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Father Jerome Moras: The priest and the Bambino

Father Jerome Moras: The priest and the Bambino

Posted: December 23, 1998

By Petanjali Sethi

As a boy growing up on a farm in Karnataka state, southern India, Jerome Moras' idea of a treat was an occasional Thursday visit to the big city of Mangalore (population: 250,000) for weekly devotion at a Shrine of the Infant Jesus of Prague there. One day he asked a Carmelite priest, "I know who the Infant Jesus is, but what is Prague?" "It's a city in Europe where Jesus appeared in order to work miracles," he was told. "I think it's in Czech-o-slo-va-ki-a." Little did the lad know that, by his early 30s, he would be serving as a priest in Prague's Kostel Panny Marie vitezne (Church of Our Lady Victorious), the home of a nearly 450-year-old wax doll revered as the Bambino di Praga. First brought here in 1628 by Polyxena of Lobkowicz, the Spanish bride of a Bohemian nobleman, this holy fashion plate boasts a wardrobe of 72 costumes that are changed periodically. Though Italian pilgrims gave the statue its name, its fame is global. As Sadakat Kadri writes in his Cadogan City Guide to Prague, "In Central America, there's said to be a tribe which worships it as a god, and has very confused notions about what Praga involves. ... After [18th-century] Countess Kolowrat touched it and had her sight and hearing restored, there was no looking back. Cripples and imbeciles poured in, and in 1741 enough money had been made to buy the doll its silver altar; during the early 1700s, it was granted the rights of a count palatine [holder of royal privileges]; while the most mysterious (some say miraculous) tribute came in 1958, when an official delegation from communist North Vietnam stepped off the plane with a set of silk clothes for the Bambino. To this day, no one knows why." In the late Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England - in which a bunch of Bolivians manage to replace the Bambino with a doll wearing a Moravian folk costume - the novelist writes that "millions of South American Indians wore replicas of it on chains around their necks and had a legend that Prague was the most beautiful city in the world and that the Infant Jesus had gone to school there." In Mangalore, where Jerome Moras went to school and first encountered the Infant Jesus of Prague, as many as 1,000 worshippers attend each Thursday's devotion service. Moras, the third of six sons (there is also a daughter) came from a very devout family. His father, now 69, still farms the south Indian soil; his mother died 15 years ago, at age 50 from a brain hemorrhage. Moras was drawn to the strict but simple lifestyle practiced by the Discalced (or barefoot) Carmelites, who are strong in southern India. As an adolescent, he particularly cherished the biblical question asked in both Matthew, 16:26 and Mark, 8:36: "What profits a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?" At 18, Moras joined the Carmelite order in Mangalore for a seminary course at St. Joseph monastery that lasted a dozen years. With required studies in English, Latin and three Indian languages as well as comparative religions, only three of the 14 students who started the rigorous program finished it. One of the three was Jerome Moras; the other two are still in India. Ordained early in 1995 at Mangalore's Shrine of the Infant Jesus, after serving there six months as a priest, Father Jerome was deemed worthy of export to Europe. His arrival later that year in the Carmelites' regional headquarters outside Genoa, Italy, coincided with a request from Prague to "send us a good priest." The order had regained the church and the Bambino from state custody in 1993. After just a month in the Italian monastery, Father Jerome arrived in Prague on Dec. 18, 1995. "He's the best Christmas present we ever got," says his superior, Father Marco Chiolerio. On a Saturday in mid-December 1998, after preaching a sermon in Czech at his 17th-century Baroque church in Mala Strana, the Barefoot Carmelite Father Jerome hurried off in a waiting embassy car to give a Bambino blessing to the Philippine mission. That night, after the church's Spanish language mass, a VIP visitor to Prague, Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, came to pay his respects to the Bambino. Father Jerome, 35, is a handsome, very straightforward, clear-headed optimist who is at peace in a city not noted nowadays for religion or belief in God. "I feel good in Prague," he says in slightly singsong English. "The weather is OK, despite fluctuating temperatures." Although he comes from a southern climate, he prefers winter in Prague "because the people are better-dressed than in the summer, with those short dresses. We don't dress that way in India, even though it's much hotter." Some of the church's summer visitors and year-round neighbors, he suggests, are wearing less than the Bambino. Father Jerome feels that whenever he voices such mild disapproval, Czechs bristle. "Let me tell you," the priest remarks. "It seems to me that Czech people cannot accept criticism. They grow cold to you and they speak badly of you behind your back." But he adds: "They really cannot be judged by me." Nevertheless, he finds the Czech Republic "a calm, quiet place." He adds, "There is even time to write letters home. I am busy with my church work and feel particularly happy on Sundays, when our house is full." Though the pews are packed with people, only 20-30 percent of them are local believers. The rest are tourists (up to 750 a day) and pilgrims. "Ours is not just a church," says Father Jerome. "It is a shrine. At Christmas and New Year's, it is filled to overflowing. Not just for the Bambino, but for the [J.J.] Ryba Christmas mass; the whole mass is sung and everybody loves it." Father Jerome will conduct mass in English at noon on both Christmas and New Year; he will also participate in the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. On New Year's Day, the Infant Jesus will wear a green velvet, gold-embroidered dress to honor the 255th anniversary of its donation to the church by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa on Jan. 1, 1743. To master the rudiments of Czech, Father Jerome took four months of intensive study - four hours a day - at the state language school on Narodni trida. He doffs the brown robes of the Carmelite order whenever he leaves the church on Karmelitska street, but even in civilian clothes he sometimes wears a priestly collar: "If I go out as a priest, however, I cannot easily be accepted among the people of the city," he says. A few natives speak to him, though most people in Prague pay little heed to outsiders: "They ask if I am American or Mexican - and that's it." The priest is not concerned about any absence of cordiality: "It could be that during the harsh communist rule, under which all Czechs suffered, their original character changed. Besides, if Czechs are friends, they are very understanding, very good people." After Father Jerome's Sunday sermon, some of the faithful come together in the west wing of the church for a cup of tea or a light lunch. "These get-togethers are interactive," he says. From them he gets the feeling that "out there" is a growing curiosity about religion and God, which he endeavors to fuel - sometimes just by answering questions about himself and what he's doing here. "Many are on the verge of taking religion," he says. "All they need is good advice and encouragement. That's where the church can play a good role." But Moras and the two other priests at the Church of Our Lady Victorious walk a lonely path that is long and winding. They know it will take time for religion to again become an integral part of Czech life. Father Jerome's best Czech friend is Borek Kibic, an economics professor defrocked by the communists in the 1950s and put to work building the highways of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In the 1960s, when a window of opportunity to travel opened briefly, Kibic visited India, Japan and the Far East before the "normalizers" of the 1970s took away his passport. Now, at 75, Kibic is teaching English in a language school here - and taking care of his church's Indian priest. "He treats me like his own son," says Father Jerome. "If I am sick or need anything, he immediately comes. And he and his family invite me to their home in Podoli very often." Mr. and Mrs. Kibic recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with Father Jerome's blessing in the church. In his three years here, the priest has also officiated at four weddings (one in Czech; the rest in English), six baptisms and one funeral. He takes hope for a resurgence in religion from a slight trend toward church baptisms of babies in Bohemia and Moravia. A church that is involved in birth will eventually be concerned with weddings and funerals, too. "This tells me," Father Jerome adds optimistically, "there certainly is a light at the end of the tunnel."

By Petanjali Sethi

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