No Place Produces Vocations Like Syro Malabar Church

NEW DELHI, India—“What's the secret of so many vocations there?” Pope John Paul II asked bishops of Syro Malabar Church (SMC) while they were in Rome earlier this year for the episcopal ordination of the apostolic administrator of the autonomous Church.

Indeed, even the Holy Father had reason to make the query. According to the latest (1995) Statistical Yearbook of the Church, the 16 million-member Indian Church comprises only 1.6% of the 989 million Catholics worldwide. Yet the SMC accounts for 6% to 9% of the worldwide total of diocesan priests, religious priests, nuns, and seminarians giving India the highest vocation ratio in the world.

The credit for this distinction goes to the indigenous SMC, which traces its faith to St. Thomas the Apostle. “Doubting Thomas” is said to have journeyed as far as Kerala in southern India (known as Malabar to ancient merchants of Middle East). Experts on vocations say the 3.2 million member SMC accounts for 60% of 115,000 vocations in India. In short, there is one priest or nun for every 50 Catholics in the Oriental Church. While North America has only 78 seminarians for every 1 million Catholics—and South America 67 per 1 million—the ratio for the SMC stands at 1,785.

“The prayerful atmosphere in the homes and the deep faith of our people is responsible,” Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, SMC apostolic administrator, told the Register in explaining the bounty of vocations.

Christian life in the SMC is marked by devout life of the people. Saying the rosary is a norm in Syrian homes, and in parishes, attendance at 90-minute Sunday catechism classes (conducted by volunteer teachers) is compulsory. Catholic schools and colleges, the most sought after in Kerala, require a catechism certificate from those who seek admission under community quota.

The parish church is not just a place to go for Sunday Mass. It is the epicenter of social life in many Kerala villages. Children in nearby Catholic homes attend daily Mass in the company of their parents. In a few hours, they are back at the compound as students of Church-run, government-funded schools. After school, children go home only to return to the church premises for football, badminton, volleyball, and other games—frequently with a parish priest. Parents encourage children to participate in Church-based groups like altar boys, Christian Life Community, Catholic Youth Movement, and the St. Vincent De Paul Society.

This Church-oriented life of the youth, and the society's high esteem for consecrated life, inspires the youth to dedicate themselves to the service of the Church. Aspiring candidates who discern a call to the religious or priestly life seldom find any resistance at home.

“My mother was my inspiration. It was her deep faith and prayer life that inspired me to join the seminary,” recalls 56-year old Father Antony Thottan, rector of St. Mary's Minor Seminary of the Thrissoor archdiocese in central Kerala. Father Thottan was not the only vocation in his family. Four of his five brothers are also priests.

If it was spices such as pepper and cardamom that attracted ancient traders to Kerala—the spice garden of India now produces the SMC's bounty of vocations, which have drawn several shrinking Western religious congregations to the narrow strip of land on the Arabian Coast—home to 80% of SMC members divided into 12 dioceses.

The Conference of Religious in India directory lists 115 congregations, most of them in Kerala. More than two dozen formation houses of foreign religious congregations have cropped up in recent past around St. Joseph's Pontifical Seminary in Aluva in central Kerala. The seminary is one of the largest major seminaries in the world with nearly 600 in-house seminarians in seven sections of philosophy and theology studies. The institution also has more than 100 “day-scholars”.

“The [foreign] congregations struggling to find new recruits at home are flocking to Kerala,” says Vincentian Father George Manalel, professor of moral psychology at the seminary and vocation counselor to several foreign congregations.

The methods used by some of these congregations to recruit new members, the priest said, are sometimes “questionable,” providing monetary incentives to the family of the recruits. But candidates don't seem to see the seminary as an escape from being poor.

“The high number of vocations in Kerala has no link with poverty. The Latin-rite Church (1 million members in Kerala) [is] poorer compared to Syrians, but they have less vocations, whereas most of the Syrian vocations are from middle class families,” Father Manalel said.

Christians recorded the lowest growth rate during the 1991 census with 16% compared to national average of 24%. The growth rate was only 7.4% for Christians in Kerala where SMC accounts for half of the 6 million Christian population. But the alarming decline in the growth rate has so far had little impact on the number of vocations, however.

“Quite a number of [new vocations] are from two-child families,” Father George Manadan, president of SMC's Eastern Theologate at Kottayam in south Kerala told the Register.

Despite the decline in Christian growth rate, SMC seminaries are still in “want of space,” said Father Manadan who has been on the staff of three seminaries for more than two decades. With the spread of family planning initiatives by the government, Father Manadan said, “it could change soon. Very few Christian families have more than two children. Besides, the purely secular values children imbue from [television] will make consecrated life less interesting to the younger generation.”

All the same, the vocation expert predicts SMC “will never go the Western way” of having to close down monasteries and convents for want of candidates.

Anto Akkara is based in New Delhi.