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Pope among the Paddy

Sister Alphonsa When Pope John Paul II visited Kerala in February 1986, an obscure little village came under the gaze of the Holy See. Bharananganam, 33 km off Kottayam in the heartland of the Catholic belt, was spruced up for the main religious event the Pope had come to preside over during his visit - the beatification ceremony of a Catholic nun, the first ever held in India.

Beatification, the religious process by which a member of the clergy is declared 'Venerable' or 'Blessed One' is a prelude to the higher process of canonization, both of which are traditionally conducted at the Vatican. Pope John Paul II set a new precedent of localising these ceremonies in Catholic strongholds across the globe. Latin America, Korea, the US and Africa have all witnessed the bestowal of the highest spiritual status to local religious personnel by the Pope himself. 

In a mortuary chapel at Bharananganam rests the stately tomb of Sister Alphonsa, the nun who died on July 28, 1946 and is believed to have since touched the lives of scores of worshippers at her grave. Miraculous cures or 'favours' experienced by believers after her demise has put her on the road to sainthood.

Papal approval on the occasion of his visit also went to Father Chavara Kuriakose Elias, a Carmelite priest who died in 1871 at the age of 66. Father Elias' tomb stands at Mannanam, just off Kottayam. He too has been credited with miracle cures since his demise.

Bharananganam, the resting place of Sister Alphonsa, may be an obscure village, but each year this tiny hamlet erupts with humanity, as teeming pilgrims throng to commemorate the death anniversary of the nun. The swelling multitude on the occasion is an index of the nun's impact on the public, a point of special reference for Rome in its assessment of her.

Much of this adulation springs from Sister Alphonsa's agonied lifestyle and her commitment to suffering as a means of salvation, both personal and collective. Born in Kudamalur on August 19, 1910, and baptised Anna, she grew up under the spartan control of an aunt after the early death of her mother. These years of extreme discipline and imposed propriety perhaps prepared her in a sense for the rigours of convent life. The story goes that one day on her way to school, Anna, then 16, came across a Carmelite nun who encouraged the girl to lead a life of self-sacrifice. 'Be a nun, my child' were her parting words that etched themselves in the impressionable girl's mind.

Convent at Bharananganam Perhaps this episode prompted the strapping, pretty young lass that Anna grew up to be to resist the attempts of her aunt to marry her off. The turning point came when Anna, in a reckless gesture of protest, dipped her foot in a pit stacked with burning husk. The third-degree burns that reached up to her knees earned her a permanent reprieve from marriage. The incident had another dimension. It opened a key chapter in the young girl's life, highlighting a courtship with pain that acquired a religious symbolism that would characterise her later years. On August 2, 1928 Anna joined the Clarist Convent at Bharananganam, the setting for her life's trials and triumphs. A year later, at the age of 18, she began her apprenticeship as a nun. She received the religious habit on May 19, 1930.

And then began her phase of suffering, of protracted illness, of days and nights blurred in the miasma of disease. As a novitiate, she developed haemorrhage and was operated on. In 1933 she had a relapse The pain was so unbearable that she could neither stand nor sit and went without food or sleep for months. Her condition threatened to hamper her progress as a nun. She almost missed out on her canonical novitiate training. When she did join on August 12, 1935, Anna (who by then had acquired the name Sister Alphonsa in honour of the Saint Alphonsus Liguori) began to haemorrhage from the nose and mouth. An ulcer erupted on her leg. The novice mistress of the convent felt that Sister Alphonsa's condition would interfere with the general routine of community life and decided to send her out. But the Bishop intervened. 'If she dies in the novitiate, let her,' he said: 'She should not be sent out.'

The last decade of Sister Alphonsa's life was marred by intense suffering, disease and pain. In one of her diary notes she has said, 'I made my perpetual vows on August 12, 1936. From that time it seemed as if a part of the cross of Christ was entrusted to me.' Up to the moment of her death in 1946, Sister Alphonsa was buffeted by diseases as diverse as malaria, pneumonia and tuberculosis, along with persistent violent bouts of vomiting.

If Sister Alphonsa had to lie on her back, pinned down by disease, her demeanour in illness was heroic. Her contemporaries at the convent recall her stoic cheerfulness and overwhelming affection. She would tell her colleagues, "The grains of wheat are ground and crushed. Then the white flour is obtained. This is baked and transformed into the Host for the holy Eucharist. Even so must we be ground and crushed and trasnsformed by suffering. It is when grapes are pressed that we get the wine, they do not yield wine of themselves. When God, by suffering, purifies us, we become like good wine…."

Her final moments reflected this poignant faith in the divine. She smiled at the ring of faces around her bed. And, breathing deeply, she asked Sister Gabriel who was tending her, "Did you hear that sound?" "No", said Sister Gabriel: "Come closer," Sister Alphonsa urged. Taking another deep breath and releasing it, she said, "Does it not sound beautiful? Like music?" Seconds later she was administered her last rites. Sister Gabriel  recalled each detail with reverence as she recounted the incident to this writer.

Ironically, Sister Alphonsa was sanctified after death by scores of innocent children who flocked to her grave with prayers and entreaties. They lit candles and asked for little things - success at exams or mercy from the teacher's rod. And they always came back. Word spread, and soon adults came to her tomb in great numbers. The simple prayers turned to larger demands; bigger problems were laid at her feet. And the miracles began to happen - club-foot patients, given up by doctors, were said to be cured, barren women gave birth, intestinal disorders were set right - all by a pilgrimage to her tomb. Each year on July 28, Bharananganam is inundated by pilgrims, with their problems, their hopes and their thanks. And Rome decided to extend its recognition to Sister Alphonsa.

Yet, while she lived she revealed little sign of her posthumous greatness. "She appeared to be an ordinary nun, but very devout, who kept her vows (of poverty, obedience and chastity) with great earnestness," said Sister Seraphina, a contemporary of Sister Alphonsa. There were many nuns who even suspected her to be a pretender to piety, whose bouts with pain were partly exhibitionistic. Indeed, her ardent ambition to become a saint might well have indicated a trace of vanity, the vanity of the ecclesiastical robe whose quest for immortality, by its relentless conscious pursuit, loses its innocence. Yet, these considerations were eclipsed by the suffering she endured, its intensity and her forbearance. 

Even when she lived, Sister Alphonsa had her moments of extraordinary visitations. She often had premonitions of death, informing colleagues when their relatives passed away. But more dramatic were the cures that she herself received in her stricken condition from time to time. On one occasion Father Elias (her counterpart in beatification), who died years before she was born, appeared to her in a dream, promising to cure her but reminding her of the destiny of pain that she had to endure. Her ulcer subsided the next morning, according to her contemporaries at the convent.

Church Indeed, miracle cures or 'favours' are integral to any assessment of a priest's eligibility to sainthood. The procedure adopted by the Vatican is elaborate and long drawn. Tribunals are set up to examine the conduct and lifestyle of the priest or nun concerned so that the Church can be satisfied about the 'holiness' of the person. Then the cases of miracle cure are analysed. The Vatican stipulates that in order to qualify for beatification a priest or nun must have at least one case of a miracle cure which can be supported by doctors' certificates to say that the disease could not be cured by established medical practices. This in turn would strengthen the case for a miracle cure effected by the 'intercession' of the 'Saint' after his death. Beatification bestows the prefix 'Venerable' or 'Blessed One' upon the chosen one.

Canonization, whereby the priest or nun is adjudged a Saint, comes after one more miracle cure is proved before the tribunal after beatification is achieved.

The process of establishing the credentials of a candidate are two fold: the Diocesan process and the Apostolic process. In the Diocesan process, the local Bishop starts preliminary investigations into the credentials of a priest or nun who appears to have earned public acclaim. Then Rome appoints a postulator who must be a priest residing in Rome. He is the man who deals with the Sacred Congregation for the Canonization of Saints at the Vatican. The Postulator is assisted by a Vice Postulator in the diocese whose duty is to gather all the materials required by the Postulator. He also performs the functions of the postulator at the Diocesan process.

The local Bishop then appoints, with the permission of Rome, a Diocesan tribunal whose work normally spans a few years. The tribunal collects all the writings of the candidate to examine their religious content. Then, as in a court of law, witnesses are examined who knew the candidate intimately. This is to establish whether the priest or nun lived according to Christian dictates and to gauge the extent of the candidate's impact on the people.

The tribunal includes a Devil's Advocate to challenge the claims made in favour of the candidate. Once the Diocesan process is over, a second tribunal known as the Apostolic tribunal begins its investigations based on the findings of the Diocesan process. The earlier report is translated into Latin and a fresh examination of some of the earlier witnesses takes place. If the Apostolic tribunal is convinced about the eligibility of the candidate, he is declared Venerable and the beatification procedure begins.

In the case of Sister Alphonsa, the Diocesan process was set in motion in 1953.The tribunal examined 126 witnesses spread over 847 sessions. A 10,000 page report was sent to Rome in 1962. 'The Apostolic tribunal, appointed years later, examined 46 witnesses and within a year of its inception declared Sister Alphonsa eligible for beatification.

With the spiritual credentials of both Sister Alphonsa and Father Elias having been proved to the satisfaction of the Vatican, Pope John Paul declared them beatified at a public ceremony in Kottayam. The Vice Postulators requested the Pope to declare the candidates Venerable. The Pope then delivered an address in the course of which they were beatified, making them officially eligible for public veneration.

On her death bed There is a section of ecclesiastical opinion that disapproves of such pomp and pageantry. "Capitalising on saints is a way of enhancing the prestige of the 'Church to benefit the Church leaders. The whole thing has a commercial air. Erecting saints increases the flow of money into the church," said a priest of the Orthodox Church. The traditional Church in Kerala is a divided house and each of the denominations invariably has its own patron saint (though there are some common ones). The saint of the Orthodox Church (which follows a different practice of selection) is Pan Thirumeni whose tomb lies in Travancore. Some time ago the priest in charge of the pilgrim centre was transferred out for corrupt practices, the orthodox priest pointed out. The 'selling' of saints has its hazards.

Indeed, the beatification of Sister Alphonsa has  spawned a brisk trade in photographs, talismans, crosses and books. Still, religion it would seem has its own logic, manifest in the mass appeal of saints and prelates. And in the ardent faith of little children who light candles and pray on bended knees for salvation from harsh adults.

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