A Priest With Global Reach

One man links thousands with careers at home and abroad

by Jomi Thomas and Sean Sprague

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Until the middle of the 20th century, the role of the village priest in India’s rural southwestern state of Kerala was simple. In addition to the day-to-day management of the parish, sacramental duties, preparation of homilies and a rigorous regimen of prayer and self-examination, the village priest was actively engaged in the ups and downs of his parishioners’ lives. The priest visited their homes, guided them in times of crisis, consoled them in advanced age and sickness and weighed in on just about every important family decision.

But as India emerges as a global economic superpower, traditional rural life struggles; in Kerala, as in much of the country, it is disappearing. Today, fewer than half of Keralites depend on agriculture alone for income. And with a steady stream of Keralites flocking to cities — near and far — for work, the countryside has been emptied out. Its once vibrant village life has slowed, almost to a standstill in some areas of the state.

And while traditional Kerala fades — and along with it the familiar role of the village parish priest — another Kerala flowers.

Faced with daunting new challenges, Kerala’s Christian minority, which constitutes more than 20 percent of the state’s total population of 31.8 million, continues to rely on the counsel and guidance only a priest can offer.

Urban parishioners may no longer look to the parish priest for medical advice or input on farming techniques, but they do seek career counseling.

Sensitive to these new hardships and yet aware of their potential as vital and positive elements in lives of the Christian community, a new generation of priests is redefining the clergy’s role in modern-day Kerala.

“Once priests start to think of themselves as sacrament machines, they lose the real sense of what they do,” said Father Jose Thottakkara, a Syro-Malabar Catholic priest working in suburban Ernakulam.

A highly educated 44-year-old, Father Jose epitomizes a new, dynamic breed of priest. Founder and director of Naipunya International — a nonprofit agency of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly that places thousands of qualified young people in good jobs worldwide — the priest also leads more than 100 families at St. George Church, a suburban Syro-Malabar parish.

For a son of poor farmers, the priest has accomplished a great deal at a relatively young age. After some eight years of advanced education, he holds degrees in business management, economics, theology and world history. Complementing these studies, he undertook formal and on-the-job training in social work and management. In addition, he has received faculties to serve both Syro-Malabar and Roman Catholic communities.

Father Jose manages a tight schedule during the week. And while his responsibilities at Naipunya take up the lion’s share of his day, the families to whom he ministers remain close to his heart.

Sunday is a busy day for the pastor, starting at sunrise and ending late in the evening. Twice, he celebrates the Qurbana (the Syro-Malabar eucharistic liturgy), once in the early morning and again at 5 P.M. The evening liturgy is the most popular, with worshipers spilling out of the church.

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Tags: India Kerala Village life Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Emigration