HOMESICKNESS is not an issue for Fr John Panamthottam partly because he feels at home among Brisbane Catholics, and his favourite cricketer Virat Kholi possibly played a role too.
Fr John arrived as a missionary from India to Brisbane archdiocese in August 2015 and during his first summer here, the Indian cricket team toured Australia for a One Day International series and three T20 Internationals.
That was good timing for the cricket-loving priest who loves to watch Kholi.
Even though India lost the one-day series 4-1, it won the T20s 3-0 with Kholi being voted player-of-the-series.
Fr John, a keen cricketer during his seminary days, had no hesitation in naming Kholi as his favourite player.
Cricket was a small part of life in the seminary, where young John Panamthottam first had to deal with homesickness at the age of 15.
It was his first time of being apart from his parents and six siblings when he set off to join the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate in Kerala, India.
Since then homesickness has not been such a problem.
“When I joined the seminary it was a very difficult time because the first four or five years it was a very difficult time to keep us away from home, but after some time we become a part of another community but at the same time we have a connection with the family,” Fr John said.
“But the homesickness is not a big factor here.”
At Aspley, where he has been parish priest for the past three years, he feels part of the family.
“I’ve had different experiences – I worked in the educational and administration and pastoral fields, but I really enjoy the pastoral experience because it gives me a lot of happiness,” Fr John said.
“Each has its own happiness but I really enjoy (the pastoral setting).
“Each priest in a religious order is supposed to live in a community but now I am living in a big community.
“My community is my parish now, because I am a part of that community and we pray together, and many of my parishioners invite me for dinner or a meal in their own homes so that shows the acceptance and that makes me think that I am a part of their family.
“So, in that way, I really enjoy the pastoral life because every day they come with some intentions and then when I pray for their intention, that intention becomes a part of my life as well.
“ … Here what I experience are some of the happiness and the sorrows of the parishioners.
“They are coming with their problems sometimes, and they come with their happiness.
“It’s a first-hand experience, and it’s a time to know them, understand their problem and pray for them …
“Their sorrow is my sorrow, and their happiness is my happiness. That’s the feeling we get from this pastoral life.”
It’s the kind of life he’s been aspiring to since he was a boy growing up in Kerala.
“From my early childhood onwards, from the age of 10 onwards, I used to go to church regularly,” he said.
“Every day I would go to church, so I was really inspired by this priestly life and so regularly from Fifth Grade onwards I used to attend the church service every morning.
“And that was an inspiration, every day attending Mass and all the activities of the Church.
“That was an inspiration and that gradually led me to the religious life.”
However, his family opposed the idea.
“(They) discouraged me because when I expressed my intention to join the seminary, my parents talked against it and they never agreed with me,” Fr John said.
“But I told everything to my class teacher (Sr Leena) when I was a student in 10th Grade – she was a religious sister – and she supported me in my decision to join the seminary and she recommended it to my parents.”
Sr Leena, who was a Sacred Heart Sister, even influenced Fr John’s decision to join the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate.
“Actually I didn’t have any idea about the Carmelites but (Sr Leena) told me something about them and that was why I was inspired to join them,” Fr John said.
“She was just like my mentor, my friend and my teacher and she inspired me a lot.”
Fr John was purely motivated to serve God.
“It was to do something for God and the people – something for God and His people, that was the inspiration from my early childhood onwards,” he said.
That desire deepened during his 15 years in the seminary until he was ordained in 1997.
“When I joined the seminary there were 20 (of us), and when I was ordained I was alone …,” he said.
“So, it’s a long process … a long process of discernment …”
Fr John’s first nine years as a priest were in education, “especially as a lecturer in a junior college run by our religious order”.
His next nine years were in administration as the provincial superior of the Carmelites for six years and the provincial councillor for education for three years.
“After my long 18 years, I was sent to Australia for pastoral work here,” he said.
“Because missionaries are always sent overseas, that’s why I’m sent by my superiors because the major thing is for a pastoral experience and pastoral exposure; that’s why I’m here.”
In his first seven months in Brisbane archdiocese, Fr John was associate pastor at St Stephen’s Cathedral and he said that was a wonderful experience.
He was then administrator at Regents Park parish for nine months before being appointed Aspley parish priest in 2017.
From there he also co-ordinates the 22 Carmelites of Mary Immaculate serving in Australia.
Fr John said serving in a parish was a benefit for him and for his fellow Carmelites.
“It’s a very good experience to be with people and especially celebrating Mass with people,” he said.
“Very often in our monastery we won’t get much chance to celebrate with the people.
“Sometimes we celebrate in a very small community; sometimes we celebrate alone.
“Here we get the chance to celebrate Mass with the people, and also we spend some time being a channel for the Mercy of God in the confessionals.
“So through these sacraments – when we administer these sacraments – we are getting a lot of happiness.”
Fr John had little problem adjusting to ministry in Australia.
“Definitely there will be some challenges, because we are coming from a different culture and a different background, but people are the same everywhere – that’s my feeling – because the majority of our parishioners will accept us as we are,” he said.
“But of course, the minority will be there; they are everywhere.
“For them the language and the accent will be difficult but my feeling is mostly people are accepting.
“I didn’t find much difference. The cultural differences are there and the linguistic differences are there but I didn’t find any major challenges.”
Fr John draws great satisfaction from parish ministry in Brisbane.
“(Mostly my) experience is the acceptance I receive from the parish community and so when I am invited … I could visit a lot of houses because they invite me,” he said.
“Still they invite me and so that shows the acceptance and they consider me as one of the members of their family so this gives me satisfaction, because I feel that I’m wanted here.
“That’s something that gives me happiness.”