him and take him with him that night.

Even though he had had a massive heart attack and an open heart surgery 14 years ago, he was quite healthy and active – perhaps even more active than many of us. After his heart surgery, he used to often say, “Now you can’t say that I don’t have a heart”. It was typical of the Archbishop to find humour even in the most difficult situations of life. Though it seems so sudden to all of us, one thing I know for sure – Archbishop Abraham was always ready to welcome his Master, his lamp brimming with oil, and burning brightly. And the Lord in His mercy, granted him a blessed death - a peaceful passage.

As I try to write, words fail me. It is not easy to put down what he meant to all of us personally, or to our movement. Nevertheless, I am trying to pen a few memories - beautiful memories I have of him across the last 30 years.

An ‘Apostle of Presence’, he was a tireless traveller who constantly loved to be with people. I have known him travelling to the remotest corners of the country to bless marriages of young people active in the ministry. I still marvel at the way he took time to meet almost every participant during each youth programme – bringing his own brand of love and care – from the programme hall right down to the kitchen.

Each time he visited a family, the way he spoke and interacted with the parents, the kids or even the housemaids or drivers was amazing. He unleashed a tsunami of joy wherever he went. Anyone with a burdened heart would undoubtedly go back with a broad smile on their face after an encounter with the Archbishop.

Even after living as a Bishop for 41 years, he was recognised as a man of God living the 'sacrifice of ordinariness’, and was known widely for his humility, approachability, simplicity and readiness to serve. I remember my first encounter with Archbishop Abraham way back in 1983. My father and I were on our way to Mhow for the National shooting competition. Since my father knew the Archbishop personally, he wanted to make a quick visit as we were passing through Khandwa.

As Bishop Abraham was out, we waited for him for a while. As we were waiting, an ordinary looking priest came by, riding a bicycle - all sweaty, his cassock dusty and soiled after a long day under the sun. To my surprise, my father stood up to greet him, and it was Bishop Abraham! I was taken aback to see a Bishop riding a bicycle and arriving in such a condition. That was my first encounter with a missionary Bishop. He was a true shepherd who smelled of his sheep, the kind of shepherd we see in our beloved Pope Francis.

Archbishop Abraham had a heart for the youth and he rightfully served as the first Chairman of the Youth Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. He is the first ever Ecclesiastical Advisor appointed for Jesus Youth by a Bishops’ Conference and then by the Holy See. Young people always loved his presence. Whenever he was at a youth programme, he refused to eat in a special room.

He would wait in the queue along with the young people, join their conversations and eat the same food with them. It would be very difficult to find a Jesus Youth who doesn’t have have a selfie with the Archbishop. At the World Youth Days, he was a regular presence where he managed with bare minimum facilities so that he could be with the youth. He often joined us for the Youth Arise International festivals - a pre-world youth day festival with young people from all the continents.

In spite of all the eloquent speakers in the festival, His Grace would always steal the hearts of the youth as he celebrated the Holy Mass in his simple, spontaneous, inimitable style. Every time, we have seen him return from the festival as a hero of young people from different countries - going beyond the barriers of colour, language and culture - only because of heartfelt love and closeness to the youth.

Archbishop Abraham was a person who valued relationships deeply. I’ve been amazed at the way he built and maintained relationships - not just with his relatives, but with so many people around the world. And how, even in the midst of hectic schedules, he would visit families and sustain the warmth and love with them. He was like a member of many of our families - someone intimately close to us. After the Ruby Jubilee celebrations in Nagpur, the Archbishop invited Raiju and myself to his personal room around 10 pm in the night.

A few of his close relatives were also there in that room. We all knew that he was very tired after the long ceremonies. Yet he insisted that we should spend some time together and after a while he asked us to sing old Christian hymns. The Archbishop’s siblings are good singers - and we sang songs together along with him till the early hours of the morning.

Even as a Bishop, he never forsook his essentially joyful, human character. It was such a joy to experience the warmth of love, service and hospitality whenever I visited him at Nagpur. And this experience was to be had not just with him but from the entire Archdiocese, for this beauty of relationships rooted in love is a hallmark of the Archdiocese of Nagpur.

He was a true missionary Bishop - and this zeal was the one thing that kept challenging me from my earliest encounters with him. His leadership gave true meaning and depth to our motto “a missionary movement at the service of the Church”. During his Ruby Jubilee celebrations last year, he said, “I always wanted to live a missionary life. The first 9 years of my priestly life, I lived as a missionary priest; now for the last 40 years as a Bishop, I try to live my life as a missionary Bishop”. Even very recently, he was challenging us to focus more on the mission we do in the Northern part of India.

I have heard several Priests and Bishops say that "One part of the Archbishop’s heart is set apart for Jesus Youth,” and it is true that we had a very special place in his heart. He is the first Bishop to ever take a commitment on Pentecost day, to publicly announce, “I am a Jesus Youth”.

Even though our statutes states that "Jesus Youth is an international private association of the faithful of all states of life”, we understood the true meaning and beauty of this statement only when the Archbishop himself took the commitment as a member of the movement. Whenever we interacted with him, he challenged us with his simple, holy life. He walked with us as a shepherd when the movement desperately needed it.

There were several times when I marvelled at the way he guided us - as a true leader - especially through some of the most difficult moments in the history of the Jesus Youth movement. I particularly remember how, when we started the process for the Pontifical Recognition of the Jesus Youth movement in 2009, it was Archbishop Abraham who led the team to submit the documents.

And over the next 7 years, his guidance and bold convictions helped us in becoming the first ever movement from India and the second from the Asian continent to receive the Pontifical approval. Similarly, his bold and courageous stance was the reason we were able to begin the formation for priesthood in 2009. His Grace was involved in every step of the formation of the first set of seminarians and in 2016 he ordained the first two priests for Jesus Youth - Fr Das and Fr Ditto. More than anything, we always took courage knowing that we had our Archbishop to stand with us; to correct us and to defend us in front of others - this always gave us the confidence to work for His kingdom.

The Archbishop who loved music, was very close to the members of the RexBand. He used to be at the forefront, dancing and singing at all the concerts of the Band during the World Youth Days. Twice, he invited the RexBand to Nagpur - and both the concerts were attended by a huge number of people from diverse communities. Let me share an experience we had in Nagpur soon after the first RexBand pgm 11 years back.

Since most of the band members were travelling home right after the programme, one of us asked about the possibility of celebrating Mass after the concert . Archbishop Abraham overheard this and offered to celebrate Mass for us at 2 am in the morning. Knowing how fatigued he was, we tried our best to dissuade him, particularly as we had several priests there at the conference who we knew would oblige.

However, the Archbishop gifted us with a most beautiful experience that night. As we entered the chapel at 2 a.m., His Grace, as sprightly as if he’d just woken up from a good night’s rest, greeted us and offered Holy Mass. When it was over, he said, “Your commitment and love for the Church and the Eucharist has inspired and touched me and I wanted to tell you how much I love you. Being a priest and a bishop, I thought the best way of showing my love would be to celebrate Mass with you.”

His favourite songs were ‘Karunamayane’ and 'In the Spirit’. During our second concert which took place two years back in Nagpur, we sang both these songs a second time at the request of the Archbishop, after the concert was officially closed. The thought that repeating songs at the concert was unprofessional never once crossed our mind, faced as we were by the great love of our beloved Archbishop. We had a beautiful time of sharing and prayer before we left to the airport the next day.

As usual, His Grace accompanied us to the airport. After we checked in, he asked us to wait till the check in counter was closed - and then he gathered all the employees of the private airline by which we were flying, introduced the band, asked us to sing a few songs for them right there at the airport and finally, he asked us to make a short prayer for the airline and the staff. Soon after that, we were accompanied by the crew to the flight that was waiting for us! Perhaps we will never have another ‘dancing Archbishop’ when we sing ‘In the Spirit’. Our beloved Archbishop, we will really miss you!

Archbishop Abraham was a person who lived life in its fullness, constantly on the move. I had the privilege of travelling with him several times - and even though he was much shorter than me, I often had to run to keep up with him. He never believed in wasting time and found joy in little things of life. The speed and momentum with which he ran his race helped the Jesus Youth movement to gear up and follow our call and mission.

He was a man who always followed the inspirations of his heart. Today, I heard several people say, “I feel like I’ve lost my earthly father once again”.
Yes, his return to heaven is a loss for us. But he will continue to accompany and intercede for us from heaven.

Dear Archbishop, we are going to miss you. But we are glad that you are in your Father’s house. On that ‘Master’s night’, when you met your master face to face, you would have said like St. Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Today, we too run the race not knowing when the Master comes. Please pray for us, that in following your footsteps, we may say the same words when we meet our Master face to face. Amen.

Manoj Sunny, Jesus Youth International Formation Director

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