By Cithara Paul
Kochi, Dec. 26, 2018: When he became pontiff in 2013, Pope Francis chose not to move to the Apostolic Palace, the official papal residence; he remained in a humble guest house where he had been staying earlier.
He has his meals at the guest house, which is run by paid cooks and waiters. This was a departure from what his predecessors did for centuries—they all lived in the Apostolic Palace run by nuns. Pope John Paul II apparently had five Polish nuns who ran his household, while Pope Benedict XVI was looked after by eight female members of a Catholic lay organization known as Memores Domini.
Francis’s choice may look like an act of simplicity, quite in tune with his character. But for those who understand the power dynamics of the Catholic Church, it was nothing short of a rebellion. It was his way of protesting the use of nuns as cheap labor. He was questioning the lopsided power structure in the Church, in which ‘women religious’ are treated as second-rate citizens.
Francis would have wanted his act to find resonance all over the world, as it was a call to usher in a semblance of equality in the deeply patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church. But not so much as he wanted, it seems. At least in India.
The Catholic Church in India and its nuns have been in news of late, mostly for wrong reasons. The church was seen running for cover when a nun accused Bishop Franco Mulackal of Jalandhar, of raping her. It shook the very foundation on which the religious lives of priests and nuns have been built—celibacy.
The case also brought out many issues, such as corruption and abuse of power, that were earlier discussed in hushed tones. “The case reflects everything that is wrong within the Catholic Church in India,” said Father Suresh Mathew, editor of the magazine Indian Currents. “It tells you how lopsided is its gender dynamics against the nuns who are the face of the church to the outside world.”
Nuns, indeed, are the face of the Catholic Church in India. There are about 100,000 of them in various congregations. They run schools, hospitals, orphanages, destitute homes and hostels all over the country. They are the ones who tend to the needy in the remotest areas of the country.
“Women religious form the largest workforce within the church,” said Sr Julie George, a lawyer who belongs to the congregation of Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit. “Still, they get no respect, face sexual abuse, get low wages and are allowed to perform only stereotypical roles. They have no say in policy matters. All decisions are taken by the diocese headed by priests.”
The Franco case is just one of the many controversies that rocked the Church in the past three decades. In 1992, Sister Abhaya, a nun of the St Joseph’s Congregation, was found dead in a well in the compound of a convent in Kottayam, Kerala. Though the case was closed as suicide by the local police, 67 nuns belonging to the congregation petitioned the state government for a detailed investigation. The CBI, which took over the investigation as per the government’s request, arrested two priests and a nun in 2008.
There is, however, a lot more to Indian nuns than these controversies. They date back to the early ages of the church, and have been the driving forces of all humanitarian deeds of the church. From the first Indian nun—Sister Eliswa, who was a widow—they have been the pillars on which the church was built. It is another story that their extraordinary work has always been undervalued.
In the 1960s, Indian nuns attracted attention when reports about girls from India, especially Kerala, being “bought” and sold to convents in the west appeared in the international media. These girls, said the reports, were bought from Indian agents, and were ill-treated in foreign convents.
The controversy died down after the church ordered an inquiry, which later ruled out the allegations. There are, however, still complaints of discrimination between Indian and western nuns in convents in Europe and North America.
In fact, a nun’s life is no better in India. “There are many congregations that do not allow nuns to use mobile phones or personal email access or allow decent money for subsistence,” said Fr Suresh. “There are also instances of denial of basic facilities in many convents, including sanitary napkins. While nuns travel in sleeper class, priests fly.”
There has been a substantial drop in the number of girls who want to become nuns. “We have not had a single aspirant in the last three years,” said Sr Gloria, provincial superior at the Adoration Convent in Kochi, Kerala. “One joined last year, but she went back home.”
Earlier, convents had at least 30 inmates; now there are hardly a dozen in most of them. Also, most of the inmates are in their sixties and seventies.
Until recently, most nuns used to come from Kerala, but the scene has drastically changed. Now, the tribal belt and Odisha contribute most. The class profile of those who join convents also has changed. While girls from elite families used to become nuns earlier, nowadays most of them are from poor families.
“There are many reasons for the change,” said Sr Gloria. “Earlier, every family would have seven or eight children, and many parents found it prudent to send one or two of them to convents where these girls would be given good education. Now the size of families has come down and the income level has increased.” She and her sister joined the convent in 1966. “Several other girls had become aspirants along with us on the same day,” she said. “It was a big event. Now we never get to see such days.”
Some attribute the fall in the number of aspirants to the changing social mores. “The influence of worldly life is so much that not many girls want to live this life of deprivation. The young girls find no attraction [in this life],” said Sr Susamma of the Congregation of Teresian Carmelites in Kunammavu, Kerala. The congregation was founded by Sr Eliswa.
A young woman becomes a nun after going through several stages of preparation—aspirancy, postulancy, novitiate, juniorate and perpetual profession. It could take up to 10 years.
Old timers say the lives of nuns have undergone drastic changes. “If you look at the lives of our predecessors, they had to undergo a lot of physical pain as part of proving their commitment to the religious lives,” said Sr Susamma. “They were made to wear belts made of thorns and wear blindfolds to control their senses. And they had to sleep on wooden planks. Considering all this, the lives of new-age nuns are in luxury.”
Penury seems to be the main reason that forces women to join convents. “I come from a lower middle class family and I would not have been able to study had I not joined the convent,” said a nun from a convent in Thrissur, who is doing her master’s in English. She will join as a lecturer in a college run by the church. She, however, said the tainted image of the church had impacted believers in many ways. “It is a sad thing,” she said. “I personally know six aspirants who left convents after the Bishop Franco case.”
The Bishop Franco case was particularly damaging because it involved the alleged violation of one of the primary vows of religious life—celibacy. When a young woman becomes a nun, she takes three vows—that she will lead a life of austerity, celibacy and obedience to superiors, who represent God. While the first vow is a personal choice, the second and the third are problematic for the nuns as they involve a third party. These vows become more detrimental when superiors turn villains.
“The sexual harassment and humiliation that religious sisters are subjected to have long been spoken about in hushed tones,” said Fr Suresh. “Most often the survivors are reluctant to report the abuse fearing that they would be ostracised, as the hierarchy in the church is extremely powerful.”
Sr Jesme, who left her congregation in 2008, after 33 years as a nun, said: “When I decided to opt out after calling out the wrongdoings of the authorities, I was literally on the streets. I had nowhere to go. Even my own family and friends turned against me. The Catholic Church itself is patriarchal, and in India it is doubly patriarchal.”
Majority of the congregations in India were founded by priests and bishops who made the rules and system from a male perspective. “The irony is that a large number of nuns, especially those in the leadership positions, support the patriarchy even when a nun’s life is at stake,” said Fr Varghese Alengaden, a motivational speaker and activist based in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
“It is because they have been nurtured by the masculine system and are conditioned by the masculine theology and masculine perspectives of the Church.” He said conscious efforts are needed to bring in a change in the mindset of priests and nuns.
“Including women in all decision making processes in the diocese and entrusting them with more responsibility to run various programmes independently could be the first step,” he said.
Until then, Pope Francis’s earnest—but mostly symbolic—decision may not mean much to these nuns.
(This article first appeared in theweek.in on December 22, 2018)