Special to the Intermountain Catholic
Kolkata, West Bengal, India
As a seminarian studying in Rome for the Diocese of Salt Lake City, I had the opportunity to work alongside the Missionaries of Charity for a month this summer. After completing my first year in theology, I wanted an experience that would be of radical service in a foreign land. While praying about my decision, I attended Mass, and in one of the readings I heard, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink.” I immediately made the connection with Mother Teresa (St. Teresa of Kolkata) serving the poor, and began the application process to work alongside the Missionaries of Charity. On July 28, I departed for a month-long term of service in India.
Kolkata was unlike anything I had ever experienced. In the morning I would be awakened by the Muslim call to prayer, where undulating chants blast out of speakers mounted atop mosques and reverberate through the Muslim neighborhood where I stayed. One day the 20-minute walk to get to morning Mass allowed me to experience Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, a worldwide Islamic holiday that celebrates Abraham’s willingness to obey God’s command to sacrifice Isaac. During the two-day celebration, bulls are sacrificed in back alleys; moments before the knife beheaded the bull I would hear “Allahu Akbar,” a prayer or informal expression of faith meaning “God is the greatest.” On top of the usual smells of decaying garbage piled along the streets and the stench of urine from the unwashed stalls on the sidewalk came the odor of hanging meat on a hot day. Even first thing in the morning the heat and humidity caused me to break into a sweat as I avoided stepping on bull’s ears, feces or dead rats that had been run over by motorcycles.
Shortly after the festival, three days of heavy rain caused the streets to flood. Swirling gray water that reached up to my knees covered all the decaying matter on the streets and sidewalks. This was the mess and the filth that God Himself chose to partake in because He loves us. God took on flesh and experienced the grit and grime of my daily life; He experienced suffering out of love. His love has been so great for me that my only answer is to return that love back to Him. In Kolkata I wanted to return that love back to Him as well as share it with others.
“I was sick and you visited me.”
There are many good reasons I and five other seminarians from across the United States embarked on a month-long trip to Kolkata to do missionary work. One of these reasons I learned the first day I arrived. Mother Teresa wanted future priests to serve the poor because when we are serving the poor we are also learning how to say the Mass. I learned how to handle Jesus in the poor as I will one day handle the same Jesus in the Eucharist.
Every morning I would ride the bus 30 minutes to work at Mother Teresa’s first house, Nirmal Hriday (Sacred Heart), a home for the dying who are destitute. The house was full of about 50 men and 50 women who had been picked up from the streets and agreed to the care of the Sisters, Brothers and volunteers. The building was relatively small; a hall with tables and chairs served as the laundry room, dining room, gathering room and hospital room.
Our first task in the morning was washing clothes. Four stations were set up, and as clothes moved from one stage to the other the water would become more gray and my hands up to my elbows would become sticky and gritty.
During my four weeks in Calcutta, I was only interrupted twice while washing clothes. The first one was when I was asked to shower a man who had soiled himself. I thought, “That’s fine; I’ve worked at a nursing home before.”
The man and I didn’t speak the same language, but I was able to wash and dry him with a gaze of love that invoked in reply a look of gratitude that said everything.
The second time I was taken away from washing clothes was to carry what at first impression looked like cans of food wrapped up under a blanket. Then the sister bent down to kiss the woman’s still feet and asked me to take the stretcher to a waiting room. I had never before carried a dead body, yet I was inexplicably calm; I felt at peace because the woman I was carrying was at peace. In fact, the waiting room where we took her had a sign saying, “Today I’m going to see the Lord.”
At Nirmal Hriday, I had to learn how to see Christ in the man with no stomach because he attempted to commit suicide by drinking acid – I needed to massage him so he could get some peace; I had to see Christ in the man with a head wound for which I needed to fold gauze; I got to see Christ in the man with incontinence whom I needed to shower and dry; I saw Christ in the man who had scurvy, and whose teeth I had to brush.
“‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor.’ … When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful.”
The daily routine was so difficult that not a day went by that I didn’t think about the comforts from back home. After bathing residents from a bucket, I would come home to bathe myself from a bucket. After washing clothes and bedding by hand at Nirmal Hriday, I would spend my days off washing my own clothes by hand. After taking care of those who had limited mobility, my seminarian brothers would have to stretch me every morning after straining my back from lifting and carrying others. One evening I came in from the inundated, trash-ridden streets, back aching, and attended Holy Hour. The chapel shone like gold. During Adoration I couldn’t exhaust the joy and treasure from being in the presence of Jesus. I was one of the richest people in the world, I realized, because my happiness and richness come only from Christ.
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The afternoons working at the Daya Dan orphanage brought heartache and joy. The majority of the 34 boys there were confined to wheelchairs and were expressionless – they had mental disabilities and it was hard to communicate with them without knowing Bengali or Hindi. It was crushing to spend 15 minutes without success to get a smile out of the kids. It was frustrating seeing the kids unable to swallow the food even though they tried so hard. But then there were moments of laughter, of empty plates, of singing and dancing. At the end of the day a volunteer turned to me and said, “No wonder some don’t believe in God; there is so much suffering in the world.”
I saw it differently, and replied, “Actually, the proof for God’s existence is in the Missionaries of Charity sisters and volunteers. They wouldn’t do this if God didn’t instruct them. Jesus is truly present in them.”
Looking back at my time in Calcutta, I can’t help but see God’s providence. When I entered the seminary three years ago, I asked to be conformed to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and I began a devotion on the first Friday of each month. In India I found myself having lived inside the Sacred Heart, Nirmal Hriday House, for four weeks. To be in constant service to the residents by feeding them, washing them, accompanying them while at the same time overcoming obstacles such as feelings of awkwardness and disgust, and my own inadequacies, taught me to grow in resolution. This meekness, that is, being able to endure challenges yet never losing sight of the goal, will not only serve me as a seminarian as I move toward the priesthood, but will form my service as a priest.
“Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make my heart like unto Thine. O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for me.”
Oscar Marquina is a seminarian for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.