Father James celebrates 25 years as a priest

Father James Vattakunnel, who serves at Our Lady of Fatima, celebrated his 25th jubilee of being a priest Thursday, Dec. 26.

A native of India, Father James has preached there, in Africa and in the United States.

He was born in 1961 into a family that embraced religion. His younger brother is a priest, and a nephew is now in seminary. When he was a child, a cousin was a priest in India.

When he was 9 the family moved to the village of Upputhodu in Kerala. He became an altar boy in sixth grade, assisting at Mass on Saturdays and Sundays. Although he attended a school run by the Catholic community, the majority of students were not of that faith, and Masses were not offered and religious studies were not part of the curriculum. The school was far from church, and Father James was frustrated in his desire to attend Mass daily.

Instead, by seventh grade he would visit the parish near his school for a quick prayer during lunch break.

“Only five minutes, not more than that,” Father James said, “kneeling down, praying for different things, and one of the intercessions was praying to become a priest. The only thing I knew is that I wanted to be a priest, to work among the poor, and to witness my faith. That was fully my intention. And I was praying for that.”

As a boy he was also active in Kerala’s mission league, and was exposed to missionaries who worked among the poor, mostly Muslims and Hindus.

“Through the schools and charitable works, working among the poor, educating them about religion, they were uplifting the poor,” which at times threatened the higher castes, he said.

Upon graduation from high school, James joined the seminary and the missionaries of the Vincentian Community, a congregation founded in Kerala at the turn of the last century, which is still active today and supported by many Our Lady of Fatima parishioners. While at the seminary, James became a transitional deacon on his way to priesthood, taking the vows of celibacy and obedience to the will of God.

He enjoyed his last Christmas dinner with his family in 1988. It was the night before his ordination in the Syro-Malabar rite. Father James was the second man to become a priest from the Kerala parish, and it was a joyous affair. He donned the pink-and-white vestments that feature a bright gold cross with a dove resting above.

“The four ends of the cross are growing to the four ends of the world and are flowing,” he said.

In 1991, Father James was sent to Tanzania to build a community there.

“It was challenging to build a community. At the same time, it was a rewarding experience,” he said. The community was a vast area, and Father James had to travel, learn the language, understand the culture of the people, and find the means to build the community. It was a happy time for him.

“Over in Africa and India, I could tell the people, ‘I will visit you such and such time.’ I’d just go there and the people would welcome me.” Asked if he would like to go back, he said, “I would like to go back, yes. Tanzania is a very peaceful country now. Still, the division between Christians and Muslims is growing. Little conflicts, here and there, against churches.”

A new challenge came in 2000.

“One early morning I got a call from my provincial asking me to think about going to the United States. It was a big shock, because I was comfortable in Tanzania after nine years. I was OK with the place and the people. Going to another country, another place, was a big challenge.”

Once again, he learned to assimilate into a new culture and found himself welcomed by the Wilton community.

A celebratory Mass was said on Dec. 15.

—from Our Lady of Fatima