MUMBAI, India – Although less than 2 percent of the population of India is Catholic, the country is one of the chief providers of missionaries in the worldwide Church.
You will find Indian priests not only in the traditional mission territories, but also in those countries that have been Catholic for generations, including in the heart of Europe.
Divine Word Missionary Father Dominic Emmanuel, once the spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Delhi, arrived in Vienna, Austria, in 2015, to serve in a parish.
“As compared to India, I notice how serious the Archdiocese here is to have properly trained priests to take over the job of managing a parish,” the priest told Crux. “One’s years in priesthood or age do not count. One has to go through all the steps stipulated by the Archdiocese to become a ‘Provisor’ or ‘Moderator’.”
Although a lack of vocations may mean Europe needs priests, clergy coming from developing countries also benefit from the experience.
European dioceses offer extensive training for their priests and have centuries of experience in running parishes.
“I had to attend a three-day training program organized by the Archdiocese of Vienna. The objective of the obligatory participation in the program was to introduce and educate the priest taking over the new parish in all the legal procedures, accounts, books, registers and all to do with the management of the parish,” Emmanuel said.
“That was my first taste of learning how efficiently and systematically parishes are managed.”
However, the priest notes that despite the organization, the vibrancy of the faith found in India is now missing in what was once the heart of the Church.
“While all this ‘training’ to manage parishes organized with all efficiency sounds great, all that enthusiasm comes crumbling down when one sees the reality of the way Christian faith is practiced,” he said.
“Most of the churches are almost empty or attended by older people. There are hardly any vocations to priesthood or religious life. Most of the old convents, seminaries and Catholic schools have been closed down and the properties are either sold or rented out,” Emmanuel explained.
“For missionaries coming from vibrant churches in Asia, Africa, South and Central America and even from countries of Eastern Europe like Poland, Croatia and Slovakia, it is a sad state of affairs to see the Christian faith all but dead,” he said.
He said the lack of clergy and religious means a priest is often looking after 4 or 5 parishes alone, meaning many parishes do not have a regular Sunday Mass celebrated.
“Even those who come to church want services to be short or with modern trappings,” Emmanuel said.
The priest told Crux he thinks Europe is almost completely secularized, and that the wealth of the society is partly to blame.
“Affluence is surely a factor that affects the life of faith. What is often seen and practiced as faith in poorer or developing countries is considered as superstition or just meaningless rituals here,” he said.
“The influence of Protestantism has also affected the value and degree of veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” Emmanuel added, noting that many children do not even know the Hail Mary prayer.
The priest said that despite this, the culture in Austria is still animated by a Christian character and noted even those who have left the Church exhibit a great “love of neighbor.”
“In 2015, when I arrived here there was a huge wave of refugees flowing into central Europe,” he remembered.
“People were bending backwards to assist the refugees. I could not immediately occupy the parish house because it was given out to an Iranian Muslim family,” Emmanuel said.
He noted that in a neighboring parish, an Afghan refugee continues to live with the parish priest.
Many Church-owned properties are also being used to accommodate refugees, who are also helped to find jobs and obtain their residency permits. One of the buildings is the former seminary for the Divine Word Missionaries.
“Several of [the people] come forward to help out the refugees in all kinds of things including giving them tuition to learn German,” he said.
“I have never ever witnessed such Christian charity in my life from ordinary Christians,” the priest continued. “The surprising thing is that many of these have either left the Church or rarely come to liturgical celebrations. And I wonder if such charitable acts come out of their Christian roots or out of purely humanitarian considerations.”
He said Caritas – the Church’s charitable arm – plays a major role in the life of the Church and Austrian society.
“Caritas is a household name in Austria and which runs major programs for the refugees as well as homes for the aged and other charitable acts. Each parish has people responsible for Caritas,” the priest said.
Emmanuel said a priest coming to Europe from another culture and faith background needs a lot of patience and a strong faith to be a pastor on the continent.
“All said and done, Europe does need re-evangelization supported by much prayer and sacrifices,” he said.
“Interestingly, one of the points that I found and still find strange is when I was told during our course for parish priests that I must never say that I have come to Europe as a missionary,” Emmanuel said. “People do not like that term to be used on them.”