Updated Jan. 25
Jose Panthaplamthottiyil, pastor for St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton Catholic Church since January 2020, is a fan of “High School Musical” (he has seen the original and both sequels). He also loves the movie “La-La Land.”
Born in India in a town where almost everyone was Catholic, Panthaplamthottiyil decided as a young boy that he wanted to become a priest, and he achieved that goal at the young age of 24. He studied journalism in the 1970s in the United States, has written multiple inspirational books and still writes a column for an Indian newspaper every week — ever since 1986. He served SEAS in short assignments in 1989, 1994, 1995 and 1997-1998 before his current appointment. Serving with him are Bartholomiej Gadaj and Mason Wiggins.
Panthaplamthottiyil met with me in his office on Jan. 22 to talk about faith in the 21st century, and how the 4,000 families of the parish (about 1,500 come to Mass each week) are responding to the pandemic.
How much do you follow pop culture as a priest?
I had better exposure than some because of my journalism and political science education. You have to be aware of the popular culture all over the world, especially the U.S.
I like mostly religious movies, like biblical ones. I have watched all the movies on Jesus.
I also read the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times every day.
You’ve had a long career as a journalist and editor in India. How has journalism impacted your ministry?
My background in communications has been a great asset in my ministry. I can preach to people; I can also write to them. I try to give faith formation to our people, through my writings.
My writing goes all throughout the world on the internet, so it is an additional tool to evangelize and catechize the people.
I have been exposed to all kinds of cultures and topics, so I have a wider perspective, and that’s important in a parish like palm coast, where we have multicutural groups, parishioners from Haiti, the Philippines, Portugal.
How has your ministry informed your journalism?
The church teaches the truth, and the primary duty of the journalist is to stick to the truth and reveal the truth wherever it is found.
Even when I was editing secular newspapers and magazines, the perspective I gave was Christian and Catholic. So my background has helped me to be alert and support the positive trends in society and to help marginalized people.
What’s the connection between imagination and faith?
Faith is based on revealed truth, and we believe what has been revealed by God to us, but our imagination helps us to understand.
When did you know you wanted to dedicate your life to service in the church?
Ever since I was very young. I grew up in a culture where people either go to college and become professors or doctors or engineers, or you go to seminary and become priests. This was my choice, even though I had the opportunity to go to college.
I finished 10th grade at the age of 14 and joined the seminary.
Is it harder for people to have faith in God now than it was 50 or 500 years ago?
In every age, you will come across people who practice their faith and others who really don’t pay any attention to their faith.
There have always been people committed to their faith, even today, in the midst of all that is happening.
JOSE PANTHAPLAMTHOTTIYL, pastor of SEAS
In our age, what is happening is there are many more people who don’t pay any attention to the faith — not because they lack information or experiences, but they have other things that attract their attention. There have always been people committed to their faith, even today, in the midst of all that is happening.
Even in the midst of COVID-19, we still get an average attendance of 1,500 per week. (Before COVID-19, it was about 3,000 people.) They are not required to come; in fact we encourage people who are 65 to stay at home. So if they come, that means they really want to practice their faith.
There will always be people committed to their faith, and they will be the leaven that will transform the society.
How much do you interact directly with members of the church in Palm Coast? How do they stay involved?
Our parish is a welcoming and inviting parish. I am there before and after all the Masses. I may not greet every person every week, but I greet the majority of the people in the period of a month.
Since it is a big church, the possibility is always there that someone will feel left out, but we are trying to make sure that everybody is welcomed to our fellowship.
Plus we have 54 different ministries, service groups, devotionals groups, prayer groups. These groups really show how alive and active the parish is. They bring more life.
How has the pandemic impacted SEAS?
The church was closed for two months, and I was visiting India at that time, and there were no flights.
We tried to get in touch with our parishioners by making telephone calls. We had volunteers assigned to call and find out how they were doing — all 4,000 families. We also sent emails, and I wrote letters.
Do you worry about people’s mental health, and their disconnection from their faith because of the pandemic?
If they are kept away for too long, the possibility is they could have emotional or mental problems. They need to get reconnected with the community. That is why we are trying to encourage them to come back. We make sure there is social distancing and completely sanitizing after every Mass, every service. And we always insist on wearing masks during the service, and by the grace of god, we have been blessed without any serious outbreak.
I should mention that even if people don’t come to church every weekend, they help us by sending heir donations because they know the parish’s needs, and we are so grateful to them for doing that.
I also visit two or three homes every week, and we give the homebound sacraments like confession, anointing and communion.
When you go to the homes, do you feel they are struggling because of the pandemic?
Retired people are less affected, but others are more. We have an outreach office, open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and we give out groceries and help with bills. We also had a distribution on our campus with Feeding America, and we found out how many people are in need. We had 162 families came one day. It was more than we expected.
We serve dinner now, on the first and third Monday every week, and we had 102 last week.
It’s our responsibility to help people in need. That is part of our ministry.
Why do your parishioners sacrifice their time to serve the church?
Every weekend, we sanitize this huge church, and we have volunteers who come —sometimes they are here for all the masses. They do what is needed, and they do it because of their faith, their commitment to the Lord Jesus.
Our feeding the poor — they believe they are serving the Lord Jesus: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
How do you handle political strife as a leader of faith?
I don’t personally get involved in politics. I tell people to pray for our politicians to make the right decisions for our country. I also get them to support the cause of the unborn.
Today, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, people are standing outside, on Belle Terre Parkway, from 12 to 1 p.m., holding signs, to promote the cause.
Some issues are both spiritual and political. Is that not taking a political stand in some way?
We want to promote pro life, to make people aware that it is really an evil to destroy the unborn children. Many people do it out of ignorance, so we need to make them conscious of the evil.