I did not feel out of place at all. Mine was the lone blonde head in a sea of people of Indian descent who were worshipping at the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Northeast Philadelphia last Sunday morning. It seemed like I had been coming here for years.
The mass or Qurbana was being celebrated completely in a foreign language. Two priests recited prayers from a front table or altar that was in front of the main altar. The congregation chanted their unintelligible replies. I guessed that one of the priests was Fr. Augustine, the pastor of the parish, because he looked like the picture on the website. He had invited me to teach the 13-17 year old CCD students about St. Therese after the mass.
On either side of the main altar were four large pictures of holy people. One picture showed the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus and another one was most likely St. Thomas. Another one of the pictures, I learned later on, was of St. Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception. She was a Syro-Malabar Franciscan sister who died in 1946 and was the first person ever of Indian descent to be canonized a saint by the Catholic Church when she was declared a saint by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008. The tabernacle was covered with a blue veil and golden pillars were situated on either side. The music ministry had a section in the right front of the church.
Fr. Augustine came over and greeted me very warmly at the conclusion of the first mass. We talked about the details of my presentation and he inquired about my ministry. His kind eyes and mild manner made me feel right at home. He introduced me to the head of the CCD program and to a few other men before excusing himself to prepare for the next mass in ten minutes.
All of a sudden a great commotion broke out. Men from every direction converged on the temporary wall behind me and moved it away in pieces to reveal another large area behind me half as big as the church in front of me. It was the overflow seating for the second mass. There was going to be a lot of people!
Within five minutes the population of the church tripled. Women in gorgeous saris of every color, babies dressed in white, and gentlemen in their Sunday best entered the sanctuary from every direction. The priests processed in and authentic Indian music sounded from the music section. It sounded like a holy Bollywood production sans dancing!
The richness of the liturgy that was sung in both Malayalam and English combined with the beautiful music and the myriad of colors was a feast for the senses. Malayalam is one of 22 languages spoken in India, predominantly in the state of Kerala in the south of India where most of the Syro-Malabar Catholics came from. I was so mesmerized by the proceedings that I didn’t care that I couldn’t follow the mass at all. I just prayed in my heart and soaked it all in.
Fr. Augustine concelebrated the mass with a visiting priest who had a very powerful voice. Much of the mass was sung by the priest from the table in front of the main altar. The consecration took place at the main altar with the priests facing away from the congregation. The consecrated hosts were distributed during Holy Communion in a similar fashion to the Latin Rite and unlike in the manner of the Byzantine and Ukrainian Catholic Rites where Holy Communion is given under both species with a type of spoon. Fr. Augustine introduced me by name at the end of the mass and had me stand up to be acknowledged by the congregation.
My presentation on St. Therese took place after the mass in a large room adjacent to the CCD classes. Several male students set up the chairs as I arranged my picture of St. Therese and the podium. Soon after the older students filed in and took their seats. One teacher told me that only about 40 students would be attending instead of the usual 100 or so because many of the students were away for the Memorial Day holiday and a youth conference in Maryland. The students were well-behaved and attentive during the presentation as I meandered around the stage teaching them about the “greatest saint of modern times”. Almost all of the students venerated the First Class Relic of St. Therese following the talk.
As I was packing up my things to leave, I was invited to attend a small banquet of authentic Indian food. Not one to turn down a meal, I consented and was led to a small room where several women in saris were setting out platters of food. Before I knew what hit me, several of them were filling up plates of food and setting them in front of me. I said that I would wait for the others to eat, but they told me that I should begin. Nobody had to tell me twice! Several of the women asked me questions about myself and taught me about their traditions. I was winding down my two plates of food and my portion of pineapple upside down cake as a sort of business meeting started. I thanked everyone for their gracious hospitality as Fr. Augustine escorted me upstairs to say goodbye.
I was very touched by the friendliness and warmth of everyone I met last Sunday at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Fr. Augustine invited me to come back again with my family. We are already making plans!