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A catechist of catechesis speaks about the quintessence of the mission

“The Church of God is universal; she is not alien to any people,” wrote Pope Benedict XV. Catechism and catechesis must change accordingly.

A catechist of catechesis speaks about the quintessence of the mission

By Joe Palathunkal

30 November 2019 is the centenary of Maximum Illud that changed the concept of Catholic missionary objective and the very definition of a missionary. In the encyclical Pope Benedict XV clarified “that momentous and holy charge" entrusted to his disciples by Jesus on his ascension is essentially and basically evangelical in nature excluding none.  

“The Church of God is universal; she is not alien to any people,” the pope wrote. Catechism and catechesis must change accordingly. There is nobody to speak about this than the tall and genial Salesian priest Dr. Joy Pulikan, a great theology professor who has been dealing with it for years.

My encounter with him was rather fortuitous when he came to speak in an international seminar on catechesis attended by representatives from four continents – North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.

During his talk he often referred to a weasel thought from the prologue of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 11 October 1992 on the 30th anniversary of the opening of the epoch making Vatican Council II inaugurated by Pope John XXIII with these memorable words Mother Church rejoices.

For Joy Pulikan, the most towering pedagogue of catechesis in the Indian Catholic Church the quote is the quintessence of everything that is Catholic: Quite early on, the name catechesis was given to the totality of the Church's efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ.

For this Salesian born in 1955 at Edathiruthi, Trichur, Kerala to Kochuvaru and Kunjala, the most appealing phrase in the quote is the totality of the Church’s efforts and he often referred to it saying “Remember it is the totality which means a lot”. He went on explicating the implications of it for a missionary church.

In a freewheeling conversation he spoke of how he got into this field quite by chance. Perhaps his “tall and appealing physique prompted the provincial superior to assign him to the youth ministry”, a historical mandate of the Salesians of Don Bosco to form “upright citizens and good Christians”.

Ordained a Catholic priest on 27 December 1984 on the feast day of Saint John the Evangelist, his future was forecast when provincial told him “to teach others how to teach catechism” and Pulikan who has been with the youth ministry all these years of his formation found it a natural sequel.

Consequently, after a gap of two years 1986 saw him in Rome doing Master of Theology with Licentiate specializing in catechetics and youth ministry and he completed it in flying colours and his future course was put on firm ground – he would be a pedagogue of the catechesis to implant it in the hearts and minds of others through an effective pedagogy.

Next assignment was precisely for that – taking charge of the Vishwadeep institute of youth ministry and catechetical training in Bangalore, south India and later as professor of theology at Salesians’ Khristu Jyoti College at Krishnarajapuram, Bangalore.

And this changed everything for this catechist of the Catechetics and formed the minds and hearts of several of his priesthood students to be able educators and trainers of catechists all over India and even south Asia. Being the first professor in this discipline at Khristu Jyoti, some of the leading Catholic priests of India who are well equipped to train others in the field are all his students and proudly he rattles of a couple of names: “Stephen Alathara, Duming Gonsalves, Santhosh Jude, all were my students.”

After a stint of six years at Khristu Jyoti, to further deepen his knowledge in the field, his superiors asked him to do a doctorate in the subject and in 1992 he was again in Rome doing his research in Catechetics and youth ministry.

With certain pride he spoke about his teacher who took him through the process: “Prof. Guido Gatti, PhD, SDB, was my guide. He was a moral theologian and he had preached a retreat to the Holy Father John Paul II who is a saint today.”

Along with Gatti, Joy Pulikan was fortunate to have great giants to guide him through. He specially made a mention about another one: “The second guide was Prof. Ubaldo Gianetto, PhD, SDB, who was also my Licentiate (Masters and M. Phil) guide.”

Others who guided him through the doctorate were Dr. Luis Gallo, SDB and Dr. Angelo Amatti, SDB. About the latter he makes a significant allusion: “He became Cardinal for the cause of the saints and he had come to India for the beatification of Bl. Rani Maria in Indore.” About all his guides Pulikan compliments: “They were like war veterans.”

After defending his doctoral thesis “A Study on James William Fowler’s concept of faith development and the stages of faith” on 23 January 1995, he came to India on 31 March 1995 with a great sense of satisfaction. “I was awarded summa cum laude the highest and full mark 30/30 and received the gold medal of the university,” recalls Pulikan. The thesis was published under the title “Faith and Stages of Faith”.

Now his job well-defined after his return from Rome Joy Pulikan got fully immersed into the teaching of Catechetics and guiding research students in the field enabling them to do doctorate and several of them have taken doctorate under his penetrating eyes. “I am very strict with my students and no compromise on quality,” asserts he with certain firmness.

Though he says so, given his sober nature and ever smiling countenance one is reminded of what Don Bosco said: “If one is to do good, he must have a little courage, be ready for sacrifice, deal affably with all and never slight anybody. By following this method I have always had significant success, in fact, marvelous success.”

True to his Salesian spirit, affable is Joy Pulikan indeed! A man fully involved in catechism and catechesis, he is very much concerned about the catechism teachers of India: “See, most of them are women. Sunday is the only day they get to spend with their family and cook something special for their children. So the two hours they spend teaching catechism in the parish is indeed a big sacrifice.”

He has a suggestion to reciprocate for their service. Since most of them come from a lot of economic constraints, it is high time that they should be paid for their services: “Do not theologize their voluntary service but pay them and if some of them do not want the pay they can return the amount to the parish church,” says this professor of Catechetics with three decades of teaching experience and a reservoir of insights gleaned from observations of issues faced by people in accordance with what Vatican II says: “The bishops should present Christian doctrine in a manner adapted to the needs of the times, that is to say, in a manner corresponding to the difficulties and problems by which people are most vexatiously burdened and troubled.”

Professor Joy Pulikan feels when we relate these vexatious problems of people to Biblical themes, preaching or teaching of catechism, then only they will become appealing to the listener: “You need to connect your subject to a life experience, a concrete incident. For this keep newspaper clippings of real happenings in life situations.”

Every pedagogue of the Word must bear this in mind. This professor of theology is also in charge of a very rich library in India at Khristu Jyoti and the most outstanding feature of this large repository of books is the unusual collection of the varieties of the Bible which may number four hundred and more. For Joy Pulikan SDB totally committed to the theology of Catechetics and catechism, these Bibles appear to be a corollary of all that he has been doing all these years.

What stands out is his style of teaching or guiding his doctorate students, a style that engenders desire in the listener to know more and discover more; even a short homily by him creates an interest in the listener. Perhaps he is implicitly demonstrating the pedagogy of desire that mobilizes creative and pleasurable forces within teaching and learning environments.

Whatever it may be, in this centenary year of Maximum Illud, Father Doctor Joy Pulikan SDB stands out as a teacher of Catechetics who has ignited a desire to learn about the Word, Catholic faith and to impart it in an effective way. He has awakened Indian church to the urgent need of making catechism teaching an all India priority. His numerous students are involved in this awakening process in every nook and corner of India. That could be a self-actualizing thought for this great professor and custodian of a Himalayan store of books.

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

(Photo Credits: Wikipedia, Unsplash)

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