From ONE Magazine

Forming Priests in India’s Thriving Church

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.

The ecumenical, humanitarian and pastoral projects of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches also receive considerable support.

Nearly 200 Syro-Malankara Catholic seminarians – the great majority – study at St. Mary’s Seminary, located in the hills overlooking Kerala’s capital city of Trivandrum. A small portion attend Latin or Syro-Malabar institutions. Until 1987, however, all Syro-Malankara aspirants pursued religious life in Latin or Syro-Malabar facilities. And although this improved the lines of communication among India’s various Catholic churches (which have been at odds for centuries), the lack of a Syro-Malankara institution inhibited the seminarians’ formation in a Syro-Malankara context.

“[A Syro-Malankara seminary] is certainly necessary for the strengthening of this particular Catholic tradition,” writes Mar Joseph Powathil, Syro-Malabar Catholic Archbishop of Changanacherry and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. “But it [will] also contribute to a really Catholic sense of communion…by deepening one’s ecclesial sense and communion-awareness.

“Formation in a spiritual tradition can never be a closed one like the formation of an ethnic group,” the Archbishop continues. “Proper ecclesial formation in a Catholic tradition can only promote preservation of unity in diversity.”

The enormous expense of planning, building and maintaining a structure alone, besides the financial obligation to support seminarians and staff, delayed the establishment of the seminary. Philosophical concerns also stalled the project:

“Some,” explains Cyril Mar Baselios, Syro-Malankara Metropolitan Archbishop of Trivandrum, “were hesitant to admit even the possibility of a theological pluralism in the church, arguing that all priests are to be trained in complete uniformity in terms of their philosophical and theological training.”

In 1983, after receiving support from the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, the Syro-Malankara hierarchy began the first phase of St. Mary’s Seminary by offering a three-year philosophy course. Construction of the impressive complex began in 1986, to be completed 10 years later. In 1992, the second phase of the seminary was marked with the inauguration of a four-year theology course. And this past March, 19 deacons, all nurtured in the Syro-Malankara tradition, were ordained to the priesthood.

While special emphasis is placed on the Syro-Malankara liturgy and tradition, the current curriculum is formed in accordance with guidelines established by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.

The Instruction issued last January by the Congregation reaffirms the necessity of the liturgical formation of priests:

“It is, therefore, necessary that the liturgical life be celebrated with great care and always in its integral form in Eastern seminaries…such that the candidates may be shaped by it and learn it in all its richness and completeness…. The liturgy is to be the true font of spirituality by which the candidates are formed.”

But what if the form of the liturgy is an element of dispute, as it is in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church? How does this discord affect the formation of priests?

Although the Syro-Malabar Church is among the most dynamic of the Eastern churches, three groups within it champion a different form of liturgy. One seeks to return to the fourth-century Qurbana, or Eucharistic liturgy, which the church received from its Assyrian bishops in the fourth century. A second group favors a liturgy that assimilates both the ancient Assyrian and the Latin forms that have been customary since the 16th century. A third view calls for a truly Indian Church, purged of Assyrian and Latin influences, reflecting instead the integration of largely Hindu customs and symbols.

The bishop’s choice of a seminary is often influenced by the interpretation of liturgical and ecclesial studies as taught there.

Most candidates for the priesthood from the four archdioceses and eight dioceses in Kerala live and study at one of three institutions in that state: St. Joseph Pontifical Seminary in Alwaye, St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary in Vadavathoor, and St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Seminary in Trivandrum.

Several institutions offer specialized training, for example in languages and culture. This specialized training also influences the bishop’s choice of a seminary, especially in the nine Syro-Malabar Catholic missionary dioceses of the north. Candidates from theses dioceses may study locally, or in Kerala, or elsewhere.

Nevertheless, “the first duty of a seminarian,” writes Father Varghese Ottathengil, Rector of St. Mary’s Seminary in Trivandrum, “is the acquisition of holiness, which is revealed in Christian virtue and a wholesome piety.”

Through individual and communal prayer, or spiritual exercises, the seminarian nurtures his devotion to Christ and the church. The celebration of the Eucharist, as we have seen, is the principal daily exercise. Morning and evening prayers are recited in common as well. Biblical studies, the examination of conscience, meditation and solid spiritual direction also contribute to the aspirant’s “first duty.”

For the successful exercise of ministry, the departments of philosophy and theology at each of the respective seminaries organize the academic courses. Three years of philosophy normally lay the foundation for theology. A year of regency, a period during which the student is offered the opportunity to discern a priestly or secular vocation, follows the philosophy course. Should the student choose to return to seminary, he will begin a four-year course in theology. And, should the candidate prove himself well-motivated and mature, he will be ordained to the diaconate while in theology. Ordination to the priesthood will be conferred after the completion of his studies.

Thus are the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara priests of India formed to meet the needs of their flourishing population.

Kamini Desai Sanghvi, our former India Program Administrator, contributed to this article.