Father Michael V.C. (Vincentian Congregation)
He presided over the week-long retreat that I attended in Chalakudy (Kerala), at the Divine Retreat Centre - the largest Catholic retreat centre in the world with a capacity of tens of thousands. I arrived late after giving up the first day for the wedding. It was a foolish sacrifice that meant I got there at midnight on Sunday. But I had a good week nonetheless.
Father Michael is a very charismatic priest, only in his early thirties and appeared jovial in all our sessions. His sermons and talks were profound, helped by being a very engaging speaker. My first mass with him was a shock - it lasted 2.5hrs (maybe 2?), with an hour sermon in between! Wow! This is made more difficult with the fact that dinner is only after the mass, at 9pm. My stomach couldn't handle it on the first night. Once I raised the expectation, however, it was plain sailing.
About 400 attended the English retreat. In all, around 1200 people were on the campus which simultaneously holds weekly retreats in English, Karnada (from Karnataka), Konkani (from Goa) and Hindi. The main campus nearby has another few thousand retreatants this week for retreats in Malayalam (from Kerala), Tamil (from Tamil Nadu) and Telegu (from Andra Pradesh). It's a huge establishment requiring very streamlined organisation. And it works.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the FOOD provision. I am in awe of their catering abilities, providing for thousands while keeping the quality at such a tasty level. In fact, food became one of my first topics of conversation to anyone who would listen. I am that impressed! Huge tubs of idly, rice, dhal, sambar, and various curries were transported to the food hall throughout that week, keeping me going in the long hours.
Accommodations were basic sharing rooms with gym-style mats for bedding which meant easy wiping down and eliminated the need for bed sheets. To deal with the overflow when the thousands flock, free (no charge) dormitories were provided to hold the mass. At its peak, people would also sleep in hallways, balconies, and basically any free space. Costs to retreatants are somehow amazingly minimal - 200 rupees only for the whole week with all meals, then 250 for a basic sharing room if you want to avoid the free dorms.
Back to the long hours. We were all woken up at 5.30am with a bell and half an hour of wonderful worship music blaring out of the speakers. As far as wake-up calls go, that was one of the best for me! It set me humming and dancing from the start. The day is divided between 5 talks, each preceded by a decade of the rosary and (one of my favourite parts) praise and worship sessions for singing (often with clapping and dancing). I was in heaven! The talks were around 1hr 15mins, a huge challenge for me at first due to lack of sleep. But each had a special message and very deep lessons to learn from. The evening was for adoration, mass and silent adoration to finish at 10.30pm. So a very long day!
But one of the biggest adjustments for me was the charismatic nature of the retreat. From my first session, the preacher called out "Praise the Lord!" and "Hallelujah!" to which people responded with equal zeal and with arm(s) raised. Looking from the outside, I would think I was in a Pentecostal gathering. Sentences were started or finished with those phrases during the talks and a long string of them precede the start of every change of speaker. Bible verses were quoted from memory and referenced intensely. The Holy Spirit is invoked regularly to shower His power on us and bring healing. This was Catholicism as I've never seen it before. The only aspect I warmed up to immediately was the hymns (more correctly referred to as songs in this case) played out with beats from the keyboard and accompanied by clapping and dancing so that it's more like a pop song. But I overcame my hesitancy and was in the swing of things in the end, though still with some self-consciousness.
I had come simply to be more connected to God, and indeed this was accomplished. I left with a much deeper appreciation and understanding of my faith which is helping me to developing my relationship with God. But I hadn't realised the big draw of the retreats for many - as the place of healing. Miracles occurred here. Physical ailments were cured, mental blocks removed, addictions overcome, broken relationships healed. And it's not hard to see why. The programme was well structured - they've done it for years after all. We begin with confession for cleansing, then there's a powerful healing session and finally empowerment from the Holy Spirit to send us off, with many inspirational talks in between. It's certainly a very powerful place.
Carol, Rodney and Loelita
I left with some friends. Carol was my first, from Goa originally but now living in Dubai. She's a sweet, devoted Catholic, with a young innocence that betrays here late twenties age. Then there's Rodney and Loelita, a lovely couple from Pune. Rodney works for a big Indian company with a project in Rio. So accommodation for my final stop on this world tour is magically sorted. Hopefully, I will also be able to meet and stay with his sister in Singapore who is interesting to me just by association with him. He's one of those who command authority, as I can see from the way he talked to me. The couple gave me a birthday present with what is a very meaningful message to me: "to newfound friendships, peace and love."
Anthony and Joseph
I flirted with the idea of going to Tamil Nadu for a few days after the retreat before Eileen comes to join me on Sunday just to see the Diwali celebrations. Of all the luck, I happen to be in the only state that doesn't celebrate one of the major festivals of India! It's too over-run with Christians! My previous wish to avoid major festivals after Dasara in Mysore is overridden by the need to celebrate my birthday somehow! With the whole Friday afternoon free and Saturday the next day, I finally decided to stay put and explore the local area. I came to befriend the porters of my hall: Anthony, an informative elderly man from Tamil Nadu and Joseph, a young guy from Hyderabad. They suggested various places for me, now and for the rest of my South India trip. Many of the places were Christian places of worship. So it was slightly skewed advice.
I went to Koratty, a village/town down the road where a big church stands next to the Rosary Garden, a beautiful construction with depictions of all the scenes from the 4 mysteries of the rosary. I walked around the rural places after that and met some good people from the village, all extending their help. One of them offered me a ride on his scooter to the main road. A bus ride to the town of Chalakudy followed where I explored the area, bought fresh fruits (at last!) and visited yet another church. What left an impression on me was seeing a crowd of people outside the church. They were in an enclosed area holding the statue of Mary. They were sitting and praying the rosary among candlelight at 7pm. So beautiful! There was then a procession into the church with singing and praying.
The evening of my birthday was spent praying another mystery of the rosary and in adoration. It was a fitting start to my year as a 25-year old. I had planned to be here for my birthday after all.
I had hazy plans on my last day. I thought of going somewhere rural, possibly a nearby waterfall and to buy train tickets but... no! Here I am, using the time to update my journal after stumbling on the best internet connection and computer I've had thus far. My journey tonight is uncertain. I fear I will not get a bed, or even a train ticket, because stupidly, I've missed the opening hour of the booking office. I have only just realised. I wouldn't mind ordinarily but there's a pressing need to meet Eileen at the airport.
Oh well, here goes.