Seminarians at St. Thomas study on campus for an exam. (photo: Meenakshi Soman)
The Rev. Joy Ainiyadan leads the St. Thomas the Apostle Seminary. (photo: Meenakshi Soman)
The Rev. Baby Karintholil of St. Thomas the Apostle Seminary prays during a home visit. (photo: Meenakshi Soman)
The Rev. Jaison Koonamplakkal leads the Mary Matha Major Seminary (photo: Meenakshi Soman)
Martin Pattarumadathil first considered priesthood in 2001. Two years later, he entered a seminary in Kerala. He left soon after, however, for an opportunity he felt he could not pass up: a position in Vietnam as a merchandiser for a clothing company.
Years passed, but Mr. Pattarumadathil never felt he had acclimated to the lavish new lifestyle this change had introduced.
“I found that life of luxury, of money and of going off to clubs wasn’t for me,” he says. “I felt God was showering his blessings on me and protecting me from that which could have tainted me.”
Most of a decade later, in 2012, he left material success behind. Now, the 35-year-old is completing his final year of theological study at St. Thomas the Apostle Seminary in Vadavathoor, a small village close to Kottayam in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. In November, he will return to his parish in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu with a recommendation to his bishop about whether or not he should be ordained a priest.
“I never again want to leave the church. I just want to be a man of prayer. Through my words and deeds people should be able to see Christ,” Mr. Pattarumadathil says.
Since 1962, this seminary has been preparing its students for precisely this: a life emulating Christ.
“This is a pastoral seminary; we prepare the seminarians to be priests,” says the Rev. Joy Ainiyadan, its rector since 2015.
“The aim of the formation is to make them another Christ.”
Father Ainiyadan explains the formation process focuses on “body, mind and soul liberation” — emphasizing the need for physical, mental and spiritual fitness.
“We have daily exercise, games and daily labor for our seminarians,” Father Ainiyadan explains. “The body should never be a hindrance to our religious and spiritual endeavors.”
To strengthen the mind, seminarians study philosophy and theology. “Seminarians are taught how to present their cases in a systematic and logical way, even in the most hostile environment,” Father Ainiyadan says.
And for their spiritual fitness, they employ a disciplined regime of prayer and reflection.
“We begin the day just after 5 a.m.,” says the Syro-Malabar Catholic priest. “Meditation, prayer and the Divine Liturgy are to develop them spiritually,” he says, adding that the seminary’s spiritual philosophy is rooted in the first letter of John: “We dwell in him and he in us.”
The seminary grounds include an acre of land devoted to sports, including soccer fields and basketball and badminton courts. A well-stocked library and five chapels afford plenty of space for study and prayer. In the last 55 years, the seminary has formed more than 2,000 priests, including 42 in 2017 — about a fifth of its body of 215 students. These thousands may now be found serving communities in Australia, Austria, New Zealand, the United States and, of course, different parts of India.
“A priest takes care of the sheep. Our priests are taught to be the presence of Jesus in the world,” Father Ainiyadan says. “Ours is a ministry of preaching that’s understandable to people.”
This is a weighty undertaking, he says — one that necessitates a lengthy period of preparation.
“The longer the formation, the lesser the intensity,” he explains. “We have to do things in a systematic and calm way.”
The seminary also reaches out to people in the local community in need — often through family prayer meetings and outreach groups, or by providing physical and financial help.
Tony Moolayil, another young seminarian, says this charism of aid and outreach attracted him to the priesthood.
“I joined a seminary when I was 16. It was rigid and strict to begin with. I was so homesick,” he reminisces, adding that his parents were his role models and inspirations.
“I never saw my parents fight or argue or get into trouble. My family is pious,” he says.
After 40 days in the seminary, Mr. Moolayil learned his father had suddenly passed away.
“My mother and younger brother were on their own. I asked my mom what should I do — stay with her or go back to the seminary? She said I could do what I wanted. I returned to the seminary. I know God is with me and he has plans for me,” the 24-year-old says.
“I’m living for God, for the people of God. A Catholic priest has much work to do in the world. And I want to live as a child of God and to do good for others.”
According to tradition, Christianity’s presence in India dates to the arrival of the Apostle Thomas in the first century in what is now Kerala. Today, in the hearts and minds of aspiring priests and many others throughout the state, visitors catch a glimpse of a church to come — one no less driven and hopeful than it was in those first days.
On a warm and humid February morning, a few men gather at St. Francis Theological College in Thellakom, a tiny village in Kerala. Seated in the library, the men — Brothers Abhilash Elamthuruthil, Nelson Verghese, Arun Elavumkal, Nishad Sebastian, Manoj Sebastian and Michael Thomas — discuss their call to serve the church as members of religious communities.
Brother Abhilash says he was inspired by reading a biography of St. Francis of Assisi while in secondary school.
“I then came in contact with Capuchin priests,” he says. “In our community, Capuchins have a good name because they lead a simple life. My parents were supportive about me joining them.”
Brother Nelson says his experience as an altar server in his parish in a village in northern Kerala helped him realize his calling.
“I believe I can work with people. That’s my charism. Capuchins aren’t limited to a parish. We work in the community, ready when required,” he says.
Brother Arun, who has been training to be a Capuchin for 11 years, agrees.
“In Kerala’s context, people turn to religion for their spiritual needs. Lots of people come to confession, counseling and retreats organized by the Capuchin seminary here.”
As with Brother Abhilash, Brother Arun found his calling by reading about St. Francis.
“My family was against me becoming a priest at first,” he says. “Slowly, they came around.”
On the other hand, for Brother Nishad, the call to serve came from his family.
“I have an older brother who’s a priest. Another cousin is a Capuchin who often came to visit us at home,” he says. “I was fascinated by the cassock.”
Brother Michael says he was drawn to the Capuchins by their down-to-earth approach.
“We’re given practical things to do, such as manage the kitchen, buy groceries, shop. That’s how we understand everyday life,” he says.
“Capuchins predominantly do missionary work,” says the Rev. Shaji Dominic, the vice rector of the seminary. “We take care of the spiritual needs of the people by organizing retreats, by teaching in their homes, providing manual support.”
The seminary in Thellakom houses 55 students.
“We spread the Gospel,” says Father Shaji. “We’re mission oriented. After ordination, our students are sent to countries such as Malawi, Namibia and Papua New Guinea. In India, we have a presence in Adilabad in Andhra Pradesh, Assam and the northeast.”
St. Francis Theological College was formally inaugurated in 1987. The training program lasts eight semesters and is completed in three and a half years on the campus. For their final semester, the men are sent away to various parishes for pastoral experience.
Despite this approach to embracing pastoral care, the Capuchins seldom go on to lead parishes. Sharing in the Franciscan charism, Capuchin friars function within a religious community sworn to poverty, chastity and obedience — vows taken in the footsteps of St. Francis.
“Ours is a religious order of contemplation, prayer and apostolic activity,” says Father Shaji. “We don’t become parish priests unless there is a desperate need and the bishop asks us to.”
Father Antony John has recently returned from Rome, where he was completing his advanced studies in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
“It’s good to be in Rome because you get to meet students from different parts of the world,” he says.
At this seminary, students also have classes introducing them to concepts in Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, as well as other religions.
“This interfaith dialogue is very important to us. It’s necessary for our brothers to understand what’s happening around the world,” says Father Shaji.
Among its works supporting the community, the Capuchin community at the seminary in Thellakom helps some 100 people suffering with AIDS in the local community. For Brother Manoj, such good works make life as a Capuchin priest worthwhile.
“That is my charism. To always help people,” he says. “As a Capuchin, I can do that.”
A long, winding road leads to the Mary Matha Major Seminary in Mannuthy, a small village near Trichur. The gates open up to a majestic building built on a sprawling plot of 50 acres.
Senjith Pullikan attends a class on hermeneutics, the field that deals with theory and practice of interpretation — especially of the Bible. Mr. Pullikan is a third-year student of philosophy. In April, he will begin a year of regency — a period of intensive study in philosophy and theology amid hands-on work teaching or serving the community.
“My call is to follow Jesus Christ,” he says. Yet despite entering into an ancient tradition, he does not view himself as a traditionalist.
“Priests have to move with the times, we need to have the pulse of the people.”
Mr. Pullikan’s main interest is youth ministry.
“Young people have a lot of questions, a lot of doubt in their hearts and minds. If we answer them correctly, they’re willing to come to church and be a part of it,” he says.
“Brothers and deacons are given a harmonious, secular idea of India,” says its rector, the Rev. Jaison Koonamplakkal, emphasizing the importance of this, especially in today’s climate, with religious tensions frequently appearing the news.
“We stress living as part of a community. That’s what our brothers do. They bring peace and respect wherever they go.”
Founded in 1998 by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Trichur, the Mary Matha Seminary accepts men on the recommendation of their bishops. Its theology department is affiliated with the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.
“Every Sunday, theology students are sent to parishes throughout the archeparchy,” Father Koonamplakkal says. “In the four years they have with us, they get good all-around pastoral experience,” he adds, citing preaching practice and quality time with families.
During their final year of theology training, students are sent to parishes to focus on pastoral ministry. Father Koonamplakkal describes the sort of work this entails: “They organize retreats, offer counseling and get to know each and every person of the parish.”
Students hail from various religious communities and eparchies. “We have Latin, [Syro-Malabar], Syro-Malankara. But they’re all Catholics,” Father Koonamplakkal explains. “The basic thrust of our teaching and training is spiritual transformation. All priests should be spiritual leaders first.”
Father Koonamplakkal says a priest’s priority should always be the ministry. “Diocesan priests can have connections with their families. But ministry should always come first.”
The rector has seen many seminarians struggle with the strictures of the life they are entering.
“Brothers are free to leave any time they want. Sometimes they give up; sometimes the authorities feel they’re not up to it,” he says. “But we can and do help them. Their bishops also offer them help and guidance.”
Gladrin Vattakuzhy, a 28-year-old second-year theology student, discusses how he found his priestly vocation.
“I was always very active in my parish. I used to assist in the Divine Liturgy,” he says. But it was not until he survived a traumatic accident that he decided on his present course.
“It was a horrible accident. By the grace of God, nothing happened to me. I got away unscathed,” he says.
The youngest of three siblings, his parents encouraged him to enter priesthood.
“They’re quite active in the parish. They’ve always supported me and they understand that this is what I want to do.”
In particular, he emphasizes an interest in youth ministry.
“I feel young people are getting away from the church. Priests can influence people’s lives,” he says.
“They live and work for others. They can bring about a change in the community — make it more harmonious and integrated. They can show people the way.”
Mr. Vattakuzhy is looking forward to being ordained in December 2019. He rises to return to his work — but not without first making one humble request:
“Please pray for me.”
Anubha George is a former BBC editor and writes on Kerala culture. Based in Cochin, her work has been published in Scroll.in, The Good Men Project among others. She also teaches journalism at India’s leading media schools.