October 27, 2023

‘They have welcomed me’

International priests bring broad talents, experiences to ministry in the archdiocese

Marianhill Father Tiago Vilancula preaches a homily during a Feb. 15 Mass at St. Christopher Church in Indianapolis. He is one of 17 international priests to come to serve in the archdiocese since 2020. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Marianhill Father Tiago Vilancula preaches a homily during a Feb. 15 Mass at St. Christopher Church in Indianapolis. He is one of 17 international priests to come to serve in the archdiocese since 2020. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

The work of God’s providence can be mysterious in the life of an individual. Such mysteries can deepen to the level of miracles when considering how many people born around the world all came to the Church in the same place.

That’s what it can seem like in the stories of some of the 17 priests born outside the U.S. who have come to minister in the Church in central and southern Indiana during the past three years.

Yes, there are measurables such as 13 native-born priests in parish ministry dying or retiring during that time that have in part led the archdiocese to welcome international priests to serve here. (Related article: Archbishop Thompson sees that ‘the face of presbyterates have changed’)

But look at the stories of the priests from foreign shores who now serve in the archdiocese—the winding paths that they took to arrive in Indiana, the talents given to them by God well-suited for ministry here, the way they’ve defied death to continue in ministry halfway around the world—and the mysterious fingerprints of God seem clear and yet mysterious at the same time.

‘It gave me courage to continue’

Marianhill Father Tiago Vilancula was born in 1986 in Mozambique in southern Africa.

His life almost came to a quick end when he was still a baby. At the time, his country was wracked by a civil war. Rebel soldiers terrorized villages by going into them and killing children.

When a militia arrived in his family’s village, one of the soldiers grabbed the young Tiago and held him by his legs.

“They wanted to knock me on a coconut tree,” said Father Tiago. “My father told me that he prayed, ‘Have mercy on the children. They haven’t done anything.’ The commander may have been a Christian. He just told them, ‘No. Let’s not kill children today.’ ”

Because of this answered prayer, the priest’s father gave his son a middle name, “Piedad,” which means, “mercy.”

This, however, wasn’t Father Tiago’s only close brush with death. While in formation for the priesthood in South Africa in 2017, he was attacked at a bus stop by two criminals. Father Tiago’s quick reaction to put his arms up over his chest may have kept him from being stabbed to death. But it did result in long scars on his left arm.

Reflecting on these experiences has given Father Tiago strength in facing the challenges of serving as a missionary halfway around the world from his home in southern Africa as parochial vicar at St. Christopher Parish in Indianapolis, where he has served since April 2022.

“I thank God that I am still alive,” Father Tiago said. “Maybe he had a purpose for my mission and vocation. There are challenges in life. There are missionaries in other countries who are killed. They’re martyrs. It gave me courage to continue. There is a purpose for all that is happening in my life.”

Adjusting to ministry in the U.S. hasn’t been as big of a change for Father Tiago as it was when he went from his native Mozambique, where Portuguese and other local languages are spoken, to South Africa, where English and other local languages dominate.

Living with three other members of his Marianhill Missioners community serving in other archdiocesan parishes has also aided Father Tiago in ministering so far from home in Indiana.

“It is very helpful. We share experiences,” he said. “We live as a family and care for one another. I wouldn’t be very happy living alone. I’m used to living in a community.”

Serving in a parish in the shadow of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an eye-opener for Father Tiago when he took in his first Indianapolis 500 in 2022.

“It was fascinating,” he recalled. “It was the first time for me to see cars like that live. It says there, ‘The Racing Capitol of the World.’ I wondered how many people were coming here from different places.”

Father Tiago also appreciates the welcome he’s received from Catholics on the west side of Indianapolis.

“I feel at home at St. Christopher,” he said. “They have welcomed me. I’m grateful for my experiences here. It’s a learning process.”

‘We come together in the name of Christ.’

Father Jude Meril Sahayam, administrator of St. Ann Parish in Indianapolis and St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville, was a seminarian at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology in St. Meinrad from 2012-16.

He was co-sponsored by the archdiocese and the Diocese of Palayamkottai in southern India, where he was born and grew up. (See accompanying article below about the parternership between the two dioceses)

After his 2016 ordination, Father Sahayam served for two years in India before returning to Indiana. He has led St. Ann and St. Thomas More since 2021 and finds much fulfillment in his ministry in the archdiocese.

But it wasn’t easy for him to get to this point. When Father Sahayam was asked to come to Saint Meinrad for formation, he had his doubts.

“I was really afraid of leaving the country,” he recalled. “Fear filled my heart. But, I said ‘yes.’ ”

Father Sahayam’s time at Saint Meinrad was difficult at first.

“I was complaining about every little thing,” he said. “Why were the windows closed? In India, windows are always open. Why did the place smell different? It was hard for me for two years. I thought about leaving.”

Then Father Sahayam experienced a “decisive moment” while serving as a student hospital chaplain one summer.

“It was intense,” he said. “It gave me a purpose, to accompany people in their pain. I was there as a chaplain to help these people go through their pain in the hospital.

“It shed a great light on the Eucharist. Jesus was broken for us. You go out and do the same thing for people in their struggle. You accompany them.”

In growing up in India and being formed in the U.S. for the priesthood, Father Sahayam has seen many differences in the cultures of the two places, but also commonalities.

“I saw all the divisions in society in India,” he said. “And I saw divisions here. But with all this diversity, I appreciate Catholicism. As Catholics, we come together in the name of Christ. Period. Done.”

This common bond of faith that links together a diocese and archdiocese halfway around the world from each other makes the Church in central and southern Indiana feel like home for the Indian priest.

“We belong to the universal Church, not just to a particular diocese,” Father Sahayam said. “We have to go to the ends of the Earth to proclaim the Gospel.”

‘God was preparing me to do something here’

Father Cyprian Fernandez believes strongly that it was the providential hand of God that led him to minister in the archdiocese.

Ordained in 2001 for the Diocese of Quilon in southern India, he spent most of his ministry after that focused on academic work, including several years spent studying Scripture in Spain.

After visiting a priest friend in Atlanta, a desire to minister in the U.S. grew in Father Fernandez. Another priest from his diocese serving in the archdiocese led him here.

Since the summer of 2022, Father Fernandez has served as administrator of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish on the west side of Indianapolis.

It is a large, growing and ethnically diverse faith community. Many of its members primarily speak Spanish. Others are English speakers.

Father Fernandez looks at the parish that he leads and sees how God prepared him to minister at it.

The English he had learned growing up in India was of no use when he was ministering in Spain. His fluency in Spanish would not have been helpful if he had returned to the Quilon Diocese.

At St. Gabriel, his language skills are applied every day.

“God was preparing me to do something here,” Father Fernandez said. “If I had not been skilled in speaking Spanish, I don’t think I would be here. Everything has a purpose. God has a purpose.”

Father Fernandez sees his cultural background from India as helpful in bringing together the diverse ethnic communities at St. Gabriel, perhaps another move of God’s providence in his life.

“We don’t have a single mindset in this parish,” he said. “The Latino mindset is different from the Anglo mindset. So, balancing this is a challenge for the pastor and for the staff. We try our level best to understand them and keep that balance.

“Being an Indian, it can be easier for me to face this challenge in a positive and fruitful way.”

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, who has welcomed many international priests who have come to serve the Church in central and southern Indiana, sees their presence here as a positive expression of the Church’s universality.

“We profess to be one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church,” he said. “In that profession, we’re ultimately professing that our Catholic faith transcends all ethnicities, all cultures, all languages. The increase in international priests makes that sense of the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church more visible for us, more tangible.” †


Related article: International priests see importance of promoting vocations here

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