By Jordan Grantham, Catholic Outlook, November 2016
Father Robert William is Chaplain to the vibrant Tamil Catholic community in the Diocese of Parramatta, which includes Tamils from Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of the world.
Fr Robert is Assistant Priest at St John XXIII Parish, Glenwood-Stanhope Gardens, and celebrates the Tamil Mass on the last Sunday of every month at Sacred Heart Church, Westmead.
The Tamil people are an ancient ethnic group, with roots in India and Sri Lanka. The Tamil empire was powerful and influenced much of South-East Asian culture. Tamil is its own distinct language, with ancient and modern literature.
With the colonial expansion of Portugal, Christianity came into the Tamil country. St Thomas the Apostle, St Francis Xavier, Fr Robert de Nobili SJ and St John de Britto MEP contributed significantly at the early stage. They are the key evangelisers of the Tamil people, which developed a distinct cultural expression of Catholicism.
Beschi (Veeramamunivar in Tamil) is the name of a key Jesuit missionary priest who awakened a new sense of pride and dignity in the Catholic Church in Tamilnadu. Beschi was a renowned poet, scholar and an apologist for the Catholic Church in the Tamil language.
Tamil Catholicism is growing in the Diocese of Parramatta, with multiple annual events. Marian devotion is demonstrated in spectacular style at the Tamil celebration of Mother Mary’s birthday. The Tamil chaplaincy prays and feasts on the first Sunday after the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, on 8 September.
This is held each year at Mt Schoenstatt in Mulgoa where almost 1000 people gather for the day. On the same day after the Mass, the Mt Schoenstatt’s image of Mary Thrice Admirable is placed on a float and decorated with colourful floral arrangements.
Women wear the sari and men dress formally. A group bears the float for each decade of the rosary, prayed by the gathered crowds. After each decade, rosaries are held to the image of the Mother Thrice Admirable and all sing the Lourdes Hymn. People with special intentions carry the image and offer the service as prayerful sacrifice with their prayers.
Families bring their favourite dish to share and celebrate from early afternoon until the evening. Devotion to Mother Mary is important to Tamil families. “This helps the children to grow in faith and love,” Fr Robert explained.
Pilgrimage to Mother Mary is given special emphasis in Tamil culture. The shrines of Our Lady of Velankami (India) and Our Lady of Madhu (Sri Lanka) receive millions of pilgrims annually. “This is a massive feast day for Tamils,” Fr Robert said.
St Mary’s Basilica in Bangalore is famous for celebrations of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, over a nine-day novena and festival. Tamils and kanadigas mostly attend this celebration.
More than 1000 gather for Tamil midnight Mass on New Year’s Eve at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Parramatta. “People wish to receive abundant blessings of our Lord on the very first day of the New Year,” Fr Robert said.
The Tamil Family Day celebration is on the first Sunday of December at Mt Schoenstatt. Love and prayer within the family are emphasised. “The faith starts from the family,” Fr Robert explained.
Every couple attending the Family Day Mass publicly renews their vows.
A pilgrimage to Berrima is organised during Lent. “We observe penance, including a passion play of Our Lord’s final moments on earth,” Fr Robert said. “I see the sincerity of the Tamils and the faith of the families. Faith and family are the pillars of the Tamil community.”
The community’s special devotion to Mother Mary and respect for mothers go hand in hand. “In Tamil culture, mothers play an important role,” Fr Robert said.