BY THE EARLY years of this century, the Roman Catholic faith stood at an unusual precipice. A trend that was said to have become noticeable after World War II was now deeply entrenched. The Roman Catholic Church, across the world and especially in Europe and the US, had a problem. It had very few priests.
From 1980 till 2000, while the Catholic population worldwide increased from an estimated 783 million to 1.04 billion, according to the Centre for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a US research centre that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church, during the same period, the number of priests reduced from an estimated 413,600 to 405,178. The total Catholic population in 2012 was an estimated 1.229 billion. The number of priests by then stood at 414,313.
This has, in the West, led to several ongoing and somewhat radical debates, from the need to ordain female priests to check the further fall in numbers, to relaxing the rule of celibacy to attract more youths to priesthood. In the meantime, the various Roman Catholic formations in the West appeared to have taken a cue from their economies. Like the flight of hi-tech jobs to low-wage countries like India at the start of this century, several Catholic rituals for people in the West began to be conducted by Indian priests. India—apart from other Asian countries like the Philippines, and some African nations—was seen to be going through a bump in the number of Roman Catholic priests. And bishops from the US, Europe, Australia and Latin America began to travel all the way to countries like India to look for priests for their church lecterns. “We began to call it reverse evangelism,” jokes Father Gonsalves, a Jesuit seminarian in Pune. “After thousands of European priests were dispatched as missionaries to places like India, there was a steady migration in the reverse direction.”
But now, it appears, India too faces a resource crunch. Like the developments on Western shores, the number of youngsters joining seminaries to become priests is coming down alarmingly.
“It is a big concern,” says Father Nigel Barrett, spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Bombay. “In the next 10 years or so, you will see a single priest running two churches, and manning two or more parishes.”
The shortage of priests, according to members of the Indian clergy, is most acute in urban areas. In the Mumbai metropolitan area, which has a relatively large Catholic population, every year between 10 and 12 priests reach the age of 75 and retire from active duty. In comparison, the number of people who get ordained every year is woefully short. “Sometimes it is five. And sometimes it is just three,” Father Barrett says. “On an average, around eight or nine join the seminary every year. But in the next few years, many of them drop out or are found unsuitable to be priests. By the time of ordination, which is after around eight or nine years of study, the average number of priests will be between three and five.” The results of the year 2014 turned out to be particularly poor. The entire Archdiocese of Bombay—which includes Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Thane and Raigad—ordained only one priest.
The ratio of priests to the laity in Mumbai is currently around 1: 5,000, far from the ideal of 1: 3,000. And with most members of the clergy between 60 and 75 years of age, many of them are fast retiring. Several priests, at least in Mumbai, even after they cross the retirement age of 75, are being asked to stay back and help out. The number of priests getting ordained in other cities like Delhi and Bengaluru, according to several priests, is equally short. “Families are shrinking. And everyone wants their children to be engineers or doctors,” says Father Jason Raymond, the executive secretary of The Conference of Diocesan Priests of India (CDPI).
The state of Kerala, which is believed to contribute the largest number of youth to priesthood in India, faces a similar problem. Father Raju Chakkanattu, secretary of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council’s (KCBC) Vocation Commission, does not share specific details but admits that the number of youngsters joining seminaries has come down drastically. “There used to be at least 100 or more ordinations across the state every year. It’s nowhere close to that figure now,” he says. Father Varghese Vallikkattu, deputy secretary and spokesperson of the KCBC, however, claims that he hasn’t noticed any fall in the number of seminarians, and, even if there were a fall, the numbers would be far from alarming.
The minor seminary will allow youths to discern, while pursuing academics, if they want to become priests
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Groups like the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement (KCRM), an organisation that seeks reform within the Catholic faith, claim that the church in Kerala is not coming clean with the numbers. There has been an over 40 per cent drop in the number of ordinations per year, claims George Joseph, president of the KCRM. “If you go for mass or any church service, you will rarely ever see a young priest. Everyone is really old,” Joseph says. “But they won’t admit it. They want to look good in front of the Vatican, where despite the worldwide trend, there is no shortage of priests. If they came clean, there would be panic here [in Kerala],” he says. Joseph also claims that increasingly, a large number of priests are also renouncing their vows.
WHEN JOSEPH D’COSTA, a 22-year-old seminarian in Mumbai whose name has been changed upon request, told his family and friends that he wanted to become a priest, he was surprised at their reaction. The D’Costa family moved from Kerala several generations ago to Borivali, a suburb in Mumbai with a large Catholic Malayalee population, where they have been regular churchgoers. Despite having had several priests in their family two generations ago, and a few even now within their extended family in Kerala, they initially asked Joseph D’Costa to change his mind. “My family expected me to join an engineering college after my standard XII board exams. I understand it is odd, even amusing to some, that I have chosen to become a priest. There are so many distractions these days, so many career prospects. And so many holy men, across religions, who are embroiled in controversy,” he says. “But to me, I can’t think of another career that would give me more joy.”
After spending three years in the seminary, Joseph D’Costa is currently on a break to recover from a torn ligament surgery. In the meantime, he is also pursuing a degree in business administration. “Life is hard in the seminary,” says D’Costa. “While my former classmates bunk and have fun in college, in the seminary, we are up by 5.30 am and spend the entire day studying philosophy and theology, and doing field visits.” Of the few who joined the seminary along with D’Costa, by the third year, three of them had dropped out.
Although Catholics represent a tiny minority in India—the 2011 census, released last year, found 2.3 per cent of the population describing themselves as Christian—the Roman Catholic faith has played a large role in establishing several important institutions like schools, colleges, orphanages and old age homes. Christianity is believed to have reached India back in 52 CE, when Thomas the Apostle is said to have reached what is now known as the Malabar Coast in Kerala. Unlike several other developed nations in the West, where there is poor church attendance and adherence to rituals is often low, priests in India claim that things are different here. “Faith plays an important role here. Church attendance is very high. People pray regularly at homes and church. And priesthood is not just a profession, like it is in the West. It not just about administering rituals or leading church services,” says Father Raymond, “People look up to the priest as a holy man, as a man of God.” Pointing to the social status enjoyed by priests in India, George Joseph explains, “There is a Malayalam proverb which when translated means, ‘To have a priest in the family is equal in dignity to owning an elephant’”.
It is a big concern. In the next 10 years or so, you will see a single priest running two churches and manning two or more parishes
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But with the opening up of the economy and an abundance of new jobs, priesthood no longer holds much attraction in India. Father Chakkanattu explains, “Society as a whole has become materialistic. Nobody wants to follow a life of sacrifice and devotion.” Several rural areas are also feeling the pinch since entire families have begun to migrate to large cities. Families today are much smaller and birth control is being practised even by steadfast followers of the faith.
Interestingly, however, several priests point out that the number of Catholics getting ordained in states like Odisha and Chhattisgarh, apart from the Northeastern states, is on the rise.
According to Father Francis Gonsalves, who taught at Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi for 18 years (four of them as its principal) and is currently teaching theology at Pune’s Jnana- Deepa Vidyapeeth, both these institutions being two of the largest Jesuit seminaries in the country, priesthood is often wrongly viewed as a life of immense sacrifice. “It has to be looked at as a profession,” he says. “There are sacrifices here, yes, but like any other job. And there are positives too.”
For an idea of the severity of the shortage, consider Father Gonsalves’ recollection of the time back in the 1970s when he enrolled at a seminary. Born and raised in Mumbai, he found that after he completed his class XII exams, from his batch of around 50 students in a Bandra school, a total of three boys joined the seminary. Today, the total number of ordinations in the entire city often equals this figure.
How many eventually dropped out? I ask him.
“None,” he says. “It wasn’t like this before at all.”
With the growing shortage of youngsters opting for priesthood, various Indian dioceses are trying to deal with it in different ways. The Archdiocese of Bombay is setting up a minor seminary aimed at students who have finished school and are interested in priesthood. According to Father Walter D’Souza, who will be in-charge of the seminary, the church wants to tell the youth about an alternate way of life. “The (minor) seminary will allow youths to discern, while pursuing academics, if they want to become priests,” he says. “Sometimes it is confusing: ‘Can you feel God’s calling?’ ‘Can’t you feel?’ The seminary will help youths discern that and understand what the life of a priest is like.” The Bombay Archdiocese has also introduced the concept of permanent deacons in India. These ordained deacons—Mumbai currently has 14, and many of them are married—are members of the laity who can administer sacraments for rituals like baptism and matrimony, apart from assisting in other services. Several dioceses, for instance the KCBC, are trying to carry out stronger grassroots movements to encourage vocations among practising Catholics.
And the church is increasingly encouraging the laity to assume roles in affairs that were traditionally taken care of by members of the church. Procedures like annulments of marriages—which would often get delayed because of the priest shortage, sometimes even leading to situations where a civil divorce comes through without an annulment from the church—are being assisted by members of the laity.
I ask Joseph D’Costa if he will return to the seminary once his education is done. “Yes, I plan to do that,” he says. “But I have a feeling my folks expect I will change my mind by then.”