Justice for nuns within the Catholic Church

Pope Francis’ message on the occasion of the Day of Consecrated Life has comforted many nuns in India. She draws on her prayer intention for the month of February: “Let us pray for religious and consecrated women, thanking them for their mission and their courage; may they continue to find new answers to the challenges of our time.

“The Pope is very sensitive to the contribution of nuns to the Church. He is well aware of the discrimination and abuse suffered by the 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 nun with the Sisters of Assumption.

Yes, it is the nuns who, on the whole, give the Catholic Church the credibility it enjoys in India and in the world.

The video message contained 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 photo of Sister Ann Rose Nu Twang kneeling before the soldiers of Myanmar’s military junta with her hands raised, begging them to kill her instead of the children. A picture that is worth a thousand words and sums up the image of a sister in the Catholic Church – helpless in the eyes of the world, but possessing a spiritual power that could stop a weapon that had already caused much death and suffering.

As Pope Francis pointed out in his message, nuns are found where there is need, reaching 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”.

It is important to note that the sisters find great joy and fulfillment in what they do. Some leave the comfort of conventual life in a city, to settle in villages and live among the poorest, sharing their sparse housing and their frugal way of life, enduring the same difficulties as the people, being one with them, even if they follow other faiths.

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

Medical mission Sister Gemma Mendes, whose story appeared in the newsletter of the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, shows how the religious welcomed the changes requested in the documents of Vatican II.

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

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Sister Ammini Pushpam of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Tarbes (SJT) was drawn to Jesus from an early age. She chose to leave the institutional religious way of life and opted for village life among the tribal people of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. “Living the lives of ordinary people and experiencing their hardships has become a joy for me,” she says.

Even in the cities, the sisters live their vocation with great dedication and service in all that they do. If only the clergy who work with the people in the 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 serving God in the Church? In fact, many clergy are a source of grief and harassment for women religious who serve in parishes, missions and diocesan institutions.

A study has been commissioned by the Conference of Religious of India and the report titled “It is high time” reveals the challenges faced by women religious.

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

Sister Noella D’Souza, Missionaries of Christ Jesus (MCJ), who helped publish the book, pointed out that “the whole study is about servitude, not about service, which the pope is talking about. It is about how religious are treated unfairly within the Church, whether in matters of property, verbal abuse, harassment in their pastoral or apostolic commitments, ignorance of our competence personal or professional, of not being paid just a salary, of refusing to administer the sacraments and much more.”

Speaking about the nuns’ response, she said, “I think our prophetic role today is to stand up and speak out against all of the above, and that is what we are doing.”

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

Pope Francis asked the sisters to fight. Does he realize that for women without power, fighting for their rights in an institution controlled and dominated by men is almost impossible?

Take the example of the Indian nun, who accused her bishop of raping her. She knocked on every door of authority in the Church, starting with her metropolitan bishop to Pope Francis, but got no response. So, in desperation, she went to civil court, which eventually acquitted the bishop for lack of evidence. Here too, we have seen how justice remains elusive for the powerless.

The women realize that Pope Francis loves their work and wants things to change to allow them to run smoothly and smoothly in their mission, but does he realize there is a disconnect between what he says and what actually happens when the sisters write to the Vatican for redress of their complaints? I have yet to hear a sister say that she has received a response to her letter, or even an acknowledgment of receipt.

This disconnect between Pope Francis and the Curia is very disconcerting and raises the question of whether Pope Francis is made aware of what is going on in the offices of the Curia.

Does the Roman Curia listen to what the head of the Church is saying or does it continue to work as if it does not need to take note of what Pope Francis says in his typical non-confrontational messages but nevertheless clear?

For women in the Church, this is very troubling, as we are increasingly skeptical of the outcome of the 2023 synod. If we have a Roman curia that does not bother to listen to Pope Francis , will she become aware of what women want to say to the Church in the synodal process?

The Pope urges the sisters “to continue to work and have an impact with the poor, the marginalized, with all those who are enslaved by traffickers”, but I would go further, says Sister Noëlla: “It is time that the sisters speak out as a united group of religious women for our rightful place and role in the church, a time for us to reclaim our dignity as policy makers and change makers by reclaiming our place at the table of taking of decision.

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

The opinions 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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