In the Summer 2016 edition of ONE, Jose Kavi writes about how India is facing new challenges in recruiting vocations to the priesthood and religious life. It is a subject he knows intimately, as he reveals below.
How does a former seminarian feel when asked to write about religious vocation and modern challenges? Not so easy, to say the least.
First, he would find most ideas and views very personal, reviving old memories. Second, it would lead him into introspection.
Both happened in my case. I had left the Society of Jesus after spending 10 years in it.
As a child, I had never nurtured a desire to become a religious or a priest. There was no plan for the future, as I knew there is a limit to the dreams of someone born in a poor Syrian Catholic family in the Malabar region of Kerala. However, in my final year of school, I responded to an ad that Mission Home, a minor seminary in Palai, had inserted in a church publication. “Undecided about your future? Come to us.” There could not have been anyone more undecided about the future than I was. The response from Mission Home was to meet a Jesuit priest in Calicut, the nearest town to my house.
Life changed dramatically when I topped the school in the 10th grade public exams in 1971. I forgot about the Mission Home letter. Relatives, friends and neighbors insisted that I join a college. However, no one came forward with financial help, except my parish priest.
He offered to take me and my father to Palai, some 300 kilometers [nearly 200 miles] away from home, where some of our relatives lived. My father had his roots in that central Kerala town. The plan, as my mother suggested, was that I would stay with one of the relatives and study at St. Thomas College of Palai.
Unfortunately, we reached Palai a day after the college closed admissions. The principal, a priest, refused to make an exception for someone who scored at the top of his class. “Rules are rules,” he thundered.
I left the place with my father, feeling dejected and worried. We decided to walk to the relative’s house so that my father could show me places associated with his childhood. He had migrated to Malabar in the 1940’s looking for better prospects.
As we came down a hilltop after visiting Lalam’s new church, I noticed written on a gate: St Joseph’s Mission Home. I told my father about the letter I had received and he said, “Let us go inside.”
We saw a two-story building ahead of us behind a large statue of St Joseph holding the infant Jesus. The place was quiet and we found an old priest with a flowing white beard seated on a chair on the verandah. When we told him about the letter, he asked us to see the rector, a Jesuit priest named Ignatius Vellaringattu. Later, I learned the old priest was Monsignor Jacob Vellaringattu, the rector’s elder brother and founder of Mission Home.
The rector looked at my certificates, opened his table drawer and placed them inside. My father planned to leave me behind. I was not prepared to join a seminary. I was coming out of my village for the first time and wanted to meet my numerous relatives living in central Kerala. The rector gave me two weeks, and then expected me to come back.
We then visited all our relatives in Palai and Idukki area. Everyone was happy that I was joining a seminary, but I had my doubts about my vocation.
With those doubts, I returned to Mission Home. I was told to sit with others in a large hall on the second floor. After some time I got bored. I was never used to such discipline at home. I went to the balcony and watched the trees and flowers that surrounded the building.
Soon, a senior student, looking very serious, came and told me that the monsignor was calling me. Having no clue why I was called, I went to the elderly priest’s room. He scolded me for being undisciplined and threatened to send me home. It took me some time to realize that I had violated a cardinal rule of the place: never waste study time.
The incident took away my home sickness and soon I joined the crowd, obeying all rules and attending prayers. As days passed, it dawned on me that I also could become a priest. Watching some of my companions, I thought: “If he could become one, why can’t I?”
Within five months, I was sent to Patna with five others to join the Jesuits there. Life moved on and I went to novitiate in 1975. In the quietness of that place and during long hours of prayer and reflection, doubts about my vocation returned. The words from the Bible, “Many are called, but few are chosen” rang in my mind. When I shared my doubts with the novice master, he said they could come from the evil spirit, and he asked me to pray earnestly.
But the doubts continued, so at the end of the two-year novitiate I asked for six months to decide about taking vows. When I shared my doubts and anguish with other novices, they said they too had the same problem, but they trusted in the Lord. After six months, I took my first vows and became a full-fledged Jesuit.
Yet, vows did not dispel my doubts and dryness. They became all the more acute during annual retreats. Meanwhile, I spent some months in mission stations before joining a college in Ranchi for English studies.
During the three years at the college, I wrestled with my doubts. I had recurring nightmares in which I was asked to decide my future. I felt insecure to leave the comfortable seminary life.
At the end of college, I was listed for a philosophy course in Pune. I went for a personal retreat directed by a Jesuit priest, a friend. I shared with him my inner struggles and doubts. He then advised me to leave if I really felt that I had no vocation. The longer I linger in the seminary, he warned me, the worse my life would become.
I decided to leave finally, even though it was like a jump into the dark. My spiritual director and provincial tried to dissuade me from leaving. I stood my ground and signed my papers. And peace came into my heart.
That was 34 years ago. Over the years, I have grown to appreciate what my 10 years in seminary had taught me. I have no hesitation to acknowledge that who I am today is entirely because of those formative years. The interesting part is that I have never stopped feeling my Jesuit-ness.
Did I really lose my vocation?
Read more in On a Mission From God in the Summer 2016 edition of ONE.