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Witnesses to a Poor Christ

A community of brothers in India bears witness through humble service.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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“Christ was a rich man who became poor,” said Brother Louis, Superior General of the Malabar Missionary Brothers. “St. Francis remained a brother, although the pope asked him to become a priest. Money and prestige, as well as holy ambition, are a temptation for many who become priests. Sometimes this becomes a danger, so we gladly remain brothers to be better witnesses of a poor Christ.”

This answered my impertinent question, “Why be a brother when you could be a priest?”, posed during a recent visit to the Malabar Missionary Brothers at their center in Trichur, Kerala.

These religious brothers of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, who take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, number more than 200 and devote themselves to evangelization and serving the poor. Founded in 1948, the Malabar Missionary Brothers adopted the spirituality and lifestyle of St. Francis of Assisi and his followers while absorbing a missionary spirit from St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Today, the community administers 18 houses in India, 12 of which are in Kerala and 6 in the northern Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

An intelligent, soft-spoken man, Brother Louis explained that by following in the footsteps of St. Francis, “our congregation, right from the beginning, placed a stress on charitable services. Our field of activities embraces the least brethren and tries to help them in the various neglected areas of life.”

The community operates a home for elderly men, various orphanages, a school for mentally handicapped children, a health care ministry, a hospital, a number of dispensaries, prison ministries for juvenile criminals and technical education centers for underprivileged boys and girls.

The House of Providence at Irinjalakuda, Kerala, houses some 70 men aged 60 to 95. The only requirement for admittance is that they be over 60 and poor; they can be of any religious background. Most of the patients at the House of Providence are ill, and nine brothers take care of all their needs, including nursing, cleaning, cooking and bathing. A few brothers are trained in geriatric nursing, and their duties rotate according to their talents. Varghese, who is 73, is one resident of the house; he has lived there for two years. Unmarried, Varghese explained that he had no one to look after him as he got older. Now he feels safe and cared for; he is very satisfied with his new home.

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Tags: Poor/Poverty Syro-Malabar Catholic Church