ROME – Dr. Thomas Panakezham, the first Indian Salesian to be provincial of Chennai and first Indian to serve on the SDB General Council in Rome from 1977 (70th year of SDB presence in India) is 80 years old and marks 60 years as Salesian and 50 years as priest, this year. Celebrations are scheduled for 3 July 2010 at Kristu Jyoti College Bangalore. He was 18 years General Councilor. Currently spiritual director at Viswadeep Centre for Catechetical studies in Bangalore, Fr P.C. Thomas talks to NewsGrab.
1) What were the major challenges of the region as you took over as the first Indian General Councilor from Asia?
I started as regional Councilor for Asia. For sometime I looked after also the countries of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and the Sudan).
The major challenges were: fidelity to Don Bosco and his tradition; better liaison between the centre and the periphery; a better understanding of the Asian situation, its variety of culture, language and especially religions. Feeling the need of togetherness among the provinces.
2) Could you share some major moments that brought you pride and overwhelming good will of Salesian family in the region and the world?
Meeting confreres and members of the Salesian Family much more often than before helped appreciate the charism of Don Bosco better. The Centre was not a distant nebulous reality known only through letters of some chosen people. Confreres and members of the Salesian Family felt that they were really part of a big family. Regional councilor was seen as a help and not a hindrance!
3) Do you remember how many new members of the Salesian Family, particularly from Asia were approved during your tenure?
Caritas Sisters of Myazaki (Japan) known today as Caritas Sisters of Jesus; Missionary Sisters of Mary Help of Christians (MSMHC), India; Sisters of Mary Immaculate (SMI), (India) and Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Thailand).
4) What would you say were your vision for Asia in 1977? How much of it was realized? How many provinces when you started and how many when you ended your term?
Asia had its own contribution to make to develop the charism of Don Bosco. India had to contribute its share and so some efforts were made through the conference of provincials, various centres of ongoing Formation, unity of intent and realization gradually developed. How far this became a concrete reality I am unable to say. Some national structures were in place for Ongoing formation as well as for the Salesian Brothers.
East Asia did not have a provincial conference then but an annual meeting of provincials brought a certain kind of unity of vision among them with regard to Formation, Youth Ministry and Salesian Family.
Mumbai province was divided from Chennai, then Bangalore from Chennai, Dimapur from Guwahati, Hyderabad from Bangalore and New Delhi from Kolkota.
5) How do you rate the mission progress and Salesian expansion of the region during your 18 year tenure?
The first great step towards missionary enterprise started when Indian provinces took up Project Africa. Today East Africa is a flourishing province. Slowly we entered Nepal and we had our presence in Yemen. Hesitant efforts were made to send confreres to certain places in Europe.
The Salesians entered into Papua New Guinea. Cautious beginning was made to start something in Mainland China. Also, Japan ventured into Solomon Islands
6) What is your take on the role of “Regional Councilors?” What would you envisage as their role? What kind of role would you assign them for today’s changed situation?
Not knowing the actual situation of the relationship with the provinces I would not venture to make any comment.
7) How do you see your 15 years as a regular confrere today, spending time in formation houses of Alua and VD Bangalore?
I must confess that I was mentally prepared for the change after 12 years as regional. So it was easy to pack up and work as an ordinary confrere. I think I find fulfillment in my vocation working in formation houses. Having only limited capacities the little I am able to do is a contribution.
Certain inevitable shortcomings due to age, lack of knowledge of the local languages and at times generation gap and smallness of mentality produce a kind of loneliness which is part of life. May the good Lord help me to spend the rest of my life for Him contentedly.
I can sincerely say that I have tangibly experienced God’s extravagance to me. May HIS NAME be praised for ever!