Fr Antony Sajeesh. Originally from Kerala province in south-west India, Fr Antony arrived in the Killaloe Diocese in September 2018
Fr Antony Sajeesh was two years into his ministry as a priest in Kerala, India when he learned that the Diocese of Killaloe in Ireland wanted more priests.
Bishop Fintan Monahan, the Bishop of Killaloe, had established relationships with Bishops in Kerala, a state in southwestern India, where vocations are stronger than in Ireland.
Responding wisely to the crisis in vocations in Ireland, the Bishop had started placing priests from the Indian state in parishes throughout his diocese.
In the last few years four priests have arrived here from Kerala – Fathers Francis Xavier Kochuveettil, Rexon Chullickal, Joy Micle Njarakattuvely and Antony Puthiyaveettil – along with another priest, Father Dariusz Plasek, from Poland. Priests have also come to other dioceses in Ireland from Romania, Nigeria, Uganda and the Philippines. The media have referred to these men as being the “imported” priests who are coming to the rescue of the Catholic Church here.
Fr Antony Puthiyaveetil decided to go by his easier name of Antony Sajeesh, and settled in Birr, in September 2018, where he has provided invaluable assistance ever since to the local priests.
Parish Priest of Birr Fr Tom Hogan can't speak highly enough of Antony.
“He's only 35,” said Fr Tom, “and therefore he is blessed with the gift of youth. Our workload is high and our numbers are few so we need Antony's energy and enthusiasm. He has settled in very well to what is quite a different culture and environment to his Indian homeland.” Fr Tom said among Fr Antony's talents is his gift for remembering people's names.
Fr Antony said he is very happy in Birr. Unlike Fr Francis Xavier Kochuveetil, who told the media that, initially, he found the Irish climate challenging in comparison to Kerala (where the temperature rarely drops below 20 degrees celsius), Fr Antony was ok with our weather. “I studied theology for two years in Milan, where it can be pretty cold in the winter, so the weather wasn't a problem. The language was an issue though and I've worked hard at getting my English as good as I can. The Keralan culture is pretty different to the Irish culture so that took a bit of acclimatisation. “In Kerala I lived in the Cochin province only twenty minutes drive from Cochin international airport. The language we spoke was Malayalam.” He said his name Puthiyaveettil means “new house” in Malayalam.
“The other priests in Birr have been great. Fr Tom, Fr Pat, Fr Michael. They have been very friendly, very helpful. And the people in the parish have been very nice, very welcoming.”
He has settled in so well that he might stay on beyond the allotted three years, but he is not sure yet.
In 2019 he attended a course run for a number of “imported” priests by the Holy Ghost Fathers in Dublin where they were given training for issues and challenges that might arise during their time in Ireland.
In June 2019 he travelled to Lourdes for a pilgrimage with Bishop Monahan and 500 other people from the Killaloe Diocese. “That was a good trip,” he said, “not only because Lourdes is a special place, but also because it was good to meet other people from the Killaloe Diocese.”
Of the other priests from Kerala, Fr Kochuveettil settled in Shannon parish, and Fr Chullickal settled in Nenagh. Fr Kochuveettil told the press that he received many dinner invitations from his parishioners after arriving in Shannon.
Fr Anthony says he loves walking in the gardens in Birr Castle and he also joined a local cricket team, Midlands Cricket Club.
He is a popular priest in Birr parish and many hope that he will stay on beyond his three year time period. His presence is a shot in the arm and a morale boost for the area.
One of the major issues facing Bishops such as Bishop Monahan is that currently, the average age for an Irish priest hovers around 70. The number of priests dying or retiring far outweighs the number joining the ranks. The number of priests dropped precipitously after the major Church scandals broke in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Last year, only five men began training for the priesthood at Ireland’s main seminary, St Patrick’s College in Maynooth. The Church is glacially slow to reform and has so far ignored calls to allow women be priests or to abolish celibacy. Instead Church leaders have been actively recruiting priests from abroad as a solution to the problem.
Bishop Monahan’s “experiment” has achieved good results in Killaloe. The Bishop is very happy with the way the imported priests have settled into their communities. Parishioners are really happy at their presence.
"They have really taken to them, big time,” commented Bishop Monahan.Fr Chullickal, who is based in Nenagh, described his parishioners as exceptionally generous.
Fr Chullickal said he was touched when they put their money together and raised €2,100 for his home diocese of Cochin after monsoon rains swept through the region in June. “I did not ask them to do this,” he says. Fr Chullickal has been in Nenagh since November 2017 and says he’d be thrilled to renew his tenure in Ireland after his three-year term is up next year.
Although everyone is pleased with how things have played out, Bishop Monahan says recruiting priests from abroad is not currently the only long-term solution to the priesthood’s woes. The Irish Church is also encouraging lay people to take up greater roles in day-to-day operations and, despite the odds, leadership is still determined to increase homegrown vocations.
Some commentators are saying that Ireland, in what amounts to a historical reversal, has now become a mission country itself
The future is uncertain. A Catholic renaissance could be possible, but it's also possible that the Church might continue to shrink to the point where it resembles a minority church.