Friday 27 October 2017

Remembering Fr A T Thomas

Our Australian Jesuit Province almost has its own ‘martyr of charity’. Twenty-years ago this week, Fr A T Thomas, a Jesuit of the Hazaribag mission of the Australian Province, had his life savagely taken from him in the service of the poor. This memorial day happened to coincide with one of our regular voluntary student Masses. By happy circumstances, Old Ignatian and Jesuit, Fr Tony Herbert SJ (OR1959) joined us to concelebrate. Fr Tony’s life has been spent on the mission in India and he knew ‘AT’ very well.

The students had chosen as a theme for the Eucharist, ‘One person’s challenge is another person’s opportunity’. Patrick Fuccilli shared his reflections on this theme with his fellows. Speaking from experience, he suggested how a change in perspective or attitude can open new possibilities. “Whilst these challenges… may sometimes feel like they are impossible to overcome,” he said, “it is in confronting this impossibility that we are able to take hold of the opportunity it presents.” In fact, so convinced was he of such a disposition, he was bold enough to conclude by praying that “we may all continue to encounter challenges, so that we may undergo the transformational journey which they present.” Something for us all to reflect upon!

During the same Mass, we commissioned fifty new Eucharistic Ministers from among the Year 11 cohort, blessing them and the crosses which will mark them out for ministry. These young men have completed a six-week course in preparation for their ministry. This is a serious commitment they make to serve the school community in this way – from full school Masses, to weekly Boarders’ Masses, and to the Communion Services they themselves lead on Tuesday mornings. In the spectrum of life in the College, we bring Christ to others in many ways – Ignatian Service, Immersions, the care of each other, in the co-curricula and in classes. But our Eucharistic Ministers do this in the deepest way possible.

After the Mass, Fr Tony spoke to the ATTAG team about their Patron, A T Thomas. Last year, Fr Geoff Meagher SJ (OR1960), another Old Ignatian Jesuit, had also shared his memories of AT. He had remarked that AT was something of a rebel, a person 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! Fr Tony underscored that in his various causes, AT seemed always to be challenging superiors or provoking bishops to think or act differently. A burr under the saddle. It was good to be reminded that those who take the Gospel imperatives seriously do not just piously flee the world, but embrace it energetically to bring about the Kingdom.

After ordination, AT began to work among the dalits, the poor and illiterate oppressed, the lowest of the Indian castes, the untouchables, “the faceless ones”, as their teacher and their advocate. He made their cause his own, becoming involved in every aspect of the people’s lives. At one time, he took up 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 came to the village of Sirka, where some local insurgents were extorting money from the village chief. They recognized AT as the one who was empowering the Dalits, so they tied him up and bustled him away. Thereafter, when his brother Jesuits received no ransom note, they realised that this was more likely an execution for retribution, so they began to search locally. On October 27, AT’s 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 had 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 his Requiem, to give thanks for his life, to honor his memory, and to draw strength from his sacrifice.

A fitting patron for our human rights group as they begin another year of advocacy. Their first campaign, to be launched next week, targets the enormous needs in rural and indigenous health. The mission statement of the Jesuits, all their works and enterprises, is ‘promoting a faith that does justice’. Our Eucharistic Ministers and our ATTAG advocates profess that publicly in their different commitments. Offering the nourishment of Christ to their brothers and sisters, and serving Christ in those who, in their need, have the greater claim on us.

Fr Ross Jones, SJ