By Matters India Reporter with inputs from globalsistersreport.org
Dwaraka, September 18, 2019: More than 1,500 Catholic nuns from 34 congregations were among some 2,800 people who attended a prayer program in Kerala against alleged media criticism of religious life.
“The aim of the meeting was to correct many baseless allegations against Christian religious life by certain vested interests and respond to collective attacks on priests and nuns by the media,” explained Sacred Heart Sister Ancy Paul, one of the organizers.
Sister Paul said Catholic religious women took the initiative to organize the September 15 program at the Pastoral Centre attached to St Alphonsa’s Church of Dwaraka, a parish under the Mananthavady Syro Malabar diocese.
Sr Ancy Thomas of the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel, another convener, said people, including Catholics, now look down upon Catholic religious, especially nuns. “We want to tell the truth about religious life to everyone, including the media,” she added.
The meeting also drew nuns from all congregations in Kerala and representatives of laity organizations from Mananthavady, Bathery and Calicut dioceses.
Sister Thomas also claimed Catholic religious women and men lead a delightful consecrated life, but constant negative media coverage has damaged their public image.
The three-and-a-half-hour program started with recitation of the rosary and ended with the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. During the adoration, the participants held lighted candles and prayed for more strength to live their vocation as true witnesses to God.
Most speakers were nuns, and women religious managed the entire program. Priests who came to support them did not sit on the dais.
One clergy supporter, Father Roy Kannanchira, said the consecrated life in the Catholic Church is a journey from “plenty to empty.”
“Therefore, such an ascetic life is not a cup of tea for everyone who thinks it is an easy life from the outside,” the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate priest told the gathering.
Father Kannanchira also said Catholic religious have so far responded to the negative media with silence. “But from now on we will raise our voice,” he said.
Father Jose Kocharackal, spokesperson of the Mananthavady Diocese, alleged that media groups have characterized estranged Catholic religious as heroes of faith. “It is part of a larger conspiracy to undermine Catholic values by atheists and fundamentalists masquerading as human rights activists,” he told Global Sisters Report.
Saniya Saju, a nursing student, said Catholic youth do not endorse the media coverage of religious life.
“The media is doing a huge injustice by belittling Catholic consecrated life for the failing of a few individuals,” she said, adding that she knows hundreds of nuns and priests who serve others selflessly, but, for the media, they do not exist.
Sister C. Delphi Maria, another Carmelite nun, lamented that some groups criticized “our dedicated life without understanding Catholic religious life or the people who live it.”
Religious life is “in no way denial of one’s rights or a life ignored and isolated,” as the media project it, Maria said. Religious life is the essence of the Catholic Church, she asserted.
Catholic religious life came under increasing media scrutiny in Kerala after five members of the Missionaries of Jesus last year staged a sit-in to demand the arrest of Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who was accused of raping their former superior general. The protest led to his arrest and he was later freed on bail.
The immediate provocation for the prayer meeting in Dwaraka was a Sept. 1 full-page article on Sr. Lucy Kalappura in a weekend edition of the Mathrubhumi (Motherland), a leading daily newspaper in Malayalam, the language of Kerala.
The 54-year-old nun was dismissed by the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, which accused her of violating vows of poverty and obedience. Kalappura, who now lives in a convent near Dwaraka, has appealed to Rome against her expulsion.
The Mathrubhumi and other media outlets allege that Kalappura was dismissed for her support of the five nuns who protested against Mulakkal. Kalappura also used media to accuse the church leaders of protecting Mulakkal and ignoring the rape survivor and her supporters.
On Sept. 4, hundreds of nuns and priests from various religious congregations demonstrated on a road outside the Mathrubhumi’s office in Kannur, a major city in northern Kerala, against what they called biased media reports that tarnished their image.
On the same day, the major superiors of the religious congregations in Kerala met in Kochi to deplore media attempts to idealize disobedient acts by some religious.
A statement from the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council that convened the Sept. 4 meeting accuses the media of violating basic journalism ethics by presenting unverified allegations as facts.
During this period, media outlets have shown a renewed interest in church affairs, especially in the lives of nuns and priests.
Some stories highlighted the disparity between priests and women religious in the church. The Catholic magazine Assisi, backed by the Capuchins’ Province of St. Joseph, criticized priests in Kerala for treating nuns as servants.
Sister Jossy Tom, a council member of the Mananthavady Clarists who attended the prayer meeting, said sisters have silently suffered insults but continued with their mission. “But now the time has come for us to raise our voice and explain our side,” she said.
People, including her own family members, address her as “sister,” when seeing her religious habit, “but they really do not understand the meaning of the consecrated life.” she said.
However, some nuns say the adverse situation is an opportunity for them to strengthen their spiritual life.
Sister Jasmine Maria, provincial of the Mananthavady Carmelites, said that the criticism has helped them look inward and draw inspiration from God.
Sister Innocent Ayyankanal, a social worker and member of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Immaculate, says the negative media campaigns will not affect the religious if “we are more directly connected with people.”
“We have to be more interested and focused on people’s needs,” she said. “It will definitely strengthen us and also them,” she said.
Her companion, Sr. Little Flower, said she is not worried about “smear campaigns” negatively affecting religious vocations.
“Vocation is an irresistible call from God to an individual and it is not one’s selection,” said the nun, who noted a decline in the number of people joining religious life.
Still, she said, the few who join now would be “a hundred times more powerful and qualified to face the challenges of the modern world.”