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Updated: April 15, 2012 19:20 IST

Ritual reminiscences

R.V. Smith
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Eastertide is an entire season of faith, explains R.V. Smith

Eastertide lasts for 40 days — a duration longer than Christmastide, which ends with Twelfth Night. It's only with the feast of Pentecost or Whit Sunday that the Church bids goodbye to Easter. But three ceremonies associated with it revive memories — the making of holy oil, the blessing of fire and the making of holy water. The oil is sanctified at the chrismal mass in the beginning of the week after Palm Sunday. But earlier in the Delhi and its mother archdiocese of Agra, this ceremony took place on Maundy Thursday, though buns and not Maundy pennies were distributed on that day. The oil is used in the new Ecclesiastical year for anointing the faithful, including infants, the sick and dying. For the latter it is termed extreme unction.

One remembers that during the days when Delhi too was administered by the Italian priests, Maundy Thursday was the occasion when the bishops of all the dioceses under Archbishop Vanni came to collect holy oil. But before that the cathedral witnessed one of its most colourful rituals. The Archbishop sat on his ceremonial chair in front of the high altar, made in Rome and presented by Messrs John & Company. Priests from nearby areas took part in the Gregorian Chant, which sounded just as sweet as the Sanskrit shlokas and reminded one that Latin and Sanskrit were part of the same linguistic root.

The chanting priests were Italians, Anglo-Indians, Irish and Indians, among whom the voice of Fr Adeodatus was the most striking and easily recognisable. This saintly priest, who preferred to live like a rustic (with the gaonwala haircut) was based in Sardhana later, where after a long stint as in-charge of Begum Sumroo's church, he was murdered one night by robbers. His grave is situated near the church and highly venerated. Among the other priests, there was Fr Leo, also an Italian, the haftzaban padre, who knew several languages including Pashto as he had lived and worked in Kabul. Unfortunately Fr Leo also (born 1894) was murdered at the age of 73 in Mussoorie by a boy who worked for him. Then there was the handsome Fr Gabriel, the tall, silent sola topee-wearing Fr Bonaventure, in charge of Gwalior church parish, the elfin Fr Daniel, the Urdu-loving Fr Anthony Pyarelal, the Ven. Fr Luke, builder of Sacred Heart Cathedral, the aristocratic Fr Sinha and the graceful Monsignor Burke, along with the M.C., Fr Lawrance, OFM.

Among the bishops, besides the one from Delhi, there were the ones of Allahabad, Lucknow and other places, at least three of whom were Italians. The Bishop of Lucknow was short and fat and still stands out in memory. During the holy oil rituals the bishops had to approach the Archbishop's chair, bowing and genuflecting several times to the chant of “Ave Santus Christna (which to schoolboys sounded like Krishna). Now in the Delhi Archdiocese the chrism (holy oil) mass is held on Tuesday (after Palm Sunday) when all the suffragan bishops of the Archdiocese congregate under Archbishop Vincent M. Concasso. Being a chip off the old block, the Archbishop continues to preside with old-world charm over the blessing of the fire at the Easter vigil mass and the making of holy water.

One misses the bishops of old (some of them buried under the church altar donated by Anthony D' Mello) though, and their distinctive voices —the thin, piercing one of the prelate of Lucknow, and the baritone of Fr Adeodatus. But new voices are heard and when they pass into memory they too will sound just as sweet.

While Eastertide lasts don't forget to collect some holy water. People of different faiths take a bottleful of it. Most ostensibly to ward off evil spirits. Others however await the visit of a priest for the annual blessing of houses. One old spinster who had an obsessive fear of vampires used to literally drag her parish priest to all the rooms of her sprawling house, and also to the terrace from where she thought the vampires came. But now she rests peacefully in Nicholson cemetery, outside Kashmere Gate.

Keywords: Easter

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