He never said no to God

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India covers more than 1 million square miles and has a population of 1.2 billion people. It's a big country. It's also the birthplace of many religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

According to the Census Bureau of India, the country has a Hindu population of about 80 percent, followed by Muslims with 14 percent and Christians coming in at around 2 percent. Catholics comprise only about 1.5 percent of the total population. It's a small percentage, but it numbers about 17 million Catholics.

According to tradition, the apostle Thomas brought Christianity to India in the first century. There was a steady stream of missionaries throughout the end of the first millennium and the beginning of the second, with the Portuguese spreading Catholicism through India beginning in the 16th century.

Father Devaraju Arockiasamy, parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Church in Manassas, was born into this predominantly Hindu country May 27, 1974, in the state of Tamil Nadu. Father Devan, as he is known, lived in Melapatti, a village of 250 families, all Catholic.

His mother, Leely Pushpam, and father, Arockiasamy, and seven siblings worked a small farm. It was a poor village, without electricity, and young Devan did his homework by oil lamp.

St. Antony Catholic Church served all the families. There was only one Sunday Mass.

Father Devan's grandfather, Sebastiyar, was the most influential person in the young man's life. His grandfather took him everywhere, sometimes carrying the boy.

"I heard stories from him about building the church in my village," said Father Devan. "He was a community leader."

His grandfather taught him to read Tamil, the official language of Tamil Nadu. He also taught him the English alphabet so when he began first grade he was ahead of the other students.

One of the places Sebastiyar took Devan almost daily was to a tea shop near his home.

"My grandson is going to be a priest," he told the customers as he drank his daily tea, always leaving half for the boy.

Of course, Devan was too young to know what that meant. But now he acknowledges that the seed of the priesthood was planted at that tea shop.

Devan was a good student and excelled all the way up to the eighth grade, when his father decided that he needed him to take care of the sheep on the family farm. There was no questioning his father's orders; even his grandfather deferred to him.

Young Devan went to the fields to tend the sheep. His grandfather, who still had an influence on the boy would bring him food daily.

This family obligation took a toll. He fell behind in his studies, and all his friends were in school.

Finally, the school headmaster, a Hindu man, Narayanaswamy, came to his father, reminding him of his son's academic prowess.

"Can't you find someone else (to tend the sheep)?" the headmaster asked.

His father eventually relented, and after tending sheep for a year, young Devan's education continued, but it was a struggle.

After graduating from eighth grade, his parents enrolled him in a boarding school about 100 miles from his home for his ninth and 10th grade.

After 10th grade, his mother encouraged him to discern the priesthood.

"Did you hear the announcement today in church?" she asked Devan, telling him there was a weeklong vocations camp. He went, but was not enamored with the priesthood.

He did as his mother wished, after some encouragement from his cousin, a priest, and he enrolled in St. Augustine Minor Seminary in Tiruchirappalli.

It was not an easy road for Devan. He had difficulty adjusting to seminary life. Not long after entering, he called his father and asked him to come and get him and take him home.

The seminary rector, who blessed his parents' marriage, smoothed things over with Devan. "Why do you want to leave?" he asked.

Father Devan said this continued all through seminary, with God telling him to continue, with him fighting back. But he always said yes.

It was in the major seminary, St. Arulanandar College in Karumathur, where Devan flourished. He said studying philosophy is what enriched his life.

"I came to know many things," he said.

He was always a shy young man, but one day at college there was a speech contest.

"I wrote a speech. I practiced, and I delivered that speech," he said.

He won first prize. From that point on, "I wanted to bring the best out of myself. I always wanted to challenge myself."

After completing his theology studies at St. Paul's Seminary in Tiruchirappalli, he was ordained May 6, 2002, in the Diocese of Tiruchirappalli.

After ordination, he was assigned as a parochial vicar and eventually a pastor in his diocese.

In 2008, he received an opportunity to go to the United States to help at Holy Rosary Church in the Bronx, N.Y., for a few months.

As his English got better, his confidence rose.

In 2011, his bishop sent him to help Father Michael J. Bazan, pastor of Sacred Heart, who needed an assistant. It was considered mission work by Father Devan's bishop.

Transitioning from life in a quiet and rural diocese to the hustle of the Washington metropolitan area was a challenge, but he was helped by the parishioners.

"I love this parish," Father Devan said. "They received me and showed me acceptance."

When he was growing up in India, he remembers the Angelus in his village. Bells rang and people prayed three times a day - 6 a.m., noon and 6 p.m.

One day at Sacred Heart, he heard the chapel bell ring after weekday Mass, and he felt a connection between his new home in Manassas and his village in India.

At Sacred Heart, he enjoys preaching and Bible study. His Bible study group has 80 members. He also goes over to St. Thomas Aquinas Regional School to visit students and teach.

He knows that soon he may be called back to India, but he accepts that.

"God never lets me say no," Father Devan said, "Always yes. Amen."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016