Nun servants, Indians speak up

By Jose Kavi

New Delhi: A recent article in a Vatican magazine on widespread exploitation of nuns in the Catholic Church has found many takers in India, home to the world’s largest number of women religious.

“A welcome statement but late in coming,” Sister Teresa Kotturan, former vice president of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, reacted to the March 1 article in the monthly, “Women, Church, World.”

Father Paul Thelakat, who has arbitrated several disputes between nuns and priests in Kerala, southern India, too says the “cry of the magazine from Rome is too late.”

Nevertheless, the fact that an official Vatican publication has “come out with some painful truth within the Church” has cheered Presentation Sister Shalini Mulackal, the first woman to head the predominantly male Indian Theological Association.

The article in the monthly women’s magazine of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano is based on the comments of several unnamed nuns. It describes the drudgery of nuns who work as cooks, cleaners, waiters on tables for cardinals, bishops and priests. It also narrates how some work in the residences of “men of the Church, waking at dawn to prepare breakfast and going to sleep once dinner is served.”

They also keep the house of priests and bishops in order and clean and iron the laundry for them for “random and often modest” remuneration.

The situation is no better in India where patriarchal norms and culture in the Church and society shackle women religious, says Sister Kotturan, who once headed the Indian province of the congregation based in Kentucky, United States. She is currently the NGO Representative at the UN Sisters of Charity Federation.

Sister Mulackal says several nuns in India manage kitchen and household affairs in church run institutions and seminaries. Seminarians who get used to sisters serving them do not grow up in respecting sisters as consecrated persons like them.

“But instead they look at them as mere servants. Unfortunately this mentality is carried on when they become parish priests. They order around even if the religious sister is much senior to them” she adds.

Low wages are another area of concern. Sisters working in diocesan schools or hospitals are not paid just wages. “It is taken for granted that sisters are there to serve and that their congregation will take care of their needs.” However, most congregations depend on their small working group to support the non-working members, old as well as young, Sister Mulackal points out.

Sister Rita Pinto, president of the women’s wing of the Conference of Religious India, finds most diocesan priests wanting in priestly caliber and human maturity. “They tend to be arrogant, demanding with little sensitivity to the sisters assisting them in the parish. Their knowledge of theology and Scripture comes to a standstill after ordination,” she bemoans.

Sister Pinto heads more than 130,000 women religious who belong to around 500 congregations. The statistics would need updating, the provincial of the Society of the Sacred Heart told Matters India on March 20.

Many parish priests tend to see women religious as handmaids meant to carry out orders and fall in line with their vision of what Christian life in the parish should be. If this does not happen, they feel disappointed and frustrated.

This negativity on the part of the priest sometimes leads to penalizing communities of women religious by negative criticism from the pulpit or refusing to celebrate Mass for them, Sister Pinto explains.

Many priests in Church institutions lack administrative skills, and their manner of relating to lay staff and religious can be abrupt, condescending and disrespectful, she says.

Most parish priests hardly understand the particular charisms of the congregations of religious women in the parish. Hence not much interest is shown in their pastoral and apostolic engagements, the impact of their work, their need of support and encouragement, Sister Pinto adds.

According to Sister Kotturan, diocesan orders bear “the heavy burden” as they depend on their bishops for survival.

The poor treatment of Catholic religious women in India was first raised in February 2016 by the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, an advocacy group for religious. Its letter sent to major superiors and bishops noted that priests use their power to control the women religious. During disputes, priests deny sisters communion or confession, the letter alleged.

Forum secretary Holy Cross Sister Manju Kulapuram told Global Sisters Report that the issue was “a very serious problem” that could create a “tsunami like effect” if it came in the open.

While Sister Mulackal asserts that the gender discrimination is not ordained by God, Sister Pinto says the cultural condition in the country “automatically influences our perception of the roles of clergy and women religious as also our perception of authority and service.”

Unfortunately a Church that has succumbed to the patriarchal culture treats women as inferior to men with less value and worth, laments Sister Mulackal, who teaches in Vidyajyoti, a Jesuit theology college in the Indian capital. “The liberating message of the Gospels has been eclipsed for long,” she adds.

Sister Mulackal, who has a priest brother, says she often wonders why he is given “an exalted place” in the Church when they both had renounced everything to serve God in distant lands. “The only difference is that I was not ordained like my brother because I happened to be born as a girl. Is my consecration as a religious less valuable?” asks the systematic theologian.

Father Thelakat says the nuns never got their share of social recognition and the rightful place in the Church. They were always menial servants and foot soldiers of the hierarchical church with muffled voices and rights.

Who is to be blamed?

Both sides, asserts Sister Kotturan. She, however, blames more the hierarchy and clergy who use their power to exploit the nuns’ vulnerability.

Father Thelakat says women religious are also to be blamed for their situation. Based on his experience, he explains that when a nun voices dissent other sisters along with their superiors try to suppress her. “The vow of obedience was abused by authorities to suit their gains with the complicity of the nuns’ superiors,” the priest bemoans.

This situation cannot go on forever, says Father Thelakat, who edits the Sathyadeepam (lamp of light), an English language Church weekly that often discusses burning issues in the Church.

The male superiority and hegemony, he warns, will wipe out women religious from the Church. The “death wind” blowing from the West has shut down churches and monasteries. “The phenomenon of the Church going away from the people started with the closure of convents,” the priest told Matters India.

What is the solution?

Sister Kotturan wants women religious leaders to speak up without fear. However, most nuns “are beholden to the hierarchy and clergy and are willing to follow orders,” she laments. They need to be true to their charism, vision and ministry, she asserted.

Sister Mulackal urges women, both religious and lay, to break “the culture of silence” forced upon them for centuries. “We need to speak the truth. Christianity is about service but not about servitude,” she told Matters India.

Matters India requested several young sisters to share their views on the issue, but none responded.

Those who shared their views are unanimous about bringing a paradigm shift in the training of priests to resolve the nuns’ servitude in the Church.

Sister Pinto, who is also the provincial of the Society of the Sacred Heart, wants priests, seminarians and those governing “the people of God” to realize that “the power-driven tendencies” of the Church’s patriarchal mindset are the root cause of nuns’ servitude.

Sister Kotturan says seminarians should be taught that priests and nuns have “different roles in the Church, but not one of subservience.” She wants the Church and society to cultivate gender equality in their structures.

Sister Mulackal says educating both the hierarchy and the sisters will resolve nuns’ servitude. The bishops and priests should recognize sisters as persons, like themselves, who are set apart by God for a particular mission in the Church and the world. The sisters, on the other hand, should become aware of their dignity and worth, she says.

She also wants more women appointed as seminary professors to help future priests get accustomed to respecting women as equals and acknowledging that they have intellectual capacity like them.

Sister Pinto and Father Thelakat agree the Church has many educated and talented nuns, who seldom find recognition.

“Today women are more knowledgeable, professionally better trained and experienced and their presence, instead of being recognized as strength for mission, is often seen as a threat to the male clergy who then develop a negative stance which ultimately becomes detrimental to the Mission,” Sister Pinto says.

Father Thelakat says the official Church never heeds the voice of many “highly talented and well educated sisters.” The CRI and its local units, he says, often toe the hierarchical line while women religious superiors fail to defend their convents and sisters when conflicts and disagreements arise with Church authorities.

Sister Pinto sees as “utmost importance” the introduction of various dimension of personal growth to help human formation of seminarians. This is necessary for a long-term change of attitude in gender relations, she adds.

She wants women religious to express themselves with responsibility, affirm their understanding and wisdom in planning the Church’s mission orientations. The nuns have to break out of cultural norms that force them todepend on priests and silence free expression of their thought, their perception and grasp of contemporary reality.

Sister Pinto also wants those choosing to serve God to undergo a thorough discernment process to clarify their deep inner motivations.

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26 thoughts on “Nun servants, Indians speak up

  1. Power is always the issue and it is good to hear the other side of the ministers of the Church voicing out their feelings and concerns. Hope this the begining for greater refkection and positive action and sharing there in as true ministers wirhout prejudice to the gender. Amen

  2. Hierarchy always takes good advantage of weaker section be is religious sisters or lay faithful. Most of our staff are underpaid much below the basic wages. And sisters render almost free service. Which against natural justice.

  3. If a certain congregation decides that few of their sisters would serve in Bishop’s kitchen what is wrong in it. For them it may joyful servicel. Each congregation has its own charism accordingly they contribute in the mission of the church. It is true that Some congregation sisters are busy only in schools not pastoral work. They think that sacristy work and teaching Catechism is below their dignity. I feel Partiarchy is not the real issue in the church but it is about how do you contribute to the mission of the church. Non cooperation will not solve the problem but it is dialogue and sound relationship.

  4. It is good to notice that the Church has started to consider and comment on an important issue like this. The Pope has repeatedly expressed himself on this matter.
    To begin with could some one (even the Pope) stop sisters being kept as servants in kitchens and clergy homes, also their service in cardinals’ quarters, retired bishops’ villas and seminaries. Many Congregations do not have enough numbers to keep their services going. But they cant say ‘no’ to bishops and priests who make demands.
    Sisters also are to be blamed because they neither discern nor learn enough to assert themselves appropriately. Also superiors try to be more practical as a negation would welcome many troubles. Cultural impact on attitude towards women is reflected also in this matter.

  5. The article suggests as if all the nuns are in service of the priests and bishops in India and that they are being exploited. It is not true. Many nuns are working as principals, doctors, advocates, directors of NGOs, nurses, teachers etc. The nuns are quite powerful. Very few nuns are in service of their respective diocese. But this is the vocation they have chosen consciously. They should not complain about it now. If at all the nuns are unhappy, they should leave their congregations without blaming the Church.

  6. I think it is high time to retire nuns from catholic institutions where men are at work… Let them go for cloister natural to religious life..
    I think Catholic Church in modern time without religious it is not very hard to run. Lay moments are very high in India like country… Nuns prayer life is in question where they don’t have time, the other vows in critical stage as they are not able to pray.
    Those nuns became victim of paedophilia are mostly angry, anti men and anti authority, anti catholic and a big mess where ever they are, specially with men….
    Is theren’t any mechanism to heal those nuns instead of publishing artificial issues as male female conflict

  7. 1.We are parts of Christ’s body the church.we serve the humanity the church as call, but not servitude.
    2.Religious profession is a choice. By an individual, and a gift of God.
    3.It is time to speak up against human misdeeds,manipulations.
    4.Make rules and regulations .5.Give opportunity to speak up By nuns.
    5.Education and empowering of women in every congregation of women.

  8. I thank the Lord for His wonderful intervension.The one who has began His work will surely will continue this mission. Hard to change but it will take place in the future. May God bless you all.

  9. The issue is a fact that women religious are used a cheap labour in Bishop houses, pastoral centers, hospitals run by dioceses and congregations, schools, colleges and many institutions. They are under paid, not given proper respect…. it is all a fact but why do they allow themselves to be degraded to the level of a cheap labour or sometimes worse than them, working from early moring to till midnight.In some cases it is compulsion to maintain relationship with Church authorities and in some cases to some benefits from the church authorities.

  10. All the nuns are not holy ‘angels’. Some nuns treat lay people with despising attitude and consider themselves ‘superior to married lay persons. Do such nuns have any moral right to complain against priests?

  11. A lot of women religious are working in various institutions run by dioceses and paishes. Actually they are the back bone of those institutions. Unfortunately they are paid very less, ever lesser than that of lay persons. Many nuns are also engaged in various domestic works different places such as seminaries etc. Same treatment is extended here also.(Don’t ignore exceptions which are micro minority). Also various procedures adopted by the institutions are against the civil labour laws.
    In Kerala, KCBC have promulgated a People Management Policy three – four years back to regulate and standardise the service conditions of the employees associated with Church institutions run by Dioceses as well as Congregations. It is sorry to say that least priority and importance are given for the implementation of the policy by the institutions.
    One thing we have to learn that less privileged nuns are the victims of the exploitation. CBCI and CRI shall jointly adopt some policies to curb these types unchristian and anti christian activities.

  12. I think that all the sisters should read this story/article. None of the women religious take vow to serve the priests, bishops and seminarians. They are called to serve the humanity and so they have moral obligation to tell the parish priest or diocesan bishop/s that they are called by God like them to serve the humanity.
    On the other hand the priests, bishops and seminarians who use and abuse the nuns, should be protested by the ordinary people also. Our vocation which comes from God, is to serve the poor people in respective areas. Patriarchal church clergymen should change their attitude if they really read the Bible and meditate over the life of Jesus what he did during his lifetime. He did not take service but served the people. Patriarchal church should change their minds and hearts towards the women especially women religious who should be treated with dignity and due respect. They have equal values and honor like those priests and bishops. Church hierarchical leaders (bishops, archbishops and cardinals) should look into this matter and take drastic actions against those priests and seminarians who mistreated and dishonored the nuns and used them life slave workers.

  13. Cheers.! It’s.high time we spoke!!! Congrats t yiu Shalini.Rita and others.Certainly.a paradigm shift in absolutely needed

  14. One important aspect we need to understand is that the nuns are ill-treated by the clergy, not by the laity. The lay people equally respect and honour the priests and the nuns. But sometimes it so happens that frustrated by the ill treatment received from the priests, the nuns vent their anger on lay people and consider the lay persons ‘inferior’ to them. There are some arrogant nuns who do not value lay persons at all. Also, some nuns who are Advocates do not follow principle of ‘natural justice’ and in the name of ‘women empowerment’ harass men by filing false cases in courts in matrimonial disputes. The nuns also therefore need to mend their ways and treat the laity with respect.

  15. And it was He who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists and some to be pastors and teachers (Eph. 4.11). Everybody has different role to contribute to the Kingdom of Gd. Priest plays ministerial role. Similarly other have different roles.
    Sometimes some individuals become very tough to approach. It is felt sometimes vow of obedience is abused and misused which remain in the darkness. It is the time to express oneself. It is true some Sisters are really talented that could be a great resource for the Church. They are indeed great assets. It is the time to cooperate and collaborate in the building of the Church be it priest or nun.

    1. You are talking openly the Biblical terms, but the Church world doesn’t like that pattern of living. Every person born to this world is distinctively different and unique; everybody is gifted in something. If we will not allow them to develop their talents and gifts, they will be destroyed. The Nuns are not getting the opportunity to make use of their divine calling and to promote their gift in serving-teaching-singing in the full strength if they were overtaken by unnecessary Church regulations. So, let them be free to shine forth fully with the GOD-given gifts.

  16. “Matters India requested several young sisters to share their views on the issue, but none responded”. When the “none” in the above sentence turns into “nun”, The situation will change. In Religious life there should be joy and freedom and not blind obedience and suppression. What I feel is that the church has not grown with the signs of the times. We are still in the Pre-Vatican period. Let us first change our attitude and let our talks become actions. It is not only about the nuns but for women as a whole. First let women stand up for women and then let the men follow the same. And please bring back the spirit of Christ, the spirit of service and compassion and take away the business attitude and commercialisation of our services.

    1. The women around the world, especially those who are in the religious order are getting more avenues to speak about their suffering; the freedom loving public and GOD ALMIGHTY will be backing them. Thus, they need to exit from their fear syndrome to freedom mode

      How many man-made rules of law have been introduced by the selfish and arrogant human beings to enslave other human beings with a religious title as the empire of slavery? It is high time for liberation!

  17. The entire report states the obvious that women religious are often exploited by the clergy. This is especially true of diocesan clergy. The report correctly states that diocesan clergy don’t have any on going formation, as is normal in religious orders.

    As a lay leader I have also seen the other side of women religious, especially when they become Principals of English medium schools. I have heard parish priests lament that such principals don’t listen to their pleas for poor Catholics.

    Both the clergy and religious need to put their houses in order

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