Archbishop Richard Smith, Indian clergy and delighted parishioners enjoy a peaceful stroll during the archbishop's recent visit to India.

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Archbishop Richard Smith, Indian clergy and delighted parishioners enjoy a peaceful stroll during the archbishop's recent visit to India.

February 8, 2016
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

He loved the country and the people, but couldn't stand the traffic.

"My worst experience had to be the traffic," Archbishop Richard Smith recalls of his recent tour of southern India.

"To be in the middle of it is an experience. You are flying along a highway at breakneck speed and they are coming at you from the opposite direction and there is everything on the road.

"There are buses, there are transport trucks, there are scooters, there are motorcycles, there are cars, there are pedestrians, there are dogs, there are cattle that you have to drive around and even elephants.

"I remember driving on one road and a man was out walking his elephant along that road."

The archbishop said to be in that traffic helped deepen his prayer life. "I won't forget that anytime soon."

Smith spent nearly three weeks visiting religious communities and dioceses in the southern India states of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Tamil Nadu. He returned home Jan. 26.

About 20 priests from those states currently serve in the Edmonton Archdiocese, and the archbishop wanted to personally thank their superiors and get a better sense of the ecclesial and cultural background of the Indian priests serving here.

"This has been in the planning for quite some time," he said. "It's a sacrifice very often for these religious communities to give up a priest because often they would give some of their best, most qualified priests to serve elsewhere. So I wanted to say 'thank you' to them for their generosity."

Smith visited the leaders of five religious communities and one diocese that have sent priests here, including the CFIC, the Pallottines, the Missionaries of St. Thomas, the Salesians and the Franciscans.

He was also a guest of the Archdiocese of Trivandrum, a diocese of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. One priest from that Eastern rite Church serves as a hospital chaplain in Edmonton.

While in India, Smith also renewed some contracts and strengthened the relations with religious communities.

"It was a tightly-packed schedule with a lot of public commitments. But the welcome I received was extraordinary," he said.

"The people of India are known around the world for the hospitality that they extend to guests and I experienced that firsthand."

The priests who hosted his visit showed him everything that he would want to know about their religious communities and dioceses, he said. "The exposure that they gave to me was everything that I looked for and more."

Smith said each of the religious communities he met "is deeply engaged in all kinds of apostolic work to people who live on the peripheries."

INDIA'S CHALLENGES

"The needs and the challenges in India are enormous, really. They have a population of well over a billion people, and it's obviously very easy for people to be forgotten and left on the sidelines."

The Church in India is vibrant, he said. "The people have a very devout spirit. It's estimated that about 90 per cent of the people fully participate in the life of the Church.

"The parishes, the shrines are all full, they are all busy. It's not at all unusual to have daily Mass at six in the morning because people work long days, and they want to go to Eucharist before they go to work."

Some shrines have Mass every hour. "Some of them start Mass at 4:30 in the morning to accommodate the crowds, and they are all full and they are all busy."

The apostolic outreach of the religious communities is edifying, according to Smith. They took him to various sites where they care for lepers, children infected with HIV/AIDS, young boys just out of jail and street children.

"If it weren't for these religious communities these people would be out on the street begging; that's very, very clear," he said.

"As I went around these places I just kept thinking about Pope Francis and the call to the Church to be missionaries to the peripheries and that's exactly where (these religious communities) are - on the peripheries."

The Church in India is also deeply engaged in education and health care, having a powerful impact on society. In their schools, they offer Catholic education not only to Catholic children, but also to children of other religions, Smith said.

VOCATIONS THRIVING

All religious communities appear to be doing well in terms of vocations. The main reason for that is people seem to have "a real spirit of devotion and of reverence for God and the importance of God and the importance of the Church in their lives," explained the archbishop.

"People are not afraid to encourage one another to embrace a religious vocation because they instinctively understand the beauty of it and the importance of it."

During his tour, Smith also learned of the cordial relationship among different faiths in the south of India. "In fact it's not at all unusual when you go to the Catholic shrines to see people of Hindu background come and pay their respect."

Christian persecution exists in parts of India, but that tends to be in the north of the country.

"The South has a lot to teach the rest of India, and I think a lot to teach the world about the possibility of different religions being able to work together, live side by side and just honour one another."