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Keeping Up With the Times

Kerala’s religious vocations face an un certain future

story and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Outside the packed auditorium at St. Joseph Pontifical Seminary in Mangalapuzha, Kerala, anxious seminarians pace back and forth. Cramming for their finals, they flip hurriedly through their study notes.

As the auditorium’s doors swing open and the previous class exits, the eager youth rush in and take their assigned seats. At the sound of the final bell, Professor Bosco Puthur takes his place at the front of the room. Ordained a priest some 40 years ago, Msgr. Puthur serves as rector of the seminary. The students stand as the rector leads them in prayer. Then, as they take their seats, he distributes the exam. The time has come for these young men to prove themselves.

They furiously write lengthy essays on theology and philosophy. They shake out the muscle fatigue in their hands. They scan the room to gauge the blood pressure levels of their peers. And occasionally, some roll their eyes upward, perhaps in search of divine inspiration. In Kerala’s achievement-oriented society, competition is the name of the game, even among priests-in-training.

Soon enough, to use a metaphor in keeping with the times in Kerala, the latest batch will be ready for shipment.

In recent years, Kerala’s traditional agrarian culture has been supplanted — at a bewildering speed — by a more industrial, urban and secular one. This development has caused a wave of social change throughout Kerala, the effects of which have been felt in all aspects of society, Christian, Hindu and Muslim.

In this fast-changing southeastern Indian state, literacy is nearly universal; education reigns king. Not long ago, conversation among villagers centered on crop rotation and seasonal rains. Today, rural and urban Keralites are preoccupied by which colleges their children will attend and which professions offer lucrative careers. No longer confined to rearing children and managing the household, women set their sights on horizons filled with diverse possibilities.

For many of the state’s Christians — who make up 20 percent of the state’s population of 31.8 million — the media vie with the parish priest in shaping values. Kerala’s once tradition-bound citizens are becoming more secular, more consumer-driven. Families are smaller, incomes are greater and people are more mobile. And as Msgr. Puthur warily acknowledges, “The role of the priest is shrinking.”

This shift in the social landscape has impacted the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches, especially their ability to recruit men and women to serve as priests and religious, respectively. Observers sense an imminent decline in the ranks of vocations among these churches, which are centered in the state.

They point out that today’s candidates no longer come from wealthy or upper middle-class backgrounds, nor do they represent the highest performing students. Many lack the emotional maturity of their predecessors.

“It’s not that the strata of vocations have moved from upper class to high middle class to lower middle class and now to the lowest classes of society,” explains Father Paul Thelakat, editor in chief of Sathayadeepam, a Catholic weekly, and spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar Catholic bishops. “But from whatever social strata they come, the quality of many of them is, unfortunately, in some ways not competitive with their counterparts in [this] market-driven society.”

Recent scandals, embellished by what church leaders view as an anti-Christian media establishment in India, have tarnished the churches’ reputations and have hampered their recruitment efforts.

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Tags: Kerala Seminarians Vocations (religious) Urbanization