by Karen Laurie
MUMBAI, FEB 6, 2017: When the Bollywood movie Ghulam, starring Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee released in 1998, it changed one man's course of life. Father Ajay Shelke SDB (33) had just appeared for his standard 10 exams, while at a Salesian boarding in Ahmednagar. He was invited by a priest to pursue further studies at the Don Bosco Junior college in Lonavla.
Ajay Shelke found the proposition alluring; not the studies, but what was on offer in Aamir Khan's famous song, 'Aati Kya Khandala…Lonavla Mein Chikki Khayenge' (Will you come to Khandala? We'll eat chikki in Lonavla). He thought to himself, "I have never gone beyond my village in Ahmednagar. If I go to Lonavla, at least I will get to see Aamir Khan and Rani Mukherjee."
So he reached Lonavla, excitedly, but what he saw next threw him into a tizzy. "I never saw the actors, but I saw lots of children playing on tiles on the ground. And I saw huge grounds, and I became crazy. Then the actors and actress' craze went, and my focus was only on games. Every year, I said, "Let me experience one year, let me experience one year, and that experience brought me to priesthood. Today, as a priest, I am very happy that God has called me to the Don Bosco way," Father Shelke said.
While Don Bosco institutions are synonymous with sport, Father Mylin Noronha SDB (29) confesses, "I was always bad at sports; I still am bad at sports." But the plethora of other activities on offer was most appealing. "I was tone deaf before I joined Don Bosco Lonavla. I learnt to play the piano, guitar, saxophone, trumpet and drums. I was even part of the band and by the end, I was in-charge of the band," Father Noronha said.
"I never paid much attention to art work before, but we were given responsibility for sets, backdrops, altar décor, so we started observing, improvising to the point that I can't call myself an artist today, but I can confidently do artwork."
Father Noronha attributes his growth to the personal attention he received throughout his formation, from the senior priests he was entrusted to. "Outside, in the secular world, it would not happen. The follow-up we received has made a difference. Priests and brothers in-charge saw the potential in us, and trained us thoroughly," he said.
"It took a long time for me to train myself to get accustomed to youth; as I have not gone to a regular college, and have not lived their lifestyle. But when we see the youth coming to us, sharing their problems at home, their problems with friends, treating us like friends, pulling our legs, laughing and joking with us, that's when we are grateful to Don Bosco for the kind of training we receive," Father Noronha added.
When in class 10, he was asked by a Salesian vocation promoter to tick three careers from a wide variety of options, he picked 'priest' as his third and last choice. The vocation promoter followed up, and the then rebellious teenager, Mylin Noronha decided to join the Don Bosco boarding. "I went merely to get freedom from my family, and I ended up taking a vow of priesthood," he smiles.
Father Noronha and his companion for 13 years, Father Shaun D'Lima SDB (29) have a lot in common. Father D'Lima also left home in Mumbai as a rebellious youngster, seeking the adventures of a Salesian boarding life, and he was not disappointed.
"In class seven, I had attended a Salesian camp, and I loved the hikes, walks, games. So I wanted to join," Father D'Lima said. He completed class 11 and 12 at the Lonavla boarding. Two years of novitiate followed, where he was introduced to the life of the Salesians. He then completed a Bachelor in Philosophy degree at the Salesian Institute of Philosophy in Nashik. In his three years of practical training called 'Regency', he lived and worked like the Salesians at the institute he was placed at. Four years of theology at the Papal seminary in Pune completed his formation studies.
While his journey to priesthood may seem long to many, to him, it was a memorable adventure. At the end of each year, when he had to take a decision if he wanted to continue or return home, he would say to himself, "Let me experience this for one more year."
"Once I was almost out of seminary life as I was very naughty. My father was called. But when he saw me pleading with the superior there that I didn't want to go (home), that day, I saw my father cry. I have never seen him cry. He asked the priest to give me a second chance. And to see my father support me at something that I really wanted, created great feelings in me. I didn't want that adventure to go. I was enjoying seminary life and the opportunities we get there. I didn't want to get back to the mundane family life, " Father D'Lima said.
Not all priests walk into the unknown. While in class three, Father Vishal Lopes SDB (29), on seeing a bishop in his village, ran to his mother and whispered in her ear, "Please tell the bishop, I want to be a priest." His mum replied, "You say it yourself," and before she could finish, he was tugging at the bishop's cassock, saying, "I want to be a priest."
Father Lopes pursued his childhood desire, and after class 12, joined the Salesians. He was the 68th priest to be ordained from his parish, Holy Spirit in Nandakhal, Vasai. "Many said to me you will never complete your priestly studies. From school and college days, I was a notorious fellow. I was always suspended. And now teachers are awestruck—how did you become a priest?" Father Lopes said.
"One thing that has kept me faithful is the prayers of my parents. In my village, priesthood is a privilege. At my Ordination, many were wishing my parents more than me, that they are the parents of a priest. So I would like to call parents to start praying for their sons and daughters to join religious life."
Father Ajay D'Monte SDB (30), like Father Lopes, is the son of a farmer from Vasai. "My father is a very poor farmer. He had taken a loan. And at the same time, I felt called to join the Salesians. But my father didn't tell me even once that I was needed to help him out. He let me go. And I enjoyed my studies and my life with the Salesians," Father D'Monte said.
"I always felt that coming from a poor family, I did not do justice to my family. Maybe I could have helped them out more. My friends have made big bungalows. We are still the same. But today, my dad is the proud father of a priest."
"My villagers gave me the biggest felicitation after my ordination. I am the first priest in my village - Agashi. My father says, "Naam kamaya" (You earned a name). If I had to work outside, I could have built a big house for them, but my parents are not regretting. Even among their friends, they are proud, as their colleagues feel their son is a priest; what about our son?"
Today, Father D'Monte may be content, but during his years of formation, he had his moments of trepidation. He recalls an incident during his assignment to care for village kids. Sprawled on the floor, he was cutting a newspaper with them, when he got a call from an old classmate. The friend spoke about his high paying job in America.
When he hung up, Father D'Monte felt weighed down with a big question: "What am I doing with my life? I must decide." He looked at the children around him, "That's when I had the strongest feeling and I said to myself, 'I will give my life to these kids'. The love that I received from them touched and transformed me. They became so attached to me, they cried when I was leaving."
Now, there was no looking back. Just before his Ordination, Father D'Monte asked his mother, like Don Bosco asked his Mama Margaret, "What kind of a priest do you want me to be?" She said, "Be holy."
The Salesians of the Mumbai province have been blessed with these five new priests, who received the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Priesthood) in December 2016. They all joined young, and grew strong, in academics, activities, sports and above all in loving kindness, to the point of dedicating their lives to the service of others.
If you feel called to live this adventure, contact Father McEnroe Lopes SDB, the Salesian Vocation Promoter on 75060 42114 or firstname.lastname@example.org