The Life and Work of a Saintly Priest
Dawn breaks over DRC campus. An elderly man faithfully makes his way to a room which was occupied for years by the first director of Divine Malayalam. It is a daily habit. He folds his hands in prayer and pays his respects quietly to the room’s previous occupant. Then goes back to his daily business. Every single day. People say that he is among the many who miss the dear priest who stayed in the room for many years, giving all of his time to the poor and needy who knocked on his door. The priest moved on. But the poor remember. And they come whenever they miss his presence.
Some things never change.
The elderly occupant of that room is meanwhile in the UK. He is new to Kent and is walking all the way to the new retreat centre there, hoping to save a few pounds of taxi fare that way. He meets a sex worker on the way. He brings her home to the centre, feeds her and shares Christ with her. She accepts his care and salvation – both freely given. Eventually her husband who comes drunk to the centre to question why his wife left her way of life and source of income – is touched by the love of God emanating from every pore of that elderly priest’s being.
They are now frequent visitors to the centre.
It is the 90s. Crowds are thronging to DRC for healing and deliverance in the mighty name of Jesus. One little girl watches every move of an older priest closely and follows him about. She sees him pray over the sick and dares God that if He still heals people today, please show her a sign by healing a sick person she knows personally. God does the impossible; the sick man comes out of the chapel waving the Bible using his once paralysed hand. The girl bursts into tears and commits her heart to God.
That little girl grew up to be the writer of this story…
Three scenarios. One godly man. An amazing missionary and a simple, caring, committed priest. Fr George Panackal, who is one of the stalwarts of the Potta Catholic Charismatic Movement in Kerala. A man who went about tirelessly and even barefooted to every poor who needed prayer. A missionary priest responds faithfully to the mandate of Jesus Christ entrusted to His disciples: “Go out into the whole world: proclaim the Good News to all creation.” (Mark 16: 15) He still does that. But in the UK. And he marks his 70th birthday on Feb 2, 2019.
Fr Panackal was born to devout Catholic parents in Kerala, but was not a religious boy in the traditional sense. He fondly recollects how he literally ran off from his first Holy Mass when he was forced to serve as an altar boy. The call from God was too strong to leave and he did eventually enter the seminary. But even then another challenge cropped up when he could not be ordained a deacon as planned, along with his batchmates. Fr Panackal calls it his desert experience, when he learned to receive solace only from the Word of God. Eventually, this led him to becoming more sympathetic to those who went through hardships like the ones he faced.
After becoming a priest, Fr Panackal began to be immersed in the Popular Mission Retreats held by Vincentian priests across Kerala. It was the 90s when Kerala began to see a revival like no other. Known for his fiery preaching and kind hearted ways, he walked the paths angels feared to tread. Retreats that began with tens and hundreds soon saw thousands flocking to DRC. He was instrumental in helping DRC set up homes for the aged, for AIDS sufferers, for abandoned women and children. Today, DRC Kerala is the largest Catholic retreat centre in the world with retreats held in 7 different languages, 365 days a year.
His move to the UK as director of the Divine Retreat Centre in Ramsgate, Kent, was peppered with many challenges. Strengthened by his unwavering faith in God and supported by a small team of committed people, he began laying the groundwork for a centre, which today offers counselling and support to people from all walks of life. Weekly retreats are held on campus, as well as special conventions in both English and Indian regional languages. As his inner circle jokes, he would probably hold the record for preaching the maximum number of sermons across the nations. Today, DRC UK has two centres, thanks to the commitment of this on-fire-for-God priest – one in Ramsgate and the other in Darlington.
Anyone who meets Fr Panackal even once will never forget his charming smile and caring attitude. From bishops to laymen, to children to the sick, he treats each one with love and respect. Even when Kerala was drenched by the floodwaters in August 2018, Fr Panackal was in the fore front of rescue operations. He hired a boat, went hunting for food and delivered it all to the needy.
He is Panackal Pappa to one and all he meets. “I cannot rest until my own are fed and comforted” was his byword then and even today.
That is what makes a saint.
And that is what makes a simple unassuming priest from Kerala one of the finest missionaries the world has ever seen…