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Justice for women religious within the Catholic Church

Roman Curia does not bother to listen to Pope, will they take cognizance of women’s voices in the synodal process
Justice for women religious within the Catholic Church

Nuns offer prayers at a cemetery during All Souls Day in Allahabad city in northern India on Nov. 2, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 07, 2022 03:40 AM GMT
Updated: December 29, 2022 10:10 AM GMT

The message of Pope Francis on the day of Consecrated Life has heartened a number of women religious in India. It is based on his prayer intention for the month of February: “Let us pray for religious sisters and consecrated women, thanking them for their mission and their courage; may they continue to find new responses to the challenges of our times.”

“The Pope is very sensitive to the contribution of women religious to the church. He is well aware of the discrimination and abuse that victimize sisters. He may not be able to do much to change the situation but his words give us the space to mobilize opinion and take action,” said Sister Philomena Thomas, a religious of Assumption Sisters.

Yes, women religious are the ones who by and large give the Catholic Church the credibility it enjoys in India and the world. 

The video message had clips of sisters working in various mission areas. The one that caught my eye was a sister climbing a steep hill to reach someone in need. 

The video ended with the iconic picture of Sister Ann Rose Nu Twang kneeling before the soldiers of the Myanmar military junta with her hands raised, begging them to kill her instead of the children. A picture that speaks a thousand words and sums up the image of a sister in the Catholic Church – powerless in the eyes of the world, yet owning a spiritual power that could halt a gun that had already caused much death and suffering.

As Pope Francis pointed out in his message, women religious are found in places where there is need, reaching out to the poorest, teaching, healing and caring for those who are forgotten in the remote areas of our country. Pope Francis encourages them to continue because without them “the Church cannot be understood.”

Importantly, sisters find great joy and fulfillment in what they do.  Some leave the comforts of convent life in a city, to move to villages and live among the poorest, sharing their sparse accommodation and frugal lifestyle, bearing the same hardships as the people, becoming one with them, even though they follow other faiths.

Sister Manju of the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross (SCSC) spent 20 years of her life serving the Mushars, Santhals and the poorest Muslim communities in villages across Uttar Pradesh in northern India. “Like Jesus, I sacrificed my life to be with the poor and neglected people, to improve their life situation so that they too can live a dignified life with respect,” she says.

Medical Mission Sister Gemma Mendes, whose story appeared in the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace newsletter, demonstrates how women religious have happily embraced the changes called for in the documents of Vatican II. 

“The Medical Mission Sisters charism of healing has evolved over the years and today we are called to respond to the cry of the poor and cry of the earth. I see Religious today being called to follow Jesus radically and to be prophetic,” says Sister Gemma who lives among the Santhal tribe in Jharkhand’s Kasiadih village.

Sister Ammini Pushpam from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Tarbes (SJT) was drawn to Jesus from a young age. She chose to leave the institutional way of religious life and opted for village life among tribal people in Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh. “Experiencing the life of ordinary people, and living their hardships became a joy for me,” she says.

Even in the cities, sisters are found to live their vocation with great dedication and service in all they do.  If only the clergy who work with people in parishes worked with the same dedication, we would have a vibrant Church. The synodal vision of “communion, participation and mission would become a reality.”

Why do we have this great difference in the lived vocations of men and women who have dedicated their lives to serve God in the Church?  In fact, many clergy are a source of grief and harassment to women religious serving in parishes, mission stations and diocesan institutions.

A study was commissioned by the Conference of Religious of India and the report titled “It’s High Time” reveals the challenges women religious face.

One sister remarked: “We need to stop this male domination in the Church. We are equal and need to stand together for our rights. We must be respected as human beings and preserve our dignity as women religious.”

Sister Noella D’Souza, Missionaries of Christ Jesus (MCJ), who helped in publishing the book, pointed out that “the whole study is about servitude, not service, which is what the pope is talking about. It is about the way religious are treated unfairly within the church whether it be about matters of property, verbal abuse, harassment in their pastoral or apostolic engagements, ignoring our personal or professional competence, not being paid just wages, refusal to administer the sacraments and much more.”

Speaking about the response of women religious, she said: “I think our prophetic role today is to stand up and denounce all the above, which is what we are doing.” 

Sister Dorothy Fernandes, Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (PBVM), who works with people on the margins in the city of Patna, and is the national convener of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, said: “I understand Pope Francis’s message as an invitation to break the silence of exploitation and harassment. Enough is enough!”  

Pope Francis has asked sisters to fight.  Does he realize that for women with no power, fighting for their rights in an institution that is controlled and dominated by men is next to impossible?

Take the example of the Indian nun, who accused her bishop of raping her. She knocked on all the doors of authority in the Church beginning with her metropolitan bishop right up to Pope Francis but got no response. So in desperation, she went to the civil court, which eventually acquitted the bishop for want of evidence. There too, we saw how justice remains elusive to the powerless.

Women realize that Pope Francis loves their work and wants things to change to enable their smooth and trouble-free functioning in their mission, but does he realize that there is a disconnect between what he says and what actually happens when sisters write to the Vatican for redressal of their complaints?  I have yet to hear a sister say that she has received a response to her letter, or even an acknowledgment. 

This disconnect between Pope Francis and the Curia is very disconcerting and makes one wonder if Pope Francis is made aware of what takes place in the curial offices. 

Does the Roman Curia listen to what the leader of the Church is saying or are they continuing to work as if they do not need to take note of what Pope Francis says in his typical non-confrontational but nevertheless clear messages?

For women in the Church, this is very troubling, as we are increasingly skeptical of the outcome of the Synod of 2023.  If we have a Roman Curia that does not bother to listen to Pope Francis, will they take cognizance of what women want to say to the Church in the synodal process?     

The Pope exhorts sisters ‘to keep working and to have an impact with the poor, with the marginalized, with all those who are enslaved by traffickers,’ but I would go further, says Sister Noella: “It is time for sisters to speak up as a united group of women religious for our rightful place and role in the church, a time for us to reclaim our dignity as policymakers and changers by reclaiming our place at the decision-making table.”

It is clear that only when women have decisive control on an equal footing with men that they will get justice within the Catholic Church.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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1 Comments on this Story
It is delusional to the point of psychosis for Indian women to believe due to a vague bland message of fluff from the Pope that they will now be granted any power and dignity in the Church in India when it is also pointed out they aren't even given the right not to be raped or sodomized by the Indian Clergy. If they are serious they need to declare the raping hierarchy unChristian and add another denomination to the multidenominational Xtian Churches of India. There would be no point in joining any of the others as they are equally perverse.
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