Extraordinary service of nuns has often been undervalued in Indian Catholic Church

Nuns, indeed, are the face of the Catholic Church in India. There are about a lakh 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, 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.”

“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.”

A 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.

– Cithara Paul