The young at heart are rediscovering Catholic roots

India is uniquely positioned to answer the pope's call for youth to 'swim against the tide' and 'don't be couch potatoes'
The young at heart are rediscovering Catholic roots

A boy takes a selfie photo with Pope Francis at the church of St. Maria Josefa in Castelverde, on the outskirts of Rome, during a pastoral visit on Feb. 19. (Photo by Tiziana Fabi/AFP)

On March 25, 1957, six European nations agreed on a single economic market that laid the groundwork for the present European Union. This "Treaty of Rome"  brought peace and prosperity to a continent that in the previous decade had been shattered by violence and war.

Some 60 years later Pope Francis reminded members of the 180 diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See of the importance of the treaty and called for a new European humanism.

In November 2014, Pope Francis likened Europe to "a barren grandmother," calling the continent "elderly and haggard" during an address to members of the European Parliament in France. He wanted to convey a message of "hope and encouragement" to a continent brought low by sluggish growth and high unemployment.

Unfortunately, the pope's criticism of Europe is also true of the European church, which is depicted as an "elderly and haggard," institution. The pope also wants to change this and so he called for the next synod of bishops.

He also announced the next general assembly of Catholic bishops on "Youth, Faith and Vocational Discernment" that is to be held in Rome in October 2018.

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The chosen topic, according to a Vatican statement, is an "expression of the church's pastoral concern for the young," in continuity with the findings of the two-fold synod on the family and Pope Francis's post-synodal document Amoris Laetitia.

Young people have been a key concern for Pope Francis from the beginning of his pontificate. In fact, he has made it a point to ensure that most of his foreign trips included an encounter with the youth. 

"Swim against the tide," he exhorted them in his message on World Youth Day 2015. "Don't be couch potatoes," he told them in 2016. From addictions, to prayer, to marriage, no topic is off the table during his lively encounters with youth from all parts of the world.

The planned synod will address the concerns and hopes of the youth and deliberate on vocations in a spirit of joy and discernment. The Catholic Church distinguishes four vocations: married life, single life, religious life, and ordained life.

In the light of the situation in Europe and the Synod on the Youth, it is inspiring to dwell on the challenges posed by the youth in my home, India.

When the Pope Francis visits the ancient land of India, hopefully in 2017, the eighty-year old will find a nation and church that is vibrant, flexible, creative and enthusiastic: in short, truly youthful.

With 356 million people aged 10-24, India has the world's largest youth population. Around 41 percent of India's 1.2 billion people are below the age of 20 and only 9 percent are above the age of 60. India is both young and energetic.

The church in India is one of the few places in the world where the vocation to priesthood is on the increase. Published data shows India has more seminarians (14,120) than any other nation — nearly 5,000 more than second-ranked Brazil.  

Between 1999 and 2007, the number of Indian seminarians increased by an astounding 40 percent. Nearly 64 percent of India's seminarians will be ordained in religious congregations rather than local dioceses, writes J.J. Ziegler in The Catholic World Report.

During the same period, the number of diocesan priests rose by 24 percent, from 10,690 to 13,290 — not counting the 1,032 diocesan priests serving in other nations — while the number of religious-priests rose by 33 percent, from 8,248 to 11,003. The number of diocesan priests in the United States — which has 67.8 million Catholics — fell by 5 percent.

Vocations to non-ordained religious life are also flourishing in India. It has more nuns than any other nation (except Italy) and will soon rank first in the world if trends continue. Between 1999 and 2007, the number of professed women grew by 19 percent, from 79,608 to 94,450, during a time when the number dropped by 23 percent in the US, according to Ziegler.

During the same period, non-ordained male religious people in India rose by 37 percent, from 2,558 to 3,502, while the number declined by 13 percent in the United States to 5,124.

The growth of the priesthood and religious life has been associated with an institutional presence in India unmatched elsewhere. India has 10,240 Catholic elementary schools with more than three million students, more than any other nation in the world. India has more than 5,000 high schools with over three million students, again, more than any other nation.

There are more Catholic hospitals in India than in all North America. These institutions are desperately needed in a nation where the per capita gross domestic product is US$2,900 but 42 percent of the people live on less than US$1.25 a day.

If "civilizations in decline are consistently characterised by a tendency towards standardization and uniformity," as historian Arnold Toynbee says, such a tendency has not yet appeared in India or its church due to its inbuilt complexity, diversity and multiplicity.

The challenge the Indian church poses to the European church is the demand for youthfulness. Enthusiasm, entrepreneurship, flexibility and enthusiasm must be the characteristic of any organisation, including India as a nation, Europe as a continent, and Catholicism as a church.

For this we need to rediscover our roots, focus on the ancient wisdom and be open and enterprising towards the future. We need to celebrate our identity and be open to diversity and progress. India may show such way to the world and the church.

When the Pope encounters India, it will be a symbolic encounter of wisdom, hope, pain and enthusiasm. That could be a fitting inspiration for the synod on youth.

Father Kuruvila Pandikattu SJ is a professor of philosophy, science and religion at the Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth institute of philosophy and religion in Pune, India.

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