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Keeping Up With the Times

Kerala’s churches cope with economic and social upheaval

Outside the packed auditorium at St. Joseph Pontifical Seminary in Mangalapuzha, Kerala, anxious seminarians pace back and forth. Cramming for their finals, they flip hurriedly through their study notes.

As the auditorium’s doors swing open and the previous class exits, the eager youth rush in and take their assigned seats. At the sound of the final bell, Professor Bosco Puthur takes his place at the front of the room. Ordained a priest some 40 years ago, Msgr. Puthur serves as rector of the seminary. The students stand as the rector leads them in prayer. Then, as they take their seats, he distributes the exam. The time has come for these young men to prove themselves.

They furiously write lengthy essays on theology and philosophy. They shake out the muscle fatigue in their hands. They scan the room to gauge the blood pressure levels of their peers. And occasionally, some roll their eyes upward, perhaps in search of divine inspiration. In Kerala’s achievement-oriented society, competition is the name of the game, even among priests-in-training.

Soon enough, to use a metaphor in keeping with the times in Kerala, the latest batch will be ready for shipment.

In recent years, Kerala’s traditional agrarian culture has been supplanted — at a bewildering speed — by a more industrial, urban and secular one. This development has caused a wave of social change throughout Kerala, the effects of which have been felt in all aspects of society, Christian, Hindu and Muslim.

In this fast-changing southeastern Indian state, literacy is nearly universal; education reigns king. Not long ago, conversation among villagers centered on crop rotation and seasonal rains. Today, rural and urban Keralites are preoccupied by which colleges their children will attend and which professions offer lucrative careers. No longer confined to rearing children and managing the household, women set their sights on horizons filled with diverse possibilities.

For many of the state’s Christians — who make up 20 percent of the state’s population of 31.8 million — the media vie with the parish priest in shaping values. Kerala’s once tradition-bound citizens are becoming more secular, more consumer-driven. Families are smaller, incomes are greater and people are more mobile. And as Msgr. Puthur warily acknowledges, “The role of the priest is shrinking.”

This shift in the social landscape has impacted the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches, especially their ability to recruit men and women to serve as priests and religious, respectively. Observers sense an imminent decline in the ranks of vocations among these churches, which are centered in the state.

They point out that today’s candidates no longer come from wealthy or upper middle-class backgrounds, nor do they represent the highest performing students. Many lack the emotional maturity of their predecessors.

“It’s not that the strata of vocations have moved from upper class to high middle class to lower middle class and now to the lowest classes of society,” explains Father Paul Thelakat, editor in chief of Sathayadeepam, a Catholic weekly, and spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar Catholic bishops. “But from whatever social strata they come, the quality of many of them is, unfortunately, in some ways not competitive with their counterparts in [this] market-driven society.”

Recent scandals, embellished by what church leaders view as an anti-Christian media establishment in India, have tarnished the churches’ reputations and have hampered their recruitment efforts.

For the first time in centuries, Kerala’s Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches are thinking twice about the recruitment and formation processes of their priests and religious as the culture around them changes.

“The church is in a transitional period, not sure of the road it should travel,” explains Msgr. Puthur. “There are two types of trends. The conservative wants to hold onto the conservative church system and traditions. And the progressive wants to change with society as the need arises. Right now, both are unsuccessful. Both are frustrated. It’s complicated. There are no landmarks. But it’s more risky to be progressive.”

For example, Kerala’s Catholic bishops and superiors look at how their post-Vatican II peers in North America have grappled with similar factors — smaller families, consumer-driven secularism and the subsequent and general “crisis of faith” — in relation to the recruitment and formation of its ministers.

While the number of priests and religious has declined in North America since the 1970’s, members of the laity have taken on a more prominent role in parish and diocesan life. They fulfill the functions once the province of clergy and religious, such as parish and diocesan administration, catechesis and counseling. Also, the restoration of the permanent diaconate has eased the demands placed on priests; deacons may baptize, preside at Communion services and witness weddings. And priests “shared from” foreign countries — as Msgr. Puthur puts it — fill the clerical gap. Currently, more than 800 priests from India serve in U.S. Catholic parishes.

But while Msgr. Puthur concedes some parallels may be drawn, he sees Kerala’s economic, social and cultural circumstances as unique and cautions against overindulging in the similarities or modeling solutions after those devised in the West.

“The number of vocations will go down. No stopping that,” he admits. But, he does not believe the same dramatic decline will occur as it did in the West — at least not anytime soon. “Right now, there are enough priests to cover demands,” he adds. Moreover, he does not foresee a “crisis of faith” among Kerala’s laity. “In spite of everything that’s happening, India’s a more religious society. The religiosity of society here will survive, unlike in the West.”

But not all of Kerala’s Catholic leaders are as confident as Msgr. Puthur.

“We are suffering from the sensual culture that pervades life, including the convents and monasteries, which are withering away in this climate,” says Father Paul Thelakat.

“The church will have to adapt very much to overcome this critical situation. There is a tendency to go back to ‘good old ways,’ trying to live in the past or in the museum,” the priest adds.

“Perhaps we have to make a paradigm shift in the church, where we have to transform much of the ecclesiastical functions to be run by trained and committed laity. Unfortunately, the church as an institution [here] is not gearing up to such a situation and we are not learning from the experience of the West.”

Each morning, 20-year-old Jincy Lazar rises at 4:30 and begins a strict regimen that includes yoga, meditation, liturgy, religious classes, manual labor and study. A novice in residence at the Holy Family Sisters convent in Kanjoor, she enjoys no leisure time. She is not permitted to see any visitors, nor is any contact allowed with parents or other family members.

These days, however, this ascetic lifestyle is no longer an easy sell to young girls or their parents.

“The social setup has changed,” Sister Bianca laments. “Keralite families used to be very religious. Now, girls have many other attractions, such as professional studies, the ability to go abroad and better job options. Parents make greater educational investments in each child. They don’t permit their children to go to the convent. And the children also feel, ‘How can I go?’

“But those who come are very strong in their conviction,” she adds.

Months earlier, before entering the novitiate, Jincy Lazar faced the biggest decision of her young life. Finally of age, she was ready to pursue her childhood dream of serving God and community. But a family crisis held her back. Diagnosed with terminal leukemia, her mother was confined to bed. Ms. Lazar’s teachers, friends and family, including her aunt, also a sister of the Holy Family, pleaded with her to stay and care for her mother. Her dying mother, however, urged her to follow her heart and to make her own decision. Heeding the Lord’s call, she said goodbye and left for Kanjoor.

“I’m very happy with my decision,” she says. “God’s with me, and I always feel God’s with my mother.”

Some church leaders, however, such as Father Jose Panthaplamthottiyil, prior general of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, recognize that women such as Jincy Lazar are becoming more the exception than the rule.

“We have no problem getting vocations for priests. Our seminaries are always full. But in the case of sisters, we don’t get the large numbers as before,” says the priest.

Father Jose and other church leaders have no hard statistics to demonstrate the decline in religious vocations among women. They cite, too, the recent swell in Kerala in the number of religious congregations of sisters, both foreign and indigenous, for clouding the picture and amplifying the sense of scarcity.

Whether real or perceived, congregations have seen enough evidence in their ranks to begin making some significant changes in how they operate. About five years ago, for the first time in its 95-year history, the Congregation of the Holy Family began to recruit candidates actively and systematically from good families and schools.

“In former days, girls were willing to join the convent after their studies,” explains Sister Bianca Kochuthara. “But now they go for jobs and family life. So while recruitment didn”t exist in the past, now it’s needed.”

In private, formation processes for women religious have likewise undergone change. “Gradually, it’s become necessary to allow them more contact with the outside world,” says Sister Bianca, whose congregation permits parental visits during the holidays and vacations after their first year. The community has also decided to delay by two years when sisters may pursue further studies. This change, they hope, will deepen the women’s spiritual lives before they attain an advanced degree, minimizing attrition.

Father Naiju Thaliath, C.M.I., squeezes his burly frame into his tiny sedan, taps the dashboard and proudly declares, “69,000 kilometers in three years!”

“Experience matters. If I sit with a family, I get a vibration. Like a doctor feeling a pulse.”

The emergence of vocation promoters represents a relatively new phenomenon for India’s Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches.

“It wasn’t necessary 20, 30, 40 years ago. The world was so small for everyone. The parish priest was the king of the place, and all the families were at his disposal. Those were the times,” Father Naiju says, “but now there are a lot of churches. It’s a fast-moving world and we need vocation promoters.”

But the ministry is not for everyone, he cautions. “In Kerala, specialization is very much in every field. I focused on vocation recruitment and worked in youth ministry.”

While Kerala’s social changes are obvious, the ability and desire of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches to develop fresh approaches are not. But more than ever, church leaders are preparing for change.

Last February, the Syro-Malabar Commission for the Clergy and Institutes of the Consecrated Life convened a meeting of mother superiors to discuss vocations and the formation of candidates.

“We need to modernize the formation system itself to the modern needs of the church and society,” explains commission chairman Mar Thomas Chakiath, who is also an auxiliary bishop of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly. He hopes to present a charter on the formation of women religious within a year to the synod of bishops and to the major superiors for approval. The Charter for Priestly Formation, recently issued by the same commission, serves as its model.

While formation experts, general superiors and others continue to debate the draft’s finer points, the key ideas endorse an increase in pastoral work, service to the poor and social justice activities, as well as continued education and formation of sisters.

“We want to offer a new picture of religious life, which has become too institutionalized,” says Mar Chakiath. “People look at religious as teachers and administrators. But religious have to be real spiritual leaders who stand for the church, for Jesus and the poorest of the poor.”

As much as the church’s current vocational challenges stem from perception problems, they also, as Bethany Father Jose Mariadas makes clear, stem from a lack of inspiration.

“I feel the ideal of priesthood or religious life no longer challenges the youth,” says the superior of the Syro-Malankara order.

“In the beginning of our church, life was very difficult. We sacrificed and suffered a lot. But with improved living conditions, the church became financially much better off. As a result, an aspect of our spirituality, of taking up the challenges of the Gospel, has suffered. The mission of the Malankara Church is diminishing.”

For this reason, Father Jose — whose most difficult yet satisfying years were as a missionary in Calcutta — is urging his community to recapture its missionary zeal in Africa and North India. In March 2009, he traveled to Ethiopia to visit mission stations and help start a community in a location with no electricity, no roads and no hospital.

“Why take this decision?” he asks rhetorically. “Because the element of sacrifice is the backbone of any congregation and, right now, we have enough schools and hospitals. We’re too comfortable. That’s the problem. It’s a counter witness.”

And then, Father Jose makes his final pitch.

Hmmm. Can such a simple message be heard above the noise and the din of Kerala’s modern society?

Award–winning journalist Peter Lemieux reports from Africa and India for ONE.

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