This is the fourth in a series of articles introducing you to the four men scheduled to be ordained priests of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this year. Ordination will be Saturday, May 18, at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee.
Deacon Arul Ponnaiyan knew that, as a lawyer, he sometimes defended criminals.
“There were a few cases where I knew our clients were really thugs,” Deacon Ponnaiyan said. “But to establish my profession, I had to take any cases that came to me … now I feel really bad about what I have done as a lawyer.”
Deacon Ponnaiyan, 39, left the seminary in Kenya to return to India, his native country, to be a lawyer.
“At times … we lied, we didn’t state the truth,” Deacon Ponnaiyan said about his time as a lawyer. “You try to do whatever to win your case.”
He admitted he’s seen lawyers falsify documents to win cases.
“Everywhere you turn all the advocates or even the judges, they’re all corrupted. You can do whatever you want if you have money,” Deacon Ponnaiyan said of the justice system in his home country. “Even if you murder people, you can easily get away with it.”
The lawlessness of the system bothered him.
“Growing up as a Catholic, you know the Catholic social teachings of the Catholic Church,” said Deacon Ponnaiyan, who practiced law in India from 2003 to 2006. “I tried to ignore a few cases that I knew weren’t worth doing. Like I never went for a divorce case.”
His Catholic upbringing combined with his Catholic education established a foundation in Catholic social teaching.
His father was a “headmaster” of an elementary school and his mom was a “homemaker.” Deacon Ponnaiyan, one of five children with 48 cousins and numerous nieces and nephews, will be ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee on Saturday, May 18.
He graduated from Arulanandar College at Karumathur in Tamilnadu, a Jesuit college in India, and went to the Philippines in 1996 for “spirituality.”
“You pray and at the same time you go out to visit parishes … you try to engage in small ministries,” he said. “When I visited the church it was always packed.”
The Philippines has the most Catholics of any Asian country.
“That was really inspiring because I come from India where we are just a minority, just 2 percent,” he said. “I really love the culture there. People are so happy, joyful. That was entirely different from India.”
Hinduism is the most common religion in India, but Deacon Ponnaiyan’s family is rooted in Catholicism. His village in Tamil Nadu, a southern state in India, is more than 60 percent Catholic.
“Where I come from, the place is very peaceful. We don’t have any problem with any religious people; they are very tolerant,” Deacon Ponnaiyan said.
No stranger to world travel
After spending a year in the Philippines, he returned to India for a year to volunteer at parishes and to learn French.
He didn’t stay home for long, moving to Egypt where the culture was much different than he had ever experienced.
“I feel sympathy for the Christians there,” he said. “(Egypt) can be really intolerant of other religions.”
He worked with the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and discovered the sisters are “very much respected.”
“Those sisters, they never get tired,” Deacon Ponnaiyan said. “They just keep working.”
After a year in Egypt, Deacon Ponnaiyan moved to Kenya in 1998 and joined the Society of African Missions.
“I wanted to be a missionary in Africa,” Deacon Ponnaiyan said. “I enjoyed my life in Kenya. It’s a Christian country.”
Deacon Ponnaiyan said he would attend the seminary during the week and visit missionaries on the weekend.
“It was just a cool life,” he said.
Mission work leads to Milwaukee
During that time, Deacon Ponnaiyan became aware of the Community of St. Paul, a community of clergy and laity with missions in Africa and South America. The community has a house in Racine.
“The Community of St. Paul told me, ‘We work with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee; why don’t you apply (for priesthood)?’” Deacon Ponnaiyan said. “Initially, I refused, because Africa and America are two extremes and I wasn’t prepared to be a diocesan priest at that time.”
Eventually, Deacon Ponnaiyan wondered if the priesthood was the path he wanted to take. He was also interested in law and he returned to India in 2000 to go to law school.
“I thought I would make a good lawyer,” he said.
After receiving his degree in law in 2003, he began practicing at a law firm.
“It was going well for two years, learning all the loopholes, this and that,” he said. “Toward the third year I got kind of tired of that.”
Deacon Ponnaiyan said memories of seminary life kept coming back to him.
“I kind of started hating (practice of law) at the end,” he said.
His family wanted him to get married and even tried to arrange marriages for him.
“All my siblings, they’ve got arranged marriages,” he said. “My dad wanted me to get married. He came up with a few proposals … I think it was God telling me, ‘Wait, wait.’”
After leaving his law practice in 2006, he returned to Kenya.
“It was then that I wanted to go back to the seminary life; I wanted to be a priest,” he said. His bishop that he served under the first time, and the Community of St. Paul, suggested he come to Saint Francis de Sales Seminary to study.
Receives snowy welcome to state
He arrived in Milwaukee in January 2010 where he touched snow for the first time.
“I tried to make a ball and I put it on my face … I was like a child,” he said. “I have come to love this culture. The people here take responsibility in and around the environment.”
Deacon Ponnaiyan was surprised by everyday interactions among strangers.
“In India, I don’t greet anyone that I see on the road,” he said. “Here everybody greets you, says ‘hi’ to you. They are like strangers, but there is a touch.”
On vacations back home, Deacon Ponnaiyan said he found himself greeting strangers on the street.
“Now I have learned to do all those things so it has become like my habit,” he said. “People look at me a little bit strange and different.”
But there are some parts of American life that confuse him.
“The gun culture,” he said. “I don’t understand that. Why would you want to own a gun? … I will never own a gun.”
Deacon is sports fanatic
When he arrived at the seminary, sports were played about once a month. Deacon Ponnaiyan helped organize soccer, volleyball and basketball games every two weeks.
“If there are guys to play soccer every day, I would play every day,” he said. “Sports makes my life busy and active.”
He follows the Manchester United soccer team closely.
“Lionel Messi is the guy,” he said. “I don’t miss any match they play.”
Some seminarians are Real Madrid fans, according to Deacon Ponnaiyan, and a friendly rivalry ensues. They’d go to bars around Milwaukee and root for their teams.
In Wisconsin, Deacon Ponnaiyan has learned to love the local sports culture.
“I’m happy the (Milwaukee) Bucks made it to the playoffs,” he said, adding he watches the Brewers, Badgers and Golden Eagles.
When asked if he’s a Green Bay Packer fan his reaction is honest.
“Oh, yes! I have to!” he said with a laugh. “I don’t even want to say for fun that I don’t like them because I know the consequences, the seriousness of it.”
After he was ordained a deacon, he was assigned to St. Roman Parish, Milwaukee, with Fr. Brian Holbus.
“His route to the priesthood to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is a circuitous one,” Fr. Holbus said.
The priest was surprised by Deacon Ponnaiyan’s effort to become acquainted with St. Roman Parish.
“Immediately he was involved with so many different things; some of them I didn’t even realize until the passage of time,” Fr. Holbus said. “He would be at things that I was not.”
Events like prayer groups, religious education, and St. Roman basketball games would routinely be attended by Deacon Ponnaiyan.
Because Fr. Holbus lives close to the seminary, Deacon Ponnaiyan would come over often to watch sports or talk to his family on Skype.
“I’d heard of (cricket) but I didn’t know what it was,” Fr. Holbus said, adding Deacon Ponnaiyan is a big cricket fan. “He would be watching that on his laptop.”
Adjusting to cultural differences
Fr. Holbus said there were some cultural differences to which he had to adjust. About a year ago Deacon Ponnaiyan’s mother and aunt came to visit.
“They made a supper for us and we got up and cleared off the table and we were doing the dishes,” Fr. Holbus said. “It was almost a fight. His mom and aunt came in and they were pulling the dirty plates away from me.”
Fr. Holbus explained to them that they take turns washing dishes and it was Deacon Ponnaiyan’s job to dry the dishes.
“They were sitting on the couch and they were talking in Tamil … they were laughing,” Fr. Holbus said. “I said, ‘What’s so funny?’ And the mom said, ‘In a million years, Deacon Ponnaiyan would not pick up a dish from a table.’”
Since arriving in Milwaukee, Deacon Ponnaiyan worked hard to learn as many languages as possible. He speaks English, Tamil (his mother’s native language), French, colloquial Arabic, “broken” Swahili and Hindi. He also knows some Spanish and American Sign Language.
“For him, communication is very important,” Fr. Holbus said.
Deacon Ponnaiyan’s family will be at his Mass of Thanksgiving where the order of worship will be in English and Tamil.
“Everything from the sign of the cross to the very end, even the prayers of the faithful, are printed in both languages,” Fr. Holbus said, adding the book will be 28 pages.
Fr. Holbus isn’t worried about what kind of priest Deacon Ponnaiyan will be.
“Judging from his reception at St. Roman Parish, he’ll do just fine,” the priest said. “He’s a hard worker … he’s Catholic to the core.”
With his first Mass quickly approaching, Deacon Arul said he’s “growing confident” that he’ll be a good priest and is happy about the time he’s spent at St. Roman.
“I was a big, big stranger when I went there but now it’s like my family,” he said. “I’m having a tough time even thinking about (leaving) St. Roman and going out.”
For now he’s focused on that first Mass.
Along with the preparations, Deacon Ponnaiyan will return to India to celebrate Mass and have a party.
“I’m the first one from my village to enter into the seminary,” he said, adding some of the seminarian cohorts will go with him to watch him celebrate Mass. “It’s going to be a big celebration … people are just waiting to see me coming as a priest. It’s like a dream.”