Indian-born priest will have much to celebrate this Fourth of July
by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — It might have not been his most dignified moment.
But it sure was fun.
When Father Arul Carasala saw his first snow, he was 37 years old, and the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul in Onaga, St. Patrick Parish in Corning, St. Bede Parish in Kelly, and St. Columbkille in Blaine.
And he made the most of it.
“I went out and rolled and rolled in it, and caught it in my hand,” enthused Father Carasala. “I never had done so before in my life.”
That was in 2004 — his first winter away from his native India.
But that was only the first of many adventures in this exotic, faraway place called Kansas.
Adventures that have led Father Carasala to a moment that was very dignified indeed.
On May 20, at the Federal Courthouse in Topeka, Father Carasala raised his right hand, swore an oath, and became an American citizen.
Everything that is America — all its history and celebrations — is now his.
“I’m really going to celebrate this Fourth of July,” he said. “Before, every time I’ve been to a Fourth of July celebration, I considered myself an outsider.”
That’s right, everything American is his — including the national debt.
“Yes,” he laughed. “Now I’m part of the problem.”
All kidding aside, becoming an American means a lot to Father Carasala.
“The judge who received the new citizens opened up the floor to any of the new citizens to give a testimony of what the day meant to them, and Father Carasala was one of three who volunteered to speak,” said Father Brian Schieber, vicar for clergy and one of the priests who accompanied Father Carasala to the momentous occasion.
“So Father Carasala got up and spoke about how he appreciated the religious freedom we have in the United States,” continued Father Schieber, “and how wonderful it is that he could be welcomed here as a Catholic priest and preach the Gospel. He felt proud to be a United States citizen and enjoy religious freedom.”
Father Carasala was ordained a priest on March 4, 1994, for the Diocese of Cuddapah, located on the southeast coast of India.
The diocese has more than 90,000 Catholics, but they only represent 1.4 percent of a population that numbers more than 6 million. About 80 percent of the population is Hindu. The diocese includes Chennai (also known as Madras), the fifth-most populous city in India.
Father Carasala was invited to visit Kansas by Archbishop James P. Keleher to possibly serve as a pastor. Father Carasala agreed . . . and has been in Kansas since 2004.
He briefly served as an associate pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Fidelity, and then was named pastor of four parishes: St. Vincent de Paul in Onaga, St. Patrick Parish in Corning, St. Bede Parish in Kelly, and St. Columbkille in Blaine. This month, he will become pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca.
Moving to Kansas meant culture shock, followed by adjustments.
For example, small-town Kansas is downright calm compared to Chennai/ Madras, which is “commotion 24/7, day and night,” according to Father Carasala. And the wide-open spaces of Kansas are very wide and very open compared to Chennai, but you can get around faster.
“The distance from Onaga to the chancery is 100-plus miles, less than two hours,” he said. “In India, it would be five to six hours. The traffic is so huge, and the roads are so narrow. I had no clue you could travel that distance [in Kansas] in that short amount of time.”
He also found that the America of his imagination didn’t quite match the Kansas he discovered.
“When I came to America, I had my own imagination,” he said. “It would be all skyscrapers and huge, tall buildings. When I came to Onaga, I said, ‘Where are all the buildings and people?’ It’s far, wide-open land, and you don’t see anybody and those busy streets.”
Kansas, he learned, is cattle country. So is India, but with a twist: They don’t eat the cows. Hindus — the majority population of India — regard the cow as sacred. Consequently, a good steak is hard to find.
“I never ate beef in my life until I came here,” said Father Carasala. “My friend Father Harry Schneider took me to a Kansas City barbecue place.”
“I was not fully open to eating beef,” Father Carasala continued. “He talked to me and ordered barbecue ribs. So I started to eat it.”
After picking the bones clean, Father Carasala is now a confirmed ribs man.
Another revelation concerned Kansas agriculture. There are farms in India, of course, but there the work is done manually.
“I talked to a farmer and asked how many days it would take to harvest 100 acres, and he said he could do it in a day,” said Father Carasala. “I said, ‘What? In India, it would take almost a month.’”
Becoming an American doesn’t mean cutting ties to India, said Father Carasala. As an American of Indian birth, the Indian government grants him OCI status — Overseas Citizen of India. As an OCI, he doesn’t need a visa to go to India. And his American citizenship makes travel here and elsewhere easier.
“It’s not exactly dual citizenship,” said Father Carasala. “My primary citizenship is United States.”
Fortunately, however, his new home boasts a diversity of culture that allows him to become fully American while retaining his cultural identity.
“I can be a part of America and not lose any part of my individuality,” he said.
And part of this whole journey through place and culture is his priesthood. The priesthood — indeed, the church — is universal. The church is home wherever he is.
“One thing that is universal about me is being a priest — able to be part of the one, universal and apostolic church,” said Father Carasala.
“I needed training in every bit of my transition into the culture — the language, the society and the system,” he added. “But the only thing I needed [to transition into the church in Kansas] was to show myself at the sacristy, get ready, and present myself at the altar and celebrate the Mass.”
Oftentimes, an immigrant hears about that vague and nebulous concept called “The American Dream.” It means different things to different people. For Father Carasala, it has meant a whole new way of life, and religious freedom to top it all off — all gain, no loss.
“I am not losing anything by becoming an American citizen,” he said. “I am adding more to my individuality. I can identify myself with where I came from and who I am, and continue that into the next transitional stage: being American.
“And it will help me to grow and have more opportunities to grow for the betterment of myself, my faith, and my goals.”