Wise men from the East and the West arrived at the life-size Nativity scene outside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Kunkuri, India.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight stood in procession with Roman Catholic bishops from Chhattisgarh province and beyond for a Mass of great joy and solemnity during the Christmas Octave.
It was the 50th anniversary of the cathedral’s dedication.
Thousands filled the outdoor plaza and the imposing, mid-century modern edifice, reputed to be the second-largest cathedral in Asia Pacific, on Dec. 30.
Bishop McKnight was on pilgrimage to the Diocese of Jashpur, with which the Jefferson City diocese has been cultivating a mission partnership since 2012.
Father Alex Ekka, a priest of the Jashpur diocese, currently serves in the Jefferson City diocese. Father Angelus Minj and the late Father Gregory Tigga previously served here.
The people of the Jefferson City diocese are helping pay to build churches and chapels, open schools and missions and prepare seminarians for Priesthood in the Jashpur diocese.
Bishop McKnight was an honored guest for the Dec. 30 Mass, as well as the blessing of the newly completed outdoor Stations of the Cross, and the cultural celebration that followed.
Also during his weeklong visit, he presided at the Ordination Mass for five priests — two for the Jashpur diocese, one for the neighboring Diocese of Jammu Kashmir, and two members of the Society of Jesus.
People from the Jefferson City diocese sponsored two of the priests through seminary formation.
Bishop McKnight also visited St. Joseph Church in Tapkara to seal 67 people with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation.
“I have traveled far to be here with you,” he said, “and I represent all the clergy and lay faithful of the Diocese of Jefferson City in pledging our prayers and support for you.”
From death to life
Located in East-central India, the Jashpur diocese is a rural area made up mostly of indigenous Oraon people — commonly known as Tribals.
Chronic manifestations of poverty are overshadowed by the people’s joy-filled fidelity to the Gospel that was preached to their ancestors no more than three or four generations ago.
The Oraon people had been outcasts for centuries when Jesuit missionaries from Belgium arrived to offer the first Mass in the district in 1906.
The people had been subject to forced, unpaid labor, which left them poor, uneducated, full of misery and devoid of hope.
The missionaries helped them realize that were not inferior. In fact, they were created in the image and likeness of God, Who loved them enough to send His only Son to suffer, die and rise for them so they could spend all eternity with Him.
With that revelation came a call to worship God and repent of sinful ways while embracing the dignity and justice that are rightfully theirs.
Just as those missionaries gained people’s trust and confidence by educating children, caring for the sick and advocating for human rights, present-day Catholics in and around the Jashpur diocese continue to preach the word with action.
The area is now about 23 percent Catholic, 10 times India’s national average of 2.3 percent.
The Jashpur diocese’s network of Catholic schools has helped thousands escape the poverty of subsistence farming.
Although the Indian government has enacted rigid anti-proselytizing laws in recent years, the Church continues to grow and thrive by revealing the presence of Christ in word and action.
All the while, tribal customs dating back to the time of Christ, baptized through revelation and His Good News, continue to be cherished and celebrated.
Serve with gratitude
The Ordination Mass began with an elaborate procession from the courtyard outside Bishop Emmanuel Kerketta’s residence, into the cathedral, accompanied by prodigious singing.
Bishop McKnight noted that this was only his second opportunity to ordain priests since becoming a bishop in February 2018.
He reminded the candidates for Priesthood that they “are being called to an office, a ministry of high calling, not for any personal honor, but because of what the Father of Mercies wishes to accomplish through you.”
Priestly ordination, he noted, is not a reward for a man’s hard work and studies, nor a canonization proving his holiness.
“Instead, it is a gift from the Lord for the Church to accomplish her mission in the world,” he said. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ shall continue to be proclaimed and His ministry of reconciliation shall continue to be exercised through the humble, earthen vessels that we are.”
The only fitting response to that calling is a heart filled with thanksgiving.
“This humble gratitude is, in fact, the very center of our lives as Christians, and it is the source and summit of all the Church’s activities: the lasting legacy of Jesus’s own perfect gratitude to the Father — what we know as the Eucharist,” said Bishop McKnight.
He emphasized the dying-to-self that must accompany priestly ministry.
“My dear brothers, in this very sanctuary, you will join Saints Peter and Paul and countless others in laying down your lives in service to Christ’s Church and His Gospel,” he said.
He reminded the candidates that they must guard and preserve the sacred trust they will hold as priests.
“I pray that through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, you and I may serve faithfully, along with our brother priests, to shepherd our Church in the joy of the Gospel and with a profound sense of gratitude for His merciful love,” he said.
A priest forever
At Bishop McKnight’s invitation, the families of the candidates for Priesthood brought them forward and left them with the bishop at the altar.
Then came a procession consisting of two young boys carrying a yoke, followed by people scattering grains of rice, followed by two small trees in planting pots.
This symbolized how the ground had been prepared and the seeds planted, and through the work of God, the field was yielding a great harvest for the people of God.
Bishop McKnight asked the candidates for ordination a series of questions about their willingness to serve God and His people as priests for the rest of their life.
They promised to do so by offering Mass, teaching and consoling the people, praying unceasingly on their behalf, living exemplary lives in the sight of God and the people, and working with the bishop and the whole Church to lead people to Christ.
While the choir and people chanted the Litany of Saints, the candidates lay prostrate on the floor before the altar, a symbol not only of dying and rising with Christ but also of humility and total reliance on God.
Each candidate then knelt before his own bishop and promised to be obedient and respectful to him and his successors.
Bishop McKnight silently placed his hands on each of the candidates and summoned the Holy Spirit to descend upon them and consecrate them as priests forever.
The newly ordained clerics put on vestments and concelebrated the Mass with the rest of the priests.
The joyful recessional spilled out into the cathedral plaza, with drums, dancing and singing, and continued for over an hour.
“In God’s presence”
At Confirmation in Tapkara, Bishop McKnight emphasized the unity of the whole Church.
He noted that the candidates for confirmation had already received the Holy Spirit in baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
In Confirmation, the Holy Spirit bestows gifts for service in the Church and the world.
“To be a disciple of Jesus Christ means that we follow Him in laboring for the conversion of souls by taking up our own crosses daily,” he said.
“We need the gift of the Spirit to bring to fruition the new life given in baptism,” he stated. “The gift of the Holy Spirit is necessary for us to fulfil our own role in the life and mission of the Church.”
He noted that with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit comes supernatural insight into “how our universal faith applies in the concrete circumstances in everyday life,” along with “the courage to live out that faith.”
He urged those being confirmed never to be afraid to give themselves completely to Christ and follow the call of the Good Shepherd, “Who desires to lead us into Paradise so that we may be in God’s presence for eternity.”
“Lord of the Resurrection”
At the jubilee celebration for the cathedral, Bishop McKnight joined Bishop Kerketta, Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi, principal celebrant, other bishops and archbishops and the provincials of several religious congregations at the altar.
“I am very much edified and fascinated by the cultural richness of India,” Bishop McKnight stated, “especially the local cultural heritage and the simple lifestyle of the indigenous people.”
He said a jubilee celebration is an invitation to look to God with a grateful heart for all the wonderful things He has done, and to pray for His continued assistance.
Local choirs led the various hymns and colorful dances during the three-hour Liturgy.
Afterward, the people gathered in the courtyard outside the cathedral for a celebration of local culture, with music and drama contrasting life before and after the arrival of Catholic Christianity.
“May the Lord of the Resurrection bring peace and prosperity to this great land,” said Bishop McKnight, “and may the Holy Spirit fill you all with the Joy of the Gospel in this blessed New Year.”
Later in their journey, Bishop McKnight, Bishop Kerketta and fellow pilgrims went to visit Archbishop Giambattista Diquattro, papal ambassador for India and Nepal, at his residence in New Dehli.
The group discussed vocations and perpetual adoration chapels.
After visiting several other sites of spiritual, cultural and historical significance in other parts of India, Bishop McKnight planned to join his fellow bishops from Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska on a pilgrimage to Vatican City for their ad limina visit with Pope Francis.
Contributing to this report was Father Vikas Bara, secretary to Bishop Kerketta.