Ending religious women’s silence urgent task: women theologian

Sr Shalini Mulackal

By Sujata Jena

Rome, October 4, 2019: Women religious in India need to be empowered to help the less privileged, voiceless and powerless in the Indian society, says Sister Shalini Mulackal, a leading theologian.

“Women religious are not in a position to resist because their life is very much depended on the sacramental life of the church which is fully in the hands of ordained clergy. Often sacraments are used as tools to keep women religious under control,” the Presentation nun told at a women’s international meet in Rome.

The October 3 event entitled ‘Voices of Faith’ brought together a group of remarkable women, nuns, bishops and others from across the world, to share their personal stories and exchange ideas from a woman’s perspective to build a better future in society or Church.

The initiative is spearheaded by Chantal Gӧtz of the Fidel Gӧtz Foundation which is advocating broadening the space within the church for a more incisive feminine presence.

Sister Mulackal spoke on “Breaking out–how the Church legitimizes a culture of obedience and submissiveness.”

“The unjust manipulation due to unequal power relations that exist between the church hierarchy and the religious sisters, the church hierarchy often controls over consecrated women directly or indirectly under the vows of obedience. We often are sure that they are on the right,” said Mulackal, professor at Jesuit-run Vidyajyoti (‘Light of Knowledge’) College of Theology, Delhi.

It is not so uncommon for priests to refuse to celebrate morning Eucharist in a convent if the sisters are not obeying these orders. Moreover, the constitution and rule of life of each congregation drawn following the norms of the church which is dominated by the clergy and woman play no part in it, she said.

Though Christianity existed in India since apostles’ time, Christians form only 2.3 percentage of the total population. Of which the Catholics number around 19.9 million and consecrated women 94 thousand.

Mulackal explained, Catholic women religious in India are not a homogeneous group. They are different in many forms, including their belongingness to either international congregations or the local ones.

Those belonging to the international congregation are more critical in their thinking and can change according to the signs of the time. They are influenced by feminist thinking and are making changes in their attitudes and their governance. They are moving away from patriarchal attitudes and world views and making changes accordingly, she said.

They participate in leadership, conscientious decision making and take dialogue as a way of life. Terms like ‘mother general’ and ‘mother superior’ have been replaced by ‘congregational leaders,’ ‘congregational gathering,’ ‘local leader,’ she added.

“But those belong to the local congregation are fully under the control of the patriarchal church. Often sisters are not even allowed to pray in a way that is meaningful and relevant to them,” she bemoaned.

For the vast majority of women religious in India, the understanding of the ‘vow of obedience’ is still very narrow. It is pre-Vatican in the sense that obedience is as simple as blind obedience to the decision of the legitimate authority. Personal search for God’s will is not encouraged, said Mulackal, a member of the Indian Women Theologians Forum and the chairperson of Centre for Dalit Studies, Delhi.

This is understandable since women come to join religious life from all the way internalize patriarchal condition, patriarchal value system in which they consider male domination and male centeredness as normal. Women are taught to accept their inferior position in society as well as in the church, she added.

“The vow of obedience in religious terms is not meant to create an attitude of subservience and solitude. It is a vow through which one commits oneself to seek and know God’s will at each moment of ones’ life. Each individual is responsible to seek and do God’s will. God’s will be manifested to her in various ways and one among the various ways is through the legitimate authority. Dialogue and discernment are the key points in living the vows of obedience,” explained the nun.

Sadly, this understanding of the vow of obedience is not seen among the vast majority of nuns in India though few religious women are coming out with it.

Mulackal recalled the story of Sister Valsa John Malamel, a member of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary congregation.

Malamel was brutally murdered to death by a throng of men in Pachwara village of Jharkhand, Eastern India, November 15, 2011. She was working for the protection of land and rights of tribal people in Jharkhand state from heavy coal-mining interests. She was 53.

A good example of discerning God’s will even against the desires of the legitimate authority seen in her Sister Malamel’s life, said Mulackal.

Sister Malamel joined religious life in 1984. Though she was appointed as a full-time teacher in 1993, she requested her superiors to leave school. They were not willing to allow her to go along with her conscience, the inner voice that was calling her to commit to the downtrodden.

Finally, the superiors allowed her. She left the comfort of the convent and chose to live among the poor, in a village called Pachwara, Jharkhand in 1998. She ate with them and walked the hills with them. Sometimes she even slept under the trees, along the river beds along with them. After participating in night long deliberations, she began mobilizing the people of Pachwara and other adjoining villages to resist the coal mining project.

She managed to get the people organized, negotiated with the company and got adequate compensation for the tribal whose land was handed over to the company for plants establishments. She was killed by the same people whom she was serving. When she was killed brutally the only possession, they found in her one rented room was a bible and the constitution of the congregation.

“For many religious in India awakening from the culture of silence is a herculean task. It means to come out of once internalize patriarchal tradition and struggle in a hierarchical and patriarchal church for equality, for self-respect and recognition of their identity as consecrated women in the church. It demands a deeper way to Jesus and an inner strength to live out one’s conviction even if one is denied of the sacramental life of the church temporarily, said Mulackal.

Other speakers at ‘Voices of Faith’ were from Sweden, Spain, Australia, Germany, USA, Switzerland, Senegal and the Philippines.

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