Nirmala Dasi Sister Lovely Kattumattam assists a resident at Ashraya, an elderly care center on the outskirts of Mumbai. (photo: Peter Lemieux)
The Rev. M.J. Joseph, pastor of St. Alphonsa Church, leads a prayer service in a Dalit village. (photo: John Mathew)
Sister Julie Kolambel chats with a resident of a tribal village in Bastar. (photo: Jose Jacob)
Snehagiri sisters help villagers to organize in preparation for a local governmental assembly. (photo: Jose Jacob)
When Sonate Kaippananickal visited his aunt in Delhi two years ago, it proved to be his life’s turning point.
Then 15 years old, he went to the Indian national capital expecting a thrilling vacation. However, the tenth grader was shocked to find his aunt living and working in a slum. She and her family were members of the Santvana (“consolation”) Community, an association of the Catholic laity.
She explained the community aims to present the Gospel to the multitudes who have not heard Christ’s message of salvation — especially the poor. To this end, they accompany those most in need.
Sonate plunged into mission work among the slum’s residents. When, after two months, he returned to his home in Vellayamkudi, in the mountainous Idukki district of Kerala, Sonate had a clear vision of his future: He wanted to devote the rest of his life to Christ.
“The Delhi slum experience inspired me to join mission works so I can help the poor and downtrodden,” says Sonate, now a first-year candidate of the Missionaries of St. Thomas the Apostle, a Syro-Malabar Catholic congregation that works exclusively in mission areas.
Sonate, who hails from the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Kanjirapally, says he had many options to pursue his goal, but chose the Missionaries of St. Thomas because he wanted to do mission work within his own church. He now stands among the many Catholics — Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara — whose missionary quest has helped the Indian church become self-sufficient in vocations.
But recent trends raise questions about the future. Many religious congregations express concerns over both the quality and quantity of some called to service. Religious superiors speak of a new generation often lacking in discipline or missionary zeal. As a result, a number of congregations have begun looking for new ways to recruit young people — and finding new methods, as well, to form them for a life of sacrifice and service.
The desire to perform mission work motivated Biju Panthananickal to join the Missionaries of St. Thomas the Apostle. The senior candidate says he had wanted to be a priest as early as the first grade. His goal now, he says, is to win souls for Jesus.
“I know it is not easy and I may face violence. I am not afraid of persecution. I am ready to die for Jesus,” asserts the young man from a farming family in Chempanthotty, a parish community of the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Tellicherry in northern Kerala.
Another senior candidate, Amal Irupanathu, says he also entered the community to work for Christ. Early in his life, his kindergarten teacher, a religious sister, had first predicted he would become a priest. “Her words have remained in my mind since then. I pray daily to Mother Mary to make me a priest,” says the younger of two sons of a watch shop owner in Ulikkal.
These candidates must undergo training to become missionaries, studying at the novitiate attached to the congregation’s headquarters. Perched on a hill surrounded by rubber trees in Melampara, a village in the Christian-majority district of Kottayam, the congregation’s center lies less than a mile from Bharananganam, a pilgrimage site associated with St. Alphonsa — a Syro-Malabar sister and the first Indian woman to be canonized.
The novitiate’s director, the Rev. Kurian Ammanathukunnel, M.S.T., says the community offers numerous opportunities for budding young missionaries. Since opening its first mission in 1968 in Ujjain, a Hindu-dominated region in central India, the congregation has grown to some 336 priests and more than 200 seminarians who work in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Delhi, Punjab and northeastern India. In addition to managing schools, they administer homes for people with special needs, such as AIDS, focusing on uplifting the poorest of the poor.
Village development, he adds, such as improving agriculture and helping farmers, is another concern.
Yet, the 64-year-old priest says they may not draw enough men to manage all these apostolates. While the community still recruits 60 to 65 young men each year, Father Ammanathukunnel worries about the capacity of the newcomers. It is not unusual for about 20 boys to leave the novitiate after the first year. Another 20 to 30 leave after the mandatory “mission experience” in the third year, the director says.
He knows the reasons. Over the years he has seen fewer young Catholics from the Christian heartland of India, the southwestern state of Kerala, coming forward with genuine intention to work in missions.
“They do not value sacrifice or serving others, unlike in our times,” he explains.
Becoming a priest or sister has come to be viewed as “something below dignity” for many, he says, as Kerala’s society has changed over the last 20 years. Increasingly — even as they remain devoted members of the church — parents regard religious vocations as unsuitable for their children.
Other religious communities of men and women share the missionary’s concerns about this trend.
The Rev. Francis Kilivallickal, superior general of the Congregation of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, says only a few candidates express the desire to work in difficult and challenging missions. Most, he explained, simply lack commitment and mission orientation.
While some of the male congregations worry about the quality of their candidates, congregations of women worry also about quantity. Some have reported a drop in the number of young girls opting for religious life.
The Sisters of the Sacred Heart, founded more than a century ago, receive some 100 candidates from its 11 provinces every year. Superior General Sister Little Tresa Thevarakattil recalls when she entered the community in 1969, she was one of more than 200 candidates. The sister says vocations from Kerala declined after more girls, seeking financial stability for their families, took to nursing as a career. Moreover, she adds, some parents refuse to send their children to the missions, fearing attacks on priests and sisters in northern India, where most Catholic missionaries work.
The Sisters of the Destitute face a similar situation. Sister Cristal Panackal, the community’s vocation director, says they receive an average of 20 candidates from their six provinces. However, only half of them take the first vows.
Some also find religious life too severe. Sister Sebi Rose, superior general of the Sisters of St. Martha, says their new members find it hard to adjust to rules and regulations.
“Our families were strict and we were taught to respect parents and elders. We also learned to share and to love each other,” says Sister Sebi, the fourth child in a family of ten. The new generation comes from families of one or two children, she adds — leading to a less robust understanding of the value of sharing or helping.
Recruitment efforts face internal hurdles, too, according to the Rev. Paul Achandy, prior general of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, a Syro-Malabar congregation of men. Parish priests and their eparchies, he says, no longer encourage their people to become missionaries.
“Getting vocations has become a challenge now,” says Father Achandy, as recruitment for other callings has become more aggressive. Whereas boys used to come to them to become members, he says, “now, we have to work hard to get vocations.”
When vocations began to dwindle, religious communities began to appoint full-time vocation promoters.
The Rev. Robin Manianchira, who promotes vocations for the Missionaries of St. Thomas, says he has devised a three-phase program.
The tall, clean-shaven priest first visits high schools in Kerala during school breaks to talk to students about the congregation. If some boys show interest, he contacts their families. If parents also agree, the priest visits the family and invites the boy for a one-day program in December at the community’s center. He also checks with the boys’ parish priests about their character and family background.
Those who demonstrate an interest in religious life, and accept it, spend the first three years at the novitiate. During this period, they study English and prepare for high school exams, as Sonate Kaippananickal and others presently do.
To offset the decline in the numbers of young men entering from Kerala, some congregations are now accepting candidates from the missions. While some have a sizeable number of non-Keralite members, a few — such as the Missionaries of St. Thomas — have only just begun to warm up to the idea.
At the beginning of 2016, more than 150 of the Sacred Heart sisters’ nearly 3,800 members were from outside Kerala. Sacred Heart sisters work in Ethiopia, Germany, Italy, Namibia, Switzerland and the United States, in addition to India.
Sister Deepmala Kujur from Chhattisgarh, in central India, had first taken notice of the Sacred Heart sisters after being fascinated by their “umbrella dress.” She decided to join the convent, she says, to fulfill her innate desire to serve and care for others.
The junior sister from a tribal community says she has learned to adjust to a new environment and culture through prayer. She now even enjoys cassava pudding and fish curry, popular Kerala dishes.
“I am learning Malayalam and I like it,” she says.
Adjusting had come with its share of difficulties, however. She had felt homesick after entering the community’s novitiate in Kerala, and returned home after a few months. However, she soon realized she was wasting time she had intended to spend helping others, and returned.
Ashrita Beck, the third of seven children of a farmer in the town of Rourkela, in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, has now completed two years as a Sacred Heart sister. She says she had to overcome a lot of objections from home.
“By becoming a nun I could serve a lot of people,” she explains. She now works toward a degree in theology at the Missionary Orientation Center, close to the community’s mother house in Manganam near Kottayam.
Sister Ashrita agrees language, food and culture differ significantly, but she remains enthusiastic. “I am ready to adjust with everything,” she says.
Sister Little Tresa Thevarakattil and other superiors admit they harbor concerns about the faith and commitment of their candidates from outside Kerala, consisting mainly of young first- or second-generation Catholics.
In response to such concerns, some congregations experiment with ways to instill missionary zeal among their new members.
The Congregation of St. Theresa has introduced social orientation and social analysis programs. “We take them to villages and social service centers so they can see how the poor live, and feel empathy for them,” Sister Little Tresa explains.
In another innovation, the community now regards a daily holy hour in the chapel as an integral part of formation.
“They experience their calling in the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,” Father Kilivallickal says.
These and other methods have already made a profound difference in young people and, the superiors hope, they will also make a difference in India.
Sister Sebastina Mary, superior general of the Assisi Sisters of Mary Immaculate — nicknamed the Green Garden Sisters — has seen it for herself. Founded in 1965 to work exclusively among leprosy patients in Kerala, her community has shifted to caring for those with cancer and AIDS since the near eradication of Hansen’s disease in Kerala.
The superior says when girls first arrive, “they lack commitment and dedication.” But prayer and discipline gradually bring about change, transforming their lives and, she believes, their hearts.
This proactive approach has planted the seeds for a new generation of missionaries to grow and flourish.
“After staying with us for a few months, they are all fired up to help others and work for the less privileged.”
Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.