Socio-Cultural Challenges in Formation Today


                                                           S.M. Michael SVD    


1. Introduction

            Priests, religious and their ministries performed by them through their institutions are the visible face of the Catholic Church. Their life and engagement with people have tremendous effect on the lives of lay faithful and others. In recent times, with the impact of socio-cultural, political and ideological changes taking place in the world, the life of the priests and religious are going through a crisis of identity and commitment. While the Catholic Church does not lack a theological and spiritual foundation for priesthood, religious and consecrated life, yet, their application and reinterpretation to our time and place is vital to carry forward the God given mission of the Church in our times.

            The contemporary world is marked with its own ambiguities, claims and demands and people’s movements which are both challenges and opportunities in the Christian mission of today. Moreover, there is a complete change in the outlook of people on the role of religious groups in their everyday life situation. Compared to a few decades ago, when religious groups played an important role in the social, cultural and religious lives of people, today, increasingly, people’s lives are being molded by non-religious groups such as government agencies, social welfare associations, linguistic and ethnic interest groups. Society moves away from organized religions in favour of more liberal and attractive and dynamic ideologies, political, religious, revolutionary and expressive groups. Hence, there is a need to study and understand the effect of the present socio-cultural world on the young Catholics who are recruited for priesthood and religious life.

            Youth is full of resources, but it must be helped to overcome the temptation of easy and illusory ways, to find the road of true and abundant life. Hence, the candidates to priesthood and consecrated life must be selected carefully and must be given adequate formation so that they will be able to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world” in contemporary world.

This paper reflects on the above concerns. It consists of three parts, namely, the first part analyzes the contemporary cultural world from which the candidates come from, the second part discusses the challenges of formation in the context of the growth of Hindu Cultural Nationalism and Religious Fundamentalism. This is followed by some suggestions in formation for Inter-cultural witnessing and effective ministries in our mission. The last part is the conclusion.



2. The Cultural World of Today from where the Candidates come from

            In Religious Formation, we need to ask what sort of culture is emerging around us; what examples and models the contemporary secular world proposes to our youngsters.

When we look around, we see our cultural world of today is characterized by globalization. Globalization is a complex process by which the world is becoming a highly interconnected world through economic, social, political and cultural contacts. As a result, the world is shrinking in terms of time and space making the world feel smaller and distances shorter. Globalization accelerates the movement of populations from the less affluent parts of the globe into the major urban centres of the “developed” and “developing” nations. As a consequence, today, we see peoples and cultures formerly located in different parts of the world inhabiting the same physical terrain. Such cultural interaction affects how we live and interact with our neighbours. Moreover, the intensification of the communication network through satellite television, Internet and e-mail brings images quickly to our private homes providing people with resources from which to fashion new ways of being in the world. All these affect our traditional ways of living. Individuals have been realizing the infinite fragmentation that globalization have caused in their lives (Heels, 1998).

As a result of the accelerated pace of life, transience seems to have acquired an edge over permanence and durability. This is evidenced in the personal lives of individuals, human relationships, social institutions and cultural processes. As Alvin Toffler points out “Unless man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large, we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown” ( Toffler, 1970:15).

The contemporary world is marked by changing demographic profile of many States in India and abroad as a result of large-scale internal and international migrations. As a result, individual lives, societies and cultures in our globalizing era in general and in Western countries in particular are becoming increasingly fragile and vulnerable to fragmentation and atomization. This fragmentation is evidenced in the lives of individuals as well as institutional structure and cultural patterns. It is manifested in mindless and compulsive consumerism and hedonism, in the breakdown and increasing disintegration of the family, neighbourhood and community, in the growing feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and uncertainty, and in a pervasive existential vacuum. Social institutions such as family, neighbourhood, religion, community which once provided common bonds and a sense of belonging are under great strain. Rising prosperity and affluence are often accompanied by diminished levels of happiness and contentment (Hall, 1995).

Individualism is increasing. Individualism is embedded in liberalism. Liberalism holds that what is morally sound and desirable is to be determined by each individual and that one should not judge the actions of other people it terms of one’s own moral values. This encourages moral relativism. So, what we observe today is the loss of certainty and breakdown of absolutes – In morals-sexual anarchy; in metaphysics-doubt; in epistemology-confusion and ambiguity. This cultural trend is today popularly known as “Postmodern Cultural trends”. Postmodern culture sees doubt as a form of health. It often derives meaning or excitement through experiments with sensation, sex and drugs, and if confronted with the teachings promoting traditional values or Wisdom of the Ages it proudly rejects them as outdated and no more relevant to contemporary humanity.

3. Formation in this Context of Globalization

a) Family Background of the Candidates

            Formation has to take these cultural trends seriously. Today’s boys and girls are influenced by the above cultural values – they are in confusion, not able to distinguish between good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Relativistic, hedonistic market values are affecting their lives. The effect of media on them is tremendous. The easily available pleasure and distraction make them not interested in deeper questions of life.

            The recruitment policy needs to take the above reality seriously in choosing Church personnel from spiritually rooted families. Or, if we recruitment from not so ideal families due to our need, then the formation policy should make it sure that these candidates receive adequate training to equip themselves to be an integrated priest or religious.

            The selection of candidates for priesthood and consecrated life must pay attention to the family background of the candidates. Recent study on “Social, Cultural and Ideological Challenges in the Formation of Priests and Religious Today” points out that “All the respondents mentioned how their family upbringing influenced their attitude towards priesthood and religious life. A former diocesan priest said: `When I looked at my parents, they struggled to stay together due to their own differences in opinions and understandings, even though my father is a doctor and mother a teacher. They never lacked anything in their careers, position in the community, wealth or health. Both went to Church regularly, but their faith was shallow. Looking at my parents’ life I thought it better not to marry. So, I ended up in the seminary and became a priest. Gradually I realized that priesthood was not meant for me and I asked myself frequently why I should endure the sacrifice of being a priest. After being a priest almost for 11 years I finally decided to abandon the priesthood at the age of 39. (an ex-priest, from America)” (Puthussery, 2009:587-588).


b) Formation for the Responsible Use of Computer and Internet

            While computer and internet facilities are good in themselves, they could be also misused. Studies show that the internet has also brought widespread concrete expressions of hedonistic culture (Weber, 2008). Changes in sexual behavior amongst teenagers, pre-marital sexual relationships and other forms of sexual behavior by adults are easily available in the internet. Hence, our formation should stress the responsible use of computer and internet. “In reference to pornography and the Internet, a former diocesan priest, aged 38 years had the following to say: During the formation period in the seminary I used to secretly get onto pornography websites. After priestly ordination, I found someone through the Internet to have sexual relationship with. So, I finally decided to abandon my priestly ministry” (Puthussery, 2009: 592).

            Sex Scandals by Priest and Religious have a great impact on common perceptions of the priesthood and religious life. Hence, our formation must take care of the mature sexual growth of our candidates.

Taking into consideration of the present socio-cultural situation of the world, various recent official Church documents on priestly and religious formation stresses the need for holiness, intelligence and competence of the Church personnel in their formation so as to face the challenges of today’s world and respond creatively and adequately with faith and reason. The document Pastores dabo vorbis, 1990 discusses the formation of priests in the present day. It presupposes an integral priestly formation by identifying and recognizing the contextual factors of today.

            The Church documents emphasize the need for developing persons with responsible freedom in the process of self-actualization. But, the documents warm that this cannot be achieved without the relationship to God and others. There is an integrated relationship between human, spiritual and intellectual formation. The spiritual formation essentially aims at a personal relationship with God, through which one is able to engage in pastoral ministry discovering the deep meaning of poverty, celibacy and obedience. The intellectual formation equips the candidate to distinguish knowledge, science and religion. Intellectual formation leads to a deeper understanding and interpretation of the person in the light of emerging knowledge. A true knowledge will understand the limits of physical, psychological and other sciences and distinguish faith and reason. While both are essential for intellectual growth, but one should have the intellectual ability to distinguish one from the other and their areas of competence.


4. Formation in the Context of Assertive Cultural Nationalism and Religious



Turning from the global factors affecting formation today to local concerns, we find that our religious personnel are affected by the growing assertive cultural nationalism and religious fundamentalism. There is an increasing interaction between global and local factors affecting religious formation today.

While globalization as a homogenizing process is active, we also observe cultures and religions asserting their separate identities. Globalization creates a troubled relationship between the native and the international. The claim of the emergence of a global culture is accompanied by cries of alarm that local values and nation-states are suffering a sense of threat to identity (Hall, 1996:619). This has given rise to ethnic revivals, struggles for indigenous rights and religious fundamentalism as defensive reactions to globalization and relativism. They have risen from a desire to defend and preserve valued ways of life against what are seen to be pernicious effects of foreign and global influences. Fundamentalist religious movements and cultural nationalism emerge in order to strengthen the identity of one’s nation and culture. Religious nationalists are not just religious fanatics. For the most part they are political activists who were seriously attempting to reformulate the `modern’ language of politics in order to provide a new basis for the nation state (Juergensmeyer 1994: xiii). Religious and nationalist movements often invoke authenticity and ‘authentic culture’ as a weapon against what was foreign and alien.

Communal politics defined as political construction of religious identities along religious lines and the mobilization of religious sentiments and consciousness for political ends is a disturbing reality today. Socially engineered prejudices, tension and conflict between religious communities has led to violent attacks on Christians by Hindutva forces (Sangh Parivar). The violence has increased and is recognized pattern today. Whether it be the hacking to death of Sr. Rani Maria in Indore, parading naked of Fr. Christudas in Dumka, attack on prayer halls, burning of Bibles in Gujarat, burning alive of Rev. Staines and his two minor sons in Keonjihar or hacking to death of Fr. Arul Doss, there is a pattern in the attacks against Christian community in India (see Michael, 2000). The violence has increased with attacks in Gujarat (2002), Orissa (2007-2008), Karnataka (2008) and many other places. Violence against Christians has risen. The Kandhamal incidences in Orissa in 2007 and 2008 are still vivid in front of our eyes. The violence virtually amounted to religious cleansing of Dalit communities who converted to Christianity (see Michael, 2009).

The pattern of violence is a new political reality in India’s communal conflict. Why, then, this violence against Christians? It is important to understand, in the context of present-day electoral politics, marginalized communities like Dalits and Adivasi groups represent a new vote bank, an important power blocc to gain political control by the traditionally politically influential upper caste Hindu groups. The Hindu nationalists (Sangh Parivar) realize that on converting to Christianity, Dalits and Adivasis become educationally empowered and become conscious of their rights. These reasons represent, for fundamental Hindu nationalists, power play. This is the underlying motive behind the whole question of conversions. Hence, Hindu revivalist forces have been aggressively opposing the evangelical work of the Christian missionaries, even to the level of using physical violence against the consecrated religious persons, priests and lay people.  

In this socio-political and cultural context, the formation of the Church personnel needs to be rooted in Christian faith and the pluralistic cultural traditions of India which is guaranteed in the Constitution with a firm resolve to face the consequences of our religious vocation. This implies that our Catholic religious formation must be inculturated in the religious and cultural pluralism of India. Our candidates must be well formed to know the cultural history of India, religious believes and traditions of Hinduism, Islam, different tribal religions, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and others. The candidate should be also formed in such manner that he is intellectually capable to distinguish the unique features of each religion and the similarity and differences between Christianity and other religions. The formation should equip the religious personnel to creatively engage in inter-religious dialogue and to integrate the insights of truth, holiness and goodness of religions and cultures in India without in any way compromising, syncretizing or relativizing the authentic Christian faith.

5. Formation for Inter-Cultural Witness and Effective Ministries

            The Indian Church lives in the midst of an enormous cultural and religious diversity. The majority of Catholics are concentrated in the South and a few pockets in Western and North Eastern parts of India. Though almost all the missionary personnel in India are indigenous, most of it is from the South, whose people are not familiar with cultural life of other religions in the country. Moreover, priests and religious drawn from the different cultural and linguistic communities need to live together witnessing their faith and engage in effective ministries.

            Observations on the lives and ministries of Catholic religious personnel indicate that there is a lot of energy, time and resources are spent in inter-cultural conflicts and tensions. It is natural that the priests and religious are human so we should expect problems in religious and priestly communities similar to those we find in any other social groups. All the same, effective witnessing and ministries in Christian mission need to pay sufficient attention in the formation of its personnel in inter-cultural living.

            Normally, there is a deep-rooted instinct in human beings to form in-groups and out-groups. Those individuals who have the same attitude towards another group as you and whom you include under the pronoun “we” belong to one of your “we-groups” or “in-groups”. Those whose attitude runs counter to yours from a corresponding “they”, or “out-group”.

            Human beings are social being and instinctively take sides, entering in his/her mind this camp or that camp. We instinctively align ourselves with others into an endless series of WE’s and THEY’s. Such a tendency does not disappear with the pronouncement of the three vows. In fact, the tendency to form in-groups who think and behave alike is still very much alive in each and every one of us without exception. The better we understand and appreciate the fact that this natural tendency exists also in us and not only in the other person, the better the chance of making the religious communities what we all want it to be – a big, happy family, perfectly united outwardly and inwardly in Christ. The first step toward a solution to a group problem is to have every member sincerely admit the principle just explained: There exists in me a deep-rooted instinct to form in-groups and out-groups.

            But, it is important to understand that there is a particular danger of conflict as soon as the groups begin to feel a dominant or minority status. That group is considered the majority or dominant which is recognized as the stronger and the more influential. Trouble begin to brew as soon as any group begins to feel uncomfortable on account of its relative weakness, real or imaginary unimportance and inferior status.

            It is quite human for any minority group to be opposed to a dominant group. Social psychology tells us that resentment of having to play second fiddle, not to say third or fourth, is often the main basis of conflict. There is often justification for this resentment in as much as the minority group is often not trusted and considered incapable and definitely inferior, or at least “not ready” for equality. Whether the low opinion of the dominant group is justified or not matters little. The minority group is aware of this opinion and will not tolerate it.

            Sometimes the dominant group utterly disregards the minority group without even being aware of it. Such a situation may arise in religious communities too, even among well-meaning and ideal religious. The natural tendency in such a situation is resentment and opposition. There is in human beings a real hunger for appreciation and equality. The natural psychological result of this hunger is opposition and even rebellion. A lack of appreciation of the minority group by the dominant group, culpable or not, justified or not, will always be an invitation to conflict.

            The great danger to inter-cultural witnessing is the problem of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the most important basis for group problems. Ethnocentrism is the tendency of any social group to evaluate itself and its way of life as superior to any other group. This feeling of superiority is subconscious and goes down to the smallest details. Even the most charitable and most humble member of a religious community will have a certain amount of ethnocentrism in his/her system. This is because each cultural group is convinced that its evaluation and patterning are the only correct ones; each cultural group is convinced that its way of life is the best way of life. Being aware of these sociological facts ever before us, and united in charity and humility, much misunderstanding could be avoided (see Luzbetak, 2009:127-134).

            To be a witnessing community and efficient in our ministry, members belonging to different cultural communities should be formed in the following cultural principles:

  1. 1.We have an inborn tendency to form attitude groups, in-groups and out-groups, a tendency that does not disappear with the pronouncement of three vows.
  2. 2.Whenever there is contact between an attitude group and a counter-group, we can expect conflict.
  3. 3.There is a particular danger of conflict when a group becomes dominant, while others feel that they form weaker and less influential minority groups.
  4. 4.Ethnocentrism, which is very much alive in everyone of us without exception and makes us, so to speak, thank God that we are “not like the rest of men,” is perhaps the most important factor in group conflict. The consciousness of one’s own ethnocentrism, an appreciation of the good in other groups, and a bit more broadmindedness in one’s own value judgments – in a word, a bit more Catholicism – would go a long way toward the genuine witnessing to our Christian faith and it may provide the needed vitality in our ministries.

            Our religious formation must include the vital role that culture plays in mission work. A missionary with true empathy views all local ways not through the coloured glasses of his or her own cultural background but in the full local context. The missionaries from the South working in other parts of India and elsewhere would become more open and less ethnocentric if they have a deep understanding of their own culture and of the culture of the peoples among whom they are sent to work (Michael, 1993: 719-728).

6. Conclusion

            The visible face of the Church is manifested through the lives and ministries of priests, religious in the world. The Christian faith becomes alive through the inspiration of priests and religious personnel in the Church. The lay faithful look up to the priests and religious to interpret their lives in the midst of ongoing changes in the globalized world. Hence, the formation of priests and religious is very vital in carrying out the God given mission of the Church. In the context of increasing challenges in the authentic way of faith practices, spirituality and life style according to the Gospel values of priests and religious, the Church must take adequate steps in the formation of Church personnel looking into the present socio-cultural realities of the world. It is hoped that the above analysis and suggestions could be of some use in the formation of Church personnel in our contemporary times.



Hall, Stuart (1995)

            “New Cultures for Old”, A Place in the World?: Places, Cultures and Globalization.

            Doreen Massey and Pat Jess, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 175-213.


Hall, Stuart (1996)

            “Questions of Cultural Identity”, Modernity: An Introduction to Modern Societies.

            Stuart Hall, David Held, Don Hubert, and Kenneth Thompson (eds.). Cambridge:

            Blackwell Publishers.


Heels, Paul (1998)

            Religion, Modernity and Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


Luzbetak, Luis SVD (2009)

            “Nationality and Other Group Problems”, Verbum SVD, No.1, Vol. 50. Pp.127-134.


Michael, S.M. SVD (1993)

            “Culture and Missionary Formation”, Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection, Vol.

            57/12, December 1993, pp.719-728.


Michael, S.M. SVD (2000)

            “Real Issues Behind the Violence”, Mission Today, Vol.II, No.1, pp.9-22.


Michael, S.M. SVD (2009)

            “La violence contre les chretiens en Inde”, Spiritus, No. 194, Mars 2009, pp.7-17.


Puthussery, Shanthi Chacko, PIME (2009)

            “Social, Cultural and Ideological Challenges in the Formation of Priests and Religious

            Today”, Vidyajyoti Journal of Theological Reflection, Vol. 73/8, August 2009, pp.581-



Toffler, Alvin (1970)

            Future Shock. London: Pan Books.


Weber, Marysia (2008)         

            “Pornography, Electronic Media and Priestly Formation,” Homletics & Pastoral Review.

            108/7, pp.8-18.




[1] [1] Paper presented at the Seminar on “The Changing Patterns in the Recruitment of Candidates to Priesthood and Consecrated Life in India Today”, at NVSC, Pune, 19-21 October 2009.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: