When I Look Back- 1 – Dr James Kottoor

JKDr James Kottoor, a free thinker by nature, later left the Order and continued talking on the cases he stands for. Dr James became once Editor of prominent publications like New Leader and Indian Currents, and now is a veteran journalist acclaimed internationally. He shares his experiences of is priestllife. He greatly appreciates solid comments on his views and attitudes and is quite ready for a discussion/debate.

Superbly Ignorant & Innocent!

           This piece is in response to suggestions from those who attended   the national meet of 750 priests and sisters who left their ministry on Feb.28 at SNDP Auditorium, Palarivattom, Kochi. Those with different experiences are kindly requested to come forward with their story to appraise those concerned to improve the situation since each case brings in different information and insights.   Dr. james kottoor

         I have promises to keep. So here I go frankly speaking before it becomes too late. This time it is all about me who became a priest in the Catholic Church honestly and earnestly  and then got out of it with equal earnestness, only to discover in due course, there was nothing to get out from for me because the priesthood I dreamt about was just a non-existent figment of my imagination inculcated in young minds together with many blind beliefs by a clerical class most of whom also were driven by similar blind beliefs from their tender age.  To get out from a room you have to get into it first. Only a somnambulist can do it without having a room to get into. I was that Somnambulist, I discover now.

      “When I look back” should have been the right phrase to start this piece because I have hardly anything to look forward to. But there is an awful lot to look back to the winding ways in the corridors of time stretching beyond 80 years. Though too long to narrate, I can summarise it all in one or two sentences. The first thought that leaps to mind is the Essence of Gita: “Whatever happed, happens and will happen are for the good. I have brought nothing, created nothing, destroyed nothing, whatever I have is from this world and will belong to some one else tomorrow. Change alone is the unchanging law of nature here below.

      The same thought is better expressed by Cardinal Newman which I learned first from the first and great Cardinal Valerian Gracious of Bombay: “It may be different in a higher world, but here below to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed more often.” Only the dead do not change for the better but rot and therefore must be buried before it starts stinking.

      But the most comforting of all thoughts is the one nut-shelled in the Malayalam prayer song which used to be one of our family prayer items: “Without the faintest of my knowledge YOU went ahead of me to close all the pot holes in my path, equally YOU went ahead without my knowledge to light up all the dark lanes I had to traverse.” Due to that thankless service done, I don’t know why, by that unknown, invisible hand, or kindly light I am  still here hale and happy to look back and recount. Therefore often I used to break out into that profound soul-searching confession: “What have you which you have not received, and if you have received why do you glory, as if you have not received,” of St. Paul, so true in my case.

Kicks of Grace Galore

     As a result I see myself as a football kicked about to unsuspected directions and places around the globe by that master sportsman, that young unpredictable carpenter of Nazareth. That gives credence to the saying: Deus ludit in orbe terrarium (God plays with his creations like little balls in his hands) So this football with a lot of thick skin, got the first kick from Kerala’s green gardens to Chennai’s sunny setting for a ten-year seminary training, got the second kick from there to Rome to take degrees in theology and sociology, to Paris to study French, then to London, Munich, Berlin, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Greece, Israel etc. on various errands; then a forceful kick from Rome to Marquette University, USA to study Journalism for 4 years, then a kick back to Chennai to edit and publish the  national “New Leader” Catholic weekly.

                While editing it, I got the  kick to Luxemburg as invitee to the 9th world conference of Catholic press in acknowledgement of public opinion created by New Leader in Church in India, and to Aachen to attend the conference of developing countries, also kicks to Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkotta to report CBCI meets and national conferences Then came the tragic kick out of the editorial chair of New Leader only to soft-land in Ecumenical centre, Bangalore as its editorial secretary, from where got the most unexpected kick to Hong-Kong to deliver a speech at the international conference on “Printed Word in Asia,” organised by the Church of South India and to return to India as Emergency was declared. Then I got the kick to Amruthavani under Fr. Balaguer sj Secunderabad to do a year-long research on “Dharma Vijayam” under Prof. Ramachandran of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bombay. On completion I got the kick all the way to Trivandrum to start an English edition of Hosanna while editing Dutch Fr. Hegger’s (Sponsor of Hosanna) magazine “On the Road to Damascus”.

         Then came the kick to Thammanam, Ernakulam, to stop being a rolling stone and to find some sort of a permanent address to stay, though the truth is that we don’t have a permanent city here below (Non habemus hic manentem civitatem), then  a kick to Pattanakad, Cherthala, to edit Vaidikamitram  in-congnito (in the place of Fr.Christi Daniel, gone on leave) for three years, during which I got a kick to Dublin, Ireland to attend the first world conference of Women’s Ordination in the Catholic Church as Associate Editor of Indian Currents and as one of the three invitees from India, then several kicks to and fro to US and in US to New York and Chicago to address conferences, and finally a Kick to  Abhu Dabhi  and back,  still safe and in working condition. None of this trotting around the globe was dreamt or planned by this mortal and therefore all were kaleidoscopic. None of them were painful either, because they were all “Kicks of Grace” planned by the most Graceful One, not by me. Some of them at least I shall touch upon.

Just a Greenhorn

    With that introduction, I go back to what I was, before I started out on my priestly, missionary peregrination? “Just an ignorant, innocent” I was in every sense, literally a greenhorn, but a happy-go-lucky shepherd boy in the country side like David of old, running after sheep and cattle and swimming in fresh steams when not walking 7 miles to school daily to play football and sit for long hours in class, listening or day dreaming called schooling. Fortunately no one complained I was smart in studies though many said I was good at football. “Weren’t you that Football “Kochan”(my nickname on the play ground, since I was small) at St. Mary’s Kidangoor?” my companions in High School, asked me last year while in USA. As for studies my notable achievement was that I never failed in any class, even without taking any extra pain for study. It never occurred to me that I had to give more attention to it than to other routine chorus of duties at home, although my Grand Father took exceptional interest to initiate all of us children to the first letters of the alphabet and reminded us often to take up our books and read which was equivalent for study to him. And I used to do it to pacify and make him happy, as he was very dear to me and I  to him.

     What about thinking and planning for the future during school days? It never occurred to me that I had to think and plan for it, never thought of doing a business, making money, becoming great, a doctor, engineer etc. But when I was nearing the SSLC my thinking faculties slowly started functioning and I started comparing myself with other boys in the country side. At the sight of some of them sporting gold chains, I asked my grandmother “Would you buy for me a gold Chain?” She readily agreed, on condition, I passed the SSLC first, that is after more than a year or so. I readily agreed to her condition and never raised the question until I passed. We were a bunch of seven – seven capital vices or gifts of the Holy Spirit – four boys and three girls. How two of them ended up as priests and three of them Sisters is a different story altogether. Only one (myself) fell from Grace, as the saying goes.

     In our home no one asks for anything directly to Father or Mother, they are too busy either in the farm or in the Kitchen. For everything we go through our grand Father or grandmother whose delight it was to narrate all biblical stories – especially from the Old Testament – and also about work in the mission fields far away to help the poor, sick, abandoned etc. which instilled in me a longing for missionary work among the uncared for. Simultaneously the thought of passing SSLC kindled in me a desire to study a lot later,  but did not know what and where as there was no one to guide.

Start of Prayer Life

     Thinking of studies made me realize I was poor in one subject – Maths. My instant problem solver was my elder brother to whom I was very much attached. So I asked him  how to solve  my problems with Maths. “It is easy like pump water” he said and asked: “Don’t you say the  32 prayers daily including the one, ‘Remember Oh Mary’ (Memorare) among them?” All of us children had to recite them as part of the regular home drill before supper in the evening. We were expected to take bath in the nearby  stream, come home and kneel on the Veranda facing the East and say those prayers loud enough so that mother preparing supper in the Kitchen could hear it. This we did dutifully, loudly and at hundred mile speed to get them over quickly to eat our supper. “Remember Oh Mary” was just one among them.

       So my brother continued and asked me: ”What do you say in that prayer to Our Lady?” I did not know because for me what was important was to say it loud, not understanding what was said. Prayer was just an exercise of lips not of mind. Important part in that prayer of course  was: “It was never heard anyone who implored your help was left unheeded.” Just say that prayer and tell Our Lady to fix your problem and it will done just for the asking. That was more than what my childish blind faith  needed to  get  enlightened and assured of infallible success. For the first time, at least one prayer among 32 became meaningful to me and that precisely was the historic beginning of my prayer life and devotion to Our Lady.  I started saying that prayer and only that, for anything and everything and I got what I prayed for. At least I thought I did. The growth and meteoric rise of that Marian devotion was to take place trough pious observance of the month of May and later training under Silesians of Don Bosco devoted to Mary help of Christians.

        With or without the help of Memorare I passed SSLC and felt emboldened to ask for my pound of flesh, a gold chain promised by my grand mother. As for her she kept her promise and put on my neck a gold chain and I went about exhibiting it proudly to every one.

        But what about higher studies after SSLC, since I wanted to study a lot? My well wishers, especially my priest Uncle wanted me to join a seminary in Kerala which I hated with all my heart since the arrogant lording it over attitude of priests was unbearable and detestable for me  But I thought fondly of missionary life of service among the have-nots which I heard from my grand mother.  But I had no contacts with persons who could help. Suddenly good news flickered on the horizon. News reached me that a missionary was right on the spot looking for right candidates. It was Fr. Joseph Thyparampil, a lean and lanky person with a smiling face and friendly behaviour His interview didn’t take much time. First was about my studies and marks. Secondly he asked if I had any problem keeping Purity (Suthada). No problem at all, since I was very much concerned about keeping myself clean and tidy. More than that I did not understand what he meant by that question.

        So the recruitment was announced at home and I had to leave with bag and baggage shortly for the then Madras(now Chennai) which to me was a very distant place. I had to get ready with some 8 sets of dress and would return home for holidays once in three years only. The journey was to be long by train about which I had no idea either.

Goodbye to Gold Outfits

        Now I started thinking seriously of myself as an adult. “What is the fun of sporting a gold chain by one going to serve the poor? Its place is not the neck of missionary, though it was the price won in a bargain and not worn to my heart’s content” I told myself. The last thing I wanted was not to look ridiculous. So without a second thought I removed that chain from my neck and put it on the neck of my younger sister. That really sent shock waves through everyone in the house. Everybody said, “He means business, and it looks he has an old head on young shoulders.”

        Also I thought of my share of a few acres of family property. Why postpone decision on it, I thought.  So I told my father, I was giving up my claim for any share. Since there was talk of priests funding own families, I also said: “Do not expect any monetary help from me. Nor will I ask for  any money from home.” Whether right or wrong that was my mental attitude then and my father, a cool, calculated thinker, didn’t say anything in reply.

        So the much awaited parting day for three years arrived. It was a joyful, not a tearful goodbye, as home-sickness was not part of my weakness. I was now in the company of over a dozen recruits by Fr. Thyparampil in the train to Madras run by charcoal and so the soot flying  all over. All the youngsters were in a hilarious mood, singing and dancing in the train to make their first journey together memorable. Suddenly some thing most unforeseen, unimaginable and catastrophic happened. The Volcano erupted and spilt the hot lava all around, wetting my thighs and pants. In the case of girls it is called menses, for boys it is spilling the seeds. Since it was my first experience, I thought I was stricken with some unearthly, deadly disease  and there was no Mammy nearby to consult about it. That explains how innocent I was at least as far as sex was concerned.

       The second was about my monumental Ignorance. On reaching a fortress like huge building of a seminary in Poonamallee, my first encounter was with the saintly father Valloggia SDB a tall priest with a black beard and a heavenly smile. Before him I was a little boy looking up to his smiling face in wonder. He bent down graciously and asked me: “Did you eat?” Can you imagine, I could not understand that simple English. So I simply blinked in wonder. But he bent down a second time and repeated the question. Again I stared at him expressing my inability to understand.  But he didn’t give up. A third time he bent down and uttered slowly and loudly: “Did…you… eat?”  “Yes, Yes” was my Eureka reply and both of us smiled at each other with a sense of achievement. That was the first English words I spoke in the seminary and probably after my SSLC.

     This is to tell you how ignorant I was, as far as spoken English or listening English was concerned. There was a crowd of seminarians watching this drama. As soon as I was released from my spoken English drama, every one among the spectators was up in arms with their supportive facial grimaces to befriend and make me feel comfortable. None was intent on embarrassing me. A youngster instead took me by the hand and led me for walk to make me feel comfortable. Among other things he told me: “Yes we have to talk here English always, then later write English, preach English etc. We all are here to help you do that.”

     That was indeed the first and the biggest shock of my life in the Seminary. “How am I going to get a working knowledge of English?”  I wondered. That was the first time I thought of serious study by myself. I knew I was simply thrown into the sea and I had to swim or sink. No question of sinking. So there started my study in earnest, first to improve my English by reading, reading and reading library books and checking dictionary for every other word during every wakeful free moment. I have not stopped that habit to this day. Even now from 4 am in the morning till 11 pm in the evening, I am busy like a bee reading and studying, while not working in kitchen garden with spade and garden utensils, to reduce the space of my ignorance about all and sundry. To anyone who compliments my English today, my retort is: any idiot in this world can outshine me, if only they put in as much work as I put in as a workaholic. Cultivating the habit of using every available moment to reduce the space of my ignorance prevents my mind to become a Devil’s playground. That is how I keep myself busy like a bee and where I am now. (To be continued)

For contact: jkottoor@asianetindia.com. Mob: 9446219203

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1 Response

  1. almayasabdam says:

    Dr James kottoor commented

    Dared and Hoped

              Again it is just to put records  straight and clarify unintended confusion. It looks I always get much more than I bargain for, this time got introduced first as a Jesuit , who are supposed to be a class apart – the Brahminic   class in the Church.  I never dreamt of becoming  one among them, but  always wanted to remain most ordinary among ordinary people, which alone helps one if he has a mission to serve.

             This is not the first time this mistaken perception about me happens. Some 40 years ago while  editing the New Leader, some one outside India, reading it and following the editorials wrote in substance: “I can imagine you very well in my mind. You are an elderly Jesuit with gray hair and a permanent  spectacle, well read in the mystic works – the seven story mountains —  of Avila etc.” which made me burst out into a laughter. Because at that time my hairs were quite dark, nor was I using a spectacle, neither had I read Avila’s works,  most of all not a Jesuit, and never thought of being a Jesuit as  something  great. To be a commoner to avoid the staring eye of envy alone was great for me.

            I was just a very ordinary  diocesan priest of  Madras-Mylapore, under Archbishop Louis Mathias whose motto was: “Dare and Hope”  which is still a source of unfathomable inspiration for me. Humanly speaking  it is stupid: You don’t jump from a high rise building in a fit of daring and say the angels  will help me do a soft landing.  Instead first make sure that your daring is for achieving something most sublime before God: “Open your ways to the Lord first and He will  act” (Aperte viam tuam Domino, Ipse agit. Psalm). That is how Archbishop used to explain it. That worked  well often in my case. 

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