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On a Mission From God

India’s Religious Communities take on Vocation Challenges

by Jose Kavi

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When Sonate Kaippananickal visited his aunt in Delhi two years ago, it proved to be his life’s turning point.

Then 15 years old, he went to the Indian national capital expecting a thrilling vacation. However, the tenth grader was shocked to find his aunt living and working in a slum. She and her family were members of the Santvana (“consolation”) Community, an association of the Catholic laity.

She explained the community aims to present the Gospel to the multitudes who have not heard Christ’s message of salvation — especially the poor. To this end, they accompany those most in need.

Sonate plunged into mission work among the slum’s residents. When, after two months, he returned to his home in Vellayamkudi, in the mountainous Idukki district of Kerala, Sonate had a clear vision of his future: He wanted to devote the rest of his life to Christ.

“The Delhi slum experience inspired me to join mission works so I can help the poor and downtrodden,” says Sonate, now a first-year candidate of the Missionaries of St. Thomas the Apostle, a Syro-Malabar Catholic congregation that works exclusively in mission areas.

Sonate, who hails from the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Kanjirapally, says he had many options to pursue his goal, but chose the Missionaries of St. Thomas because he wanted to do mission work within his own church. He now stands among the many Catholics — Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara — whose missionary quest has helped the Indian church become self-sufficient in vocations.

But recent trends raise questions about the future. Many religious congregations express concerns over both the quality and quantity of some called to service. Religious superiors speak of a new generation often lacking in discipline or missionary zeal. As a result, a number of congregations have begun looking for new ways to recruit young people — and finding new methods, as well, to form them for a life of sacrifice and service.

The desire to perform mission work motivated Biju Panthananickal to join the Missionaries of St. Thomas the Apostle. The senior candidate says he had wanted to be a priest as early as the first grade. His goal now, he says, is to win souls for Jesus.

“I know it is not easy and I may face violence. I am not afraid of persecution. I am ready to die for Jesus,” asserts the young man from a farming family in Chempanthotty, a parish community of the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Tellicherry in northern Kerala.

Another senior candidate, Amal Irupanathu, says he also entered the community to work for Christ. Early in his life, his kindergarten teacher, a religious sister, had first predicted he would become a priest. “Her words have remained in my mind since then. I pray daily to Mother Mary to make me a priest,” says the younger of two sons of a watch shop owner in Ulikkal.

These candidates must undergo training to become missionaries, studying at the novitiate attached to the congregation’s headquarters. Perched on a hill surrounded by rubber trees in Melampara, a village in the Christian-majority district of Kottayam, the congregation’s center lies less than a mile from Bharananganam, a pilgrimage site associated with St. Alphonsa — a Syro-Malabar sister and the first Indian woman to be canonized.

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