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Khambholaj: A mother who does not leave anybody orphaned

The Mother of the Forsaken at Khambholaj does not leave out anybody from her loving fold and as parish-priest Father Lawrence Arul Das testifies, “Here people from all religions come – Muslims, Hindus, Salvation Army people in their uniform, Protestants, all. There is no barrier of caste or creed.”

Khambholaj: A mother who does not leave anybody orphaned

By Joe Palathunkal
When Father Manuel Xavier Gomes from Karachi in present Pakistan reached Kheda district of Gujarat in 1893 as an young Catholic priest of 28 years, he never knew he was landing in a region that would become the nerve centre of Catholicism in Gujarat when the son of the soil the Father of the Nation was just a boy of 14 years in farawayPorbandar.

And he also never even imagined this region will house a benevolent mother to whose protection hundreds will flock on every first Sunday of the month.

But the Mother of the Forsaken here does not leave out anybody from her loving fold and as parish-priest Father Lawrence Arul Das testifies, “Here people from all religions come – Muslims, Hindus, Salvation Army people in their uniform, Protestants, all. There is no barrier of caste or creed.”

It is indeed a great message for a land divided on many counts. This powerful love that takes every human person into its embrace is the strength of this church which is around 80 years old if we go back to its seminal beginnings which in itself is a continuation of the Catholic church built in Gujarat with the royal permission from Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1600s.

When I visited the church on one first Sunday, I was surprised to see the crowd flocking to this rural pocket predominantly inhabited by Hindu farmers mostly belonging to the higher social rung of the caste ladder but as narrated by a Gujarati Catholic Naginbhai, in the beginnings the church premises were taken care by the Hindus of lower rungs.

According to him a Hindu washer-man looked after it and he experienced the benevolence of Mother Mary and grapevine of miracles experienced by different people, eventually turned it into a hallowed pilgrimage spot.

Since ordinary people go by the material well-being as a measure of God’s blessing, the well-to-do washer-man and his generations became the monumental witness of this miraculous mother.

Though Wednesdays and Saturdays are the days traditionally attributed to Mother Mary, in Khambholej it is all different. Parish priest Fr. Lawrence Arul Das explains: “May be for convenience they might have chosen the first Sunday. However, today eight to ten thousand pilgrims come to the church every first Sunday and we have five Holy Mass every first Sunday.”

Even if you are an onlooker in Khambholaj, when you see the people offering garlands, wreaths, candles and other things with commendable devotional fervour at the feet of the Virgin who is “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast” as William Wordsworth wrote, you will be convinced that this is indeed Anathoni Ma as she is called in the local parlance.

Definitely, every expression of a genuine devotion can enkindle the same in you, as it happened to me two years ago in the most celebrated Marian pilgrim centre of Velankanni, Tamil Nadu.

Today it is not only the first Sunday when droves of devotees will converge on Khambholaj, but Wednesday and Friday are also chosen days for the devotees, and thus Mother Mary’s traditional day Wednesday finds a significant place in the pilgrim’s progress to this house of prayer in the diocese of Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

I have noticed a fillip in the pilgrims who show special interest from every parish of the diocese. Some of them have been coming here almost every first Sunday like Robin Varkey of Saint Antony’s Parish, Naroda.

Since the missionary encyclical of 1892 from Pope Leo XIII, Spanish Jesuits have played a crucial role in developing the Catholic Church in Gujarat. Since they were very familiar with the Virgin of El Pilar in the city of Zaragoza, Spain, they paid special attention to nourish and flourish the Marian centre of Khambholaj; Gujarati Catholics speak about Spanish Jesuit Father Suria’s hand in shaping Khambholaj as a famous pilgrim centre.

Since 1980, the church is under the care of the diocesan priests of Ahmedabad diocese and the priests here make sure that the place remains as simple as possible very much in tune with one who said ‘he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant’ and that lowliness we can see all around but that in no way means any compromise with order and cleanliness.

So, if you are a Catholic, when you visit Gujarat next don’t forget to put Khambholaj in your itinerary, nearly 60 km from the city of Ahmedabad, and see whether you too can experience the abiding love of this Mother who gave us the greatest son in human history.

And the 18 children from the village of Mogri baptized by Father Manuel Xavier Gomes on 11 December 1893, no doubt will sing a Magnificat along with the Mother here because they were “the first Gujarati Catholics to be baptized on Gujarati soil.  The first one was named Francis” as Dr. Joseph Valiamangalam SJ writes. They were also from the region where Khambholaj invites you to the Mother of love and care.

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith / Picture Courtesy: Robin Varkey)

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