In my life time, canonization of four saints of the Syro-Malabar Church took place: St. Alphonsa, St. Chavara Kuriakose Elias, St. Euphresia and St. Mariam Thresia. Although all these saints are epitomes of simplicity, their raising to sainthood was accompanied by mega celebrations not only in the Vatican but also in the home State of Kerala. In the case of St. Chavara Kuriakose Elias and St. Euphresia two mega celebrations were organized one in Kochi and another in Delhi in the presence of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi. I did not take part in any of these massive celebrations; but I came to know about the scale of the celebrations from the media reports. I have always questioned the relevance of mega celebrations to honour simple and humble saints.
Indeed, canonization is an occasion of great joy for all members of the Church and to feel proud of the illustrious daughters and sons of the Church who successfully and valiantly followed the way of Jesus. It is also an occasion to proclaim not only to the members of the Church but also to the whole world the unique contributions of the saints in building the Kingdom of God. It is also the privilege of the members of the respective Religious Congregations or dioceses to make known to the world the uniqueness of the saints in following the way of Jesus and thereby, inspire not only Christians but also others. The solemn canonization ceremony of Mariam Thresia that took place in Vatican on October 13, in which hundreds of sisters, friends and well-wishers of Holy Family Congregation took part, was one way of making known to the world the contribution of Saint Mariam Thresia. Through the print, electronic and social media the person and the message of Mariam Thresia reached every nook and corner of the world. Even without mega celebrations information about the saints can be disseminated throughout the world through the internet, social media and the print media.
I have come to know from a joint letter written by Sr. Udaya, the Superior General of the Congregation of Holy Family and the Bishop of Irinjalakuda, Mar Pauly Kannookadan, that a grand celebration is planned on 16th November at Kuzhikkatussery, in the diocese of Irinjalakuda. As per the letter, the organizers are expecting tens of thousands of people for this splendid show of strength. The number could be one to two lakhs of people. The letter has concluded with an appeal to the people to make generous financial contribution towards the huge expenses.
As far as I understand, the ultimate goal of the planned grand programme is to create awareness among the faithful about the unique sanctity of Mariam Thresia and to educate them about her unique way of following Jesus so that the faithful also would be motivated to follow the way of Jesus with greater enthusiasm and zeal. Can there be an alternative way of educating the people other than bringing a large crowd to a particular place, spending crores of rupees? Is gathering a huge crowd the best way of expressing respect and honour towards a saint? Gathering massive crowd in a particular place in itself is an environmental hazard. Gathering crowds is generally perceived as a political mobilization strategy rather than a spiritual rejuvenation process.
Against this backdrop, I wish to propose a simple, inexpensive, less risky and more participative and effective method. Let all parishes in Kerala celebrate 17th November 2019 as a day of thanksgiving in honour of Saint Mariam Thresia. November 17th being Sunday, will be more convenient to the people to participate in the celebration. A short biography of Mariam Thresia shall be made available to all parishes. A short and sweet sermon, highlighting the uniqueness of the sanctity of Mariam Thresia, shall be an essential item of the celebration. The members of the parish could be encouraged to buy and read the biography of Mariam Thresia.
Prior to the celebration on 17th November, competitions shall be organized for the youth and the children on the life and contribution of Mariam Thresia: speech competition, essay writing, painting, skits based on the life and mission of Mariam Thresia etc. The best among these items could be presented in a cultural programme after the thanksgiving Mass on 17th November and the best performers could be honoured with prizes.
Often people flock to the tombs of the saints for various kinds of favours. The pilgrim centres of the saints also try to attract people by advertising the favours received by various people. Very little effort is made to educate people about the saint’s unique contribution to the Church and the society. Saints are a great source of inspiration in following the way of Jesus. Hence the focus of all celebrations should be motivating the people to follow the way of Jesus by taking inspiration from the saints. Concentrating only on favours may ultimately lead to distortions and deviations.
As a sign of commitment to promote a clean environment, the parishes and institutions shall be asked not to use the flex of the Saint Mariam Thresia. People could be encouraged to paint the picture of the saint on cloth. The canonization of Mariam Thresia could be used as an occasion to make people aware of the catastrophe of climate change and to join the movement started by the young climate change activist, Greta Thunberg.
As I understand from the joint letter, Saint Mariam Thresia was committed to serving the poor, the destitute and the illiterate. Let the Holy Family Congregation start a fund for supporting the higher education of poor girls, especially the girls who want to enter into civil service and serve the nation as IAS and IPS officers. This will be great contribution on behalf of the Holy Family Congregation towards the empowerment of women. The parishes can make a special collection on 17th November and contribute the money towards the Education Fund of the Congregation of Holy Family. The institutions, houses and provinces of the Holy Family Congregation also can generously contribute towards this fund. Part of the amount that is allotted for the grand celebration also could be used for the educational empowerment of poor girls.
It is a fact that vocation to women Religious congregations is drastically reduced in Kerala and some other Southern states. The Kerala based Religious congregations like CMC, FCC etc. are going in search of vocation to the tribal areas of North India, East India and North-Eastern States. Why not the Holy Family Congregation conduct a scientific study to find out the reasons for the dwindling vocations to the Religious life? Religious life in India is facing serious challenges from within and outside. There is no point in accusing the media for tarnishing the image of the women Religious in India. Every citizen in India has the right to protest according to the law of the land and the women Religious also can make use of this right to protest against the ‘malicious propaganda’ by the media. But this is not going to solve the problem. What is required at this juncture is a serious and honest introspection based on facts and figures. Hence a scientific study about the reasons for the drastic reduction of vocation to Religious life will be great contribution by the Holy Family Congregation to the Church in India.
The drastic change in the socio-political, religious and cultural context of India requires a paradigm shift in the role of Religious as service providers. Better service providers have entered the field of education, health care and social service. If the Religious do not assume the role of leaders, animators and facilitators, the Religious life itself may become irrelevant in the days to come. This shift from service providers to leaders by becoming “the salt and the light” of the world requires enormous capacity building of women Religious. Hence the Holy Family Congregation may start a centre for empowering women Religious in India. The women Religious in India will not be able to empower other women, if they themselves are not empowered. Jesus’ mission was empowering people by making them “realize, actualize and maximize the God” within them.
The leadership of the Holy Family Congregation has to ask itself, “If Mariam Thresia were alive today what she would do?” An honest answer to this question can motivate the leadership to give up the old “wineskin” methods and adopt “new wineskin” methods. Organizing a huge gathering for a thanksgiving Mass, spending lakhs of rupees, is an “old wineskin” method. Celebrating thanksgiving in every parish, involving the whole parish community, in order to educate people about the life and mission of Saint Mariam Thresia, is a “new wineskin method”.
(Published on 21st October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 43)