NEW DELHI — At 67, Brother Michael Mundanatt is the youngest of five friars in a Capuchin province spanning most of northern India.
He may well be the last.
Brother Mundanatt lives with a dozen Capuchin priests in the headquarters of the order’s Krist Jyoti province on the outskirts of New Delhi. He said he is “not worried” about being the youngest brother.
But his provincial, Capuchin Father P.J. Joseph, noted that the presence of brothers in several congregations in the region may well be nearing an end.
“In our province, we don’t have more joining us to be brothers,” he told the Asian church news portal ucanews.com.
As religious gathered July 20-25 in Thailand for a symposium on religious life hosted by the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, religious men and women throughout the region find themselves facing new challenges to their missions.
Like the Capuchin brothers, religious throughout South Asia are seeing significant transformations that will affect the future of consecrated life. In countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the very complexion of religious congregations is changing.
“Fewer people now come from traditional Catholic pockets and more are coming from tribal and socially poor groups,” Father Joseph said of the situation in India.
Most new recruits joining India’s 125,000 religious men and women now come from areas where missionaries became active in the latter half of the 20th century, he said.
Only three decades ago, most of India’s religious came from pockets in Kerala, Goa, Karnataka states and cities like Kolkata and Mumbai, where Catholic communities are centuries old.
Such a demographic shift is paralleled elsewhere in South Asia.
Decades ago in Bangladesh, for example, the majority of religious came from traditional Bengali Catholic families. Today, most come from indigenous families.
“The recruits from tribal communities are increasing and those from the Bengali group are declining,” said Father James Clement, president of the Conference of Religious in Bangladesh.
He estimated that men and women from indigenous communities today make up 60 percent of an estimated 1,225 religious in the Muslim-majority country. People from traditional Bengali Catholic families comprise about 40 percent of the religious community. In the past, the numbers were reversed, he said.
In Pakistan, religious have traditionally been drawn from the ranks of the Goan Catholic community. Today, however, more people come from the Punjabi community, the country’s largest ethnic group, according to Kashif Anthony, of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.
Anthony said large numbers of Goan Catholics have migrated from Pakistan, which has contributed to the demographic shift.
The origins of the church in Pakistan were based around foreign missionaries. In the last decade, however, the number of foreign missionaries has dropped significantly, according to Dominican Father Pascal Paulus, president of the Major Religious Superiors Leadership Conference of Pakistan.
“Those who are present are slowly decreasing in number,” he said. “Government policies, terrorism and a decline in European vocations are to blame.”
He said recruiting local religious men and women is another challenge. He blamed materialism, media and smartphones.
“Maybe we have also forgotten our roots,” he said. “People are finding it hard to find an ideal religious life in us. We need to become people who are really committed to peace and dialogue.”
However, other church officials say young people are still drawn to consecrated life.
“In Pakistan, there is a gradual increase in the number of men and women who are embracing religious life over the last 10 years and particularly the number of young people joining religious life is on the rise,” Father Asif John, rector of St Francis Xavier Seminary in Lahore, told ucanews.com.
According to the directory of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, 308 priests, including 122 from religious congregations, minister in the country. In addition, there are 46 religious brothers and more than 800 nuns.
Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, meanwhile, has some 3,400 religious, the majority of them women, according to De La Salle Christian Brother Loyala Fernando.
Improved living standards and shrinking family sizes may be contributing to the dwindling number of recruits coming from traditional Christian areas, says Salesian Father Joe Mannath, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India.
“It is globally true. The number of recruits fall when families become smaller and economic standards go up,” he said, agreeing that more recruits in India are from tribal communities in the north and from dalit groups in the south.
Such demographic changes have implications for the future of religious formation.
“Their intellectual and emotional capacities need development,” Father Joseph, the Indian Capuchin, said of many new recruits. “They have problems with language and cultures. Generally, their poor quality is a major concern.”
Jesuit Father George Pattery, South Asia provincial, acknowledged that fewer recruits are emerging from traditional Catholic belts and more from indigenous communities. There are some 4,000 Jesuits across the region.
English is the medium of formation for most religious, but it remains at minimum the second language for many recruits. Language poses a challenge, but it doesn’t mean it has to have an adverse effect.
Having more recruits from non-traditional backgrounds will give the church a new identity in South Asia, Father Pattery said. Nevertheless, the demographic shift means that the church must adapt to recruits’ changing needs for education and training, he explained.
While the demography of congregations is changing, the reasons new recruits are attracted to religious life are not.
Father Mannath said most people join religious congregations because of a desire to serve poor and sick people and because of the struggle for the rights of the underprivileged.
Across South Asia, religious continue to be the face of the church because of the prominent presence of schools, medical facilities, vocational training and social service centers.
Many parts of the region struggle with poverty, illiteracy, corruption and malnutrition. Because the estimated 20 million Catholics in the region form a small minority of the population, religious institutions and services become an important symbol of Christianity.
“At the social level, we are providing bandages to the whole civic body that is very sick,” Father Mannath said.
For Capuchin brothers in India however, there is recognition of the coming changes.
Across the region in congregations that allow for both priests and brothers, there are fewer and fewer recruits to replace the aging friars, according to Capuchin Father Varghese Manimala, a theologian and expert in formation.
“The power and influence attached to priesthood, and lack of it in brotherhood, is plainly the reason for abandoning brotherhood,” he said.
Brother Mundanatt, the 67-year-old friar, said that he can’t worry about who, if anyone, will take his place in his religious community.
For now, being a religious brother is his “chosen path.”
“I’m not worried if someone follows me on that tomorrow.”
Contributing to this report were Quintus Colombage in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Rock Ronald Rozario in Dhaka, Bangladesh.