Two separate messages with the same news landed on my phone from two different locations. They were from Father Thomas in Colorado Springs and Sister Ivy in the hilly city of Dimapur. Both conveyed the message about the sad demise of Father Cilia last Monday. They are all my connections from more than three decades ago: my mentors of the high school years, my well wishers always throughout the different walks of life. Having done my entire schooling in the same convent, I had felt the nurturing influence of the Salesian fraternity.
I walk down memory lane to a sultry summer of 1983. I was in my tenth grade year, and the sisters in school had arranged for a two-day course on character and personality development. Father Cilia was one of the speakers. Instantly, he became a favorite of the students. The orientation course ended, but thereafter, I kept in touch with him for the next 35 years.
It is indeed a daunting task to summarize the life of an individual who has done so much for humanity. I am skeptical that I will be able to do justice and therefore strive to make a humble attempt to pay my tribute to a noble soul I knew.
It was a long journey for twenty-year-old Joseph Cilia who after joining the congregation of the Salesians of Don Bosco traversed the miles and arrived in India in 1956 from Valetta, the capital city of Malta. Ten years later, he was ordained a priest in Shillong which essentially became his home for the rest of his life. Though religion was his primary focus, Father Cilia’s contributions extended beyond the precincts of the church and encompassed diverse areas. He was a friend of the youth and relentlessly worked for their upliftment. Besides the Bible camps that he conducted, he organized leadership seminars, career orientation courses, and workshops that addressed myriads of youth issues which included counseling and rehab programs for those suffering from substance abuse.
Father Cilia was a man with a vision. The Don Bosco Youth Center in Shillong flowered under his able leadership. Akin to the Skill India campaign launched by the Government of India in 2015 was a concept visualized and implemented long ago when under Father Cilia’s directorship, the center trained youths to develop vocational skills that enabled them to gain employment. He worked in various parts of Meghalaya and Assam, and because of his immense contribution to the causes of the youth, he was conferred the Meghalaya State Award for social service in 2000.
My association with Father Cilia was never on a professional level. I can count on my fingertips the number of times I had met him. Perhaps not even ten. I connected with him mostly through writing letters a few times in a year and making phone calls once in a while. I had dropped by twice at the Don Bosco Youth Center during my visits to Shillong. Leaving India for the United States in early 1992 made it harder to meet personally. But in spite of my limited interactions with him, it was his warmth and sincerity that loomed large and left a mark in my mind.
I recount an incident from long ago. I had sent out my wedding invitation to Father Cilia. With his busy schedule and numerous commitments, I knew it was not easy for him to come all the way down from Shillong. So I had not expected him to be there for the event. But he did make a trip to Guwahati specifically for that purpose. Early that morning on the wedding day, he visited me at my parents’ home. He said a prayer and showered his blessings, and then he went back within a couple of hours.
In my mind’s eye, I see those blue aerogrammes with his curvy handwriting that he sent all the way from India, checking how my family and I were doing and promising his prayers for us. Until a few years ago when his health went downhill, no Christmas would pass by with me not receiving a greetings card from him. My last phone call to Father Cilia was in June of this year, and although I was aware that he was not keeping well, it never crossed my mind that it was the the final time I was talking to him.
What makes life worth living, and what makes us happy? There is no concrete answer. For some, it is material accomplishment, fame, success, and laurels. Father Cilia found his true purpose by investing his time in the well being of others. Every day of his life was dedicated to service towards humanity. It was this passion for serving mankind that brought him to a country far away from his birthplace that he embraced as his own, amongst people whose happiness was his utmost goal.
We come across many people in our lives, yet there are some who stand out far above others and make a lasting impression. A gentle, soft-spoken person, Father Cilia was someone filled with the milk of human kindness. He was a friend and a father figure to the youth of the North East whom he served till the very end. I deem myself extremely fortunate to have known an individual who has touched the lives of so many and who reinforces our trust in the belief that despite the ill feelings that exist in this world, there is still hope. For there walk on this earth those wonderful people like him who by their compassion and selfless service spread love and joy to make lives more meaningful for humankind.
Rest in peace Father!