The country that has received Christian missionaries from around the world for the last five centuries will now be sending them out. Causing the move is a demographic shift within the largest and most powerful Catholic order — the Jesuits.
In January 2008, when Adolfo Nicolás was elected Superior General of the order that was founded in 1540 by Ignatius Loyola, he faced a vastly different flock. The number of Jesuit priests and novitiates around the world had fallen from about 32,000 in the late 1960s to 18,516 in January 2008. Over the same time, it had doubled to 4,004 in India. This despite the fact that it takes 12-20 years to become a Jesuit priest, longest among all Christian orders.
The balance has tilted within India too, where Jesuits outnumber Fransiscans, the other large Catholic order. And they run the largest number of educational institutes in the country — 22 colleges (excluding technical institutes), 54 primary schools, and 154 secondary schools.
It’s no surprise then that the Vatican is seeking a greater engagement from Indian Jesuits. Father Lisbert D’Souza, one of the 10 general councillors in Rome who advise the Jesuit Superior General, writes in an email, “The expectation is that Jesuits from India, with their peculiar experience of having lived their faith in a pluri-religious culture, will contribute to theological reflection at the level of the universal church.” They are being especially invited to Jesuit-run institutes such as the Gregorian University, Oriental Institute and Vatican Observatory.
Apart from Rome, more than 40 Indians are already out teaching and preaching in countries as far-flung as Guyana, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Zaire. Now the outflow is set to increase, especially to “Africa and maybe Latin America”, confirms Father Edward Mudavassery, president of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia.
It wasn’t long ago when the Jesuits divided up India for giving out ‘assignments’ to its members from different foreign countries. The result of those decisions was felt till a few decades back in the unmistakable presence of more Belgian Jesuits in Kolkata, Italians in Karnataka, Americans in Patna and French in Tamil Nadu.
Now that the flow is turning, Indian Jesuits are being “smartened up” for the world. “We now want to combine our spiritual leadership skills with management science from the corporate world,” says Mudavassery. So, on one hand, priests are undergoing leadership courses at Jesuit-run institutes like Bhubaneswar’s Xavier Institute of Management; on the other, more brothers are being encouraged to take up the Master of Pastoral Management course at the Papal Seminary in Pune. And the quest for “a universal outlook in a globalised world” permeates all teachings.
“It’s like making a big ship turn — it’ll take time,” says Mudavassery. The last time the ship was given a broad direction was in 1540, when Francis Xavier headed east. It’s time again.