Answering the Call Despite the Risks

Vocations are continuing to grow in the north of India despite increasing persecution, according to a bishop in the region.

Bishop Anthony Chirayath of Sagar Diocese, in Madhya Pradesh, north India said that the number of candidates to the priesthood had grown over the last decade and now stands at 41.  “When the diocese started in 1968 as an exarchate, there were only 600 Catholics and three priests – now we are 35.”

This comes in spite of acts of persecution and discrimination against religious minorities in the country.

According to Ajay Maken, India’s Minister for International Affairs, Madhya Pradesh endured the second highest number of religious related incidents in 2009 – with 654 attacks.

Bishop Chirayath, while pointing out that that there have been no religious-hatred related deaths, stressed that it took courage for young people to come forward to serve in the Church.  “They know, after Orissa, that there are persecutions and these incidents – the killing of priests and sisters – are all known to every young man or woman.  But in spite of that they come forward to be priests or sisters.”

The bishop of the Syro-Malabar Church – an oriental church in full communion with the Pope – paid tribute to the candidates offering themselves for priesthood and religious life despite family circumstances and the increased violence the Church faces.

He said: “In some cases only-children come forward – it takes courage to proclaim Jesus to the non-Christian world, it is a challenge.  Many Sisters have been attacked; sexually assaulted, killed but young women are coming forward to be nuns in places where there has been persecution.”

Bishop Chirayath added: “There are still plenty of vocations, God has blessed us.”

Most vocations come from Kerala where the Syro-Malabar community is particularly strong.  Stressing how Christians drew strength from the ancient roots of the Syro-Malabar Church, Bishop Chirayath said: “We are sons of Saints Thomas – part of a tradition of faith stretching back 2,000 years.”

He described how the prevalence of family devotions, such as the rosary, also helped encourage vocations.

The bishop added: “The young are involved in social and religious activity – this is an inspiration from them to help the poor and needy as priests or sisters.”

Bishop Chirayath described that the increasing number of candidates to the priesthood has led to the development of a minor seminary.

He said: “When I became bishop four years ago, we didn’t have a minor seminary.  Students were based in four places under the parish priest.”

A site in Bararu, near the bishops’ residence, was chosen for the site of two dorms – each of which can accommodate up to 15 students – four classrooms, a library and small offices for teachers.

But the seminary, which currently has 25 Minor Seminarians living there, remains unfinished as it needs additional facilities, including a chapel and a dining room.

Bishop Chirayath said: “It is an essential element in the formation of future priests – without a minor seminary we cannot have any more priests.”

After leaving high school, prospective priests enter St Mary’s Minor Seminary for three years of formation.

This is followed by one year’s intense spiritual formation at centers in neighboring dioceses before students begin studies at the major seminary.

The three years includes intensive training in Hindi, English, and basic theology, as well as studying for the qualifications needed to enter the university, so they can study for a Philosophy degree as part of their training.

Stressing that the minor seminary was essential for vocations, the bishop said: “It is difficult to get adult vocations as in the west, as few will return to seminary after starting work”

Aid to the Church in Need will be supporting these future priests with more than $23,200for the construction of the seminary’s chapel, which will be able to accommodate up to 60 people.

Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours according to the Syro-Malabar rite have been carried out in a class room.

Bishop Chirayath said: “In a proper chapel we can give them a proper liturgical formation – in a chapel where there is the Blessed Sacrament, a crucifix and so on.

“A place of prayer is very important – it is central to liturgical formation.”

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