Servant of God Father Thomas
The mad monk,
Founder of the Rosariens
The real name of this Hindu “rishi” (wise man) was Bastiampillai Anthonipillai; but because of his great intelligence and his dedication to study, his classmates in the seminary called him “The Philosopher.” Fr. Louis Coquil, O.M.I., his professor, recognizing his profound understanding of Thomism, with great acumen, called him by the name of the Angelic Doctor: Thomas, and so he would be called from then on.
Anthonipillai was born on March 7, 18 86, in Padiyanthalvu, a village near Jaffna (Sri Lanka). The newborn was so weak that they did not think he would survive a single day. But contrary to all predictions, in spite of his weakness and precarious health, he would reach the age of 78 years. Having completed his primary studies, he went on to the prestigious St. Patrick’s College in Jaffna, run by the Oblates. In 1903, he brilliantly passed his exams from Cambridge University with “summa cum laude”.
A DEEP-SEATED VOCATION
Because of his delicate health and his constant dependence on doctors and pharmacies, he had given up the idea of priesthood. But one day in Sacred Scripture class, the professor was explaining the urgency of the fundamental call of Jesus: “If someone wants to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross and follow me.” (Matt 16:24) These words were decisive. He mustered all his strength and, moving straight ahead, he overcame all obstacles to the priesthood. Along with other Oblate candidates, he left for Colombo to begin the novitiate. In the scholasticate, aware of his own limitations that kept him from physical work, he gave himself fully to his studies. His illness got worse to the point that he thought he was dying and they gave him Extreme Unction (as it was called in those days). Just before his ordination, because of his physical weakness, the Bishop did not want to lay hands on him. But the young Oblate insisted and was ordained on January 6, 1912.
FRIEND OF THE HINDUS
The doctor assumed that he would not live very long. He recommended to his superiors that they assign Thomas to a calm and peaceful life. Therefore, they sent him to St. Patrick’s College. But once there, he became involved in a very busy activity. They put him in charge of the Hindu Residence. Since he had studied Hindu writings and Hindu classics, he started some serious dialogue with his Hindu students. Without any proselytism, but simply by his presence and witness, some of them embraced the Catholic faith. Some even became priests: three Oblates, two diocesan and a Rosarian.
PIONEER OF CHRISTIAN ASHRAMS
In 1924, Pius XI, the Pope of the Missions, published the encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae. In it, he asks missionary bishops to set up contemplative communities in mission countries. Bishop Alfred Guyomard, O.M.I., Bishop of Jaffna, a good friend of Father Thomas, aware of his gifts and his knowledge of western monasticism, urged him to found contemplative monasteries on the island. “You are my bishop,” humbly replied this sick and ailing Oblate, “you represent for me Christ and His Vicar on earth. If you order me, I will simply obey.” Accordingly, out of obedience, he founded a congregation of local monks, the Rosarians, the first indigenous community of contemplative monks to be founded in Asia. The Institute was canonically erected on the Feast of the Assumption in 1934. In 1948, after three failed attempts, with the crucial personal cooperation of Sister Juana Maria Hompanera, a Spanish religious of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, she herself also sick and weak, the female branch of the Rosarians was born. Both groups would come to establish several Christian ashrams (monasteries), especially on the island, as well as in India.
INCULTURATION AND INTERRELIGIOUS LINK
As a great student of the monastic tradition of the Benedictines and Trappists, he would establish in his monasteries this sort of ascetic life, but carried out in an indigenous culture: rigorous penitential fasting 365 days per years (this would later be toned down), a strictly vegetarian diet to serve as a link with the Hindus and Buddhists, contemplative life, choral Hindu-style chant in place of the classical Gregorian chant, work shared with the local people to support them and help them. All of this was done with the utmost respect of the rich traditions of the local culture. Prayer and penance would be the two pillars for those who would join this monastic experience.
THE MAD MONKM OF THOLAGATTY
Fr. Thomas, in spite of this still frail health, would be the model of strict observance. He slept barely two or three hours a day. Because of this and because of the strict silence and fasting of the first monks, and especially because he accepted into the community men from inferior castes, some called him the mad monk of Tholgatty (the place of the first community.) He welcomed this nickname as a tribute, since he had proposed to his new religious family the motto: “Nos stulti propter Christum” (We are fools on Christ’s account.) 1 Cor 4:10.
The three abuses he hoped to correct were the dominant materialism, the repressive poverty of the majority as a consequence of the unjust distribution of goods, and the caste system. He deliberately confronted the ancestral caste system, admitting candidates from all of them with no distinction, expecting all to live and to serve, driven solely by the charity of Christ. In spite of the strong opposition he met from both outside and within the Church itself, he held firm in his decision and he insisted that the topic of castes not even be mentioned in the community.
IF YOU WANT TO SEE A SAINT…
After having endured throughout his lifetime serious difficulties and much suffering, his broken health put him often in the hospital. Therefore, they decided to remove him from the ashram so that he could pass his final days at the bishop’s house, in the company of his brother Oblates. On January 26, 1964, he peacefully breathed his last.
Shortly before he died, he received a visit from the Superior General of the Oblates, Fr. Léo Deschâtelets. Upon his return to Rome, Fr. General told the students at the International Scholasticate: “If you want to see a true saint, you should go to Tholagatty. You will find in that old man everything that the word “holiness” implies. Everything about him corresponds to the idea we have of a man of God.”