Director of La Salette Retreat Center reassigned to Georgia parish

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff
beckyaubut@anchornews.org

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ATTLEBORO, Mass. — The director of the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette retreat Center, Father Cyriac Mattathilanickal, M.S., is leaving Attleboro after being assigned as pastor of St. Oliver Plunkett Parish in Snellville, Ga.; he will officially assume duties down south on May 30.

During his last few weeks in Massachusetts, Father Mattathilanickal reflected on his past 11 years at the retreat center, and said in his farewell message (which can be found on the retreat center’s website, www.LaSaletteRetreatCenter.com) that “this is a season to rejoice and be glad in the Lord, for He has worked wonders in our life. It is a season for me to express my thanks, and praise God for my life, service and ministry here at the shrine. I truly enjoyed organizing and conducting various retreats for youth, adults and religious. I loved the ministry of Spiritual direction and accompanying them in their Spiritual journey.”

Born in South India in Mattathipara, in the state of Karala on Sept. 10, 1967, Father Cyriac Mattathilanickal, M.S., was the second youngest of 12 children, all of whom pursued extensive education. One of his brothers is a diocesan priest in the Diocese of Norwich, Conn., and a sister, who is still living in India, is a religious Sister of the Congregation of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Father Mattathilanickal’s journey began after his cousin, a La Salette priest, spoke to him about La Salette Missionaries. In an interview by a fellow priest found on La Salette’s main website (www.lasalette.org), Father Mattathilanickal said he was “somehow drawn to this Marian Congregation and their Charism of Reconciliation. I had reached a turning point in my life and needed to reconcile within myself the persistent desire to pursue my vocation to the priesthood, which I had felt ever since I was a teen-ager.”

He entered the La Salette College Seminary on the feast of the Assumption on Aug. 15, 1990 in La Salette Bhavan, Parakadavu, and was ordained to the priesthood on Feb. 5, 1999 at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Silang, Cavite, in the Philippines. 

Father Mattathilanickal was assigned to a parish in the Philippines that had 85,000 families with 21 bario (village) chapels, all within an hour’s drive, providing 15 Masses each weekend. He stated in his La Salette interview, “The experience, although overwhelming, was very rewarding because people were so affirming and receptive. I was simply amazed at the widespread, active involvement of the laity in so many different ministries. I was an eyewitness to the empowerment of the laity in action when it came to Marriage Encounters, parish renewals, catechetical programs and Liturgical programs of all kinds. I felt so privileged to be in that situation. It was a marvelous experience of drawing people closer to God through the help of our Blessed Lady.”

Six months after being ordained and now immersed in the community of his assignment, Father Mattathilanickal had an experience that he still shares to this day when he facilitates a retreat.

As he recalled in his La Salette interview: “A young woman came to me carrying a paper bag. She sat down and began to cry, explaining that she was unmarried, became pregnant and was urged by her boyfriend to abort her baby. At the outset, I was shocked but felt deep compassion for her plight. 

“Then she told me that she had brought her aborted baby with her in the bag. She told me how she had a recurring nightmare of screams from her child, and wanted my help to do what God wanted her to do.

“We spoke for a while and then I was able to call a parishioner friend of mine who owned a cemetery. I arranged for our celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Christian burial for her child, with herself and her boyfriend present.”

Because he takes seriously the La Salette message of Reconciliation, and what it means to each person, this personal story of how he dealt firsthand with a troubling and tragic situation, all while still finding his way as a young priest, is often shared to help others recognize that God will help you find a way.

“I have shared that story with many retreats,” Father Mattathinklanickal told The Anchor. “You’re never prepared for a case like that. In your formation, they don’t prepare you for the reality you will face. I believe in the accompaniment of God in people’s lives, and my role is to be their companion during these difficult moments in life. I think that where the retreat ministry is powerful for Reconciliation, renewal and healing for a lot of people. I’m not perfect but I’ve been able to be well-grounded, that it’s reaching out to the people where they are and listen to them.”

When Father Mattathinklanickal arrived at La Salette in Attleboro 11 years ago as the assistant director of the shrine’s retreat center, he laughed as he recalled for The Anchor his early feelings about the assignment: “It’s not a secret anymore. When I first arrived, this was a place I didn’t want to come. The reason being, I was very apprehensive about giving retreats to the young people because I had no training giving retreats to young people. 

“I was fairly new to the country at the time — barely five years — so I was very concerned how I would do. When I accepted the assignment, I was very hesitant but in a couple of months into the retreat center [I thought to myself], I must bloom where I am planted. It’s actually a statement from St. Francis de Sales. I really began getting into the ministry, what would work, what technology we would need; I worked with a team of people to be able to develop that.”

Although there was a lot of apprehension and fear, once he embraced his role, he began to see that “there’s a lot of potential in the young people, and to see them celebrate their faith in their lives; I was inspired by their own faith, just seeing them,” Father Mattathilanickal said. 

A year after arriving at La Salette, the director of the retreat center retired, and Father Mattathilanickal was asked to take leadership role, giving him not just youth retreats but also adult retreats. Around that time, there were 35 youth retreats and 15 adult retreats a year. Father Mattathilanickal worked on building up a network that included bringing retreats to the parishes not just in the Fall River Diocese, but also to the Archdiocese of Boston, and parishes in New Hampshire and Connecticut.

Father Mattathilanickal revived mission teams that would go and preach at parishes: “I would go with different people to different parishes, to Providence Diocese and Fall River Diocese, Boston, Connecticut and also in Worcester. I also went to California to do these parish missions, which I tremendously enjoyed doing, meeting a variety of people from different faith and ethnic traditions,” he said.

Seeing the fire in different ethnic groups, Father Mattathilanickal said he opened the doors to the retreat center to keep fanning the flames of each group’s faith.

“I call them ethnic retreats because there are Portuguese or Spanish, these are the two predominant ethnicities we’ve had over the years,” he told The Anchor. “Then I doubled the retreats through a collaboration with the Vietnamese community in New England, especially in Boston. We have a Vietnamese Cursillo taking place twice a year. We also have the Filipino groups doing retreats here; Haitian community; Nigerian community doing retreats here; a number of Indians from India doing retreats now. Because of that, we have a substantial number of regular retreats here. We have 52 weekends [a year] and for the last couple of years, we have had been able to get 46 weekends for retreats, plus weekdays for youth retreats.”

Father Mattathilanickal is very proud of the diversity he helped bring to the La Salette Shrine and its retreat center: “When you go out and meet with these people,” he said, “they eventually become invested in La Salette. What it gave me was I was able to meet with interesting groups outside in different programs, to see what it was all about. Many groups now come here because they know La Salette, and are happy to be part of it.”

Another accomplishment Father Mattathilanickal is proud of is the master’s degree he received at Boston College: “That was a tremendous personal experience. My own ministry changed because of that, and the way that I look at ministry.”

Guiding people in their Spiritual journey is a privilege he’s enjoyed because “you meet beautiful people, and I had a variety of people interested in knowing their faith, and growing in their faith, and to be able to accompany them during their Spiritual journey, it’s a tremendous experience that not everyone gets. I really enjoy that.”

Now Father Mattathilanickal is about to embark on his next chapter when he becomes pastor to St. Oliver Plunkett Parish in Georgia. The parish has roughly 2,000 families who are part of 53 vibrantly active ministries. The young people of the parish are incredibly active, he said, with around 600 students in its Religious Education program, and one of the largest Life Teen Programs in the U.S.

“It’s a very active parish and I look forward to entering into that phase of my ministry,” he said. 

As for the first few months of settling in, Father Mattathilanickal said, “I’m just going to be myself. I’m not going to change anything, even for a year. I’m just going to serve and see. I want to see where the people are in their faith journey. I want to see where the parish is, and what the needs are. I want to have a parish that is shared by the people. Somebody asked me what my vision is for the parish? It’s not my vision. It’s what the parish community wants to accomplish as disciples of Christ.”

One of the things that Father Mattathilanickal won’t be leaving behind is an undecided court case regarding the long, legal battle with the city of Attleboro for a tax abatement. His appreciation to the courts for upholding the tax exemption privilege for the La Salette Shrine was felt during his interview with The Anchor, as he added he was thrilled that the final ruling was in the shrine’s favor.

As of this publishing, Father Mattathilanickal’s successor had yet to be named, but he has only high hopes for the future of the Attleboro shrine and retreat center: “I want to say that the retreat center has been a haven of peace and healing for the community for more than 4,500 people every year, for the last 10 years or more. This has been a wonderful place for people to grow in their Spiritual journey, and even though we are sometimes financially struggling — as is the case for a lot of retreat centers — for us, this is a ministry we will continue to do. 

“This ministry is a wonderful ministry, and I’m so happy to have been part of it for the past 11 years, and I’m sure its legacy will continue.”


© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts