It gives me a lot of pain for not being able to come to Philadelphia and attend the farewell service to my younger brother in priesthood, Father Shebali. Obviously, my current health conditions do not permit me to take a trip outside of Chicago. I know it is imperative that I should be there to be part of the priesthood to send him off to his native land for his final rest at his mother church as our relationship was that of two brothers from the same parents. For my inability to be present there for the farewell, I ask for forgiveness from his family and the exoneration from my beloved brethren of the holy priesthood.
I had never known him before 1987; my close relationship with him goes back to the time when he stayed with me for over a week in 1987 in connection with his fundraising efforts for the The Indian Orthodox Herald, a print medium initiated by His Holiness Basilios Mar Thoma Matthews I for strengthening the Church when litigations to defend the Church of Malankara were at their peak. The spiritual affection and predilection we developed for each other reached its climax when this writer became a part of Herald as its editorial writer. He urged me to write on a regular basis to cover his editorial columns even when I had little time left after my academic obligations as a professor and parish responsibilities as a priest. He had serialized one of my books on priesthood and my travelogues. I must say, he was the single person in the Church of Malankara who became mainly instrumental in exposing me to the sphere of theological literature; side by side, the Byzantine and Syriac Orthodox Churches were also promoting me by urging me to be active participants in their theological discourses and exchanges.
“Let Us Recapture Our Church…”
Who was Father Shebali? This brief narrative will answer that question within the perspectives I have developed about him.
Conservatism in religion has a negative connotation in the Indian context, where morbid liberalism and senseless ecumenism are stupidly idolized and disgracefully iconized. Considering me as a writer in theology, who considers conservatism in religion as a positive virtue when it does not ask for a terrorist view, but ask only for the defense of one’s core values of patristically and scripturally established doctrines of our faith, and who considers ecumenism as a positive value only when it is not detrimental and antithetical to our faith, Father Shebali whole-heartedly embraced me. For many among us, ecumenism is a very flavorful and savory dish and it is delectable to consume, because it offers red carpet services and a higher echelon mess in such events; however the poison of heresy has been diluted in those sumptuous programs making them fatal to our faith. Our priests, who are products of Serampore and many western Protestant institutions, are inundated with liberal theology and relativism as a result of unchecked ecumenism, and thus they become ecu-maniacs. Even members of the episcopal synod have become adherents of this theology. Even when episcopal candidates are selected and elected, being “ecumenically oriented” is one of the qualities the electors are looking for. This writer used to lament on such a crisis in the Church. Father Shebali thus became my co-worker and he advised me: “Let us recapture our Church; and it is possible”. This was the slogan behind our theological literature campaign to educate our priests and faithful. This gave me added momentum to write more in theology and canon law to defend our faith and practices and even to write a book on the holy priesthood. That is why I humbly state that he was the priest who was also instrumental in exposing me as a writer in theology. This slogan is still relevant, and calls for our action. It was not fun to run a church newspaper with such arid subjects as theology; the readership never paid a penny to roll its pages; no church agency paid for it; individuals were not overwhelmed by its exigency; bishops never seemed to be concerned about the fundamentals and basics of our faith (they were concerned about weekly programs in parishes, blessing more weddings and administering baptisms, and were never bothered about the erosion of our faith); Fr. Shebali spent his own money to run it; but when he ran into heavy debt of many thousands of dollars, having no one to rescue him, his publication of the Orthodox Christian Herald was wound up in 2017.
He had no regret to suffer such financial loss, because he loved his church and her faith so much; but he did not have much income from the Church he loved so much. As everyone knows no priests of the Church of Malankara are paid richly; not even to cover their needs. Our people are never scrupulous about their priests being underpaid or unpaid. Eventually Father Shebali developed his computer-technology-based skills and established his own Graphic Arts and Printing firm to support his family and educate his children.
When bishops visit parishes, they are royally entertained and gifted; many parishes did not cherish a habit of giving any compensation or remuneration to their priests. Bishops come and leave with a fat check as “kaimuth”, but never had the courtesy or the urge to ask the parish managers, “How do you compensate your priest”? or “Do you have a system of remunerating your parish priest”? People were generally complacent on the nominal gifts to their priests in order to satiate their guilt for inadequately supporting their priests. In this culture of insensitivity, many priests had to develop alternate careers or skills for their survival.
A Priest of Many Talents and Gifts
Early in collegiate education, he began to expose his talents as a creative writer; he started running his own programs on All India Radio. He was also active in such enterprises while in the seminary. Later, he developed a sharp pen as a surgical tool in pointing out aberrations and deviations in the activities of the Church. He was never a cheer leader to appease authorities for obtaining favors. This may have invited enemies and critics from the ranks of the church to discredit him; but he never withdrew from his journalistic and prophetic call. Whenever there were deviations from the traditional normal, he called for my attention to respond with theological foundations on canons, patristic teachings and scripture. Bishops came forward to bless marriages on Saturdays because on most occasions they were the celebrants of such weddings, the Synod tried to rule that widower priests could be remarried within the Church without being defrocked or laicized, marriages began to be solemnized on restricted days to accommodate heterodox sects; the aberrations and deviations are too many to enumerate. Our response was a series of articles called: “Canons do not mean anything in America…!” founded on Canons of the Ecumenical Synods and patristic doctrines.
He possessed masterful writing skills to construct a poetic language of delivery in Malayalam; his pen has always maintained a style of surgical stroke; sometimes its meaning would be understood only several hours later when one ponders over the underpinnings of the contents of his theme. He was also engaged in writing poems. With all these marvelous talents, he was never in showing off himself as a man of letters; he was so humble not to expose himself as dominant in projecting himself behind any achievement. Developing The Orthodox Herald itself is his success story, which he built up by himself, because he did raise it without any financial back up. It was not a single-page news letter; it was a complete news journal and a textbook of theology.
Genuine and Unselfishly Loyal Friendship
Two years ago when this writer was about to complete his fifty years in the priesthood of Christ, his initiative to hold a celebratory event in Chicago, was the mark of his untainted enthusiasm to highlight his close friend in priesthood and religious journalism. Together with Father Johnson Punchakonam, he selected the photographs and arranged them to create a flyer to be published in the newspaper; which was a task of not only a few hours, but of several weeks. He also laid out the mementos with adequate scriptural verses to spice them for inspiration and got all of them printed to be available on time. However, as the whole world had the severe bout of the pandemic of Covid 19, the entire program could not be staged like any other major events for a couple of years.
Nevertheless, his enthusiasm did not stop at that point. He wanted to expose this writer beyond the limits of Chicago. He wrote a cogent and towering piece of document featuring this writer “From the Sphere of Literature to the Vineyard of the Lord: Looking Back to Fifty Years” and published it in Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Official News Bulletin of MOSC, May 23, 2020. This article became so viral that it was carried through many media portals.
Unusual Christian Fortitude to Face His Final Ordeal.
Father Shebali possessed the heroic mind of a martyr; he had a strong will to withstand the temptations of questioning his creator when he was confronted with a deadly disease. Common men would be immediately shattered at the instant of hearing the bad news; but his will was so strong that he accepted it without questioning it or why he became a victim of it and that he was so confident that he was in the hands of God.
Since he became seriously ill, this writer came on phone to comfort him and pray for him over the phone at least once a week. To the best of my knowledge, during the early part of his bout with the disease, not too many priests visited him to give company to him or comfort his family. However, some of our priests were reported to have visited often to pray for him during the latter period of the disease at its advanced stage. To my surprise of the family, not even a single hierarch of the Church kept the protocol, or had the courtesy to visit and comfort and to pray for his recovery; this is the grievance of the family; but none in the family grumbled. And never did Father Shebali complain about it. He knew that the Good Shepherd was overseeing him and had written out his destinies which would be executed as planned by Him and he had no qualm about it.
Often I advised him to use his sufferings as tools for not only his sanctification but also for the repentance of sinners and for their salvation. I exhorted him that this was the time for his own theosis, which every one has to go through for ultimate cleansing before entering the presence of God. In Christianity, suffering is a positive value if it is identified with the suffering and Cross of Christ; and it then becomes a tool for our salvation. Thus it may also enhance our physical healing. We come into the presence of God in our suffering; parenthetically he had a lot to suffer. He wrote me many times that he was in deep pain. Upon listening to him, I used to burst into tears; sometimes I cried like a baby after hearing the side effects his ordeal; his pain was so unbearable. He was not at all shaken by my emotional response. On the other hand, he was poised and serene and calm, and was trying to comfort me.
One day he wrote me: “You are my mentor and guru… talking to you is like reading 100 books at a time. I feel the Great physician and Medicine, our Lord Jesus Christ is with you and will restore you both in a few months … this is a time for us sick people to reflect upon the word of God: “ Be still and know that I am God”… Your prayers are my strength!”. He was aware that my wife and I were going through a hard time health-wise especially after my wife’s major surgery of the lumbar area.
Finally, God rewarded his life with a good preparation for his journey to his eternal abode with God. I have no doubt that he is with the Lord. I tend to believe that his theosis has been achieved in his own life time like all the servants of God. However, our theosis is never complete until all our impurities are blotted out through our prayers and the prayers of the Holy Church. I will continue to offer prayers with incense for you, my brother, every day until the 40th day after your demise.
My beloved Father Shebali, now you understand all I say, and what my mind fathoms because now you are beyond the boundaries of linguistic communications; now you are in eternity where mundane tongues are irrelevant. We know that you are watching us; you could see us more clearly than before, because you do not need the medium of physical senses any more. Now you know how much we love you, because you directly perceive us, our feelings, a faculty which is integral to your current supramundane existence. This is only a transition for you, not death; because death is only a transfer of address. We know you rejoice in this new address given to you, because you are now relishing the foretaste of the beatific vision of your Creator. Apostle Paul said: “… away from body, nearer to God”, yes, you are closer to your Creator, but waiting for the last judgment and your roll call for entry into His Kingdom. We know you rejoice and smile at us, your wife and children, and those that are gathered here to send you back to your eternal abode because we do it as a final act of our love for you. This act of love for you will continue as long as we live, in the form of prayers for you.
Sooner or later we all will meet you again, Beloved Priest of Christ, our brother in the Holy Priesthood of Christ, on the shore of eternity, where angels accompany us and the face of the Eternal God shines upon us. Happy journey back home, our brother, priest of Christ!
My grief is that You will not be one of those here on earth to give me a send off as this one, which I have dreamt of you; but I am positive you will be up there to receive me with the angels when the time comes for me!
Kochamma, and beloved children of Father Shebali, Rejoice; you have one more person to intercede for you before the Lord.
Beloved Brother, Father Shebali, I remain with a heart full of thanks to the Lord God for a wonderful brother like you, a loving friend, God gave us.