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No justice in Njarakal

Virginia Saldanha

Virginia Saldanha

Updated: December 16, 2010 10:22 AM GMT
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Virginia Saldanha
Virginia Saldanha
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The Gender Policy of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) was released in December 2009.  The Foreword was scripted by Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese, under whose jurisdiction the now infamous parish of Njarakal falls. It states:  “The Gender Policy took shape from the earnest desire of the women and men of the country to bring equality and harmony to all. It is based on the mutual understanding that both male and female are created in the image and likeness of the divine. It rejects all types of discrimination against women as being contrary to God’s intent and purpose.” It is hard to reconcile this statement with the reality of the dispute involving the CMC sisters of Little Flower Girls High school and the parish priest of St. Mary’s Church Njarakal which has turned into a longstanding and festering sore in the Catholic Church in Kerala. It began with the parish priest establishing claim to the school.  In 1971 a forged document was furtively used by him to change the management and Educational Agency of Little Flower Girls High School to himself.

Arbitrary decisions

Later parish priests began to make arbitrary decisions with regard to the running of the school which upset the sisters.  The dispute came to a head in 2001 when the sisters discovered the fraudulent agency of the school with the parish priest. A regulatory council appointed by the Archdiocese clarified the ownership of the school with the sisters, but the decision was not accepted by the parish priest or the bishop concerned. The sisters lodged complaints about the forged document and the illegal capitation fees charged by the parish priest. Thereafter various tactics, including violence, were used to intimidate and pressure the sisters to withdraw their complaints and hand the agency back to the parish priest. The Provincial even initiated drastic steps against the sisters by filing complaints in the police station and civil suits in various courts of law against the Mother Superior of the Narakkal community. The whole issue raises serious questions about the position and role of women Religious in the Church and their relationship with the clergy and hierarchy. I dare say that this is not the first time that such a dispute has arisen between the two.

Deprived of sacramental services

What is common is the form of punishment inflicted on the  “erring” sisters by depriving them of sacramental services and maligning them in the community, making them butts of scorn and ridicule, to force them to capitulate to the wishes of the Church hierarchy. But in the 21st century, it is heartening to see that there are women Religious who are prepared to stand up for their dignity and rights in the Church regardless of a culture and tradition of society designed to beat women into submission. If we are to take the Gender Policy of the CBCI and the country’s commitment to the empowerment of women seriously, we will recognize that the sisters are only standing up for their rights. But at what cost! The Cardinal ends his foreword with “Let us strive strenuously to bring about the required change of mindset and attitude” But it is clear nothing is being done to try and change the mindset and attitudes of the clergy, the bishops concerned and the people who continue to inflict mental and emotional violence on the sisters of the school community. The parish has withheld spiritual services and for some time prevented entry of the sisters to the parish church. Other forms of coercion and violence are being inflicted on the sisters. They were asked by their provincial to withdraw from the school. Their refusal has caused a split in their congregation, all in the cause of loyalty to the men in the Church. Even more painful are the attitudes of the leadership of the CMC sisters who have ceded to the wishes of the bishop and the parish priest and have joined in to use various forms of pressure including mass transfer of the community.

Faithfulness to God not man

Should the leadership of women Religious be more faithful to their women members or to the male leadership in the Church?  Our faithfulness is to God and not to man! It is scandalous to find how sacramental and other services rendered by priests are used as a tool of power and intimidation. It is shocking that the very leaders who run prestigious institutions behave in a manner that is unchristian towards their own community. Where is the compassion and love that we claim as the ‘little flock’ to be the leaven that works to bring about the reign of God in our predominantly non-Christian country? Instead the Superior General directed the entire Congregation to conduct special prayers, and exhorts the sisters to follow religious virtues and bow down to the demands of the parish priest. The power of authority in the Church is so strongly internalized by all that it even colours our judgment in issues of truth and justice. The Njarakal sisters stand alone. Even those within the congregation who see the injustice, do not have the courage to stand by them out of fear and bury themselves in silence for fear of being victimized, and alienated from the mainstream. Is the Gender Policy being taken seriously by the leaders in the Church in India? Time is beginning to tell! AS12514.1632

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