Vatican City - Fr Shanti, a PIME missionary, is secretary of the Commission for the laity and young people in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In recent weeks, the priest took part in the meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the World Youth Day (WYD) in Rio de Janeiro, in 2013. The meetings took place around Palm Sunday, which coincided with the 28th edition of World Youth Day, celebrated this time at the local level. On this occasion, Fr. Shanti had a conversation with AsiaNews. Here is what he said:
I was born in 1965 in
Kerala, and I attended a Catholic school, where I was presented with many
saints of the Church. At
12 years of age I strongly felt the desire to be like Francis of Assisi, with
his love for the poor, the lepers, a simple life, a lover of creation.
At one point a priest came for a vocational call. One of the administrators of the school, a Hindu, told this priest that she thought I was the right person to be guided into the priesthood. She said I was helping my classmates, I was very calm, joyful.
I made contact with my parish and the seminary, but I thought it was better not to hurry and I took my time. After high school I enrolled at university to study psychology. Eventually I asked my bishop what to do and where to become a priest. He advised me to study in Pune (Maharashtra), where there are many theological faculties. For another opinion, I went to Calcutta to see Mother Teresa, whom I already knew. The mother comforted me in my choice and I said: "I will help you forever."
In Pune I found PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions) and was impressed by the simple and radical missionary fathers who are present there. So I joined the PIME. I studied in Italy and the Philippines and in '99 I was ordained, two years after the death of Mother Teresa. Mother told me: "If I am on earth, I will pray for you. If I am in heaven, I will help" so I decided to be ordained in the mother house of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, through the hands of Mgr. Henry D'Souza.
The year after I was destined to Papua New Guinea, the first PIME mission, marked by the blood of its first martyr, Blessed John Mazzucconi.
The mission in Papua is wonderful, the place is my second home. I lead a few missions until I moved to Alotau, where I am in charge of youth formation for young people between 14 and 25. I am very pleased with this work, which includes over 2400 young people, but scattered over a vast territory and on several islands with dozens of parishes.
With young people I hold catechism classes, but also pay attention to their personal and professional growth.
Of all the young people of Papua, only 3-4% manage to go to college. The others often find themselves without a job, no prospects, abandoned in their villages, at enormous distances from the capital. Almost the same percentage of those young people who are connected with the life of faith and the parish, and who are open to the practice of faith.
I had to do something. It needed to do it in their situations. The distances are too great and travel costs too high. So I prepared youth movement leaders in each village or parish who provide an educational proposal to the youth of the area. And I visited all these parishes as soon as a stable group formed.
Since 2008, after World Youth Day in Sydney (see photo), the bishops entrusted me with this responsibility for young people throughout the Solomon Islands and Papua: 21 dioceses in all to visit and work to organize catechesis. In every diocese there are thousands of young people and a few dozen priests. So I organized a program of comprehensive education: spiritual, psychological, intellectual, pastoral and social. I have prepared some guidelines for leaders of the various dioceses and the young people gather in the parish at least once a week.
Papua is a country that could be described as rather primitive, basic, where the culture of the village and the tribe is often the sole focus. But now there is also the culture of globalization with computers, mobile phones, internet ... All these gadgets give a false hope of power, filling peoples' lives with material things, they mask the need for love and relationships, leaving young people without hope. Even families in search only of material wealth, are likely to divide. In addition, for a number of years now, the scourge of drugs and especially marijuana is spreading, with cultivation of "grass" in almost every garden.
The frustration of young people who go to school and then return to the village is likely to drive them to drugs, alcohol, premarital and extramarital relations. With the help of some NGOs we have initiated programs for single mothers and street children, for formation and social integration.
At first the young people seem suspicious of us, they watch us, study us, but then, when they realize that we only want their own good, they are open and begin to work together. They realize that these training programs lead them to discover new things, to improve their lives, increase their human and economic development.
Once a street kid came into my office - perhaps to steal. He discovered that I was there and asked me: Do you not have something to give me? I asked: Who are you? He told me he was called Joshua, his mother died years earlier and his father remarried, but he feels unwanted by his stepmother and ran away from home, living by his wits.
I promised him I would help him to study to university level if he returned to school. He decided to do so, and now, at age 26, he has now graduated and is moved every time think about the fact that he was a street kid and now has a profession and an important job in society.
It is also important for girls to attend school, to learn cooking or sewing. This teaches them a trade and frees them from blackmail within the village, from subjugation to males.
For many of these young people the most important event of last year was the World Youth Day in Madrid. Despite being a very long (and expensive) trip we were able to send fifty of them. They came back all excited. Even for them - as for Pope Benedict XVI - the highlights of Madrid were the experience of brotherhood with people whom they did not even know and especially the silence of Eucharistic adoration on the esplanade of the airport Cuatro Vientos.
The great thing is that now they have brought Eucharistic worship even to their parishes, where adoration takes place every week.
Their experience is attracting the interest of other young people who want to go to WYD in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. A few weeks ago I met with the Committee for the World Youth Day in Rome and I explained that young people of Papua and the Solomon Islands would like to participate, but their poverty and high prices of airline tickets means their dream may not come true. Card. Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and other board members have assured me that our young people can be helped. For the young people of Papua, job prospects and the chance to earn some money is very difficult because there is no work here. However, many of them are making efforts to collect and cover at least half the costs. We, too, PIME missionaries are working to raise funds to enable these young people to go and experience WYD in Rio de Janeiro.