Sunday, October 02, 2016

Xaverian missionary goes from Goa to the Andamans to spread the joy of the Gospel

Fr Pritam Toppo belongs to the Society of the Missionaries of Saint Francis Xavier, and has been working in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for years, bringing the joy of the Gospel to some of India’s remotest communities.
His tasks come with many challenges, ranging from encounters with tribesmen armed with bows and arrows to centipede crawling on his body at the night as he slept in huts.

As soon as he was ordained in Goa, headquarters of the Society, the new priest left for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian Territory in the Bay of Bengal. Here, his mission has been full of challenges. Yet, all these experiences, he told AsiaNews, have enhanced his “joy and faith in Jesus Christ".

Fr Toppo teaches and provides pastoral outreach to the local population. His first destination was the parish of Campbell Bay in Great Nicobar, the island on the southern part of the archipelago, a territory of some 572 islands, islets and rocks. Here the missionary concelebrated Mass, and served as pastoral guide for youth and children.

He was later assigned to the regional house of the congregation in the territorial capital, Port Blair, where he was in charge of the administration as well as the kindergarten.

Now, on his third assignment, he serves the Rangat parish, on Smith Island, north-central part of the archipelago.

From the start, the "mission was very tough,” he said, because of “limited means of transport”. There were “no jeeps, no autos, [. . .] only state transport services”. Even those were limited. Sometimes if one “vehicle breaks down, there are no other buses to replace it”. 

When this happens, “we had to cancel Masses without informing the village heads as there were no telephone services in the village.”

The mission is still at its beginning and has to be built up. The local population is mainly aboriginal.  

"One day we were going to a village far from the parish to celebrate mass. I was with nuns. Since there was no approach road, one had to walk seven or eight miles to reach that particular village. One had to go through the deep forest and cross many streams, rivers and wet ground soaked with rain water. There were leeches to suck our blood.”

“On that particular day, in the middle of the journey in the deep forest, we encountered a primitive hostile tribe, called Jarawas. They were 15, equipped with bows and arrows. Immediately seeing them, I asked the nuns to remove their veils and hide under a big tree. I too took shelter under a big tree. We were lucky that they went on their way doing no harm to us. Then we came out from our hiding pace and once again gathered our courage and with great fear reached our destination.”

Compared to a world that is technologically driven, time seems to have stopped here. Often the missionary manages to reach the remotest villages to say Mass only once a month. This is the case of the area inhabited mainly by Catholics from the Oncnochers tribe.

The local church “is built of forest products with bamboo thatched roof. When visiting, Fr Toppo stays overnight. The village has no electric light and everything is done with lit candles.

During his stays, he holds catechism classes for children, chairs meetings to discuss the universal Church and resolve issues related to marriage and baptism. The meetings can last until 11 pm, followed by supper together.

Then "we spend the night sleeping on mats on the floor. During the night we are aware of snakes and centipedes, which are very common in the forest. Many times I found snakes hanging over my bed from the ceiling, as well as centipedes crawling over my body. But these are experiences that enhance the joy and faith in Jesus Christ.

In addition to pastoral outreach to Catholics, he also visits Hindus, Muslims and animists and they celebrate together the feast of their respective religious traditions.

The archipelago is like a mini India. “All people participate with solidarity in all the joys and sorrow of each other irrespective of caste, creed and languages.”

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