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Persevering in Changing Times

The church in India responds to societal shifts, rising secularism

India, once widely regarded as a land that promoted peaceful coexistence, has seen an uptick in violence against religious minorities in recent years, including Christians, who make up less than 3 percent of the country’s population.

Last spring, violence erupted in Manipur between the majority Hindu Meitei people and the predominantly Christian Kuki people. The northeastern Indian state, which borders with Myanmar, is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.), which is also the ruling party in India’s Parliament.

While Manipur’s history of ethnic conflict began prior to India’s independence in 1947, the violence reported in May 2023 saw villages burned down. About 300 churches were set ablaze in the violence and another 100 buildings belonging to Christian communities, including a theological college, were destroyed.

The latest figures, published in January, indicate about 200 people on both sides of the conflict were killed. Of these, at least 87 were Kuki Christians. The communal violence displaced about 50,000 people, mostly Christians.

Despite frequent news reports of communal violence in the country, annual statistics published by India’s National Crime Records Bureau in December 2023 for the previous year show incidents of communal violence on the decline, with only 272 registered cases in 2022, down from 378 in 2021, and 857 the year prior. The same bureau reported 438 cases in 2019, 512 in 2018, and 723 in 2017. Figures for 2023 were not available at the time of publication.

While the government is reporting communal rioting at an all-time low, some Indian media are reporting ethnic tensions at an all-time high.

“In Kerala, things are okay for now,” says the Rev. Peter Kannampuzha of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. “We’re not affected by hate speech or communalism. But we are worried about what’s happened in Manipur, the attacks on churches.”

Father Kannampuzha is the director of catechesis and moral education for the archeparchy, situated in the southern state of Kerala, more than 2,000 miles from Manipur. Still, any religious persecution feels close to home for India’s minority Christian community.

“When incidents like Manipur happen, it gives us some anxiety,” he says. “As Christians, we pray for peace, harmony and progress of the nation.”

Father Kannampuzha says changes in religious sentiment in the country, as well as to family life in general, have impacted the way the church teaches the faith and trains lay ministers.

Father Peter Kannampuzha visits a catechism class for teens in Kerala. (photo: Sajeendran V.S.)

The biggest social change has been the nuclear family replacing the more traditional extended Indian family, where at least three generations live together.

“As Christians, we pray for peace, harmony and progress of the nation.”

Increasingly now, a nanny will look after young children rather than their grandparents. Men and women are waiting longer to marry and have children. Women have become more financially independent, greater affluence has brought a rise in consumer culture, and an increasing number of young people are going abroad for school or work.

“As the needs of Christian families in India change, the church also has to evolve,” says Father Kannampuzha. “Where the smartphone has replaced time together at family meals, we need to bring family members together at liturgy. Where grandparents are no longer present, catechists must replace the wisdom of the elderly.”

The archeparchy organizes regular meetings, retreats and training programs in each of its 16 deaneries for 5,287 volunteer catechists, mostly lay people, including many women with professional careers. Father Kannampuzha oversees this training, as well as the archeparchy’s 306 catechism classes, with a total enrollment of 65,206 children and teens.

Five Franciscan seminarians walk at Kolbe Ashram Seminary.
The program of study for the Franciscan seminarians at Kolbe Ashram Seminary in Millupady includes learning to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding. (photo: Sajeendran V.S.)

“We have interactive sessions on how catechism should be taught in today’s society,” he explains. “We talk about the church’s vision, how to handle the children and our responsibilities as Christians and as citizens of India.”

“We always want our catechists to feel supported. The church takes the training of lay ministers very seriously because they’re the ones doing the church’s work,” he adds.

In response to religious tensions in the country, the church is working to promote communal harmony and secularism, understood in India as the equality of all individuals regardless of religious affiliation or belief.

“We encourage children to love God and their fellow human beings irrespective of religion or race,” he says.

To practice putting such love into action, the archeparchy has introduced the “Adopt a Family” program. High school juniors in the catechism program are put into groups to care for local families in need who may not share their religious beliefs. They will assist these families for two years with food, medicine and clothing.

“Students take up part-time jobs to support their chosen family,” says Father Kannampuzha. “This is a great way for them to learn about caring, sharing and doing God’s work.”

High school seniors instead participate in a program called “Karuthal,” a Malayalam word that means “caring.” They are encouraged to share their meal at Christmas with a family in need.

“We encourage children to love God and their fellow human beings irrespective of religion or race.”

“We talk to the students about the happiness that comes from helping and sacrificing for others,” Father Kannampuzha says. “As Christians, they have to know about the Gospel and how to apply it to day-to-day life.”

“We develop our catechism students into leaders,” he adds. “Leadership in school, politics, education and in church is important.”

Community relations in Millupady, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Aluva, about 10 miles northeast of Ernakulam, were not always cordial, says Father Paul Pothanattuvelayil, O.F.M. Conv. The priest serves as rector of the Kolbe Ashram Seminary of the Conventual Franciscans in Millupady.

He recalls how a natural disaster helped turn things around. In 2018, Kerala was devastated by the heaviest rainfall in close to a century. At least 400 people died in the floods and many more went missing.

“We invited everybody to seek shelter at the seminary. About 300 Muslim families were here as the rains lashed and people lost their homes,” he says. “People stayed here as long as they wanted. We gave them food, clothes and medicines.”

The seminary continued to help even after life went back to normal.

“That changed everything. People understood we were decent and here to help,” he says.

These days, Muslim couples come to the seminary gardens to take their wedding pictures.

“We’re all very friendly,” he says.

As the Indian population continues to grow and its society evolves, the need for understanding, tolerance and dialogue among faith communities increases, he insists.

“In India, the needs of the community are changing fast,” he says. “Gone are the days when a town or village was homogenous. Communities are more mixed now. We have to deal with conflict with sympathy and empathy. 

“The church understands that. We are engaging more with other communities. Dialogue is much needed and more rigorous.”

Priestly formation must also respond to the ways in which societal changes in India have impacted seminary candidates, says the rector.

“Young boys and men have so much exposure to the world these days, thanks to their smartphones. There’s more awareness of what they want, how they can achieve their goals,” he says. “It is now very difficult to convince a young man to live a life of service where the first thing you need to give up during training is your smartphone.”

Better role models are needed for a new generation of clergy, he adds.

“We need formators who are human, vulnerable, open and who don’t shy away from dialogue. Young seminarians need care and someone to understand their concerns and dilemmas. Gone are the days of strict priests and shouting orders.”

Sister Reshma, C.S.N., is the novice mistress for four novices at Nazareth Novitiate House in south Angamaly. The 40-year-old convent of the Congregation of the Sisters of Nazareth is very quiet, except for the occasional train that rolls by.

“Once upon a time, the novices used to join young, when they were 15 or 16 years old,” Sister Reshma says. “Now, they’re older. They come to us after they’ve gotten their undergraduate degree and in some cases after their post-grad.”

Sister Reshma receives guidance from local bishops on the formation program and syllabus for novices, which place more emphasis now on self-awareness and psychological well-being compared with years past. As part of a new initiative, a senior sister will visit with novices weekly to check on their mental health and well-being.

“This is by far the most important support we provide to young women who will go on to do Christ’s work,” Sister Reshma says. “We’ve found that novices need more empathy, support, affection and understanding from us than ever before.”

Sister Reshma, center, is the novice mistress for four novices discerning with the Sisters of Nazareth in south Angamaly. (photo: Sajeendran V.S.)

Sister Reshma has observed how changes in Christian families in India have impacted vocations and vocational formation.

“Not so long ago, spiritual formation started at home, families prayed and did the rosary together. Not so much anymore,” she says. “These days, more people are wounded and deal with trauma caused by their circumstances and families, for example, being abused as a child.”

Furthermore, as career options for young women have increased in India, “being a sister has fallen way down that list. Women have to come to view service also as a career option.”

The formation program at the novitiate also gives “a lot of importance to secularism,” says Sister Reshma.

“India is a country of billions and there are varied communities and religions. We prepare our novices not just for a life of the Gospel, but also how to deal with difficult circumstances that exist in our country.”

In an effort to engage more directly with the diversity of people and cultures in the local neighborhood, the sisters have taken baby steps toward greater dialogue and opportunities for encounter, including opening the convent chapel every Sunday to people of all faiths to come and pray.

“We don’t turn people away,” the sister says. “Everybody is welcome, no matter who they are.”

The CNEWA Connection

A key aspect of CNEWA’s mission is to support the pastoral initiatives of the Eastern churches, including catechism, seminary formation and the formation of religious men and women. CNEWA has long supported such initiatives in southern India, even as the church there has adapted its programming in recent years to respond to the needs of a rapidly evolving society, marked by an increase in secularism and anti-religious sentiment, as well as changes in family life.

To support the mission of the church in India, call 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or visit

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Anubha George is a former BBC editor. She is a columnist and writer for various publications. She is based in Kerala, India.

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