Kerala was once the largest exporter of clergy, its priests and nuns the most sought after across the world, but insiders contend the church is now facing difficulties in managing its institutions across the country because of a shortage of hands.
Informal estimates suggest there has been a 40% drop in the number of men and women joining the clergy in Kerala though the northeastern states and Andhra Pradesh have registered a 30% hike in the enrolment of priests and nuns.
Though there is no data on the strength of the clergy in India, church insiders say there are about 40,000 priests and 25,000 nuns across the country. At one time, Kerala accounted for more than 60% of the total.
With many believers unwilling to commit to a religious life, the ranks of the clergy are shrinking. Earlier, there was a shortage of nuns in Kerala but now the number of priests too is coming down, insiders say.
Though Christians form less than 4% of the country’s population, the Catholic Church runs close to 25,000 educational institutions, 6,000 hospitals and countless orphanages and charity institutions. Many of the best educational institutions and hospitals are managed by it.
These institutions have usually been headed by a priest or a nun though the church has now been forced to hand over the administration of some to laity, insiders say.
But the church is no mood to paint a gloomy picture. “At least in Kerala it is not a serious issue. We have enough vocations. But the number of clergy going outside must have come down. One can’t go by these numbers alone,” said Kerala Catholic Bishop Conference spokesman Father Verghese Vallikkatt.
Detractors of the church, however, say it has exaggerated its numbers to get the attention of the Vatican.
“There is a more than 60% decline (in enrolment of priests and nuns) in Kerala. But the church never accepts it and gives an exaggerated version to be in the good books of the Vatican,” said Catholic reformist Joseph Pulikkenel.
Regular church-goers say it is difficult to spot many young priests and nuns in religious congregations these days. “Earlier, new recruits were given a prominent place in congregations. But now we hardly come across them,” said Varky Joseph, a regular church-goer for four decades.
Father Paul Thelekkat, editor of the church-run publication Sathyadeepam, said members of the clergy from Kerala were welcomed round the world for their dedication.
“True, Kerala’s priests and nuns were most sought after because there is a strong Catholic tradition in which they are nurtured. And there is an inborn nature in Kerala’s Catholics to commit themselves wholeheartedly to the mission entrusted to them,” he said.
The credit for Kerala’s missionary zeal is often given to the indigenous Syro-Malabar Church, which traces its roots to St Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ. “Doubting Thomas” is said to have journeyed as far as Kerala in 52 AD to preach the gospel.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Kerala witnessed a boom in the enrolment of priests and nuns – more than 50 to 75 believers enrolled in each of the state’s 30-odd dioceses every year – but this number has now fallen to less than a dozen. And the attrition rate among the chosen too is on the rise, insiders say.
Social activists say better opportunities, consumerism, social empowerment and dipping religiosity were the main reasons for the dwindling numbers. The missionary zeal of nuns gave a huge impetus to nurses from Kerala to go to faraway places in search of employment, they say.
“Earlier, poverty and social compulsions were the main reasons for enrolling in the parish and nunnery. For Christians, it was once a matter of prestige to flaunt the number of priests and nuns from their families. Now families have shrunk and their priorities have changed. To cap it all, spirituality is on the decline in almost all religions,” said Malayalam writer Sarah Joseph.
“What the West witnessed two decades ago is bound to happen here also,” said Joseph, among the first to return her Sahitya Akademi award to protest against the lynching of a man in Uttar Pradesh over rumours that he had eaten beef.