By Rock Ronald Rozario
His missionary experience at St. Edmund Catholic Church in Limbang, a town in Sarawak state in Malaysian Borneo, has left an indelible mark on the life of Father Christu Kolabathina, better known as Ravindra Babu.
The Indian priest from St. Joseph Missionary Society of Mill Hill (popularly known as Mill Hill Missionaries) has served as the assistant pastor of a parish in Miri Diocese since September 2018.
The second of five children, Father Ravindra was educated in Catholic schools in India. The first part of his missionary and priestly formation including philosophy studies was completed in India and then he was sent to St. Joseph Formation Center in Nairobi, Kenya, for theological studies.
He spent two years in a missionary experience program in the Diocese of Kroonstad in South Africa and was ordained a priest on Feb. 3, 2016, in the Archdiocese of Hyderabad in India.
Limbang Parish is Father’s Ravindra’s second missionary assignment. He landed in his first mission as a priest for Lapok Parish, also in Miri Diocese, in June 2016.
Together with parish priest Father Peter Huang, the young missionary priest has traveled extensively to meet local Catholics and tend to the pastoral needs of Limbang spread across 55 kampungs (clustered villages) — 53 accessible by car and two by boat.
Father Ravindra has named his mission in Malaysia “Active Mission” as it inspires him to perform his priestly ministry with great joy and do even more
He has been involved in house blessings, farm blessings, visits to the sick and expressing the Word of God through art, traditional and online Masses and music, among other things.
Father Ravidnra is passionate about art. He formed a “Mill Hill Team” with three local Catholics led by him to run a catechesis program through art for children in Limbang. Some 90 children registered for the program.
Father Ravindra’s mission continues despite challenges including the language barrier, cultural differences and traditional superstitions.
Lapok Parish is composed of many races and the priest looked after Catholics who speak various languages and dialects — Bahasa Malayu, Iban, Kenyah, Kayan, Baravan, Sebub and Penan. He learned Bahasa Malayu and Iban to communicate and celebrate Mass. He also learned Mandarin, the language spoken by many Chinese-Malaysians.
In Limbang, people speak Mandarin, Iban and Bisaya. The parish is located in a border zone with Brunei and to reach the area from Miri visitors need to have a visa. A flight from Miri takes 30 minutes to reach Limbang.
Father Ravindra devoted himself to learning local languages in order to come close to the people.
“I realized during my stay in East and South Africa that language is a primary tool in the life of a missionary and that without knowing their language it is very difficult to really be in touch with the people,” the priest explained.
While serving in Limbang, Father Ravindra has also come face to face with superstitions such as the power of black magic as he visited the sick.
“I came across around 35 individuals who had experienced some sort of black magic attack and were seriously injured and ill for many years. I thank God that today they are free from all such evils,” he recently wrote on Mill Hill Missionaries’ website.
Father Ravindra thanks God for his beautiful and wonderful priestly ministry as he prepares to join Tatau Parish as a rector to work with Father Alex, an Indian Claretian priest. He looks forward to the future with joy.
The missionary says he experiences the joy of Christ in the lives of people to whom he ministers and is greatly inspired by the words of Pope Francis, who once said that “priests should be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”
Muslims make up about 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million population, while Christians account for about 10 percent, making up the third-largest religious group. Most Christians hail from Sarawak and Sabah states in Borneo region.
About 1.2 million Catholics are spread across the three archdioceses and six dioceses of Malaysia.
Mill Hill Missionaries and St. Joseph
While Father Ravindra finds joy in his mission in Malaysia, Mill Hill missionaries have faced abuse and persecution in various parts of the world including Asia.
During the Second World War, the Japanese detained and executed eight Mill Hill missionaries including German monsignor A. Wachter in Malaysia, while other British and Dutch missionaries were also detained.
In 1991, English missionary Father Louis Purcell was forced to leave Kota Kinabalu in Sabah state after the government refused him a visa extension.
In 2011, the Indian government deported Dutch Father Jim Borst, the only Mill Hill missionary in Muslim-majority Kashmir, after unproven allegations of conversion were made against him.
Mill Hill Missionaries is a prominent Catholic religious order of priests and brothers founded in Mill Hill, London, in 1866 by Father Herbert Vaughan, who later became archbishop of Westminster and subsequently a cardinal.
The religious order is considered one of the first missionary efforts of English-speaking Catholics and was recognized by the Vatican in 1908.
The order’s first mission was in the United States in 1871. In the 1890s, the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart split from Mill Hill Missionaries to become an independent religious society.
Mill Hill Missionaries strives “to create deep spiritual Christ-like communities everywhere and offering our own spiritually rooted international fellowship as a sign that the Kingdom of God is present and operating in our world today.”
The society celebrated its 150th founding anniversary in its operational regions and countries in 2016.
Today, its missionaries are present in regions of Europe, Asia, North and South America, where they hold missionary activities in churches and run prominent education institutes.
The order was gladdened when Pope Francis declared 2021 the Year of St. Joseph to mark the 150th anniversary of the declaration of St. Joseph as the patron of the universal Church. The pope issued an apostolic letter, Patris Corde (With A Father’s Heart), last December dedicating the period from Dec. 8, 2020, to Dec. 8, 2021, to St. Joseph.
Cardinal Vaughan, the founder of Mill Hill Missionaries who had a profound devotion to St. Joseph, led a campaign in the 19th century that gathered 150,000 petitions and was sent to Pope Pius IX, which compelled the pope to entrust the universal Church to St. Joseph, the husband of Mother Mary and adoptive father of Jesus.