NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Earlier this year, Bishop J. Mark Spalding visited India to express his thanks and gratitude to the families and religious order superiors of the 11 Indian priests living and serving in the Diocese of Nashville.

“Since I’ve been bishop, every priest from India has invited me to go to their home country and experience India and see their Catholic homeland,” Spalding said. “Out of respect for their good work and service in the diocese, I made the decision to go.”

“I wanted to visit with the families of the priests serving in the Diocese of Nashville and thank them for their sharing of their son, their brother, their uncle,” the bishop told the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper.

He also wanted to visit with the superiors of the religious orders of the Indian priests in Nashville. Six of the priests are members of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, four are members of the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales, and one is a Franciscan.

“The presence of all our foreign-born priests allows us to do a lot of things in a lot of ministries,” Spalding said, including having them in the two diocesan high schools as well as serving as chaplains for various ministries and Catholic organizations, he said.

Spalding said he also “wanted to see Catholic India.”

His visit Jan. 15-29 took him to the state of Kerala, which has the largest Catholic population in India and is where St. Thomas the Apostle landed when he first brought Christianity to the country.

Catholics make up 2 percent of India’s total population, but 22 percent of the population in Kerala, explained Father Thomas Kalam, a Carmelite of Mary Immaculate, who is associate pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee. He helped Spalding arrange his itinerary for the trip and served as his guide.

Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable outreach efforts are considered among the best in India, the priest said, so the impact the Catholic Church has on Indian society far outstrips the number of Catholics, he explained.

“Even though they are a minority, it doesn’t mean their numbers are small,” Spalding noted. “India is just so large.”

“You get to see the many blessings the country has, but there’s also poverty there you can see as well,” he added.. “The church does a great deal to reach out through its education ministry and charitable ministries to help others.”

He called the Catholic Church in India “a very faith-filled community.”

“Because of their minority status, just like us here at the Diocese of Nashville, they have to be convinced of their faith and protect their faith and pass their faith on to their children,” he said. In the Nashville Diocese, Catholics number 76,140 out of a total population of 2.06 million.

Because of India’s strict laws against proselytizing in India, “the church has to be careful how it spreads the faith. It’s all done by soft evangelization,” Spalding said.

The bishop’s trip started with a visit to the tombs of St. Alphonsa and St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, who founded the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate and the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, which today is the largest order of women religious in the world, Kalam said.

The bishop also spent the day with the families of Indian priests serving in Nashville; they cruised the rivers of Kerala on a houseboat.

Each family was at a different table, and the bishop spent time with each “talking to them about their son or brother or uncle serving in the diocese and answered questions about the diocese,” he said.

Just as he finished with the last family, the boat pulled into the dock, he said. “It took me the whole time to meet with all of them.”

Also on the trip were the superiors for all the religious orders represented by the Indian priests.

During the rest of his time in India, the bishop met with bishops of the three Catholic rites in India — the Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar rites, of the Eastern Catholic Church, and the Latin rite.

He also visited several seminaries, including the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate seminary with 700 seminarians and the Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales seminary in the city of Bangalore, India, and the motherhouses of several orders of women religious.

Knowing the bishop’s interest in Catholic education, Kalam arranged visits to several Catholic schools, which ranged in size from 1,500 students to 5,000.

“Eighty percent of them are non-Christian,” attracted by the excellence of India’s Catholic schools, Kalam noted.

Spalding spoke at each school he visited and shared with them the same message he gives to Catholic school students in the Diocese of Nashville, reminding them of the blessing of Catholic education and how they should use that blessing to serve others.

The bishop’s last stop was St. John’s Medical College Hospital in Bangalore, a 1,300-bed teaching hospital where Kalam previously served as director.

The Church in India built the hospital, using funds from the U.S. government, to meet the dire shortage of doctors in the country, Kalam said. St. John’s still requires its graduates to serve in medically underserved areas of India for two years.

“It was very impressive how they reach out to the marginalized, most of whom are not Catholic,” Spalding said of the hospital. “You see how the truly wounded make their way to the hospital and know they will be cared for.”

Telli is managing editor of the Tennessee Register, newspaper of the Diocese of Nashville.

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