Saturday 27 February 2016

“The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church” (Tertullian)

Fr “A T” Thomas SJ (1951-1997), Martyr and Patron

They say that a coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.  I think such a coincidence happened this week as ATTAG (our A T Thomas human rights Advocacy Group) was about to launch its first campaign for the year.

The committee, under the leadership of its Chair, Joseph Mamo (Year 12), had settled upon a petition to the House of Representatives, seeking a national recommitment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which Australia is a signatory), the removal of off-shore mandatory detention of children, and striking down the secrecy clause which prevents health and social workers reporting on crimes or conditions of those held in detention centres.  Joe spoke eloquently and passionately about the cause.  So much so that we gathered the largest number of signatures of any campaign to date, and a number of boys subsequently came forward to join ATTAG.

I was planning to speak at the Assembly about our patron and martyr, Fr A T Thomas SJ.  But, by happy coincidence (just the day before) I learned that Old Ignatian, Fr Geoff Meagher SJ, was in town and was keen to speak to the current generation at his alma mater.  Fr Geoff was a boarder and prefect here, graduating in 1960.  He joined the Jesuits and in 1966, fifty years ago this year, volunteered for the mission in Hazaribag.  We were glad to have him home.  Since he knew “AT” so well, it was only fitting that he speak at the Asembly of his brother Jesuit.  Fr Geoff did so with great affection, and at one time was moved to tears.

Thomas Anchanikal, known as A.T. Thomas, joined the novitiate in Hazaribag and Fr Geoff described him in his early years as “a rebel without a cause”.  AT was so passionate and fiery that his Novice Master was not able to handle him, so he was sent to a neighbouring Province to complete his second year of novitiate!  It was clear that, should he complete his Jesuit formation, AT was a man going to make his mark.

Upon ordination AT began to work among the dalits, the poor and illiterate oppressed, the lowest of the Indian castes, “the faceless ones”, as their teacher and their advocate.  He made their cause his own.  AT was a practical man who could fix or repair anything.  He was a compassionate man who drove the sick to the hospital and sat with the dying.  And he was a visionary man who heard the people’s stories of oppression and recognized the power latent in their talents and determination.

AT and his fellow Jesuits recognized the great need of the dalits for education.  Even children had to work all day to help support their families, so normal schooling was beyond them.  AT and the others gradually developed a network of night schools around Hazaribag.  Gathering for school, people began to share their other concerns, and the whole range of social issues and needs came to the fore.  AT became involved in every aspect of the people’s lives.

After two decades of nonstop labor, in 1996 AT went to Manila to take a master’s degree in sociology so he could return to serve the people better.  In October 1997 he was back in India doing research for his degree, back among the poorest of God’s people whom he loved.

Some years earlier, AT had been involved in a legal dispute.  Dalits in a village near Hazaribag had lost a parcel of land that they cultivated to a powerful group from a higher caste.  They went to court with AT’s help and, to everyone’s surprise, won their case.  The offending parties went to jail but never forgot who had caused them such humiliation and cost.

In late October 1997, AT went to the village of Sirka, where he found some people dressed in police uniforms beating one of the villagers.  As he started to investigate the violence, one of the would-be police recognized him and said, “This is the man who sent me to jail.”  The men dressed as police were in fact local insurgents who extorted money from the villagers.  They surrounded AT and led him away at gunpoint.  The villagers protested, but AT disappeared into the night, the latest victim of violent injustice.

For two days, as authorities waited for the expected ransom demand, rumors began to circulate that AT had been beaten and killed.  On October 27, his battered and decapitated body was found in a river bed.  His head was never found.

That evening, the body was brought to St. Xavier’s in Hazaribag and placed in a coffin.  As Fr Geoff so poignantly observed, “The man who gave his life for the faceless ones was buried without a face.”  The next day, his Jesuit brothers, his friends and relatives, religious sisters to whom he had ministered, and crowds of his beloved untouchables gathered for the Church’s liturgy to honor AT’s memory and draw strength from his sacrifice.

Injustice led AT to his violent death.  But in facing this injustice, A T Thomas had already found life.  Let’s hope his story continue to engender a passion in our young men.  May it richly nourish in them “a faith that does justice”.

Fr Ross Jones SJ