Memory by Students
Father K J Thomas: A Role Model for the Present Day
Sr Licia Puthuparambil, SMI
A ring of cell phone in the early hours of a day does not usually bring good news to you. And it was no exception on 1 April 2013, when I answered a call it gave me heart breaking news of the brutal murder of Fr KJ Thomas, whom I wished Easter greetings the previous evening. The unbelievable news transfixed me. Exasperated as I was it took a while before I could make a call to HE The Most Rev. Dr Thomas Vazhappilly, his former colleague and my professor at St Peter’s, Bangalore, who confirmed the news.
My memories took me back to October 1993, the occasion on which Fr KJ Thomas was introduced to students of B Th. course at St Peter’s Pontifical Institute, Bangalore. He was just back from Rome after completion of his doctoral studies. He appeared to me and my classmates as a reserved and perhaps a shy person. Being apprehensive of dull sessions from him we uninterestingly crawled to the lecture hall. But incredibly he took every one of his students by pleasant surprise by his very first class with his sense of humour. In no time he stole everyone’s heart with innocent jokes, his ways of presenting things and his teaching methodology. He loved to see his students laugh and enjoy than being laden with the heavy lectures. Within a few days he gave us an assignment of 10 marks. On completion Fr KJ (as he was fondly called by his students) announced, “Pleased at your enthusiasm, I am going to grade you out of 1,000 instead of the previously promised 10 marks”. You could see everyone kicking up their heels overjoyed with the increase in their grade, but the radiant faces gave way to mere laughter at his following remarks, “And tell me friends, how it differs if I grade you out of 10 or 1,000.”
Something that admired me about his character was the genuine efforts he took to keep people in touch. On completion of the course I returned to our generalate at Krishnagar, West Bengal in October 1994. I sent a thanking letter to all my professors. While a few of them acknowledged out of courtesy, I found the reply of Fr KJ more personal – enquiring and narrating even the little things. Eventually I noticed him replying to my letter on the very day of its receipt. Before long I learnt from my other friends that he insisted on replying all letters the same day, however busy he was.
My intimacy with him increased when I returned to St Peter’s to pursue my studies in Canon Law in 1997 (Masters) with Sr Caroline Pothanamala, my fellow sister. Having understood that Latin was not a cakewalk to me, he took extra pain to guide me. I always found him eliciting the best out of me by his simple ways of appreciations and encouragements. As I had limited exposure to computers those days I would be stalemated when working with some assignments and on seeking his assistance he would cut in with some solutions. I would often bluntly put it, “that facility is not available in our computer”. Instead of laughing at my ignorance he would just respond, “Licia, why not try this out?” demonstrating how to do it.
His deep spirituality was vividly made known to me while seeking his guidance in one of my valuable achievements. By God’s grace, along with Sr Lily Chittilappilly, my fellow sister, I was entrusted with the work of revising Our Catholic Faith, a book written by our founder late Bishop Louis LaRavoire Morrow, whom we fondly called Father Bishop. Fr KJ spent many of his valuable days guiding us with his scholarly insights. As we progressed with the task of revising the book, I could realise that his clear thoughts and visions were akin to that of our Father Bishop, both of whose reflections were deeply rooted in high spirituality. With this my admiration of Fr KJ grew even more and our friendship grew stronger and took the form of a filial relationship – he regarded me as his younger sister and I esteemed him as my elder brother.
What impressed me the most about him, perhaps, was his politeness and respect for women religious. He was very hospitable and gentle in his dealings with them. Whenever I visited him along with another sister (as per the rule of our Congregation we are to move in a company of two) no matter whether she is a stranger to him, he would take every effort to ensure that she is at home in his company. To cite another experience, while I was studying for Masters at his seminary, the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny decided to withdraw their service from the catering department, which they were compelled to do perhaps without adequate notice. Being the procurator, obviously it was to cause him severe hardship. However, I found him supportive of their decision with the remarks “the sisters have better mission in the Church and in the society; the catering department could be managed by anyone”.
Fr KJ indeed was an embodiment of humility, transparency, commitment and dedication. He was very optimistic in his attitude and was able to settle amicably any situation of conflict or controversy while being firm in his stance, which was based on his conscience and convictions.
His empathy and humaneness were praiseworthy. No matter whether he was professor, procurator, rector or president of the Institute, the parent in him always took care of his students, staff members and priests from his diocese. It was luminously visible, when anyone is hospitalised. He made it a point that he visited them daily and took care of them. Wherever I was working, I remember, that he sought my prayers, when someone was hospitalised or at the death of relatives of his students or staff members, whom I had little chance of knowing. I still have in mind the picture of a student coming to his office after he received the news of his mother’s illness. Immediately Fr KJ got up from his working desk and made all the arrangements that he was by the side of his ailing mother as soon as possible ensuring that he had sufficient money for his journey to and fro. I have personally experienced this on occasions like the demise of my parents and my surgery. When I underwent a surgical procedure at Kolkatta, being stationed at Bangalore, he would contact the sister in charge and would keep home informed about the latest position and would console them.
Detachment to power and obedience to ecclesiastical authorities were his hallmarks. Fr KJ was never allured by the power and the authority attached to any office that he always tried to keep himself away from the attached special privileges. He once told me that the first resolution he made after being appointed as the procurator was never to use the Institute’s vehicle for his personal use and refrain from its use in official work as far as possible. When his first tenure of office as the procurator was almost getting over he asked me to pray that the Lord might grant his request as he was planning to request the Board of Bishops not to reappoint him. When his request had not been acceded to, he bowed his head in humility and decided to serve the Institute willingly and cheerfully. Similarly, it was with reluctance that he accepted postings as Rector and President, which he could not avoid under obedience. He had the conviction that all authority comes from God and every office had its own dignity. Hence whichever posts he was assigned with, he served cheerfully and with diligence.
As Rector he had resolved to set examples from his own life rather than speaking on the values left behind by great men or women. He made it a point that for the common prayer he would be in the chapel 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled time living as a role model.
His simplicity was another quality that I adored in him. Along with Fr Victor George D’souza, he guided me in my dissertation. However, Fr KJ discouraged me from mentioning his name in the acknowledgment as his specialisation was not in Canon Law. Austerity was yet another quality that attracted the attention of the people around him and he loved to live a simple life. He was always happy with the food available in the refectory. Even when his relatives visited him and wanted to take him for a dinner-out he would not yield to them saying, “Seminary food is good enough for all of us.”
Sensitivity to the needs of others was a commendable quality that he possessed. While he was serving as the procurator he would find time to make himself available to all, see that all complaints are timely attended to, things are repaired and put in order without any delay and ensured that everyone was happy. His hospitality made him attend to every guest and ensured that they were well taken care off. He never felt subservient in doing such works for no work was menial to him as he had in mind “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; …” Luke 16:10.
He was a man of total self-giving and hard work. After the lunch break we would see him sitting on a chair in front of his office reading a book and guarding the seminary while the staff and students of St Peter’s would be taking a nap. Taken by with this, I once wanted to know why he did not want to take rest to which his answer was, “I learnt this from my father who even in his 80’s took a walk in the garden examining the trees that he had grown and saw the cultivation, came back to the house and sat on the couch in the front veranda of the house”. He had shared about his parents to me: how his mother was affectionate to the siblings and especially to him, how her death affected him and how his father’s values moulded him. Definitely he had a blend of the affection of his mother and the dedication of his father in him. The parental influence in him developed into a caretaker of the seminary, its members and its belongings tirelessly that he stayed back in the seminary during vacations that helped everyone else to enjoy their holidays.
Last but not the least, his kindness and respect for the dignity of the supporting staff are unparalleled. On several occasions I was witness to his urgency in attending to the needs of such staff members. However busy he was, Fr KJ would never keep them waiting at his doorsteps.
I would like to bring to your attention the call of the Holy Father Pope Francis to the priests during the Chrism Mass 2013, “always to be shepherds with the smell of sheep, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men …” He further added “A priest’s life is precarious and its fulfilment lies only in serving others.” This was certainly fulfilled in the life of Fr KJ. He has run the race and won the crown of glory. Martyrdom is not a gift for all but for the specifically chosen ones. Yet the agony of missing him is indescribable. May the words of Wisdom 3:1, “The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall touch them”, give us the strength to accept this cruel reality.
I am sure that Fr KJ joined the blissful company of martyrs in heaven, interceding for us so that we live our call faithfully and fruitfully as he set an example through his life for us to follow. We miss him but the values he left behind will make him live for ever and ever in the minds of all of us.