Centenarian Father Pariza dies: Ordinary people’s extraordinary missionary

Meeting Jesuit priest Lopez De Pariza was just a chance. And I felt blessed like never before. As I climbed the third floor of the Jesuit Residence, Pariza’s room was distinctly visible. A sizeably big portrait of the priest along with his most valuable treasure — a bicycle

Centenarian Father Pariza dies: Ordinary people’s extraordinary missionary

By Binu Alexander
Death of Fr. Pariza, who can be easily called a man of Kheda from Spain, brings back to me quite a few memorable memories of an interview I had with him.

Unusually a heat wave made an unpleasant entry to the western Indian state of Gujarat exactly on the day I made up my mind to meet a few clergy at Anand for some official work. Since I left active reporting in 2006, I had not been to this place. Out of the two major sources of my stories from this region, one was a legend called Dr. Varghese Kurien — founder of Milk revolution in India — now fondly called Amul. The other was my interest in Christians in this region — the first area in Gujarat where Christianity emerged a century back.

But meeting Jesuit priest Lopez De Pariza was just a chance. And I felt blessed like never before. As I climbed the third floor of the Jesuit Residence, Pariza’s room was distinctly visible. A sizeably big portrait of the priest along with his most valuable treasure — a bicycle — was hanging on one of the doors. I am talking about a priest from Spain who came to India in 1951 and on May 13 this year, he completes 100 years of his life. And the fellow priests and parish members say they will leave no stone unturned to ensure a programme to mark his centenary is a grand gala one.

My name is Lopez and I am hundred not out, I could not make out initially that this was what he told me when I introduced myself. But his caretaker repeated it in Gujarati. He was speaking Spanish, he told me.

Among the 12 Jesuits at the residence, Bro. Saul Abril is the closest to Father Pariza. Abril is a fellow Spaniard and just 14 years younger to him. They can speak both Gujarati and Spanish with the same fluency. Abril’s brother, a Cardinal, was the Nuncio to the country where Pope Francis came from before he became the supreme Catholic leader.

But more than that, Bro. Abril is happy that Pariza centenary will coincide with Pope Francis’s visit to the Fatima shrine in Portugal on centenary of the date when three shepherd children said the Virgin Mary first appeared to them above an olive tree. The same day when Pope Francis plans to offer a midnight mass at a small farming town, parishioners back in this small sleepy milk capital of India will also have someone they will cherish to be part of their life — not one but two or three generations.

Locals say they can vouch for the sharp memory of Father Pariza even today. He remembers three generations of every member of the parish — nearly 5000 families — by their first name.

Though the Jesuit priest has fought age head on, he had few falls late last year which led him to a partial memory loss. A reason why his portrait is on the door so that he could identify his room each time he walks along the veranda. Samuel Jivabhai Christian is his shadow — a caretaker — who has been with him since 1994. Samuel is just a backup. Every morning the priest reaches the library for his routine newspaper reading. And the day I met him, he was upset at a news item he read from the newspaper.

He was complaining how anyone could dictate what to wear or where to go. He was actually responding to a news item that two young girls weren’t allowed to board a United Airlines flight because they were wearing leggings. But Samuel — to whom he was airing his grievance — had no idea about the event — at least not as fast as the priest had. “I normally read vernacular newspapers and that too by evening,” he defended his ignorance on the subject.

How did a young energetic sibling of a nurse and a school teacher reach this remote area?
Well, he was born in Bilbao, the capital city of Biscay, a province of Spain located just south of the Bay of Biscay. Spain being the land of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Founder of the Jesuits, it means a lot for this centenarian Jesuit to hail from this historic cradle of Catholicism. He grew up to become an industrial engineer but joined the Jesuits to become a priest in 1933. He became witness to 1936 Spanish Revolution when he was in Belgium to learn Latin. Nearly eight million people participated directly or at least indirectly in the Spanish Revolution fought for realizing the ideal of the free stateless society. But in less than nine months, it was crushed. After attaining priesthood, the first preference of Father Pariza was to go to either Japan or China. But he was instead deputed to India. He arrived in Mumbai port exactly on the same day one year after India was declared a republic — 26 January, 1951. Since then he has been in and around the Kheda regions of Gujarat serving in various capacities.

Jayesh Macwan is an electrician at Gamdi area of Anand. The 40 year old Catholic says he can still recollect how Pariza used to roam around in his traditional Indian bicycle and pray for any occasions any time of the day. “I remember once I was sipping a cup of tea early in the morning and suddenly I saw the priest in front of me. He told me he was on his way to the Church after offering a mass at one of his neighbours’ home. I didn’t realise till then that my neighbour was seriously ill until Father Pariza told me. Such was his network and dedication to people out here,” he gasped his breath. Do you normally speak with such speed, I asked him. Not as much as Pariza speaks, he quipped in. Standing next to him was a Millenial child — Vishal Macwan — who nodded in agreement.

Reporting from a region where 80% of Catholics have “Macwan” second name is the toughest challenge I have faced. The rest 20% have “Christian” as their second name. My editors would get confused and get back to me with weird questions. I remember having met four Joseph Macwan during one trip and when I referred to the notes in the evening, I scratched my head. So much so, I didn’t use all the four in my stories to avoid confusion to the readers.

The cook at the Jesuit residence was preparing lunch as Bro. Abril invited me for a cup of tea — my fifth cup since morning. Wearing a colourful apron and visibly happy, she cleaned cauliflower, tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. Some of these will be cut and boiled for Father Pariza. “He has a good appetite. He eats well and likes good food but as usual we all avoid spicy food. She knows that,” Brother Abril cleared my confusion before I could ask the diet plan for the special person I was here to meet.

The temperature unusually soared to 43 degree and it was time for us to make a retreat. But Father Lopez De Pariza was still glued to the newspaper — now reading the sports page — most probably sensing an Indian victory over the Aussies in the test match decider at Dharamshala.

And on 20 June 2019 when Fr. Pariza Jose Maria De Lopez SJ breathed his last at Our Lady of Pilar Hospital, Baroda, Gujarat, a centenarian who came to India to fight under the “Standard of Christ” for the “supreme and true leader”, curtains fell for a daring missionary saga. But he will live through the ordinary people and their generations whose lives he has touched with his true Christian love.

(Binu Alexander is the Editor and Publisher of Living in Faith)

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