Reinhard Backes, ACN International
Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada
Father Thomas Manjaly is from Kerala, found in southwest India. However, this Catholic priest lives and works in the northeast of the country in the Archdiocese of Shillong, about 4,000 km from his home. Following his ordination in 1971, he worked in a parish – in 1984 he began a course of studies relating to the New Testament at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, obtaining his doctorate in 1991.
From 2009 onwards to present day, Father Thomas has been a member of the Pontifical Bible Committee, which meets regularly in Rome. He teaches seminarians and has for many years now been in charge of the formation programs of several Indian dioceses, as he explained during a visit to the headquarters of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
“Education is a vital key for the building up of the Church,” Father Thomas explains. “That is true for priests, religious and the ordinary faithful, and not only in India,” he adds. “A priest should certainly understand something of organization and administration, but before anything else he is a priest. That is something that even the Hindus also expect of him. For them a priest is a spiritual person.” Father Manjaly continues: “A priest must be able to communicate with people and also possess a solid theological understanding. It is not the ‘I’ that matters, but the ‘we’.”, he tells us.
The formation of lay catechists
At the present time there are 40 young men in the Archdiocese of Shillong preparing for the priesthood, a number that has been consistent for years, according to Father Thomas. However, they are still too few for the growing pastoral work in the area, and so the archdiocese is also promoting the formation of lay catechists. “Those Catholics who take on a particular responsibility are given a thorough theological formation,” Father Thomas explains, adding, “They are then involved in spreading the faith and giving religious instruction on Sundays, for example, since the subject is not taught in the schools.”
The average parish in central, northern and northeast India generally comprises anything up to 60 village communities, Father Manjaly explains. For one priest to minister to them all, is difficult, and consequently many village communities – which can include anywhere from 10 to 200 families – are led by lay people; usually by men but occasionally by women.
The training of these lay catechists is a demanding one and generally lasts a year, in some cases even two years. “After this, the catechists help the parents to prepare for the baptism of their children and young couples to prepare for marriage. They also help in preparing adults and children for their First Holy Communion and Confirmation and in leading Liturgies of the Word.”
ACN is supporting all these educational initiatives aimed at advancing the pastoral outreach. They are a vital part of the pastoral work of the Archdiocese of Shillong, and last year alone we contributed $68,000 for this purpose.