Indian priests: still plentiful but fewer available for overseas

Indian priests: still plentiful but fewer available for overseas

AD2000 Report

Bishops from the United States, Europe and Australia, where vocations are in short supply and the number of active priests declining, have been looking to India for spare priests. In recent years hundreds have been allowed to go, with at least 800 Indian priests working in the United States alone.

India, Vietnam and the Philippines have been among the leading sources of priests, according to data compiled at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

However, despite the still overflowing seminaries in India, a recent article in the New York Times by Laurie Goodstein, who recently visited India and interviewed bishops, seminarians and other Church personnel, provides a cautionary note regarding the long term prospects.

With India's rapid modernisation, he found that more potential recruits are opting for 'financial gain over spiritual sacrifice'. The booming Indian economy has been offering more career options.


'There is a great danger just now because the spirit of materialism is on the increase,' said Bishop Mar James Pazhayattil, the founding bishop of the Diocese of Irinjalakuda. 'Faith and the life of sacrifice are becoming less.'

Some of the forces contributing to a lack of priests in Western countries have begun to be felt in India with parents having fewer children.

Goodstein observes, 'Many priests once came from large agricultural families. But now land is scarce, the soil tapped out. Families are moving to cities, far from the tight-knit parishes that for generations kept Indian Catholics connected to their faith. And educated young Catholics are increasingly attracted to fields like engineering and technology.

'In past generations, having a son become a priest increased the family's stature, said Fr Jose Kuriedath, a sociologist in Aluva who has written a book about vocations in India ... But this is changing.'

The Church in India is ancient, with three separate rites, each with its own liturgies and bishops. In Kerala, a state in southwest India, Catholics of the Syro-Malabar rite trace their roots to the Apostle Thomas, who according to tradition arrived by boat in AD 52, made disciples among the ruling Brahmin class and planted seven churches.

While Catholics are only about two percent of the Indian population they have played a disproportionate role in establishing schools, hospitals, old-age homes and other organisations that serve many non-Catholics.

Goldstein writes, 'About 20 percent of Kerala's population is Catholic, and being faithful is more than a once-a-week event. Families pray together at home in the evenings, kneeling at shrines in their sitting rooms. Mass attendance in many dioceses is over 80 percent. And the entire community turns out for local festivals on saints days.'

Some graduates and former teachers of Don Bosco College, one of Kerala's seminaries, are now serving overseas. The students are aware that if they do well they might be invited. And many see it as their responsibility to go.

'People came from foreign countries as missionaries, and because of them we have Christianity, and in many ways we are benefiting,' said Augustine Thekkepookombil, a seminarian. ' So I feel it is my duty to give spiritual help. That would be the best way of showing gratitude.'

The Diocese of Irinjalakuda has 10 priests serving in the United States, as well as three in Germany, two in Canada and one in England. Four are studying in Rome.

In the United States, four of the Indian priests are in Birmingham, Alabama, where the former bishop arranged about seven years ago to pay the Diocese of Irinjalakuda $5,000 a year for each borrowed priest, an official in the Indian diocese said. Many bishops have such arrangements, giving them a motive other than generosity to loan out their priests.

Bishop Pazhayattil said he chose which priests to send abroad very carefully. Some who volunteer, he said, could easily go astray so far from home.

Staying home

However, as Goldstein found, some do not want to go. Fr Jolly Vadakken had studied in Rome and worked short-term in parishes in Germany, Minneapolis and Birmingham. Tall and impressive, fluent in five languages, Father Vadakken has had offers to work as a parish priest in Italy and Atlanta. But he preferred to stay home.

'In Irinjalakuda, he runs a Catholic resource centre across the street from the diocese's pink cathedral. He rides around the diocese on a motorcycle, often in his cassock, his cellphone ringing incessantly. He operates a suicide hot line (Kerala has one of the highest suicide rates in India), counsels couples, teaches courses in parenting and runs a program that mediates local conflicts.'

He said he feels more vital in India than he did in the United States or Europe, where he was needed only for the sacraments.

'In India, the people come close to us,' he continued. 'The work satisfaction is different. Our ministry is so much wanted here.'

At the same time, the Catholic church in Irinjalakuda is expanding. When Bishop Pazhayattil was appointed in 1978, the diocese had 78 parishes; it now has 129. He said it was unlikely he would be so eager to send his priests to Europe or the United States in the future.

The rectors of both large seminaries in Aluva, each with over 400 students, each said in separate interviews that the Catholic Church in the United States and Europe would eventually need to stop relying on India to supply priests.

'It is not a solution,' said Msgr Bosco Puthur, the rector of St Joseph Pontifical Seminary in Mangalapuzha. 'It is only a stopgap that does not solve the problem.'

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