On September 12, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj wrote on Twitter: “I am happy to inform that Father Tom Uzhunnalil has been rescued.” The Catholic priest from Kottayam, Kerala, was abducted in March 2016 by gunmen who attacked a Missionaries of Charity home in Aden, Yemen, and killed 16 residents. Fr Uzhunnalil, a Salesian of Don Bosco who is widely known as “Father Tom”, is scheduled to reach New Delhi from the Vatican on Thursday, and meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Fr Tom belongs to the dwindling tribe of Indian Catholic priests who opt to work in strife- and war-torn countries at great risk to their lives. He had lived in Aden since 2010, when he replaced Fr Mathew Uzhunnalil, who had spent 17 years in Yemen. The country, one of the poorest in the Arab world, has been wracked by a fierce civil war since March 2015, but Fr Tom had insisted on returning later that year after a short stay in India.
Are all priests from Kerala driven by a similar motivation?
Not quite. Many who leave prefer to travel to the USA, Canada or Europe, which can be financially lucrative both for them and their local diocese/congregation. Although deputed for three to five years, many priests do not return to Kerala, choosing a life of greater comfort and luxury over the Church.
For some, a foreign assignment provides the chance to escape from scandals in Kerala. Earlier this year, Fr Robin Vadakkamcheril of Mananthavadi diocese, accused of raping and impregnating a minor girl, was caught in Kochi while trying to escape to Canada. According to Church sources, several priests had been packed off abroad after they landed in sex and financial scandals in Kerala — with bishops facilitating their escape in order to avoid embarrassment.
Even abroad, some Kerala priests have been involved in unpleasant incidents. In June, Martin Xavier Vazhachira, 33, was found dead on a beach at West Barns near Dunbar, Scotland. Earlier in March, Fr Tomy Kalathoor was stabbed in the neck in an Australian church. Curiously, while the attack on Kalathoor triggered a hue and cry in Church and political circles in Kerala, there was silence on Vazhachira, whose death remains a mystery.
Why are priests in demand abroad?
Numbers of priests and nuns in religious orders have been declining in recent years, especially in the US and Europe. The Church, concerned also about the steadily dwindling numbers of regular churchgoers, has been encouraging the migration of priests from other parts of the world to fill vacancies. In parts of Europe, US and Canada, Kerala’s migrant Catholic community has been buying local defunct church premises, where priests are engaged. The Kochi-based Syro-Malabar Church has established dioceses in Britain, Chicago, Canada and Melbourne, and appointed coordinators in several other countries. “Kerala priests are committed to their pastoral work, are dedicated, and have the ability to adapt to different situations. There is a demand for them,” Fr Paul Thelakkattu, former editor of the Catholic weekly Sathyadeepam, said.
How many priests from Kerala are serving at churces abroad?
The exact number is not known, said Church spokesman Fr Jimmy Poochakkattu. Various congregations and dioceses send priests abroad. Some go to work among the Indian community; others at churches run by local dioceses abroad. Some take up pastoral work while pursuing higher studies abroad. Some don’t return after the completion of their studies, and take up jobs in dioceses there. When a foreign bishop requests personnel, a local bishop in Kerala assigns one. There is a big rush among priests in Kerala to get on the list of appointees.
What’s in it for the Kerala diocese?
Before he boards the flight out, the priest enters into an understanding with his bishop in Kerala on sharing his income — sometimes, he may have to agree to give up half. For an idea of the sums involved: according to a statement provided by Pala diocese, one of the 18 Catholic dioceses in Kerala that send priests abroad, under the requirements of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, nine priests employed in Germany, Portugal and the USA had deposited Rs 8,98,448 with their bishop from April to June this year.
How common is it for Kerala priests to go abroad and not return?
Some priests drift away from their mother dioceses to join local dioceses; sometimes, they abandon the profession and marry nurses from Kerala employed abroad. Fr Sebastian Muttomthottil, secretary of the Syro-Malabar Church Commission for Migrants, conceded that some priests don’t return, but said this was “rare”.
Church sources said over the years, several priests had gone out of control of their bishops/congregations after settling abroad under the guise of missionary work. After a stage, such priests would stop sending the agreed share of revenue to bishops in Kerala.
Church documents mention one George Paimpally who went to Holland in 1995 and never returned. James Cherikkal went to Europe in 1997, and moved to Canada in 2014.
Reji Njallani, convener of the Kerala Catholic Church Reformation Movement, alleged that priests who go abroad “financially exploit the local Christian community as well as migrants from Kerala”. The Church, Njallani said, should probe their wealth.
Fr Thelakkattu conceded that assignments abroad did allow some priests to get rich. “The wrong motivations of priests going abroad should be corrected. Priesthood is not for making money. It is the duty of the bishop to correct malpractices,” he said.