Kochi, Oct. 7, 2019: A group of believers is kneeling before the tomb of Blessed Mother Mariam Thresia Chiramel in Puthanchira in Kerala’s Thrissur.
Holding the Bible and rosaries in their hands, they pray before the saint in making—Mariam Thresia will be the fourth person to be canonised from Kerala. The Supreme head of Catholics Pope Francis will declare her a saint on October 13 in the Vatican.
“Education of girls was Mariam Thresia’s liberation theology. Several young girls were attracted to her by her simplicity, humility and shining sanctity,” the Vatican said while announcing its decision to anoint her.
Her village and the congregation she founded, the Holy Family, are decked up and a delegation is getting ready to fly to St Peter’s Basilica to witness the event. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had lauded her contributions during his latest ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio programme.
A small state with four saints and seven others in different stages of canonisation, Kerala is literally turning into the “God’s Own Country” beating tour mandarins who coined the catchword in the 1980s.
The process of ordaining a saint is lengthy with four different stages – Venerable, Servant of God, Blessed and the Saint – and at times it takes decades to cross each stage, say church insiders. Mother Thresia’s (1876-1926) sainthood process was started in 1978, Pope John Paul II had beatified her in 2000 and she will be ordained a saint 19 years later.
After the prayers, a nun guides pilgrims through the sprawling complex with a museum and the house where she was born 143 years ago. Her belongings are on display.
“For us, Kerala has turned another Jerusalem,” P Devaratnam, the pilgrim group’s leader from Tamil Nadu, doesn’t hide his excitement.
After the Vatican announced its decision, her memorial is drawing unusual rush, nuns of Holy Family which has 500-odd nuns say.
“It is the fruit of our faith and sacrifice. We are here because of our saints. In Kerala, it is a perfect blend of Christian values and traditions. No wonder it is the land of saints. Service is in our blood,” Sister Elsy Xavier, one of the nuns of the Holy Family congregation, said.
“Family is the backbone of any society. The mother taught us how to uplift families so our activities are mainly family-oriented,” explained Elsy Xavier.
Having realised the pilgrim potential, now the church is planning to link four villages where these saints were born to make a circuit.
All of them are in the 200km radius in the Christian heartland—Saint Alphonsa’s Bharaninganam in Kottayam, Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara’s Manannan, also in Kottayam, Saint Euphrasia’s Ollur and Saint Mariam Thresia’s Puthanchira in Thrissur.
Kerala is one of the oldest Christian settlements—St Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Lord Jesus, is learnt to have visited the state in the first century AD. He believed to have landed in Muziris (now Kodungallur) and converted many.
In its 2000-year history, the Indian church has had only six saints and the last five came in 10 years ending the long drought of holy men in the country where religion took roots in apostolic times.
The first saint from the country was a Eurasian, Gonfalon Garcia, but the next saint came after 146 years—Saint Alphonsa was canonized in 2008, the first Indian to be made a saint.
Later, Saint Kuriakose Elias Chavara, Saint Euphrasia and Mother Theresa followed suit. Sister Rani Maria, who was killed in Indore in 1995 and beatified, tops the list now. She hailed from Ernakulam district and later her family had pardoned her killers.
Believers say since people’s enthusiasm towards religion is on the wane in developed countries, the church is looking to the east in a big way.
There was a time when prayers and services were outsourced to Kerala and it still produces some of the best priests and nuns in the world, say believers. They also say that the growing number of saints is a bonus for them to tread the holy path.
In Kerala, Catholics constitute 60% of the population. There are three major denominations—Syro-Malabar, Latin Catholic and Syro-Malankara. Among them, the Syro-Malabar Church is the most prominent that controls 5000-odd institutions, including educational, medical and others in the country. And all the four saints belong to the Syro-Malabar denomination.
Among non-Catholics Marthoma Syrian Church and Jacobite Church are prominent ones.
Though the number of Christians are dwindling in Kerala—it came down to 20.18% in 2011 census from 22%—the church continues to play an important role in the state. Worried, a decade ago, the church had announced rewards for parents who have more children.
In many Indian cities, some of the best-run educational and health care units are still managed by the church.
But iconoclasts and reformers say the Roman Church started noticing the country eying its wealth.
“In India, the church is the biggest institution maker. Some of the best hospitals and education institutions are managed by it. In Kerala, after the government it gives maximum jobs to people,” said reformist leader CT Thankachan adding its look-east was more commercial than spiritual.
Despite the soaring graph of the church, it has been embroiled in many controversies and scandals of late.
In the Angamally Ernakulam diocese, richest in the country, a section of priests and laity had locked horns with George Alancherry, the senior-most cardinal of the country, for more than a year.
Last year, the cardinal was taken off his role when allegations of money-swindling were raised against him. Protesters alleged he had sold a prime land owned by the church in Kochi below market price and the church reportedly lost Rs 63 crore in the deal. He was reinstated but absolved of all responsibilities.
Another senior priest, former bishop of Jalandhar Franco Mullakkal, is facing a rape case in Kerala. One of the senior nuns had complained to the police that he had sexually exploited her for more than three years. The trial in the case has begun in a court in Kottayam and the prosecution claims it has a strong case.
The victim had earlier said she approached Alancherry last year to complain about the bishop but he did not help her. He is one of the witnesses in the case.
This is the first time a senior bishop is facing rape charges and he still enjoys the patronage of the church, said Sister Anupama, one of the five nuns who sat on a sit-in protest in Kochi in September last year seeking action against Mullakkal.
In the Malankara Church, a prominent non-Catholic community, two denominations have been at odds for years. The church had split into two factions, Orthodox and Jacobites, in 1912. Of the 1064 churches, more than 200 are under dispute.
“It is not spirituality but wealth is the root cause of many ailments gripping the church,” said another reformist.
Father Paul Thelekkat, the former spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church, said problems in the church were temporary but said believers will have to uphold holiness and sanctity to overcome troubles.
Despite the nagging problems, for believers Kerala is truly turning into God’s Own Country—the increasing number of saints is a testimony to it.