In India, Retracing Steps of St. Thomas

by Anto Akkara

People carry wooden crosses during a pilgrimage to St. Thomas International Shrine in Malayattoor, India, April 4. According to the shrine director, several million pilgrims came during Holy Week last year.

MALAYATTOOR, India (CNS) – When doctors recommended a second heart surgery for Joseph Kudiassery in 1999, the penniless fisherman was at his wit’s end.

Feeling desperate, Kudiassery organized a pilgrimage on foot to St. Thomas International Shrine in Malayattoor, about 75 miles from his home and St. Joseph Parish in Punnappra.

This year, 85 fellow parishioners joined the 58-year old fisherman in a four-day pilgrimage under the blazing sun.

Clad in saffron, each carried small crosses, and participants took turns carrying a larger cross in the front as they walked along the highway.  Along the way they prayed, sang and ate food offered by Christian families.

“I never went for the surgery. My medicine is this annual pilgrimage,” Kudiassery told Catholic News Service just before he began the Way of the Cross and the rocky climb up St. Thomas Mountain.

St. Thomas the Apostle, who reached the coast of Kerala coast in A.D. 52 in the company of spice merchants from the Middle East, is said to have gone up the Malayattoor mountain to pray frequently, and the shrine on the mountaintop is said to have a footprint of the doubting apostle.

“I have been walking with the group and climbing this sacred hill for the last two years,” said Soniachan Kalluparamabil, who has a steel rod in his right leg after a fall from a building three years ago.

“Each time I joined the pilgrimage, my pain has only gone down,” he added.

As the group started climbing, smaller groups of pilgrims were coming in, carrying crosses on their shoulders.

“When I started the annual pilgrimage (on foot) five years ago, we had only three members. This year there are 12 members in the team,” said Shiju Chacko, a Catholic painter from Kodancherry. “Now two Hindus are also part of our group.”

K.K. Rajan, one of the two Hindus, told CNS, “When I saw them going on such a long pilgrimage, I joined them out of curiosity.

“But with that pilgrimage, I have given up drinking. My wife now reminds me to go to the pilgrimage, and this is the third year in a row,” Rajan said. “There is peace and joy in my family now.”

For Prince Thazhathedath, an engineer who works near Bangalore, the Malayattoor pilgrimage is the “best way to remember the passion and crucifixion of Jesus.”

“This is a good spiritual step to purify oneself. By walking such long distances with a cross and prayers on our lips, we are atoning for our sins,” said Thazhathedath enthusiastically. “On the way, we rest at the porticos of churches.”

But toward the end of the pilgrimage, the bandages on both feet of the engineer showed the pilgrimage was not easy.

Father Xavier Thelakkat, rector of the international shrine, told CNS that each year the number of pilgrims increases, especially during Holy Week.

“Several million pilgrims came here last year, and we expect more pilgrims this year. There was a huge traffic jam here on Palm Sunday,” added Father Thelakkat.

He said Good Friday alone brings nearly a million pilgrims to Malayattoor.

“This is a unique pilgrim center where people are experiencing several miracles by climbing the sacred mountain, reciting Way of the Cross and other prayers,” he said.

“Even Hindus have written to me confirming miraculous cures,” Father Thelakkat said. As he spoke, the postman delivered a money order from a Hindu organization reserving rooms for its members.

Joseph Kudiassery prays during a pilgrimage to St. Thomas International Shrine in Malayattoor, India. The 58-year old fisherman joined 85 fellow parishioners from St. Joseph Church in Punnappra for the four-day pilgrimage.