Bishops and nuns standing beside the new tomb of Sister Rani Maria Vattalil who was murdered 21 years ago because she advocated against local moneylenders. The process for her beatification moves forward as her grave was exhumed. (ucanews.com photo)
The grave of a nun murdered in central India 21 years ago has been exhumed as part of a process that may eventually lead to her canonization.
The Franciscan Clarist nun, now widely known as Sister Rani, was stabbed to death aboard a bus on Feb. 25, 1995. A hired assassin stabbed her at least 50 times. Her work among poor landless people had upset some landlords who did not like her helping locals become more self-reliant.
The nun, then 41 years old, worked in Udainagar, a village in Indore Diocese. She was traveling to Indore on the way to her home in Kerala, a southern Indian state. Indore is the commercial hub of Madhya Pradesh state.
Sister Rani Maria Vattalil was buried outside Sacred Heart Church in Udainagar, where she worked. But now her grave has been exhumed as part of the canonization process and her remains have been moved to a newly built tomb inside the church.
"The grave of Sister Rani Maria Vattalil was exhumed and her mortal remains were moved inside the church on Nov. 18 as part of the process for her beatification," said Bishop Chacko Thottumarikal of Indore.
In order to canonize someone the Vatican has to verify the grave of the candidate to make sure they were buried in the place attributed to them. Traditionally, Catholics also open the grave to see if the body was uncorrupted.
Hundreds of people have been flocking to her new tomb seeking the nun's intercession. Several people, including non-Christians, have accepted her as a saintly person who led a heroic life, the bishop said.
Bishop Thottumarikal said there is a demand to canonize her as a martyr. But "it is a decision of the Vatican," he said.
Sister Rani, who started working in the mission of northern India in 1975, came to Udainagar in 1992 where she fought local moneylenders who were exploiting local people.
Landlords and moneylenders hired Samunder Singh to murder her. He was later convicted and sent to jail for 12 years.
He repented while in jail and said that he wanted to meet the nun's family. Sister Rani's sister, also a nun, tied a rakhi (a thread that represents siblinghood) on Singh, accepting him into her family.
The then Bishop George Anathil of Indore initiated the cause for Sister Rani's sainthood in 2001 by establishing two commissions, theological and historical, to examine her life. The commissions then submitted their findings to the three-member diocesan inquiry tribunal that Bishop Anathil set up in June 2005 to carry forward the process.
The theological commission verified from Sister Rani's published writings that she had not contravened any church teaching. The historical commission delved into unpublished write-ups and other events related to the late nun, and also ascertained that she had steadfastly upheld church teachings.
The nun was declared a Servant of God in 2005.
A candidate for sainthood is declared a Servant of God after the diocese inquiry endorses the person as having led a heroic life of Christian virtue. The Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints then reviews the gathered information and may recommend that the pope declare the candidate "venerable."
The next stage is beatification, for which a miracle certified as due to the candidate's intercession is required, unless the candidate is proclaimed a martyr. Sainthood then requires another miracle on the same condition.
Her canonization would be a great blessing to the church in the area, where Christians continue to face violence from fanatics, Christian leaders said.
The state is ruled by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party and has witnessed several attacks on Christians by hard-line Hindu groups, said Silvestor Gangle, state general secretary of the National Christian Forum.
Besides cases of attacks on pastors, Christians have recorded several cases of police filing fake conversion cases against them, Gangle added.
Madhya Pradesh state law restricts religious conversions and makes it a criminal offense for anyone to change religion through force, allurement or through fraudulent means. Changing one's religion without informing the government is also a punishable offense, according to the law.
Christians make up 0.3 percent of some 73 million people in Madhya Pradesh who are mostly Hindus.