Saints for sale

via C I Issac published on May 13, 2009

Pope John Paul II is known for his smash agenda of elevating 482 persons to sainthood; about 300 were put on a pedestal of different stages on the road to the final destination of sainthood. It was an all time record in the long history of 261 pontiffs so far.

He introduced a new precedence by using fast-track proceedings to elevate persons to sainthood with the beatification of Mother Teresa, whose beatification was the shortest process in modern history. In early 1999, less than two years after Mother Teresa’s death [5 September 1997], Pope John Paul II gave up the normal five-year waiting period and allowed instant opening of her canonization cause.

During the Second Vatican Council of 11 October 1962 to 8 December 1965, under Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, two thousand saints were removed from the nomenclature of 10,000-odd saints of the Catholic Church on the ground that there was insufficient evidence to the continuation of those removed persons from the sainthood. Several such removed saints are still worshipped by the Catholic churches of Kerala.

One such saint is St. George; he is dear to the Church, which is why the Church of Kerala renounced the dictum of the pontiff. The reason behind this contradiction is that this saint is acceptable to Hindus and thus is a money-minter to the Church. His morphology is rather more Hindu than European; hence his acceptance. Above all, the Church in the era of globalization is more pragmatic than any other business firm of Kerala.       

Why Kerala Catholic Church lost the cart of Saint-hood?

Of the 2000 year acclaimed history of Kerala Catholics, no priest, nun or laity was promoted to the sainthood for 1956 years [mythical history says Christianity reached the shores of Kerala in 52 CE].

Even though Black Christians [Africa and America] can claim only 600 years of tradition in Christendom, they secured seats in the galaxy of saints through the canonization of more than 300 saints. This avoidance of Kerala Christians remains as an enigma to Kerala Church circles.

Why did the Kerala Catholic Church fail to book a seat in the galaxy of saints until the beginning of the third millennium? Probably the scandalous life of the clergies and nuns of the Kerala Church may be the reason behind the Vatican’s deliberate avoidance. Or the legitimized jati discrimination of the Church may be another reason.

Hence it is a riddle how the Vatican canonized Sister Alphonsa, who died 62 years ago, and launched her in to the orbit of the galaxy of saints.

The poverty of Kerala Catholics is the ‘capital’ of Vatican 

The riddle has a Vatican as well as a Kerala perception. The Catholic Church all over the world is in acute shortage of nuns and clergies. It may be Vatican’s attempt to overcome the acute shortage of its clergy-nun population by granting a saint as an incentive to the Kerala Church. It may be a transitory solution. When Pope John Paul II assumed office, the nun population had shrunk to one-fourth and was 750,000; and the strength of clergy came down to 192,000 or half its real strength [L’Osseratore Romano, Feb. 2008].

Now Vatican’s priestly elements are set to shrink by another ten percent. This phenomenon of shortage of nuns and clergies is a universal challenge to the Vatican, and if allowed to prolong for a further period of three decades, Vatican will be forced to shutdown several convents in Europe.

Hence the covetous eyes of the Church have been cast on the poverty-stricken Catholic families of Kerala. As a compromise, Vatican deviated from its age-old policy of sidelining the Kerala Church and raised a nun from the multitudes of the dead to sainthood. Sr. Alphonsa was canonized on 12 October 2008 by Pope Benedict XVI. No doubt this will motivate the innocent laity to graze their lass to the Dracula-houses [convents] of Kerala.

Idiosyncratic background of St Alphonsa

Annakutty alias Sr. Alphonsa became an orphan at a tender age. She lived under the nominal care of relatives until she entered the convent. In 1946, she died at the age of 36 years, after 20 years nun life within the four walls of the convent at Bharananganam, near Kottayam. At the age of 13 years, she had attempted to suicide.

According to the Church, her abortive attempt at suicide was to register her objection to marriage proposals brought by her guardians. Those aware of Kerala Christian family relations and the position of girl children in the pre-1960s could not believe this story. The truth is that girl children became dearer to Christian families from the 1960s with the emergence of nursing as a lucrative profession.

Even today, economically poor Catholic Christians of Kerala are using the profession of nun-hood as a shortcut to evade the liability of unbearable dowry. The choice of nun-hood is the last option of poverty-stricken Catholic families. If the girl child is not fit to get any job, parents find nun-hood as an alternative to dowry. No one can deny this bald truth. From this reality one can envisage the true cause of Annakutty’s [Alphonsa’s] suicide.

Whatever the secret behind her convent entry, her 20-year tenure in the convent was a miserable one. The authorities hated and ignored her; she didn’t even get decent accommodation. She was not provided with a coat, but slept on a mat made of pandanus leaf spread on the floor. Possibly her guardians didn’t paid sufficient alimony to the convent. The bedridden and rejected Sr. Alphonsa died due to paucity of proper treatment. The convent where she lodged had 88 nuns at the time of her death, but only ten nuns attended the funeral. This is the necessary number to carry the coffin to the burial ground. 

Today, one who visits this convent can see a luxurious apartment attributed to Sr. Alphonsa as the quarters of her 20-year nun-hood! Don’t worry, this is an age of globalization and market economy, hence it is indispensable to have a good showroom for marketing a product. Sr. Alphonsa and her saint-hood is a product to be marketed to mint money.

Psychopath of frustrated nuns

Not only Sr. Alphonsa, others in the convent were equally ill-fated. The reaction of such lesser nuns poured out as psychopathy. Such nuns exalted Sr. Alphonsa with stories of miracles; the greedy church made it an opportunity of encashment. Thus Sr. Alphonsa came into the limelight; several miracles were attributed to her.

The Vatican started the beatification process on the basis of the news of a miraculous cure of a clubbed foot with her intervention. Her contribution to society was zero because of her ever-deteriorating health. Her attempted suicide made her cripple-footed. The paradox is that while she failed to cure her own foot, her divine intervention cures others. The psychopathy of browbeaten nuns became a blessing in disguise to the church in monetary terms. 

Encashment of Virtuous Hindu psyche

For whom was Sr. Alphonsa raised to sainthood? Of the 60,57,427 [as per 2001 Census] Kerala Christians, only 40% [24,22,970] believe in the Catholic way of using saints as intermediaries between God and man. Other Christians pray to God without intermediaries.

Thus the target group of the Church is 1,76,94,062 virtuous Hindus who bow before all gods. The success story of Sr. Alphonsa strengthened Vatican Kerala ties. To the Vatican, Kerala became a secured recruiting place for clergy and nuns. And to the Kerala Church, liberal Hindu offerings before St. Alphonsa became a lucrative resource.

Demand for more saints

Kottayam is the Rome of India and Palai its Vatican. St. Alphonsa is stationed at Palai. The economic success of Palai through St. Alphonsa spread like wildfire throughout Kerala’s Catholic world. Thus the Church demand for more saints to cater to the demand of various parishes in need of money. Now souls of several dead are taken out from various cemeteries and paraded before the Pontiff to obtain space in the overcrowded galaxy of saints.

Souls in forefront of the queue include Fr. Kuriakose Elias of Koonammavu, near Cochin; Fr. Kunjachen Thevarparmbil, near Palai; Sr. Evuprasi of Trissur; etc. The Church is well aware of the weakness of Hindu psyche.

Social contributions of new souls in saint-hood queue

Fr. Kuriakose Elias became manager of an elementary school started by the Travancore ruler for the upliftment of the most backward agricultural labour community, known as Padinjatta [western] Pulayas. Later, the school and its property became the church property. He secured 100 acres of land from the king for the benefit of the Pulayas. But these poor Christians have been kicked out of this land worth one billion rupees. They are satisfied with thirty cents of cemetery land exclusively for Pulaya converts. [Untouchability continues even after death in Kerala Christianity; the corpse of a dead dalit is untouchable to a ‘Savarna Christian corpse’]. This is the service of the proposed saint.

Fr. Kunjachen Thevarparmbil’s mission field was also the dalit community. Through the conversion of dalits he ensured cheap labour force for the agricultural activities of Savarna Catholics. The former were subjected to exploitation and social discrimination by upper jati Catholics. Even now Christian converts are subjected to social discrimination in Kerala churches with the knowledge of the church hierarchy.

A Kerala perspective of saint-hood

The present day Syrian [upper jati] Catholic Church is harvesting well under the guise of the new native saint. The church has occupied over 20,000 locations on the waysides of Kerala’s public roads and constructed chapels in the names of various foreign saints to accept offertory from the public, particularly drivers and Hindus in general.

Hence the high demand for promotion for newer native dead priests and nuns to the galaxy of saints. Within a decade, the Catholic Church may well declare more than a dozen saints from Kerala. A senior Indian Cardinal, in a pastoral letter, asked all Kerala churches to abstain from constructing wayside chapels in the name of saints in mid-2003 [The New Indian Express, Kochi, 29.07.03].

Thereafter, the Idukki and Kottayam districts witnessed construction of over one and a half dozen wayside chapels. Votebank politics prevalent in Kerala since the 1970s inhibited the competent authorities from evicting these unauthorized constructions. Even though the roads of Kerala are jam-packed, the future saints to be paraded from cemeteries will be accommodated on the same waysides under the guise of secularism and Hindu forbearance.

The demand for more native saints derives from the case of Sr. Alphonsa, who lived as a bedridden nun in her entire convent life of twenty years. Why not Sr. Abhaya, a poor and god-fearing 18-year-old girl who became scapegoat for the immoral and shameful contemporary convent life of Kerala? Her only fault was that she became an accidental witness of the sexual enjoyment of two priests and a nun together in the corridors of the Pius X Convent at Kottayam in the midnight of 27 March of 1992. The accused nun in the murder of Sr. Abhaya underwent virginity-restoration surgery with the knowledge of the church – she may be made a saint someday!

The birth of newer saints will boost the morale of the clergy. In an age that criticizes the Church’s educational business and proselytism, miracles by native saints can attract Hindus. The offertory of a Hindu to the chapel of a designated saint does not fall in the category of an income-generating business, like educational institutions or hospitals. This benefits the church in two ways – it can continue conversion and amass money without public censure. In an age of liberalization and globalization marketing strategies are essential for the faith also. Hence European churches are using the potential of the Indian church for outsourcing holy mass and other sacraments. So in the marketability perspective, Kerala waysides are perfect spaces for the sale of saints and their miracles.   


The author is a retired Professor of History, and lives in Trivandrum


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