From ONE Magazine

A Priest With Global Reach

Until the middle of the 20th century, the role of the village priest in India’s rural southwestern state of Kerala was simple. In addition to the day-to-day management of the parish, sacramental duties, preparation of homilies and a rigorous regimen of prayer and self-examination, the village priest was actively engaged in the ups and downs of his parishioners’ lives. The priest visited their homes, guided them in times of crisis, consoled them in advanced age and sickness and weighed in on just about every important family decision.

But as India emerges as a global economic superpower, traditional rural life struggles; in Kerala, as in much of the country, it is disappearing. Today, fewer than half of Keralites depend on agriculture alone for income. And with a steady stream of Keralites flocking to cities — near and far — for work, the countryside has been emptied out. Its once vibrant village life has slowed, almost to a standstill in some areas of the state.

And while traditional Kerala fades — and along with it the familiar role of the village parish priest — another Kerala flowers.

Faced with daunting new challenges, Kerala’s Christian minority, which constitutes more than 20 percent of the state’s total population of 31.8 million, continues to rely on the counsel and guidance only a priest can offer.

Urban parishioners may no longer look to the parish priest for medical advice or input on farming techniques, but they do seek career counseling.

Sensitive to these new hardships and yet aware of their potential as vital and positive elements in lives of the Christian community, a new generation of priests is redefining the clergy’s role in modern-day Kerala.

“Once priests start to think of themselves as sacrament machines, they lose the real sense of what they do,” said Father Jose Thottakkara, a Syro-Malabar Catholic priest working in suburban Ernakulam.

A highly educated 44-year-old, Father Jose epitomizes a new, dynamic breed of priest. Founder and director of Naipunya International — a nonprofit agency of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly that places thousands of qualified young people in good jobs worldwide — the priest also leads more than 100 families at St. George Church, a suburban Syro-Malabar parish.

For a son of poor farmers, the priest has accomplished a great deal at a relatively young age. After some eight years of advanced education, he holds degrees in business management, economics, theology and world history. Complementing these studies, he undertook formal and on-the-job training in social work and management. In addition, he has received faculties to serve both Syro-Malabar and Roman Catholic communities.

Father Jose manages a tight schedule during the week. And while his responsibilities at Naipunya take up the lion’s share of his day, the families to whom he ministers remain close to his heart.

Sunday is a busy day for the pastor, starting at sunrise and ending late in the evening. Twice, he celebrates the Qurbana (the Syro-Malabar eucharistic liturgy), once in the early morning and again at 5 P.M. The evening liturgy is the most popular, with worshipers spilling out of the church.

After the liturgy, Father Jose mingles with parishioners and participates in various social functions. St. George’s serves an affluent suburban community, whose many residents earn high salaries in the information technology sector. The brand-new cars parked in front of the church attest to the neighborhood’s increasing prosperity.

But not everyone is as fortunate; huge segments of Kerala’s population continue to live in abject poverty. Among the first to remember the many in need, Father Jose has made it a point to galvanize the good will of his parishioners by assisting needy families in the parish and beyond.

Under his guidance, the parish community founded and now operates Homes for the Homeless, which provides affordable, permanent housing to poor families. As property values in the area skyrocket, many poor families find it increasingly difficult to secure affordable rentals much less mortgages. Through grants and loan assistance, Homes for the Homeless now makes it possible for some of Kerala’s poorest families to build houses they can be proud to call home.

Undeniably Father Jose’s most notable achievement to date, Naipunya International responds appropriately and substantively to the principal problem confronting Keralites — unemployment. A staggering 20 percent (though some observers suggest it is as high as 36 percent) of Kerala’s population is unemployed, the highest in the nation. Unemployment and the sense of desperation it creates affect almost everyone in southwest India; Kerala’s suicide rate nears three times the national average.

With little work at home, many of Kerala’s brightest seek opportunities in other regions of India or further afield, such as the Gulf States or the West.

“The need of the hour is different,” Father Jose explained. “In a changing lifestyle, the source of income for urban parishioners also has changed. Now, Keralites earn income from their jobs elsewhere in India or abroad. Most families have at least one member working abroad.”

Indeed, foreign remittances now account for more than 20 percent of Kerala’s gross domestic product. Sending children to universities and finding them good-paying jobs rank as the chief goals not only for parents but humanitarians such as Father Jose.

Kerala has earned an international reputation for its vast pool of professionals in the fields of medicine, engineering and technology. Many of Kerala’s nurses and doctors now work in the United Kingdom, its information technology professionals in California’s Silicon Valley and its masons, carpenters and engineers in the Persian Gulf.

“What they need now is a credible agency to handle their migration as well as job matters,” Father Jose said. “There are many fraudulent agencies to exploit them.”

About eight years ago, with no such agency serving Kerala’s poor, Father Jose created one that, while under the auspices of the church, would reach out to all of Kerala’s young jobseekers irrespective of caste, creed and economic status. Since opening its doors in 2002, Naipunya International has connected thousands of talented young professionals with companies in need of skilled workers.

Naipunya’s modern, tastefully decorated offices, glossy, colorful brochures and sophisticated web site exude corporate professionalism. Yet, the agency belongs to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and its leadership remains committed to providing affordable career services to Kerala’s poor.

“I am not rich myself,” said Father Jose. “I do not earn a salary from my work at Naipunya, but survive on my humble priest’s stipend. Even the office clerk earns more than I do.”

Successfully placed professionals agree to pay Naipunya International between 8 and 16 percent of their first year’s earnings. These earnings pay the agency’s operating costs. What remains is reinvested in the agency, specifically its two burgeoning programs: Naipunya Academy and Talent Track.

Whereas Naipunya International links jobseekers with private-sector employers, the academy prepares advanced students who wish to pursue careers in India’s civil service. Open to students who already hold college and graduate degrees, the academy also requires applicants to take an entrance exam and personality test. Aimed at readying students for civil service exams, the academy’s program follows a demanding curriculum and offers a wide range of courses from public administration and international relations to economics and sociology.

Talent Track works with local priests to nurture children from disadvantaged backgrounds demonstrating promise. With assistance from Naipunya International, parish priests closely supervise the selected children’s education and development. With counseling and through extracurricular classes and workshops, participants explore a wide range of careers and often receive higher education, the cost of which various charities pay. Through Talent Track, poor but capable young Keralites have the opportunity they would not have otherwise to make something of their lives.

“What we are doing is ’backward’ integration,” said the priest. “People need sustainability, and integrating people who are economically ’backward’ means making them sustainable,” the priest added, explaining how the program contributes to the development of the region.

“You can provide food, shelter and clothes as basic needs. But I believe that modern life demands more than mere survival. The process demands the provision of something more than the fulfillment of basic needs.”

CNEWA staffer Jomi Thomas and Sean Sprague are frequent contributors to ONE.