For five years, Omar Fernandes worked as a member of the ground staff at the Mumbai airport. The end of each day was marked by coffee and conversations with colleagues.
“Most of the men I worked with were in their 40s and 50s,” says the 30-year-old. “They would talk about how miserable they were at work, how they were struggling to provide for their families. It seemed like such a hard life.”
These conversations began to crystallise his resolve to become a priest. It’s something he’d been thinking about for four years already. “I was 24 when I got my first promotion at work,” he says, “and I felt nothing. It didn’t seem to mean anything beyond more money and more participation in a meaningless rat race.”
Fernandes spoke to his parish priest about this, and the priest suggested he try social work to give meaning to his life.
Fernandes, a graduate in psychology and a former state-level footballer, began volunteering at orphanages and a lepers’ home run by the church.
“We would pray together, and the kind of solace that the combination of material help and spiritual guidance gave them — and me — was amazing,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Okay, this makes sense. This is the life I was meant to lead’.”
At 28, he told his family that he was joining a seminary. His family and friends were surprised, mainly because he had never seemed overtly religious.
But across the country, the combination of corporate ennui and a search for meaning is driving urban youngsters to the Church. In many cases, these young men had grown up —and been raised — with a very different vision of their future, one with the regular trappings of job, ambition, family and wealth.
“While a religious upbringing and parental support have always been factors, now more and more, we have young people who have worked in fields such as finance, entrepreneurship and family businesses coming to us and asking — What is the point? Why am I doing this?,” says Rev John Rodrigues, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Bombay, who is also rector of the city’s St Pius seminary. “The forces of peer pressure and the rush to make more and more money are having two opposite effects — for some, it is driving them away from the Church, but for others, it is pulling them towards it.”
Across Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata, this is being manifested in the number of men under 30 signing up to be Catholic priests — a number that has been growing slowly but steadily over the past five years, in contrast to the steady downward trend of the decade before that.
What of the freedom they exchange for obedience, not to mention the vows of celibacy?
“All through my teens, I lived life to the fullest,” says Mumbaiite Herald Quadros, 23, who has been training to be a priest for two years. “I interacted with girls and boys, went to parties. So when I told people I had decided to become a priest, it came as a shock. But I never felt choosing this life was a sacrifice. Coping with these modern pressures seems much harder.”
Quadros says he decided to become a priest after working as a fellow with NGO Teach for India.
“I realised the importance of social work, and I tied that back to the work I saw priests doing when I was a child,” he says.
For some, including Fernandes, joining the priesthood also became a reaction to the increasing movement among their peer group towards atheism.
“So many of my close friends were questioning their faith,” says Fernandes. “Since I had grown up with the influence of the Church, I found myself looking deeper into my faith in order to defend it, which only brought me closer to the road that led to priesthood.”
The growing trend towards atheism also encouraged some to see themselves as possible links between the Church and the youth. “I had priests who would play kabaddi and badminton with us and talk to us as equals,” says Quadros. “I wanted to be a part of this bridge between the generations.”
Delhi: A call centre exec logs out
Ajeet Patrick (extreme right), 29, came to Delhi from Varanasi 10 years ago, in search of a good job. After school, he had cleared a medical entrance exam but wasn’t sure he wanted to be a doctor. So, at 19, he came to Delhi and started working in a call centre as he cast around for his true passion.
“That year, I survived a freak accident at a railway station in Mau, UP, and decided to dedicate this ‘new’ life to others,” he says. “As it is, life as a call centre executive wasn’t satisfying.”
After his accident, he began to think about the missionaries he had seen working with the poor both in Delhi and in his hometown. “I had never given them much thought earlier, but now I started thinking about how meaningful their lives were,” he says.
After much introspection, at age 20, he approached a priest in Delhi and began to discuss priesthood.
His father was surprised; Patrick had never been particularly religious and he had his whole life ahead of him. But Patrick managed to convince him that this was not a passing fancy.
He was initiated into a seminary in Gurgaon and expects to become a priest by 2017.
“Young men and women are increasingly signing up to become priests and nuns,” says John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council. “In Delhi, however, this number is largely made up of people who come from other states — mainly Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and the north-east.”
Bangalore: Swapping zeroes for a purpose
About 50 of the students at the St Peter’s Pontifical seminary are from Bangalore city,” says seminary president Rev A Rayappan. “These are youngsters who have previously been teachers, businessmen, entrepreneurs.”
The last five years have seen a small increase in the number of students below 30, but it’s a significant one, Rayappan adds. “It shows that today’s youngsters are feeling a need for the integration of social work and spirituality, a need for deeper fulfillment.”
Among the young urban students at this seminary, Rayappan says, is a 27-year-old student of theology who left a job and six-figure salary with an MNC. “That was four years ago,” Rayappan says. “He said was looking for something with a purpose. Just making money, he told me during his interview for the seminary, didn’t seem worth it.”
Mumbai: From finance to faith
Aaron Sequiera (in green), 23, trained to be an accountant and finance executive. He was all set for the rate race. It was what he’d always wanted.
“I was never an active part of my church,” he says. “In fact, there were four years during my teens when I didn’t go to church at all.” It was the death of his godmother, a former social worker, that sparked thoughts of priesthood.
“We were very close,” he says. “Her death made me ask myself what I was trying to achieve with my life. I had an inner voice telling me that I should become a priest. That this was the right thing to do.”
At first he resisted the idea. “For six months, I wavered,” he says. “I hadn’t had any relationships, and the fact that I was giving that up made me think. But ultimately, neither relationships nor the idea of a career were enough to stop me.
Sequiera has been training at the Mumbai seminary for two years. His parents have been supportive from the start, but his 17-year-old brother had a hard time coming to terms with his decision.
“I was leaving home, for the first time, in a way that would separate our lives a lot,” Sequiera says. “He struggled with that, but eventually he saw that my decision made me happy — I was at peace, I felt I had found my life’s purpose.”
Chennai: An MBA opts out of the rat race
Arufus Peter, 29, an MBA and former marketing executive, had a high-stress job and a handsome salary until May this year.
A year into that job, however, he was thinking about becoming a priest.
“Everyone around me, friends and relatives, was chasing one materialistic goal after another,” he says. “Everyone was in this intense competition to outdo everybody else. Then my father fell ill with a kidney ailment and I realised I could not depend on any of the people I had thought I could depend on.”
That lonely fight to nurse his father back to health changed Peter’s outlook to life.
“I had never been very religious. Through college, in fact, I wasn’t even very regular at mass,” he says. “I used to enjoy myself, smoking, drinking and watching movies. Whenever I thought about it, I would wonder why pastors were denied such worldly pleasures. But after my dad’s illness, I changed. I wanted to explore the spiritual side of life. I wanted to reach out to God through people.”
When he announced, a few months ago, that he was signing up to be a priest, his decision came as a surprise to his friends and family. “Even my father was shocked,” he says, smiling. “And it has been tough, adjusting to the rigours of priesthood, but I embrace it gladly.”