Question: Joseph John
Do you see a change in the very concept of sainthood in the beatification of Sr Rani Maria who was primarily a social activist? What does it signify both to the Indian society and to the Church?
Answer: Jacob Parappally MSFS
In the context of the beatification of Sister Rani Maria the question raised is a very relevant one. Perhaps, for the first time in the history of the Church a known social activist is being beatified. One can legitimately raise a question whether it signals the change of attitude on the part of the official Church with regard to beatification. Usually a person of heroic virtues is beatified or canonized. The official decision of the Church to beatify Sister Rani Maria affirms that these heroic virtues now include one’s radical commitment to the socio-economic liberation of those who are marginalized by the society as in the case of Sister Rani Maria who was martyred for siding with the oppressed people of Central India joining in their struggle to secure their legitimate rights as humans.
The Heroes of Faith
In the early Church there was no official beatification or canonization. St Augustine speaks of the veneration of saints in the context of the Catholic doctrine of worship. It was clear to him that true worship and adoration can be given only to God and saints are invoked for their intercession while they are the channels God uses to distribute His divine gifts. The saints have earned the divine supernatural gifts by their life of holiness and submission to the holy will of God. In invoking saints for their intercession the Catholics honour God, the giver of supernatural gifts as well as our communion with them! They are the means God uses to influence humans that they live and grow in communion and not that they influence God to get favours for the people who seek their intercession.
From the beginning of the Church the martyrs were venerated and honoured and their intercession was sought. From the fourth century onwards, the Confessors who lived a life of holiness and witnessed to a life of commitment to the Lord and His Church were considered saints and were venerated. According to Robert Bellarmine the confessors were given ecclesiastical honour and venerated only by A.D. 800. The faith of the confessors was considered similar to that of the martyrs because they lived such a life of self-denial, penance, ascetical practices and other heroic virtues that their lives could be considered a prolonged martyrdom. Therefore, confessors were also called martyrs as St Gregory Nazianzen called St Basil a martyr though he did not shed his blood for his faith.
For those who see the Church only as an institution or as a social organization the members who are honoured publicly are those who are the best examples of remaining loyal to the institution or organization and accept uncritically and fulfill excellently what the organization demands from them. But for those who believe that the Church is a mystery, a divinely instituted community to live and witness to the liberating presence of God to the rest of humanity that they too can experience true communion with God and others, then the heroes of faith are those who give up their lives for the values of the Gospel. So in the final analysis the real heroes of faith or men and women of heroic virtues are not those who practise Christian virtues only for their personal holiness but those who follow Jesus radically in their life and express it in their total commitment to the cause of the well-being of others whatever be the consequences!
In his encyclical, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis affirms that genuine spirituality consists not in some pious exercises but commitment to confront the world empowered by the grace of God. In the context of referring to the temptations of the pastoral workers and the sins of the members of the Church, the Pope says that these “… must never make us forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love. They help so many people to be healed or to die in peace in makeshift hospitals. They are present to those enslaved by different addictions in the poorest places on earth. They devote themselves to the education of children and young people. They take care of the elderly who have been forgotten by everyone else. They look for ways to communicate values in hostile environments. They are dedicated in many other ways showing an immense love for humanity inspired by the God who became man. I am grateful for the beautiful example given to me by so many Christians who joyfully sacrifice their lives and their time. This witness comforts and sustains me in my own effort to overcome selfishness and to give more fully of myself” (No. 76). Indeed, Sr. Rani Maria is such a witness or a martyr of heroic faith. No wonder then, that the Pope found the cause of Sr Rani Maria worthy of recognition and beatifies her for her heroic virtue of giving up her life for the cause of the poor and the marginalized. Her Christian faith was deep and her radical commitment to the cause of the poor flowed from her surrender to Jesus and the values of the kingdom. She knew that her life was in danger but she was not prepared to give up the values of the gospel in order to preserve her life. She followed Jesus, “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). It is a re-affirmation that authentic Christian faith is not just believing in some dogmas and doctrines but readiness to give up one’s life rather than giving up the gospel values one believes in as Jesus did!
The beatification of Sister Rani Maria broadens and deepens the traditional Christian understanding of holiness. It challenges those who have a narrow understanding of Christian spirituality only as a regular and meticulous observance of spiritual exercises like specific forms of devotions, reciting of prayers, practice of penances and liturgical celebrations but do not improve the quality of their human life, relationships and commitment to the welfare of others, especially, the poor, the marginalized, the disadvantaged and the discriminated. Against such a narrow understanding of spirituality Pope Francis says, “Today we are seeing in many pastoral workers, including consecrated men and women, an inordinate concern for their personal freedom and relaxation, which leads them to see their work as a mere appendage to their life, as if it were not part of their very identity. At the same time, the spiritual life comes to be identified with a few religious exercises which can offer a certain comfort but which do not encourage encounter with others, engagement with the world or a passion for evangelization” (The Joy of the Gospel No. 78).
Any spiritual life that does not make one more human in his or her relationship with others or does not disturb her/him when the people around them experience poverty, exploitation and injustice or does not create in them a passion to proclaim the good news of liberation which Jesus brought, that spirituality cannot be authentic. It does not have its source in the Holy Spirit. Beatification of Sister Rani Maria subverts the comfortable spirituality of many religious men, women and priests and challenges those who look down upon and condemn the life-promoting spirituality of the social activists and social-workers who dedicate their lives for the poor and the marginalized. The prophetic dimension of Christian life is as important as its mystical dimension. While the prophetic dimension may cost one her or his life on earth, the mystical dimension would not disturb anyone and would let the mystic to pursue the path of spirituality undisturbed. However, it must be affirmed that authentic Christian spirituality demands that a true disciple of Jesus must be a true mystic and a prophet at the same time. When the mystical dimension recognizes the presence of God in everything good and beautiful and relates to it with wonder, joy and gratitude, the prophetic dimension recognizes the absence of God where dehumanization, oppression, injustice, inequality, division, discrimination etc. reign. The situation of the absence of God demands from the disciple to create a situation of justice, love and communion and it may cost a disciple her or his life. By the beatification of Sister Rani Maria the Church affirms the importance of an integral spirituality that goes beyond praying for the victims of oppression and injustice to commit oneself to work with those who struggle for justice and human rights and live for the values of the Gospel.
The Miracle of Transformation
Is the performance of miracles by a saintly person who died absolutely necessary for beatification and canonization? For the canonization of Pope John XXIII the requirement of two miracles was waived by Pope Francis. Commenting on this Fr Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, observed, “It is sufficient to look at a person’s life and ask, did this person live the life of a Christian in a special or extraordinary way that can be held up for admiration and imitation by other Christians?” In 1983 Pope John Paul lowered the requirement of miracles for beatification to one and for canonization another one more. It was also decreed that those who were killed for their faith could be beatified without miracles at all. However, it took 35 years to beatify Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador by the official Church though he was killed for his faith that proclaimed that true Christian faith cannot be separated from one’s commitment to the liberation of the oppressed as Jesus did. In 2015 he was beatified by Pope Francis who was convinced that Romero was a martyr even as Cardinal Bergoglio.
Losing one’s life by standing for the values of the Kingdom is both a martyr’s and confessor’s death. In fact, Sister Rani Maria was killed for her orthopraxis or right action flowing from her orthodoxy or right doctrine or right faith. She is both a martyr and a confessor. Her proclamation of faith was through her commitment as a social activist and social worker among the poor and the marginalized. The greatest miracle she worked was the miracle of transformation by being a channel of God’s work in the conversion of her murderer, and the grace of forgiveness that transformed the lives of her family members and those who were related to her in some way or another and all those who were inspired by her life. Sister Rani Maria’s beatification is a powerful reminder and challenge to all Christians, especially, priests, religious women and men in India that the authenticity of their spirituality is determined by their commitment for the wholeness and liberation of the poor and the marginalized in the context of their lives!