Forming Priests in India’s Thriving Church

compiled by CNEWA staff

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According to conservative estimates, the population of India, a subcontinent encompassing 1,270,000 square miles, is increasing at a rate of one million a month.

India’s nearly 880 million people speak 14 languages, plus 200 or more dialects, and profess six major religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism. India is not a nation of one people, but an assortment of cultures, races and religions. And while this diverse nation has created nuclear power, produced sufficient food supply, launched satellites and ships, and built airplanes, India has one of the world’s slowest growing economies as well as one of the highest rates of unemployment.

Economically and socially India’s Christian community has carved itself a place of distinction. Although Christians compose only three percent of the population (Catholics account for more than half the Christian population), India’s churches provide a quarter of the nation’s social services.

In the southwestern state of Kerala, where Christianity took root in the first century, the churches are well regarded by the state’s civil authorities, most of whom are Marxists. Government officials approach bishops, priests and religious with offers to assist their agricultural, economic and social projects. The state compensates priests and sisters for their work in vernacular (Malayalam) schools. And the poor and indigent are brought to church-run clinics and hospices.

Indeed, Kerala’s Christian churches are largely responsible for the state’s high literacy rate, the highest in the country.

In light of the above, therefore, the formation of India’s Christian priests may not seem a major concern. However, if priests “are given the grace by God to be the ministers of Jesus Christ among the nations, fulfilling the sacred task of the Gospel” (Vatican II, Presbyterorum Ordinis), their personal, spiritual, doctrinal, pastoral and academic formation is essential. The proper formation of India’s priests is particularly important now that the Hindu “religious right” continues to gain political strength, threatening the position and role of the church.

India’s Catholic priests belong to one of three autonomous churches. The three million-strong Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the direct descendant of the Christian community founded by the apostle Thomas in 52 A.D., provides about 70 percent of India’s missionary priests. The Latin Catholic Church, which accounts for nearly 10 million believers, dates to the 16th-century missionary activity of the Portuguese. The Portuguese-enforced reforms of the 16th-century divided the Syro-Malabar Church and, in 1653, a group of these Thomas Christians severed ties with Rome, accepting the customs, laws and traditions of the Syrian Orthodox Church. In 1930, two bishops from this Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church reestablished full communion with the Church of Rome, thus establishing the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which numbers about 300,000 people.

The purpose of CNEWA’s program in India is to strengthen the presence of the Eastern Catholic Churches. To accomplish this, CNEWA focuses on the formation of priests, especially through its person-to-person Seminarian Sponsorship Program.

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Tags: India Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Priests Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Vocations (religious)