A Source of Hope

The flourishing Church in India is destined to play a leading role in ecclesial affairs in the 21st century.

Nearly two millennia ago, a doubting apostle saw, believed, and preached the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Fifteen hundred years later, a student at the University of Paris met Ignatius of Loyola, helped found the Jesuit order, and obeyed an order to accompany the Portuguese who were colonizing the East.

The apostolic labors of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. Francis Xavier have borne much fruit in the ensuing centuries. If demography is destiny, then the Church in India, more than any other nation, is destined to play a leading role in ecclesial affairs in the 21st century, much as the Church in France left its mark on the 13th century and the Church in Spain deeply influenced the 16th.

At the end of 2007, India’s Catholic population ranked 16th in the world, behind Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States, Italy, France, Spain, Colombia, Poland, Argentina, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Germany, Peru, Venezuela, and Nigeria. Yet more than the faithful of any other nation, India’s 18.6 million Catholics have fostered a culture in which priestly and religious vocations and Catholic institutions flourish.

India has more seminarians (14,120) than any other nation—nearly 5,000 more than second-ranked Brazil. (This figure does not include India’s 10,875 high-school seminarians.) Between 1999 and 2007, the number of Indian seminarians increased by an astounding 40 percent. Nearly 64 percent of India’s seminarians will be ordained for religious orders rather than local dioceses.

Between 1999 and 2007, the number of diocesan priests ministering in India rose by 24 percent, from 10,690 to 13,290—not counting the 1,032 diocesan priests serving in other nations— while the number of religious-order priests rose by 33 percent, from 8,248 to 11,003. During the same time period, the number of diocesan priests in the United States—which has 67.8 million Catholics—fell by 5 percent, and the number of religious priests plummeted by 17 percent.

Vocations to non-ordained religious life are flourishing as well. India has more nuns than any other nation (except Italy), and will soon rank first in the world if trends continue. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of professed women religious grew by 19 percent, from 79,608 to 94,450, during a time when the number dropped by 23 percent in the US, from 81,364 to 63,250.

During the same time period, the number of non-ordained male religious in India rose by 37 percent, from 2,558 to 3,502, while the number declined by 13 percent in the United States to 5,124.

Accompanying the continued growth of the priesthood and religious life in India is an institutional presence unmatched anywhere in the world. India has 10,240 Catholic elementary schools with more than three million students— more than any other nation in the world, and more than all the nations of North and Central America combined. India has more than five thousand high schools with over three million students— again, more than any other nation, and more than double the number of Catholic high school students in all of North and Central America.

There are more Catholic hospitals in India than in all of North America. Indeed, the Church in India has more hospitals (754), medical dispensaries (2,504), leprosaria (220), and orphanages (2,327) than any other nation. These institutions are desperately needed in a nation where the per capita gross domestic product is $2,900 but 42 percent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day.

Sacramental statistics point to an active missionary presence within India and a seriousness with respect to Catholic marriage. Nearly 17 percent of baptisms in India are baptisms of adult converts; in the United States, the figure is 7 percent. Less than 6 percent of Catholic weddings in India are mixed marriages between a Catholic and non- Catholic spouse; in the United States, the figure is more than 27 percent.

In addition, Church authorities in the United States annulled 22,174 marriages in 2007; in India, the number was 801.


While the majority of Catholics in India belong to the Latin rite, the Church there is also blessed with the presence of two vibrant Eastern Catholic Churches: the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

In A.D. 52, St. Thomas the Apostle preached the Gospel in what is now the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. The St. Thomas Christians in time adopted the Chaldean liturgical tradition, now used by the Chaldean Catholic Church and the separated Assyrian Church of the East. When Portuguese explorers encountered the St. Thomas Christians in 1498, the latter professed the primacy of the pope. By 1510, Portuguese missionaries began to spread the faith further up the coast at Goa.

The Latin Catholic hierarchy was established with the founding of the Diocese of Goa in 1533; its territory stretched at one time from South Africa to China. Even today, the archbishop of Goa and Daman is also known as the Primate of the East and the Patriarch of the East Indies. Latin-rite Catholicism established a much firmer foothold with the arrival of St. Francis Xavier; using Goa as his base, he preached in western India from 1542 to 1545.

In time, the Portuguese Latin rite hierarchy angered many St. Thomas Christians down the coast by imposing changes on the ancient Chaldean liturgy. In 1653, thousands of St. Thomas Christians left the Catholic Church and sought communion with the Syrian Orthodox Church, forming the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, which now numbers 2.5 million members. A Malankara Orthodox Syrian monk and bishop, Geevarghese Mar Ivanios, was reconciled with the Holy See in 1930, leading to the formation of the Syro- Malankara Catholic Church, which now has 413,000 faithful and celebrates the sacred liturgy according to the Antiochan tradition. The cause of beatification of Archbishop Mar Ivanios— hailed by G.K. Chesterton as the “Newman of India” when the two met at a Eucharistic congress in Dublin—was opened in 2007.

The St. Thomas Christians who remained faithful to Rome in time became the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Now the second-largest Eastern Catholic Church (after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church), it is a community of astonishing vitality. Led by the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, it has 3.7 million faithful, 9,121 priests, 2,607 seminarians, and an astounding 35,000 women religious. The typical Syro- Malabar parish—there are 3,200 of them—has 1,150 laity, three priests, and 11 nuns.

“Not attending Sunday Masses is almost unthinkable for one growing up in a Catholic family,” says Father George Madathiparampil, vicar general of the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Diocese of Chicago, as he discussed the vitality of the Syro- Malabar Catholic Church. “It would even invite social condemnation.”

“There is a great respect for the pope and the bishops and hence, here is very little chance of any act of challenge to their authority,” he added. “Humanae Vitae did not create any ripple of disobedience among Indian Catholics.”

Both the Syro-Malabar and Syro- Malankara Catholic Churches—unlike the majority of Eastern Catholic Churches—practice the discipline of clerical celibacy.

“In India, renunciation of worldly pleasures is the hallmark of a person of God,” observed Archbishop Benedict Varghese Gregorios Thangalathil, who led the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church from 1955 to 1994. “A celibate Brahmachari is one who lives and moves in Brahman (God),” he noted in a 1993 essay. “If the non-Christians do not fail to see the advantage of celibacy for the good of religion and society, for a Christian…the motives for celibacy are much more deep and the benefits are much more lofty. Jesus, who lived a virgin life and exhorted his close followers to leave all, including marriage and family attachments, is the ultimate inspiration and the most exalted model of perfect renunciation.”


The least Catholic area of the United States is north-central Mississippi, where the 65 counties that form the Diocese of Jackson are 2.4 percent Catholic. India is even less Catholic than north-central Mississippi: only 1.6 percent of India’s 1.17 billion people are Catholic. India remains an overwhelmingly Hindu nation (81 percent) with a substantial Muslim community (13 percent) and a tiny Christian minority (2.3 percent, including Catholics).

“In India the people have a sense of religion deeply rooted in them,” says Salesian Father Joseph Parippil, secretary to the archbishop of Guwahati, a northeastern Indian archdiocese where only 1 percent of area residents are Catholic. “All traditional families are deeply religious whatever religion they belong to. The common people do follow their conscience and are ever seeking the spiritual values.”

“Indian Catholic culture is closely linked with the rich cultural tradition of the country,” concurs Professor K.V. Thomaskutty, a historian at St. John’s College in Anchal, Kerala, and one of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church’s most prominent laymen. The vice president of Malankara Catholic Association told CWR that “decaying but still strong family bonds, dependence, love, care, and associations are there in the social structure of the Indian society.”

“Even Communism could not establish atheistic Communism, though so far three states have been ruled by the Communist Party,” adds Father Parippil. “Indian Communists are not atheists.”

While India’s deeply religious non- Christian culture in a sense supports Catholic devotional life and the discipline of clerical celibacy, it also has led to the persecution of the Church. The US State Department’s 2009 international religious freedom report notes that “the government has not admitted new resident foreign missionaries since the mid-1960s. There is no national law barring a citizen or foreigner from professing or propagating religious beliefs; however, the Foreigners Act prohibits speaking publicly against the religious beliefs of others.”

Although India is a secular nation whose constitution respects religious freedom, five of India’s 29 state governments have enacted anti-conversion laws, and some states have turned a blind eye to the persecution of Christians. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—which ruled the nation from 1999 to 2004 and remains a major political party—has called for the passage of anti-conversion laws throughout India.

Anti-Christian persecution in India attracted worldwide attention in 2008 when violence in the northeastern state of Orissa left 90 dead and fifty thousand homeless (see “Kill Christians and Destroy Their Institutions,” CWR, December 2008). Most anti-Christian persecution, however—such as these incidents that took place during the last six months of 2009—is rarely mentioned in the Western media.

• In July, the BJP government in Karnataka refused to extend a property lease and demanded that a Catholic social service agency return 58 acres to the government. In 1977, the state government had leased the property to the agency to help care for leprosy patients. Over the years, the agency built 60 houses for leprosy and AIDS patients, as well as a factory, a job training center, and a dispensary. Upon implementation, the government decision will leave 360 homeless.

• On July 6, the Supreme Court of India reversed an earlier court ruling and decided to consider a lawsuit by a Muslim student at a Catholic school in Madhya Pradesh. The Muslim student argued that the school was infringing on his religious rights by requiring male students to be clean shaven. Bishop Antony Chirayath of Sagar said he was prepared to undergo a lengthy legal battle to uphold the right of the Church to set disciplinary policies in its schools.

• On July 30, Father James Mukalel was brutally murdered in Karnataka as he was returning from the funeral of another priest. No arrests were made in the case.

• On September 5, Father Varghese Thekkekut, a priest who heads a mission school in Chhattisgarh, was kicked and almost strangled by two young men. No arrests were made in the case.

• On September 29, Maoists in the eastern state of Jharkand kidnapped and beheaded a Catholic police officer.

• In October, thousands of Catholics in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh faced the prospect of the destruction of their homes as the government developed plans to confiscate largely Catholic villages and agricultural land in order to build industrial parks.

• On October 13, a BJP government official in Madhya Pradesh gave the Diocese of Jhabua three days to provide the government with details about Church property and cemeteries. A Church spokesman feared that the order portended a government attempt to control Church institutions.

• On the night of November 7, vandals broke into a parish in Karnataka, desecrated the tabernacle, stole a chalice and two ciboria, and scatteredthe hosts around the church. Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore—India’s fifth-largest city— denounced government and police apathy.

• On November 20, the bishops of the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka issued a statement against the rise of “moral policing,” in which Hindu fundamentalist groups attack youths from different religions when they socialize together.

• On December 19, a politician and his bodyguards used their rifles to beat Father Lawrence Chittuparambil, director of a Catholic school in the northwestern state of Punjab. Police did not arrest the politician; after the Church closed 150 Catholic schools and the local diocese organized a protest in which 1,500 people blocked all entries to the town where the school was located, the politician turned himself in to police.

• On December 20, a group of militants, invoking the names of Hindu deities, attacked a Christmas fair in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and set fire to biblical representations. The local archbishop lamented that authorities rarely respond to attacks on Christians.

Despite these and similar incidents of violence and discrimination, Father Hector D’Souza, provincial of the South Asian Jesuits, told UCA News upon leaving office in 2009:

What we need now is real persecution. Persecution can purify us of our lethargy, inactiveness, and failure to live the Gospel. If purification does not come within the Church, God will use other means to purify us. Wherever the Church faced persecution, it has become very strong. For example, the Church in Gujarat…has become alive and vibrant after Hindu radicals targeted it a decade ago. The Church in India was very vibrant when the Bharatiya Janata Party ruled India. People were out on the streets for their rights. Similar things happened after the attacks on Christians in 2008. However, the violence we have experienced is only pinpricks. Real persecution will come only when our structures are affected.


Although the Church in India is known for its education and charitable institutions, “Indian Catholicism will be mainly associated with missionary activity” in the decades ahead, Father Madathiparampil believes.

The statistics support his claim: Catholic missionary vocations are flourishing in India. In 1968, Syro-Malabar Bishop Sebastian Vayalil founded the Missionary Society of St. Thomas the Apostle to preach the Gospel in non- Christian regions, principally in India. Today, the order has more than 300 priests. In 1984, the late Father Jose Kailett, a Latin rite priest, founded the Heralds of the Good News, an Indian missionary order whose priests serve in areas where local vocations are lacking, including Guatemala, Italy, Kenya, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United States. The order now has 211 priests and 745 seminarians.

These male religious congregations, while growing, are not among the world’s largest. Four of the nine largest women’s religious communities, however, are now Indian. Each has more members than the Benedictines, Dominicans, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, School Sisters of Notre Dame, and other well known women’s communities.

The Franciscan Clarist Congregation, founded in 1888, is based in Kerala and combines the spirituality of St. Francis with that of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Assisting the elderly, orphans, lepers, AIDS patients, and others in need, it has 7,078 members, a gain of 156 between 2006 and 2009.

The Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, founded in 1866 by Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara, was the Syro- Malabar Catholic Church’s first women’s institute. Working in 500 schools and running 18 hospitals, these active Carmelite sisters gained 109 members between 2006 and 2009 and now number 6,508.

The Missionaries of Charity, renowned the world over for of the sanctity of their founder, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (1910-97), serve the poorest of the poor in 133 countries. The Missionaries of Charity have grown to 5,128 members, an increase of 236 between 2006 and 2009.

The Syro-Malabar Sisters of the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, founded by Bishop Thomas Kurialacherry in 1908, have spread to 100 dioceses. Centered upon Eucharistic adoration, the sisters also serve in the areas of education, health care, missionary work, and publishing. In the past decade, they have begun to staff missions in Kenya and Tanzania. Their membership now stands at 4,654, an increase of 135 between 2006 and 2009.


In a November National Catholic Reporter column, John Allen discussed the influence of “adventurous” Indian theologians, including Father Felix Wilfred and Jesuit Fathers Michael Amaladoss and Aloysius Pieris, who “have been controversial because of the various ways in which they try to give positive theological value to non-Christian religions.”

The greatest threats to the dynamism of the Church in India, however, according to those interviewed by CWR, are Western-style secularism and smaller families. “Things are changing even here with all the modern media giving a secular picture and a culture of consumerism,” says Father Parippil.

“Many of the congregations in India struggle hard to find sufficient vocations,” adds Professor Thomaskutty. “Ever increasing secularizing forces, leftist thinking, antagonism on the part of the governments, and a host of similar factors contribute to this phenomenon.”

“A weakening in this strong and active Catholic life is happening nowadays as the children move out of this strong Catholic ambience to join professional colleges in big cities,” says Father Madathiparampil. “In those situations, parents [still] take a lot of pains to insist that the children go to church for Sunday Masses.”

The temptations to secularism become greater with emigration. “One of the major challenges is the emigration of the young looking for jobs in Europe and America. It is then they lose the support of a culture that is permeated with religion. They become easily susceptible to the secularism of the countries in which they live and fall from the practice of their faith.”

“Indian Catholics always had large families,” Father Madathiparampil adds. “Now things are changing. Families are becoming smaller. Smaller families pose a great danger to the flourishing of the faith, as then the number joining the missionary ranks of the Church will be fewer.”

Father Parippil agrees. “Now the families are becoming smaller and smaller. Within a few years we too will have to face a sharp fall in vocations to religious and priestly life.”


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About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.