Venerable Father Joseph Vithayathil Spiritual Director of?Saint Mariam Thresia and Co-Founder of the Congregation of Holy Family
Father Joseph Vithayathil has played a unique and decisive role in the life of Blessed Mariam Thresia and in the early years of the Congregation of Holy Family so as to merit the title of co-founder. Since much of the evidence concerning the life and sanctity of Blessed Mariam Thresia is drawn from his writings, it seems good to give here a brief account of the life, activities, and personality of this holy man.
He was born on 23 July 1865 as the son of Joseph and Anna Vithayathil, a prominent family in the parish of Manambady, Puthempally in Kerala. He had two brothers, Varkey and Paily, and two sisters, Annam and Mariam. Quite early in his life, he showed an ardent desire to be in the service of God. Therefore, with the consent of the parents, and prompted by his own desire, he lived one year with the parish priest Fr. ScariaNaganoolil and learnt to serve at Mass. On 30 May 1881 when he was 15 years old, he began his priestly training under Fr. Rector Rev. Alphonsus, T.O.C.D., in the seminary annexed to the Elthuruth monastery. In November 1883 he received the first tonsure from Bishop Marcellino, who had been appointed in 1877 Administrator for the Christians of the Syriac Rite. He received the first, the second and the third minor orders in 1884, 1885 and 1886 respectively.
Bishop Adolf Medleycott, who was nominated the Vicar Apostolic of Trichur in 1887, transferred Joseph and his companions to the St. Thomas Seminary. After his studies in the St. Thomas Minor Seminary, he was sent to the Puthenpally Major Seminary, whose rector was Fr. Bonifacius O.C.D. There he received his priestly training under Fr. Bonifacius, Fr. Eliseus, and Fr. Lodovicus Gasper. On 8 December 1892 he received the fourth minor order Acolyte at the Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Trichur. He received subdiaconate and diaconate in April 1891 and in October 1893 respectively in Puthenpally seminary. On 11 March 1894, he, together with eleven of his companions, received the priestly ordination in the parish church at Ollur and offered his first mass on 26th of the same month in the same church. He was then appointed assistant parish priest at Ollur on 23 April 1894 and vicar of Mukkattukara on 15 December 1894. On 1 February 1895 he was appointed vicar of Kandassankadavu. After two years service as parish priest in Kandassankadavu, he took rest for some time in his home parish. During this period he also worked for two months as acting parish priest at Chalakudy and eight months at Edathuruthy. After this period of rest, he was appointed parish priest at Pariyaram where he worked for two years. From there he was transferred to Kottekad. After fifteen days there, he became ill. When he recovered from his illness, he was appointed vicar at Mala. From there, after a period of 8 months, on his own petition, he was transferred to Puthenchira on 30 April 1902, where he did pastoral work until 15 January 1922.
When the Congregation of the Holy Family was erected by Mar John Menachery on 14 May 1914, Fr. Joseph Vithayathil, who was then parish priest of Puthenchira, was appointed its chaplain. Even before the erection of the Congregation, it was Fr. Joseph Vithayathil who stood by Blessed Mariam Thresia and guided her in the struggles of her soul and the search for the realization of her ardent desire for a life of religious commitment and her vision of Christianization of families. Realizing the intense thirst of Thresia for a `solitary house' for prayer, Fr.JosephVithayathil approached the Bishop on her behalf several times. But the bishop wanted to test her integrity and sent her to the Carmelite Convent at Ollur in 1913. Convinced that her vocation was not to the Carmelite Order, Thresia returned to Puthenchira, where Fr.JosephVithayathil, as requested by the bishop, built for her the `solitary house' which was blessed in October 1913. This solitary house was actually a potential religious community. Fr. Vithayathil himself prepared a programme of life for Thresia. Under his spiritual direction and observation Thresia started living in this house along with her companions, leading a life of prayer and service. On 14 May 1914, the bishop, in consultation with Fr. Vithayathil, erected in this solitary house a new congregation by the name of Holy Family, with Thresia as the superior and Fr. Vithayathil as the Chaplain.
Fr.JosephVithayathil's role as the protector and co-founder of the Holy Family Congregation is quite significant. Both Thresia and Fr. Vithayathil worked together, with the limited resources at their disposal, but above all trusting in the providence of God, to bring up the congregation. At her death on 8 June 1926, Blessed Mariam Thresia left the infant congregation in the care of Fr.JosephVithayathil. With tender care and concern he continued to guide the twelve year old congregation. He took up the reigns of the congregation as the divine plan of God, starting new branches, and projects, enlisting new members and benefactors. He trusted above all in the Lord. When all were asleep he used to sneak away quietly to the chapel. One could see him kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament for hours as if he were casting all his burdens on the Lord and drawing power and strength from Him. When the first General Council was formed with Mother Isabel as the Mother General, he entrusted the administration in their hands.
Fr. Joseph Vithayathil was a dear loving Father to all the Sisters of the congregation. From the time of Blessed Mariam Thresia, he was always called by the Sisters and the people as well, as `Pithavu' an endearing term for a loving father, and as a sign of respect.
According to the direction of the Bishop, Fr.JosephVithayathil asked Blessed Mariam Thresia to write down her life story from early childhood. The result is the Autobiographical Notes of Blessed Mariam Thresia which deals with her life experiences and events of life until 1905. But events after 1905 till the foundation of the congregation are found in her letters to Fr.JosephVithayathil. The diary of Fr.JosephVithayathil provides a beautiful biography of Blessed Mariam Thresia. The loving bond which existed between Blessed Mariam Thresia and Fr. Joseph Vithayathil seems to have been solemnized by God by calling him to heaven on 8 June 1964, after 48 years of Blessed Mariam Thresia's death on 8 June 1926. Thus 8 June has become a doubly blessed day for the Congregation of the Holy Family.
The Vatican congregation declared FrVithayathil as a Servant of God, the first in the canonization process, on June 7, 2004. On December 14, 2015 Pope Francis authorized the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to promulgate decrees recognizing the heroic virtues of Father Vithayathil and 16 others from various parts of the world and declared him Venerable.
Fr. Vithayathil's was a life that had first experienced beyond measure God's merciful love and then was devoted to sharing the same love with everyone without exception. As his seventy years of priestly life shows, Fr. Vithayathil was a person who always strove to live in union with the Triune God, experiencing the mercy of God the Father, the love of Jesus Christ and the companionship of the Holy Spirit. His daily life was a clear manifestation of his deep faith and trust in divine mercy. He had the certainty that God, in whom he believed and whom he loved and adored, is a God of mercy, who loves and saves everyone without any discrimination. He experienced God not as a judge but as a merciful and benevolent father. This particular way of experiencing God inspired him to instruct others to be truly loving and compassionate to all, especially to the sick, the weak, the poor and the suffering. In his eyes, every man and woman is a child of God and so is to be treated with love, respect and dignity (Cf. Exh. 3).
Taking his cue from Jesus' teaching that one should be merciful to one's brethren as one's heavenly Father is merciful to one (Lk 6:36), Fr. Vithayathil strove with all his might to be an apostle of God's mercy all through his life. Through the long hours of contemplative prayer in the presence of the Eucharistic Lord, he was able to draw constantly from the ocean of God's mercy. His experience of the fullness of God's mercy was renewed everyday through his celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of God's saving love. Fr. Vithayathil's fidelity to the administration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and his availability in the confessional were the expression of his eagerness to make others experience God's mercy and love. He transmitted God's mercy to the sinners and to those who strayed away from the Church through his merciful and fatherly approach. One may say that he administered this Sacrament of God's forgiving love with the zeal and fervour of St. John Maria Vianney.
An important aspect of Venerable Fr. Vithayathil's pastoral ministry was its orientation to family. It is normally in the family that one gets the first experience of what gratuitous love is and of being accepted, loved and forgiven by God. He had the conviction that helping to renew family life was an effective means of enabling people to have a personal and concrete experience of God's mercy and love. Fondly people used to refer to him as 'a loving father to all.' His intercession for the wellbeing of the universal Church and the world resulted from his participation in God's merciful love. He was known for being kind-hearted to the members of his family and to the Sisters of the Congregation of the Holy Family, and especially to his spiritual daughter Blessed Mariam Thresia. He cultivated a personal relationship with the ecclesiastical authorities and brother priests. He was in close contact with the faithful and their families and took initiatives to bring about prosperity and development of the society. He had a preferential love for the poor and the destitute. The boarders, the domestic workers, the sick and the suffering found in him a warm-hearted father. He was keenly interested in preserving nature and caring for animals. His compassion went beyond all distinctions of caste and religion, and visibly mirrored God's universal love and mercy.
Venerable Fr. Joseph Vithayathil's sharp sense of justice and humanity was evident in his dealings with the poor and the workers; he treated them with love and respect, thereby witnessing to God's mercy. He took personal interest in the poor; he was always generous to the poor even when he himself was under financial strain. Sharing with others was a second nature to him. His workers used to describe his merciful concern for them thus, 'Father would fulfil all our needs, once he came to know of them.' He not only paid wages to the workers, but also was attentive to provide for their families whenever they were under duress. It was by reducing his own expenses and leading a very simple life that he was able to find the means to help the poor and the needy.
According to St. John Paul II and St. Faustina Maria Kowlasksa, the virtue of mercy is the greatest attribute of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Venerable Fr. Joseph Vithayathil was a fervent devotee of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and had a loving and compassionate heart particularly for those who were undergoing trials and hardships. His priestly ministries were godsend occasions for him to communicate Jesus' merciful love to everyone who would cross his path. In sum, Venerable Fr. Joseph Vithayathil was in every way an instrument of God's merciful love to one and all, especially to 'all those who are weary and burdened' (Mt 11:28).