WASHINGTON (CNS) — Vocations to the priesthood and religious life in India’s two Eastern Catholic communities are strong and a sign that the missionary spirit of St. Thomas the Apostle flourishes, said the president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
At multiple locations in southern India — in seminaries and houses of formation for men and women religious — Msgr. John E. Kozar said he was “blown away” by the quality and quantity of the candidates for religious life in the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches during his 12-day visit.
“The first impression when you walk into a huge seminary chapel or gathering hall is that you see 200, 300, 400 seminarians,” Msgr. Kozar told Catholic News Service March 14 from his office in New York. “That in itself is a culture shock when you compare it to what you know here (in the United States).
“You’re welcomed with big smiles. You’re welcomed with songs and a warmth that reaches out and grabs you,” he said.
St. Thomas was the only apostle to make his way to India and spread the Christian faith. After traveling through Syria and Persia, now Iran, he is believed to have sailed to India in A.D. 52, landing on the Malabar coast in what today is Kerala state. He was speared to death in A.D. 72 while praying.
CNEWA sponsors 2,134 seminarians and 857 men and women in formation for religious life in India. Hundreds more are in formation as well throughout the country.
With such a large number of men and women in formation, the two churches are able to send priests and sisters on missionary service to other countries, which Msgr. Kozar said he found an inspiration for his ministry.
“It’s an ingrained part of the life of the church there,” he said. “These two rites carry the missionary spirit today. To me that’s very dynamic.”
Msgr. Kozar also said he found collaboration among the Eastern and Latin rites — especially among their leaders, the bishops — to be strong, resulting in meaningful service to children, people with handicaps and poor families.
Most touching on the visit, he said, was seeing children, some with severe physical handicaps that affected their mobility, full of joy as they danced, sang and greeted the CNEWA team. Msgr. Kozar said he was impressed by the education standards upheld by the sisters, giving children a chance to move out of the dire poverty in which their families are rooted.
For that, he credited the sisters who oversee the institutions for creating an environment that upholds the dignity of each resident, without regard to physical ability, illness or family background.
Individual donors, through CNEWA, sponsor about 18,500 children in numerous educational and health and wellness programs.
“The children in many parts of the world of poor are really the jewel in their sincerity, their honesty, their simplicity. They are the reflection of the hope, the idealism, the love of that country, the best of that culture,” Msgr. Kozar said.
“You find that joy in the faces of the sisters. In their gentle hearts and loving way, they have given children this joyful environment. It’s contagious,” he added.
Msgr. Kozar was particularly struck by a 15-yearold boy at one location who rolled down hallways and up steps to get to a welcoming ceremony for the CNEWA visitors; the boy had no limbs, but remained mobile. Msgr. Kozar saw that other children had similar, if less-serious physical conditions, but still managed to get to where they had to go on their own.
“Some would say it’s horrible they had to do that,” Msgr. Kozar said. “No, they were mobile. They were abled differently. That was part of the dignity they received. Otherwise, they would have been warehoused, put into a corner of their home, almost like a leper and not have any social interaction.
“They are not handicapped. They have the beautiful dignity and they are joyful.”
It’s just such stories that Msgr. Kozar said he will share with in the coming months.
“The children just fired me up,” he said. That’s the importance in what we do in these institutions, these sponsorships, these partnerships. We are bringing to them the joy that Christ is offering.”