From Cashews to Catholic Chaplain: How Chillikulam Landed in Chicago Courtesy of Loyola Campus Ministry

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By Sajid Ahmed
Long before Father Thomas Chillikulam became a chaplain for Loyola students, he spent his days running four miles back from school to collect cashews with his 10 siblings on the family farm.
Born in Kerala, South India, Chillikulam, 60, dreamt of Jesuit missionary work since he was a child growing up in a pious Christian family, he said.

Chillikulam, now a Jesuit priest, has provided spiritual and emotional support to the university community since August 2017, according to the Campus Ministry website.

“I always heard stories of the heroic missionaries helping people … especially poor people,” Chillikulam said, sitting in his sunlit office in the Campus Ministry suite overlooking the Damen Student Center Atrium.

Kerala, Chillikulam’s birthplace, has a significant Christian population in the generally Hindu-dominated country, according to the Times of India. Chillikulam said his family was Syrian Christian. Syrian Christianity originated in the first century A.D. when it was brought to India through Saint Thomas the Apostle, who established several churches in the region.

When he finished high school, Chillikulam said he decided to pursue his dream of becoming a missionary priest. He said he heard news of a mission opened by Jesuit priests from the United States Midwest in Patna, a city over 1,500 miles from Kerala.

“I was on the train for five days,” Chillikulam said. “It was a long trip.”

Patna, the capital of the province of Bihar, has a significant population of Syrian Christians, along with a Jesuit provincial headquarters, Chillikulam said.

“Joining a religious order is different than [being] an ordinary Catholic priest,” Chillikulam said. “Once you join, you leave your family.”

At 18, Chillikulam said he took the three vows required to join the Jesuit religious order — the vows of poverty, obedience and chastity. These vows forbid him from owning and inheriting property, order him to adhere to his superior’s directions and maintain celibacy, he said.

The formation process to become a Jesuit priest takes around 15 years, according to Chillikulam.

After over 15 years of rigorous spiritual, academic and philosophical training, Chillikulam said he became a resident professor at the Patna campus of Vibyajoti College of Theology teaching theology and philosophy. He said he also visited other institutions as a visiting professor.

In accordance with his vow of obedience, Chillikulam said his teaching and religious appointments are up to his provincial superior, called a rector.

After 12 years teaching across India, Chillikulam said he moved to Cleveland, Ohio to be pastor of the Church of the Gesu, a parish close to John Carroll University, a private Jesuit university. Chillikulam’s Jesuit mission in Patna was based in the Midwest, and had networks in the Christian communities of the region, he said.

“[My rector] thought it would be good if I worked in a parish, dealing with families and people,” Chillikulam said.

Following his work in Ohio, Chillikulam said his rector appointed him to Loyola, where he serves as chaplain. Chaplains are religious leaders associated with institutions such as universities, hospitals and workplaces, according to the International Fellowship of Chaplains website. As a Catholic chaplain and Jesuit priest, Chillikulam said his job revolves around pastoral care and Catholic religious services.

He said his interactions with students depend on the reason of the visit.

“When a student visits me, I mostly listen and offer suggestions,” Chillikulam said. “Students come for [everything from] questions about faith, personal struggles … [I show them] how faith can empower.”

Chillikulam said the university setting is often challenging for students who grew up religious. He said students who come from certain traditions have their family’s support in high school, and struggle to “make their faith their own” when they leave home.

Chillikulam said students commonly face issues of broken relationships.

“A relationship is an emotional investment,” Chillikulam said. “[When it breaks], it’s a sort of trauma. Faith is a great source of strength.”

Sometimes spiritual counseling isn’t enough. In such situations, Chillikulam said he refers students to the Wellness Center for further assistance.

Chillikulam said he often performs Catholic sacraments in cases of sickness or death in the Loyola community.

He also prepares and conducts marriages at Madonna della Strada Chapel, which he said take five to six months of preparation. Using personality questionnaires, conflict resolution practice and facilitated conversations, Chillikulam said he prepares couples to “have a healthy marriage.”

Chillikulam’s compassion and commitment is obvious to those around him, including Omer Mozaffar, Loyola’s Muslim chaplain and professor in the departments of theology and modern languages and literature.

“He clearly cares about the people that he serves,” Mozaffar said. “He brings a tremendous unique energy to the office.”

Chillikulam said he guides two groups of Christian Life Community (CLC), which involve student group members reflecting and sharing experiences, inviting spiritually informed conversation.

“Although our time together has been brief … I can tell CLC is important to [Chillikulam] and he cares deeply for his group members,” Layla Chavez, a sophomore music major and CLC group leader, said.

He also said he occasionally teaches courses. Last semester, he said he taught a course called “All Things Ignatian” in the Catholic Studies department. He also said he accompanies several of Loyola’s retreats which give students opportunities to explore their faith, including the Ignatian Retreat and 360 Retreat, held at Loyola University Retreat and Ecology Campus (LUREC), according to Campus Ministry.

While he serves as the Catholic chaplain, Chillikulam said he also has a close relationship with Loyola’s Hindu student body.

Sohum Buch, president of Loyola’s Hindu Students’ Organization (HSO), said Chillikulam attends HSO events and takes time to meet members of the group.

“It is his commitment to our students that defines who he is,” Buch, a senior majoring in criminal justice and criminology, said. “He has helped HSO tremendously, by giving us ideas [and] educating us on Hinduism.”

?Chillikulam studied Indian philosophies extensively during his training in India and his goal is to help students find their own connection to the divine, he said.

Chillikulam said he appreciates Loyola’s religious culture and positive environment even though it is different than what he’s seen in the past.

“My feeling is that there is a lot more … taking care of every faith here,” Chillikulam said.


From Cashews to Catholic Chaplain: How Chillikulam Landed in Chicago