At a time when women are shaking the foundation of this country by challenging cultural norms, asserting their role in the economy and working for equity in representation in all spheres, it’s important to recognize a group of women who have toiled relentlessly for the welfare of the country. Not just in India, but elsewhere in the world, Catholic nuns have been instrumental in not just feeding the spiritual hunger of the congregation but also shredding barriers and bringing people stuck in periphery to the centre and carrying them forward with compassion and care.
It will not be wrong to say that Catholic nuns have done more than anyone else to advance equity, healthcare, better living standards, education and opportunity. Their role in building a stronger future for generations to come is undeniable and much credit is due to nuns for whatever strides we have managed to make in terms of emancipation of the society.
The beauty of the nuns’ deeds remains in the fact that they work behind the scenes, without ever taking the centre stage or advertising the good work they are tirelessly doing. They know it’s more important to do what’s right than what’s popular or attention-grabbing and never let anything stand in the way of doing their duty.
It was this indomitable spirit that enabled Blessed Sister Rania Maria of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation to immerse herself fully into the society that surrounded her – landless poor labourers and their families. She urged them to give up alcohol, taught them agricultural methods, formed self-help groups for women and educated the labourers in matters of finance and savings. But in all this she earned the wrath of moneylenders, whose business had become less profitable since the labourers learned the virtues of a steady lifestyle from Sister Rani Maria. She was murdered on Jan. 25, 1995 after being stabbed 54 times in a moving bus. Sister Rani Maria’s is a case in point. There are a number of nuns who are constantly in grave danger because of the institution they represent and their work with the marginalized and the downtrodden. Even though justice took its course in the murder of Sister Rania Maria, not just did her family forgive the killer and ensure his release, but her sister, also a nun, tied a rakhi around his wrist acknowledging him as her brother.
In a pluralistic world where people of all hue and shade and temperament abound, the nuns show rare courage by walking into foreign lands, assimilating themselves with the natives, and making the problems of the local population their own. They build their movement from scratch wherever they go, bringing together greater compassion and greater care.
Mother Teresa, an Albanian, was born in Macedonia but she set up Missionaries of Charities and tended to the poor and the hungry. Sister Rani Maria was born in Kerala but her call led her to Indore, where she breathed her last. A pioneer in bringing healthcare services to Alabama, U.S., Sister Chrysostom Moynahan led a band of sisters to Italy during World War I in 1918 to tend to wounded soldiers. “It will be the happiest moment of our lives when we are ministering to the wounded and sick,” she said at the time. During the Holocaust, to help Jews was a crime punishable by law, but nuns from around the world set up over 300 institutions around Germany, Poland, Lithuania and Romania to rescue and shelter Jews despite great risk to their own lives. If it weren’t for Irish nuns, who braved all odds to travel to the Australian desert in the 19th century, young women in Australia would have had no access to education at all.
These are only a few examples of the magnanimity that nuns have displayed in the past. The truth is the largesse, altruism and philanthropy of Christian nuns is seen by many on an everyday basis.
In India, nuns have their own set of challenges to fight. Christians make up only about 2 percent of the country’s 1.37 billion-strong population. The disparity in numbers means nuns constantly expose themselves to great danger. Their position is made further difficult by their gender. As women, nuns have to battle patriarchy and pecking order. Yet, dauntless, unflinching and impervious of peril, they continue to travel on the path of goodwill. In a world that too often tells women to stay small, keep quiet, these nuns are leading and guiding philanthropy and charity, inspiring others to do the same.
However, in recent times, the contribution made by nuns in community- and nation- building has been undervalued. They are rarely in the limelight because they themselves believe their good deeds are written in heaven. But for now, it’s necessary that we call attention to nuns’ efforts because though they might not be hogging the limelight, they are impacting change like very few people ever have. In some of the most rural parts of India as well as other countries in the world, it’s nuns who have charged ahead with notions and deeds of positive change. In keeping with their vocation to serve God’s people on earth, they have gone to the most derelict of places and transformed the land and the people – at times, setting the stage for state administration.
In a small village of Alleppey district in Kerala, a nun arrived in 1965. She immediately took charge of the education and was a towering figure among the youth of the community. From the year she first came to the village to her death in 2018, Joysamma Teacher, as she came to be known, never took a day off, as she continued on her holy mission with zeal and passion. Today, there’s not a single member in that community, irrespective of religion or caste, whose life has not been affected by Joysamma Teacher. When she breathed her last, nearly four generations of students she taught mourned the loss.
There are many Joysamma Teachers in many villages, but we do not know of them because that’s how they want it to be. Despite the immense variability of human conditions, they persevere to exemplify Christian mission of service. They are not seeking popularity or fame – they are doing their divine duty. But it’s time we recognize the work put in by Christian nuns. They have embraced their responsibility, followed their conscience and strengthened their community, society and country in the process. In their selfless and unbounded charity they are emulating Christ himself, who gave himself up for mankind.(Published on 13th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 33)