Catholic Herald Staff
Fr. Shaji Pazhukkathara was born in the northern part of the Indian state of Kerala, on the southwest tip of the peninsula. “Kerala” means “coconut” – significant, as the state, with its 600 kilometers of Arabian Sea shoreline, is well known for beaches lined with palm trees.
He is the oldest of four siblings; his two brothers and sister have their own families. Fr. Shaji has two nieces and five nephews, one of whom is discerning the priesthood. The family grew up on a small farm in the town of Peringeome, home to Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
“We all grew up together, respected each other,” Fr. Shaji shared. Many of his Hindu and Muslim friends attended his priestly ordination.
The seeds of his vocation to the priesthood were planted during his years in Catholic schools. Fr. Shaji said the Catholic Church has played “a great role” in education, healthcare and social work in his native state.
Christianity in Kerala traces its origins to the Apostle St. Thomas. In India, the Catholic Church is home to three rites: the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and the Latin Rites. Fr. Shaji was raised in the Syro-Malabar Church but received most of his seminary formation in the Latin Rite. However, while studying for a diploma in special education, he lived with an order in the Syro-Malankara Rite and learned to assist their Mass.
A foundation of faith
When asked who Jesus was for him as a boy, Fr. Shaji responded that the picture that developed for him through family and youth ministry was that of a “loving, caring and generous Jesus.”
He remembers his father sharing his personal version of the Golden Rule – “Don’t focus on what others do to you, do whatever the best you can; otherwise there is no difference between you and them,” he quoted.
Fr. Shaji added, “My parents were the first teachers of the faith, and devotion to our mother Mary was a great part of our faith.”
First arriving to the U.S., he was very surprised by the typical six o’clock dinner hour. Besides being at least two hours earlier than he was used to, in his family’s home the time before dinner was dedicated to devotions – recitation of the Rosary, reading of the Bible, finished off by himself and his siblings saying the prayers they had learned at Sunday school.
The children attended Sunday school weekly after Mass. Most often attending as a family, Fr. Shaji noted that even if there was some reason his parents couldn’t attend Mass, they arranged for the children to be present for Mass and faith formation. They also ensured their participation in youth ministries and other parish events.
He asserted that as children, they truly wanted to be “a part of everything in the parish,” and simultaneously declared his grandparents “played a special role in growing in faith.”
A priest-friend of his father and grandfather, whom the young Shaji would help to cook and work in the kitchen, often shared about the priesthood and his own vocation story.
In particular, his grandmothers shared their stories of the faith journey of their ancestors for generations.
“I was privileged to have both grandmas at my ordination,” the priest added.
Fr. Shaji pointed out the influential role his local church, especially the parish priest and nuns, had on his faith journey, “in knowing Jesus and eventually making the decision to become a priest.”
As a young man, he was very much involved in his parish. He was an altar server and sacristan, involved in youth ministry and part of the Cherupushpa Mission League (Little Flower Mission League).
He explained that the league is a lay organization for children “who desire to undertake the missionary work of Jesus Christ,” with St. Therese of Lisieux as patron because of her love for missionaries and the church’s missionary work.
With a motto that expresses God’s love as unconditional and love for others in service, the program would involve youth weekly in various acts of missionary service. This might include praying for sick members of the parish or collecting fresh produce and donations for those in need. Monies collected were entrusted to the parish priest, but it was the youth who helped decide how to spend the funds or who was in greatest need of assistance.
“When I was in high school, I was in the leadership team of the youth ministry,” Fr. Shaji said. “It gave me the opportunity to work with priests and nuns more closely.”
He surmised that his involvement with the Cherupupuzhpa League “definitely influenced me to choose the priesthood,” although he believes that the atmosphere of family prayer and his engagement as sacristan and server also contributed towards the realization of his calling.
During the summer holidays, young people attend camps where there is exposure to and instruction on the vocations of the priesthood, religious life and married life. Priests and religious from various orders visit at the end of the week to introduce themselves and their charisms.
When he was a young man, it was during one of these camps that Fr. Shaji experienced “the definitive moment to pull together my desire for priesthood and to come to the final decision.”
Even so, once the decision was made, Fr. Shaji’s road to the priesthood would include some twists and turns.
A continuous path of discernment
Asked about his continued discernment during those years and whether or not he had doubts or uncertainty, the priest joked, “Doubting Thomas is my patron saint,” and clarified that he was a courageous apostle.
“Of course I had moments of doubt and confusion, but all those moments led me to better and better clarity in my vocation,” he said.
After a year with an order of Franciscan brothers, he made the decision to join the Sons of the Immaculate Conception. Fr. Shaji desired to do some studies in art and communication, but his superiors directed him to study special education and start a school for children with disabilities, which he started in 1992.
“It was a moment of awakening in my life,” he said.
Required field studies put the seminarian in contact with a population he “didn’t have a clue” was so large. When the attempt to start a school led to a year spent in boy’s home, it was another opportunity for clarity to emerge from confusion.
Fr. Shaji expounded, “In my school years, whenever I thought about the priesthood, I created my own ideal picture of a priest.”
This was based on what he wanted to emulate, and not imitate, of other priests he had known, but as he started living the realities of the vocation, he realized putting his ideals into practice would not be easy.
“But I told myself to try my best,” and he continued along the path.
This led to further studies – this time in philosophy – and the foundation of a center for children with intellectual disabilities. This winding path during his years of priestly formation led some to wonder what was ahead – a life as a brother rather than priest?
Even his grandmother pressed him, saying if he waited too long, she would not be able to attend his ordination. Her concerns were quelled when he was ordained on July 29, 2002, at his home parish surrounded by family and friends.
Throughout those years, Fr. Shaji shared that “God was walking with me and our mother Mary was watching over me always in my journey to the priesthood, and even now.”
He received special graces undertaking his theology studies in Rome where he had the “great opportunity to meet a saint several times – St. John Paul II.
“He was a great inspiration for me,” he added.
Building on his previous studies and experiences, when the Indian priest came the United States and began ministering the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, he was able to develop an office for outreach to persons with disabilities as well as begin a master’s degree in special education from St. Thomas University.
After transferring to the Diocese of Superior in 2008, Fr. Shaji served in the parish cluster of Somerset, Farmington and Osceola before being moved to Winter and Radisson. He spent time in the Ladysmith cluster, during which it went from three to six parishes.
For the last eight years, Fr. Shaji has been parochial administrator for St. Anthony of Padua in Park Falls, which is clustered with Immaculate Conception, Butternut and St. Francis of Assisi, Fifield.
Continuing to follow his patron saint’s courageous and apostolic footsteps, Fr. Shaji finished his master’s thesis and exam, was incardinated into the Diocese of Superior and became a U. S. citizen in October of 2017.
“I had the great privilege to be part of starting Extreme Faith Camp,” he said, along with Fr. Adam Laski, who was a seminarian at the time.
He was very inspired by the young people’s faith and reminded of his own faith-filled youth.
His adulthood as a priest still requires faith and patience. Fr. Shaji admitted “it took awhile to acclimate” during his five years in St. Paul, then again in moving from large city to the Superior diocese’s small towns.
He loves the natural beauty of Minnesota and Wisconsin and likes the snow, but not the cold.
He disclosed that people home in India were confused when he moved to Winter – was it a town or a season?
In good humor, and having lived in Somerset prior to Winter, Fr. Shaji quipped that his “summer” – sounding like Somerset – was over, and that he was then experiencing, “summer in Winter, fall in Winter, spring in Winter and winter in Winter.”
While the weather has been a challenging adjustment, Wisconsin’s lakes and green landscapes remind him of his home state of Kerala in India. Kerala has a lot of backwaters, or canals, connecting the coast to the inland. On a map they appear as a network of blue-outlines squares connecting the ocean with inland lakes and rivers.
“The beauty of the fall season amazes me with all kinds of color. Every year I go around and take pictures.
“One year I posted a picture on Facebook with the caption, ‘God’s painting.’”
He appreciates the “everyone knows everyone” atmosphere of the diocese’s small towns, “a totally different culture than the Cities.”
“The community spirit is remarkable … Everyone is part of the community and works for it. Everyone steps in and helps when there is a need,” he added, noting being inspired by it.
In conclusion, what defines the priesthood for the Indian-American priest is what defines his own journey to the vocation and his living out of it: “Walk with the Lord. Be with people, young and old. Share the love and joy of Jesus,” he summarized.
“The Eucharist is the source and summit of my life,” he added. “Through the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments, I primarily share the gift entrusted to me. Other times, I share the life with a loving and caring presence.”