Photo: CNEWA

“God has called me to radiate his love and care for these brothers and sisters without looking at their faith, caste, color, language.”

Some may remember the homily I preached last spring on India’s Bishop Jacob Mar Barnabas, a man I described as a “living saint.” He was in the hospital, fighting for his life in a long and difficult battle with COVID.

This morning, the battle ended:  

Bishop Dr Jacob Mar Barnabas of the Gurugram diocese of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church passed  away. near here on Thursday. He was 60. The Bishop was undergoing treatment for COVID-19. His condition worsened Thursday.

This is heartbreaking news for so many of us. As I put it last May:

His enthusiasm is infectious — and so is his love for the poor.

He bears witness to it every day.

When COVID first struck India over a year ago, families naturally came to him, looking for help. Many had lost jobs, livelihoods, homes. “We don’t have any place to go,” they said, “Please help us.”

And he did.

He set up a kitchen to prepare hot meals for 1,500 people a day. He organized volunteers, priests and religious in his diocese to distribute food, hygiene kits, protective equipment, masks.

This simple man with a long grey beard and flowing saffron robes climbed into a Jeep and traveled with workers to villages. When they arrived, he got out of the Jeep and put on rubber gloves and a mask and gave out food and supplies and blessings.

A year ago, as the pandemic was just beginning to spread, he wrote an essay describing the hundreds of people who were showing up every day outside his cathedral, waiting for help: old people, widows, families with children. Day after day, the bishop met with them, talked with them, brought food to them, prayed with them.

As he put it: “God has called me to radiate his love and care for these brothers and sisters without looking at their faith, caste, color, language. They find in our cathedral a place of consolation and comfort.”

That was a year ago. I don’t think he could have imagined what was coming.

In just the last few weeks, COVID has brought India to its knees.

Families have been wiped out. The death rate is soaring. Gravediggers can’t keep up. Funeral pyres burn day and night. Government officials can’t even keep an accurate account of the dead and dying, there are so many of them. Hundreds of thousands are fighting for their lives.

One of them is Bishop Jacob Mar Barnabas.

Three weeks ago, he was admitted to a hospital with a fever. It turned out to be COVID.

This morning, he is still in a hospital, on a ventilator, in critical condition.

But even that hasn’t stopped him.

One of his priests wrote, “Irrespective of his poor health, he was anxious about the poor on the street, that they are getting food daily or not. We have tried our best to fulfill his dreams and ensure the distribution of food to the poor.”

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord … 

Related: Mar Barnabas, Man on a Mission

Though I didn’t mention him by name, I also wrote about the bishop in The Busy Person’s Guide to Prayer:

One summer afternoon, I found myself in a small Vietnamese restaurant in midtown Manhattan, sharing a table for lunch with a couple other people—one of them, a bishop from India. He was from the northern part of the country, a place where most of the people are farmers or fishermen. The people, by and large, are poor. They travel on foot, if they travel at all, though some might have bicycles or own livestock they can hitch to a cart.

Significantly, it is a place, too, where many people have never heard the name “Jesus.”

This is no small thing; it is the very definition of what you might call “mission country.” There are few priests or brothers or sisters. The bishop has no fancy home. He has no budget, no big office, no staff, no cathedral. He spends much of his time traveling around the diocese, visiting different missions, often sleeping on the floor.

With few religious to serve this flock, most of those who are ministering to the faithful are lay people—catechists who lead prayer services, tell Bible stories or teach.

They are ready to spread the Gospel however they can, wherever they can, using whatever means they can, often at great risk. They live every day with the very real threat of martyrdom. “I tell them,” the bishop said over lunch, “at maximum you may lose your head. Get ready for it! And they respond, ‘We are ready!’”

Yet these courageous people do what they do anyway, in the face of daunting challenges, with love and zeal and unwavering, unshakable faith.

In most places, they don’t have Mass very often. But they try to make the most of it.  Sometimes, they will spend half a day walking to a village to attend Mass and then spend the other half of the day walking home, joyfully celebrating the simple fact that they were able to hear the Gospel proclaimed, see a priest to hear their confession or bless their children, and receive the Body of Christ.

The bishop described one woman who attended Mass whenever she could, however she could. She was not yet baptized, so she couldn’t receive the Eucharist. She would go to church—a makeshift affair outdoors, with plain wooden benches and a humble altar— and see her friends and neighbors receiving Communion, yet she couldn’t. This saddened her so much. This woman not only yearned for Christ —she literally hungered for him.

But although she couldn’t receive the Eucharist, she did what she felt was the next best thing. When someone went up for Communion, she would watch them, look to see where they were sitting, and she would then move to sit next to them in the pew.

In her heart, she said to herself: “Jesus is here. I want to be as close to him as I can.”

This was her Communion.

What love for the Lord! And what love for the Body of Christ.

This was her greatest joy.

It should be ours, too.

One person I spoke with this morning said he was “devastated” at this news. I’m sure many are feeling that way. In your charity, please pray for Bishop Mar Barnabas and the people who loved him — and ask him to pray for all of us who hunger for Christ, whoever we are, wherever we are.  I have no doubt this “living saint” now lives in Paradise.

We have lost so many good souls to COVID. This day, we pray in remembrance for all who have died from the virus, as well as those who are suffering, who are grieving, who are anxious or afraid.

Our Lady of Solace, comfort us and protect us.