News’s Mission India: A New Openness to Life

By John-Henry Westen

This a continued report of the travels and experiences of myself and my wife Dianne on our recent journey to India. See part 1 of this report here:

Divine Retreat Centre EntranceOur arrival at the Divine Retreat Centre in Muringoor - Potta, Kerala was awe-inspiring. The many buildings and facilities, enough to house and feed tens of thousands at a time, have all been afforded solely by free-will donations.
  And that was only the English section. Across the road was another, even larger, centre serving the people in the native tongue of Malayalam. Over 10 million people have attended retreats at the centre since 1990. Every week, year round, anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 people attend a retreat and are all housed and fed by the centre.

The schedule for the participants was, by Western standards, gruelling. A 5:30 am wake-up call left an hour to arrive at the first prayer and praise and worship session. At 7:30am the first talk began with a breakfast from 8:30 – 10am. Another praise and worship session followed and then from 10:30am – 11:15 another talk. A short 15 minute break was followed by another praise and worship session, which immediately preceded another 45 minute talk bringing us to 12:30 and lunch. At 2:30pm we were at another praise and worship session for half an hour followed by a panel discussion lasting till 4:15pm. Tea and snacks were available till 5:45pm.

Another 15 minutes of praise and worship got things rolling again with an hour and a quarter devoted to a Mass thereafter. Immediately following Mass was an adoration session with guided meditations lasting an hour. And an 8:15pm dinner was available in the eating halls. After dinner, musical entertainment brought us to 10pm, after which there was a silent prayer session for half an hour lasting till 10:30pm.ÂÂ

Divine Retreat BandSuch were the daily schedules at the retreat centre. The praise and worship sessions were accompanied by very professional and entertaining musicians, some of whom had been international rock stars prior to their conversions to this exclusive service to Christ. The speakers too were professional and motivating. They were full of energy and able to keep the youth spell-bound.ÂÂ

The prayer sessions were markedly charismatic with much raising of hands and many Hallelujahs. There was however no perceptible showmanship in all this, but a sincerity of faith and love for God which was striking.ÂÂ
  Watching many young people weep in silent prayer sessions out of love for God and repentance of their sins was a sight I will cherish for many years to come.

Needless to say sleep came easily after the busy day.ÂÂ

I was to deliver three talks at the centre and two at other locations in Kerala. My main subject, openness to life, was one that struck to the heart of most of my listeners since, despite being very faithful, the vast majority had only one or two children, or came from families where they were an only child or had only one sibling.

The talk I was to give to the youth, some 5000 of them, was on a Thursday – the day of fasting. The fast takes place on Thursday in remembrance of the attempt to poison the attendees at the retreat centre some eight years ago.Â

Anti-Catholic radicals had stolen into the retreat centre posing as pilgrims, and poisoned the food. However one of the centre’s founders a Fr. Matthew Naickomparambil, who was in another city at the time, had a vision that the food was poisoned. He called the retreat centre before the meal was served and asked them to feed some of the food to the dogs first. The dogs all died some short time later. The centre dumped all the prepared food and all the attendees had to go without food that Thursday. The lives of 16,000 pilgrims were spared that day.

Divine Youth Retreat 2006 CrowdMy talk was scheduled for 3-4pm, the last hour before the fast was ended with the serving of tea and snacks. The youth were nevertheless very attentive and incredibly respectful.

I asked them who could tell me God’s first command to man. After many began to answer the first of the Ten Commandments, I informed them that this command predated the Ten Commandments; it was in fact given immediately after God created Adam and Eve according to the Biblical account. In the first chapter of the Scriptures in Genesis 1:28 God tells Adam and Eve after their creation: “Be fruitful and multiply”.

I noted the abortifacient nature of the birth control pill, the morning after pill and the IUD, which came as news to many. I also brought up condoms and sterilization and the fact that they close off God’s action in lives. Even natural family planning, when practiced with a contraceptive mentality, was problematic in this regard.

Being the father of seven children, I shared with them the decision my wife and I had come to - that of being open to God’s design on our fertility. We practiced “Super-natural family planning.” The thousands of young people and couples in attendance had been asked by all the speakers, and priests to abandon themselves to God. That same abandonment could be practiced regarding sexuality as well.ÂÂ

Divine Centre Youth Retreat 2006bThese short remarks stirred the crowds at all of the talks, and the pregnant sense of questioning was in the air.ÂÂ They knew and understood that in certain extreme cases of medical necessity or psychological and emotional necessity natural family planning was perfectly fine, but they understood too, that beyond that most were called to be open to life. However, how were they to educate their children properly, to afford them life’s good things, while having many children?

Our own example and that of the many large families I am blessed to be associated with provided some answers and examples. However, those cases were from relatively affluent Canada, and this was India where poverty still existed, where health care and education, wages, and opportunity were not nearly as abundant. How can we feed a large family here?

The only answer is trusting in Providence. The large families in Canada experienced similar questions and concerns, even in the more affluent country.ÂÂ

One clear example of such providence was right before our eyes. Sitting in the huge outdoor pavilion, the thousands of pilgrims were at this centre being fed, housed and entertained having only paid about four dollars to attend. The ridiculously low fee could not possibly cover the massive amount of food, the entertainment, and the lodgings the centre provided. And yet, the same centre runs similar conferences and retreats for thousands each and every week of the year. It is a standing miracle of providence in poverty-stricken India. No retreat centre in the world compares with its abundance.

So, I told my listeners, if God can provide food and shelter for the hundreds of thousands who come here every year, because of the faithfulness of the priests and volunteers that trust in Him here at the centre, surely He can provide for the children He blesses you with as well.

Divine Youth Retreat 2006 clergyThese simple thoughts stirred the crowds. And after my talks were over, crowds of women surrounded my good wife asking her the more practical questions they had about living a life of openness to God’s designs on fertility. My wife was suddenly aware that she was not in India merely tagging along for the ride, she was the example of my remarks, the real-life proof of the possibility of openness to life. She was given the opportunity to share with many, many Indian women on a one-to-one basis about the joys and struggles of large family life.

One couple stands out in my mind, who approached me after a talk. They were both in tears and informed me that they already had two children, one 15 and one 9. They said they felt inspired to be open to life and hoped now that God would bless them with another child.

At one of the talks a woman stood up in the back during question period and stated in very sophisticated English that there was a need for population control in India and that NFP was therefore a responsibility to be practiced by Catholics to keep their numbers down. In response, I explained about the inherent racism of population control (see )

I added, after a sudden inspiration, the fact that in Canada, where most couples have only had one or two children for many years, our number of priests has suffered terribly. I explained that while India is still booming with priests and religious, in Canada many parishes are forced to close for lack of priests. Some priests, particularly those in rural areas, are required to serve as many as three different parishes. I added that the situation was also likely to become worse with some dioceses having only a couple of new seminarians per year.ÂÂÂ

I noted also what I learned from the Vice Chancellor of the Cochin diocese in Kerala, namely that the numbers of seminarians in the diocese had decreased by two thirds in the last 15 years. However since the numbers went from 900 to a still considerable 300, the effect of the massive decrease could not yet be felt.

As people were milling out and extending very cordial greetings, the noble-looking elderly woman who had disagreed with me approached. She said to me, “You’ve changed my mind.” She added that had they had more children, Keralans could have sent more priests abroad, even to Canada to help with the massive shortage of priests.

Immediately afterward, I was approached by a surgeon in his early forties who spoke with me at length about the problems with in vitro fertilization, about NFP and sterilization, asking very hard and pointed questions. I enjoyed the vigorous back and forth of the argument and it was apparent that my questioner was similarly enjoying the debate. He ended off by thanking me for my talk, telling me, “We’ve never had such clarity on these issues.”Â
  He added that it was good that I had convinced the elderly woman. She was his mother, he explained, a highly regarded professor who is also engaged in a major role in the diocese teaching Natural Family Planning.

Stay tuned for Part three of’s Mission to India coming later this week.

Divine Retreat Centre website

  Previous India articles by John-Henry:

Indian Cardinal Warns Catholics it is Sinful to Refuse God’s Gift of Children Without Grave Reasons

Indian Catholic Prelate Sees Faith in India Drying Up Within 20 Years

India Pro-Life Leader Explains How West Hurts India with Imposed Population Control,

  Mission India:’s Journey to India
  Part 1: The call and the journey

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