The phenomenal conversion rate that the Vincentian Congregation proves that the obstacles of this world will not inhibit the Spirit. Australia can learn lessons on how passion for the Word can bring about an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, no matter what.
Of India’s population of 1.13 billion, roughly two per cent are Christians. While that’s still a sizable chunk – of 70 per cent of the 24 million Christians are Roman Catholic – the centuries-old cultural restrictions and biases are proving no obstacle for the Holy Spirit to do its thing: changing hearts.
In some states it is actually against the law for Catholic missions to convert, and if Hindus – who are in the vast majority – convert of their own free will it can be interpreted as subversion and they can be charged.
Yet the Vincentian Congregation, founded by Fr Varkey Kattarath (of venerable memory) in 1904 under the inspiration of St Vincent de Paul, are still baptising up to 300 people per region in up to five regions – many of them Hindus.
Their charism involves Ministry of the Word, training of future priests, parish ministry, ministry to the poor and ministry to children.
The Vincentians’ Superior General Fr Varghese Puthussery told The Record in an exclusive interview last week that Indians generally appreciate the religious value in such a Congregation’s work, even if it’s not Hindu or Muslim.
He says that as they work with the poor in India, “a Religious person is respected for his beliefs”. “We are happy with what we are doing, and the Lord is rewarding us with results.”
Catholic missionaries find solidarity with Muslims because they are both in the minority compared to Hindus, whose caste system relegates some types of people to subhuman status.
The Vincentians have just arrived in Australia and have set up their first Congregational House at the Shenton Park presbytery.
From here they will base their operations, which for now consist of healthcare ministry but will expand into parish mission work and priestly formation and training.
Knowing that their charism is steeped in priestly formation as St Vincent de Paul was known for starting seminaries as well as his love for serving the poor who he regarded as his masters, Archbishop Barry Hickey told The Record last week that would love to see the Vincentians carry out this part of their charism in his Archdiocese.
Despite the considerable obstacles they may face, evangelising Australia, a country that Pope Benedict XVI has described as being “spiritually moribund”, will prove to be an entirely different kettle of fish, with perhaps the biggest obstacle being apathy.
But Fr Puthussery, in town last week to sign the Decree of Acceptance of his Order into the Archdiocese of Perth, believes Australia is not beyond redemption.
In fact, he says the Vincentians wanted to form a base in Australia as they were getting so many requests over the past 12 years from Australians who have visited their retreat centres in India and invited their priests back here to preach in our congregations.
“We see that there is a challenge (evangelising Australia), but we know that when we do the Lord’s work it will be rewarded; and Australia is blessed with faith that is already established there, so people have that faith tradition,” he said.
While some adaptation is to be done as they perform their missionary work in Australia, “the tenets of faith will b e the same, like preaching and explaining the Word of God to the people, and prompting them to live by the Word.
Already he has seen signs of life in the Church in Australia which they can build on.
Catholics from Singapore, Malaysia, China, Korea and other countries join Australian pilgrims seeking spiritual nourishment at the Vincentians’ retreat centres, and as so inspired they ask their priests back to their countries to preach to their local congregations.
Fr Puthussery sees evidence of Australians’ willingness to put their faith into action and their willingness to find salvation in the number of Australians who visit his retreat and mission centres in India and the number of Catholics who line up for confession before Eucharistic celebrations when they have visited Sydney and Melbourne.
When discussing Australia’s lack of vocations and decreasing
“It goes in cycles,” Fr Puthussey says. “If Australia is not having vocations now, the time will come when it will.
“Many Australians come to India to work in the missions, so we are only happy to return the favour and look for vocations in Australia.”
He is confident World Youth Day in Sydney will generate a spark for young people to realise their baptisimal vocation, as he has seen interest in the Church surge in Germany since the last WYD in Cologne.
“We opened a centre in Berlin a couple of years back, and already there is a change in the quantity and quality of people coming to churches; and there is a higher demand for our ministry as our priests go out to parishes,” Fr Puthussery says.
“So there is already a movement taking place, and I’m sure the same thing will happen in Australia. We have seen that slowly happening in our parish mission visits to Sydney and Melbourne.
“The number of conversions at confession show that Australians want to make a change in their lives.”