When Dr Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan came to his office at Maramon (102 kms from Kochi), on a July morning, it was difficult to believe that he has completed 98 years of age on April 27. His face is unlined, the smile pleasant, and the eyes are twinkling.
The oldest living bishop in the world is famous among the Malayalis for his witty sermons and speeches. And he has a specific reason for opting to use humour. “There is no need to be more serious than necessary,” he says. “I realised that when I use humour, people regard me as a friend and feel free to come and talk to me.”
One who did so is superstar Mammootty. At a public function held at Kochi in June, to felicitate the bishop on his advanced age, the actor said, “I regard the bishop as a close friend, who gives me advice on how to lead a meaningful life.”
One can notice the voting mark on the bishop’s left forefinger, thanks to the state elections held in May. “I have voted in several state and Lok Sabha elections,” says Mar Chrysostom.
But he remembers that the candidates whom he voted for during the first three Assembly elections lost. “When the fourth election came up, the Communists told me, ‘As a Christian you will never vote for us atheists’,” he says. “So, can you stay away from the voting?”
Mar Chrysostom, however, reminded them of the defeats of the earlier candidates, all of them Congressmen. So the Communists said, “Okay, then, can you vote for the Congress again?” He did so. “Unfortunately for the Communists, the Congressman won,” he says.
Meanwhile, underneath the laid-back style, Mar Chrysostom is deeply dedicated to his vocation. And the seeds were planted early in him.
His father, the Very Rev. K E Oommen, was a priest who became the Vicar General (the highest position among priests). “Right from childhood, because of my parents’ influence, I was committed to the church and God,” says Mar Chrysostom.
After studying theology, he became a priest in 1944 and a bishop on May 23, 1953. On October 23, 1999, he was appointed as the supreme head of the Mar Thoma Church. But, in 2007, he relinquished his post. Today he is the Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan, and continues to travel extensively and give speeches.
Sometimes, he delves into his childhood memories. When he was seven years old, he had gone with his mother to have a bath in the Maramon River. But his mother slipped and fell on the slushy bank. “My mother was very bulky,” says Mar Chrysostom. “So it looked very funny. I started laughing loud.” His neighbour Mathew, who was passing by, heard the laughter and stopped. “He saw my mother,” says Mar Chrysostom. “He helped her to get up. Later, my mother got upset that I was laughing when she needed help. But I told her, ‘Who else could have picked you up? Thank God I laughed. Otherwise, Mathew would not have come’.”