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Stepping up to the challenge

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Chances are that if you meet Fr Jeevan Gabriel smm he will be wearing comfortable shoes. Old habits die hard for the Indian priest who for four years walked thousands of kilometres through the mountains of his homeland serving the people of the Shanthi Nagar Tribal Mission.

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In June Fr Jeevan arrived in South Australia to begin a four year ministry in the Adelaide Archdiocese, where he will once again walk alongside the people – although perhaps not such great distances.

As he told The Southern Cross, his work as the parish priest for the Saura tribe in the mountains in the south of India was “very tough” and “challenging”.

“It’s an area where the people are still living on the mountains and there is no transport to reach them, so I had to walk… it was the only way!”

Each day Fr Jeevan would ride his bicycle 10km from his residence to the parish centre and from there set off by foot to reach the church that was earmarked to be visited that day. The furthest location was 37km away, and in hilly terrain it was common for him to be walking up to six hours each day. Besides keeping him fit, his visits to the remote areas were eagerly anticipated by the many faithful.

“We had about 600 families and nearly 10,000 Catholics, and there were 23 churches which were assigned to four centres,” he explained. Each centre would host a Mass once a month and then each church would be visited on a two-month rotation.

Raised in the city in a middle class family, Fr Jeevan said fulfilling the duties of a “walking missionary” was a totally new and enriching experience.

“The parish was very poor and I sacrificed so many things from the world I knew – there was no computer, no internet, no phone and no roads. But they were very happy people and I was happy as well.

“They’re living each day as it comes and unlike us, not worrying about tomorrow,” he said.

Fr Jeevan, 36, comes from an extended family with many priests and nuns and he always thought he would follow in their footsteps. Initially he was going to join the Jesuits, who had taught him at school, but was approached by the Montfort Fathers in Bangalore and was so inspired by their missionary work that he knew that was where he belonged.

That was in 1997 and over the next 16 years he undertook formation training and university studies, culminating in his ordination in 2012 which was a “wonderful celebration” attended by priests and religious, relatives and friends.

Following his work in the tribal mission, Fr Jeevan was appointed the administrator of the mission’s formation house for seminarians in Kerala.

Never having travelled overseas before, his appointment to Adelaide is a completely new experience. To help the assimilation process, he recently attended – along with 19 other priests from 10 nationalities – the winter acculturation program run by the ACBC in Sydney.

“We got a lot of information and it was a very enriching program,” he said.

Now back in Adelaide he is looking forward to once again walking among the people, “preparing them and keeping them strong in faith”.

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