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‘Living like a saint’: Indian bishop leaves office to become a hermit

Bishop Jacob Muricken. Screenshot from St.Alphonsa Shrine YouTube channel.

Ten years ago today, Fr. Jacob Muricken was appointed an auxiliary bishop of the Eparchy of Palai in southern India. Now, he is starting a new chapter of his life: as a hermit.

What inspired the 59-year-old bishop to take the rare step of leaving office to pursue a solitary life of prayer? The Pillar spoke to Fr. Joseph Alancheril, a priest of the Palai diocese, who knows him well.

Speaking by telephone from Kerala on Wednesday, Fr. Alancheril explained that the bishop’s unconventional journey began in 2017.

“He used to wake up by three o’clock in the morning and then he kept praying for one or two hours. He was praying one morning when he suddenly got a revelation, wherein God was asking him to lead the life of a hermit,” the priest said.

Bishop Muricken thought for several days about how he could respond to the call to solitude, given that he was a young serving bishop within the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, one of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome.

“Even though this is a private revelation for him and for him there is no problem, it is affecting the entire diocese since he’s the auxiliary bishop,” Fr. Alancheril noted.

When Bishop Muricken told Bishop Joseph Kallarangatt of Palai about his experience, his superior encouraged him to reflect on whether he had truly received a new calling or it was just an idea that had come to mind in prayer.

“It’s not that possible,” said Fr. Alancheril, “an auxiliary bishop all of a sudden going for an ascetic life, leaving everything and making a full stop to all the administration work he is doing in the diocese.”

But Bishop Muricken was convinced that God was asking him to abandon his office and devote himself to the eremitical life. So Bishop Kallarangatt asked him to discuss his desire with Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church.

There was debate about whether such a move was even possible within the Church’s law. While there are modern examples of bishops stepping down to become missionaries, it’s difficult to find a precedent for a bishop becoming a hermit.

Ultimately, Bishop Muricken presented his request to the Synod of Bishops, which exercises supreme authority in the Syro-Malabar Church. The Synod asked him to complete 10 years as an auxiliary bishop, after which his application would be considered again.

“That’s why he waited for this much time,” Fr. Alancheril said.

The priest described Bishop Muricken as “the finest person,” a committed social activist dedicated to the poor.

“I have seen many times he’s helping the poor,” he said. “Many times, he’s visiting orphanages and then he is actually donating whatever he is getting from others. And many times he was sitting with them and serving food. And the people are of the impression that he is kind of living like a saint.”

The bishop is so dedicated to serving others that in 2016, he donated a kidney to a 30-year-old Hindu man who had been forced to sell his house to cover treatment costs. Local media said that he was the first serving bishop ever to take such a step.

While Muricken has been waiting for five years to formally begin living as a hermit, Fr. Alancheril told The Pillar that the bishop has, in many ways, already been living like a hermit for some time — he consumes only one meal a day.

“Maybe at noon, he will take a meal and after that, he won’t be taking any heavy meal but he’ll be drinking some water. That’s all. He’s not using milk. He’s not eating meat. He’s not eating eggs. He’s not eating fish. Only vegetables,” he said.

The priest confirmed reports that at times in his life, the bishop has gone around without shoes.

“In short, we can say that, from the beginning, he was practicing the life of a hermit or ascetic life,” commented Fr. Alancheril. “This [becoming a hermit] is only maybe a fulfillment of what has already been practiced by him for many years.”

Fr. Joseph Alancheril, second from left, with Bishop Jacob Muricken. Courtesy photo.

According to the priest, Bishop Muricken is quick to shut down any talk of him being a saint.

“Any praise or anything we are saying about any praise, he will suddenly stop it. He does not like it,” he said.

He added that the bishop would always vanish a few days before his name day, to avoid the local custom of receiving gifts and good wishes.

UCA News reported that Bishop Muricken left his bishop’s residence on Aug. 15 and moved to a hermitage. He has said he is willing to “discharge the duties of a bishop in case of emergencies” - for example, where no other bishop is available to preside at an ordination.

He will live as a hermit around 20 miles away from Bishop’s House in Palai, at a cool and hilly location called Nallathanni.

“It’s a calm place. Not too many houses or buildings are there,” said Fr. Alancheril. “He’s a very good cook. He knows how to cook things very well.”

The priest said that he and a colleague hoped to visit the bishop soon.

“Many thought that he won’t be receiving anybody. But it’s not like that,” he said.

“People are coming. ‘If people have the desire to meet me, I won’t put them in despair. I will be meeting them,’ he says. He’s such a nice person.”

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