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St. Alphonsa: The Life And Message of the Saint From India
By Fr. Santhosh Sebastian Cheruvally
October 11th, 2008
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
The newest Saint of India, Alphonsa, reveals that in the Cross the meaninglessness of suffering can give way to a profound experience of the love of God and neighbor in our daily lives.GORAKHPUR, India (Catholic Online) - Blessed Alphonsa will be canonized on the 12th October in Rome. She is a sign of the deep roots and the maturation of the Christian faith in India. Christianity in India traces its origin back to the Apostle Thomas. The Christian faith, received and nurtured in India through ancient and modern stages, witnesses to the world today in the Catholic tri-ritual communion of the Syro-Malabar church, Syro-Malankara Church and the Latin Church (otherwise popularly called rites) and in the diverse Orthodox and Protestant churches and communities. Alphonsa belonged to the Syro-Malabar church which, like its Catholic and non-Catholic counterparts, is known for its extraordinary socio-cultural proximity to Hinduism. Alphonsa herself had as her best class companion a Hindu girl named Laxmikutty. Unlike the Semitic and western churches, the Church in India, especially of the Thomas Christian tradition, holds a unique place for its interreligious, multi-cultural and socio-political interactions and mutual relationships. For this reason, when the Universal Church raises Alphonsa to the veneration at the altar by officially declaring her as a person who shares in the communion of saints, she also presents before today’s world a shining example of how the mutual interaction of the apostolic vitality of a church which is intermingled with the local cultures can lead to the blossoming of Christian dignity and sanctity. This should be an assurance and consolation, not only for Christians, but also for people of other faiths.
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This article is an attempt to focus on the centrality of Blessed Alphonsa's relationship to Jesus Christ and the experience of His presence in her daily life. For instance, Alphonsa is popularly known as a person who loved and invited loving suffering. She is called the “Little Flower” (St. Therese of Child Jesus) of India. Both of these claims draw our attention to the fundamental reality and truth of Jesus Christ as the only Son of God and the unique Savior of the whole creation. She was a Franciscan Clarist nun. Her life was confined within the four walls of the FCC Convent at Bharananganam. It was at the same time a tale of docility to God, to her fellow sisters, to her spiritual master, to her relatives and to the children around in the school. Although confined externally, it is this child like docility which helped others feel and discover the mystery of the grace of sanctity at work in her. In this context, the funeral sermon preached by her spiritual father Romulus of happy memory is a classical example of spiritual direction and a worthy paradigm for the profession of the dignity of a spiritual master. It is the first official step in fact exposing the hidden sanctity of Alphonsa. Fr. Romulus preached, ““with the most profound conviction in my heart and as one who has known this religious very intimately, I affirm that we are now participating in the last rites of a saintly person. If the world had realized her intrinsic worth, unprecedented crowds including hundreds of priests and bishops from all over India would have assembled here. They would have rushed and clamored for even a glimpse of this body and for some precious relic or token of this person. I assure you, that as far as human judgment can be relied on, this young nun was not much less saintly than the Little Flower of Lisieux.”
I shall now try to sketch a brief biographical note to present her background.
From Annakutty to Alphonsa,from Family to Convent
Annakutty was the childhood name of Alphonsa. Roughly translated it would mean ‘little Ann’. It is a typical christening name popular among the Christians of Kerala. Although the immediate attention is now focused on the name Alphonsa, reflection on the name Annakutty reveals not only her childhood goodness, virtues and trials, but also an often unsung story and history of the family values, faith practices and ecclesial foundations of the Christians in Kerala. Without any exaggeration, one can say that Alphonsa’s real foundation was laid in her childhood as Annakutty, in her Christian family upbringing. Annakutty was born on August 19, 1910. It was a premature birth, taking place in the 8th month of the pregnancy. This was the result of a diabolical shock her mother, Mary Muttathupadathu, received from the coiling of a rat snake around her neck in her sleep. Her mother died three months after birth and on her death bed she entrusted Annakutty to the care of her own sister Annamma Muricken. With her aunt, Annakutty painfully and joyfully tried to overcome the inexplicable loss of her mother and motherly love. Annakutty’s father unwillingly agreed to placing the child with her newly found ‘mother’ with the sole motive of promoting an ideal upbringing which would make Annakutty more capable as a future house wife. Annamma Muricken educated her sternly. The family played a key role in her faith formation and love for Christ, especially through the prevalent practices of regular evening prayers, observance of weekly fastings and participation in the Eucharistic celebration.
Fr. Romlus rightly emphasizes this role the family played in the life of Alphonsa in nurturing and deepening her Christian faith. However the most important fact is that Annakutty developed a personal devotion and love for Christ. This is the fruit of her genuine faith formation. It is also the first visible sign that faith was a lived experience in the childhood of Annakutty. In other words, Jesus Christ began to become a concrete personal relational reality for her. It is because of this relational realization of God’s love and knowledge of Jesus Christ that Annakutty began to yearn for sanctity. The desire for sanctity was for Alphonsa a and concrete response to the invitation of Christ.The surprising depth of spiritual understanding possessed by Alphonsa in her childhood teaches us all the most profound lesson on the Christian life. Spirituality and sanctity is not a mere object to yearn for but comes as a result of a personal experience with Jesus Christ in the Church and in the Sacraments. A striking narration related to her first confession as a little child throws light on this fact. She notes, “I loved God more ardently. I took great care to avoid all faults. I had nothing special to mention in my First Confession. I zealously aspired to become a saint. I felt that desire while I was reading the biography of St. Therese of Lisieux.”
Later, the decisive Christian family upbringing of Annakutty paved the way to the fruit borne in her life as a professed Clarist nun at Bharananganam. It is important to remember that because of the unique minority status of the Christian community in India, and because of the apostolically rich traditional background of the Church in Kerala, any mention of Alphonsa will always have to be done in reference to the unique ecclesial nature of the Catholic Church in India. That is the tri-ritual communion and the Christian reality of India which is astoundingly ecumenical because of the presence of all the major tributaries of non-Catholic traditions. This is why K. C. Chacko himself has added an entire chapter length prologue on the Catholics of Kerala in the fifth edition in 1983. The emphatic note of late Bishop Thomas Pothacamury of Bangalore affirms this point as well. He observes, “Hundreds of thousands of Catholics in Malabar and other parts of South India have faith in Sister Alphonsa and invoke her aid, for they are convinced that she is a person of uncommon holiness…What a power would she not wield over the minds and hearts of the Catholics of our country where her cause to be taken up. At a turning point in its history, when the Church has to face so many difficulties and trials, struggles and dangers different in character and different in scope from those which assailed her in the past, may we not hope that through her intercession the Church will overcome all obstacles and grow in strength and vigor? It is fitting that such a beautiful soul should have sprung up in the earliest and most prosperous home of Christianity in our country.”
The Centrality of Jesus Christ
Alphonsa is usually noted for her acceptance and love of suffering and pain. She would even ask for it! What does this apparently ‘non-sensical’ yet theologically rich dimension of the spiritual life of Alphonsa reveal to us? The answer to this riddle is found in the centrality of Jesus Christ in her life and spirituality. Her acceptance and love for suffering and her growth in the path of sanctity through such suffering and pain opens up the depth of her relationship with and in Jesus Christ and what became for her an experience of the redemptive value of suffering when joined to His suffering. This is what in fact makes her worthy of the honor of the altar universally.To shed light on this it is fitting to cite the words of Martindale SJ: “We must however insist that the history of Sister Alphonsa will remain unintelligible unless we take into account the whole Catholic doctrine of the person and work of Our Lord. That this girl appreciated to the full the supreme importance of prayer should surprise no Christian; but there may be those who are disconcerted by her intense wish to suffer. We must insist that there was nothing morbid in this, and that no Catholic attaches any value to suffering as such, but only, as we said within the full doctrine of our Lord’s redemptive work.” Thus for the catholic Christian doctrine suffering gains a new sense and value only in the light of the passion of Christ and its spiritual acceptance would mean a positive inclusion of God and others with a constant self-emptying of the victim concerned. Suffering thus understood, accepted and offered is a rare spiritual height for the Christian soul than a passive fatalistic resignation to one’s problems or pain. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “…the sufferings to be endured can mean that “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church…Suffering….becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.”
A letter written by Alphonsa, certainly with an explicit theological awareness, but showing a rare personal Christological dimension reveals the redemptive dimension of the suffering of Christ as well as her own adherence to it giving an immense value of discipleship. She writes: “Since only grief and suffering have fallen to the lot of my Spouse, I too lovingly embrace them, and my soul is at peace, though my body continues to be tormented. For the last seven years I have ceased to be my own, being given over entirely to my Divine Spouse. You know all that; and now let the Lord do as He will with me. It is not a cure I am anxious for, but only that His Holy Will be fulfilled in me.” Thus, behind the suffering Alphonsa cheerfully accepted is the truth of a living and loving encounter with Jesus Christ. She denies herself. She dies to herself. She forgoes everything imaginable of a personal sense of ownership or belonging. In all this “kenosis” or self emptying she gains everything in Jesus Christ. Christ takes hold of her in the true Pauline sense. She becomes a person living in Christ so that all her sufferings and pain are not thought to be experienced apart from Christ but in Christ and with Christ. More than the lonely void of the sense of loss and utter helplessness which so often found results from in sickness and misunderstanding, Alphonsa appears as a person filled with Jesus Christ,intimately and immensely. Bishop Pothacamury’s observations also shed light on this foundational Christocentric experience of Alphonsa. According to him, “The keynote of her life was death to self and life to Christ and in Christ….Without renunciation and detachment from earthly things, there is no spiritual life. Christ was the centre of Sister Alphonsa’s life and character and not self. She dethroned herself to enthrone Christ, and made Him, with unerring vision, the focus of her life.”
In fact the words of the Servant of God John Paul II, of venerable memory, during the beatification ceremony at Kottayam reveal to us the depth of the Christological treasures hidden in the suffering of Alphonsa: “From early in her life, Sister Alphonsa experienced great suffering. With the passing of the years, the heavenly Father gave her an ever fuller share in the Passion of his beloved Son. We recall how she experienced not only physical pain of great intensity, but also the spiritual suffering of being misunderstood and misjudged by others…. She came to love suffering because she loved the suffering Christ. She learned to love the Cross through her love of the crucified Lord.” The central message that comes from the life of Alphonsa is thus only a living experience of Christ can lead us to a loving appreciation of his suffering for us and a meaningful acceptance and offering of our sufferings to the Lord in love. Because the suffering accepted with the crucified Lord is saving and redeeming.
“Alphonsa, with this authentic Christian sense of the suffering from her experience of the crucified Lord finds in the painful moments of her life the sweetness of the love of the Lord, the sweetness of the Love of His heart as though like a love-laden girl in the presence of her beloved! Mystically yet poetically like a perfect cascade of love, she pours out her heart of her relationship and experience of the Lord, the experience of a soul who is in graced to be madly in love with the source of the most divine Love of the heart of the Lord. Hence she says, “I am absolutely incapable of describing it in words. I fall into some kind of trance on the nights following the convulsion. I cannot describe the visions I see during the trance. It appears to me that Our Divine Lord comes to me, caresses me and pours out upon me all the affectionate sweetness of His Sacred Heart. The whole room seems to be flooded with the splendour of God. I do not know any more details. The happiness of the moment is unbounded and limitless.”
The personal prayer life of Alphonsa was an outflow of her intimacy with the Lord and was fulfilled in her conscious choice of making the Lord the center and priority of her life. She considered everything else as secondary in her practice of daring self-denial and self-negation. She left the egocentric eros of clinging to oneself and worldly things for the sake of loving Jesus Christ wholeheartedly. Her prayer reads, “Lord Jesus, hide me in the wound of your sacred heart. Free me from my desire to be loved and esteemed. Guard me from my evil attempts to win fame and honour. Make me humble till I become a small spark in the flame of love in your Sacred Heart. Grant me the grace to forget myself and all worldly things. Jesus, sweet beyond words, convert all worldly consolations into bitterness for me. O my Jesus, Sun of Justice, enlighten my intellect and mind with your sacred rays. Purify my heart, consume me with burning love for you, and make me one with you.”
The story and history of Alphonsa will remind Christians of the central mystery of the Christian faith, the redemptive suffering and death of the Lord and the Love which it revealed. Her veneration as a saint will be always effect a remembrance of the crucified Lord. This is the theological richness of this saint for the universal Church and for the Church in India, a land traditionally known for its search and hunger for the Divine in and around us. Alphonsa will remain both a reminder and a challenge to the twenty-first century with its tremendous possibilities of human advancement yet consistent vacuum for Jesus Christ, and His way, the way of the of the Cross and redemptive Love. As for the Christian, so also for the consecrated religious who follow diverse charisms and face the crisis of vocations and vocational growth in faithfulness, an assimilation of the life and message of Alphonsa will reveal the essence of the truth revealed in the way in which she followed Jesus Christ, that being configured to and transformed by Him is possible only through a relational experience of Him in one’s heart and in the Sacraments. The goal of sanctity both in the baptismal commitment as well as in the profession of religious vows becomes then an ongoing response to the Love and Holiness experienced in and from Jesus Christ. The ultimate sign of that saving infinite Love is nothing but Cross. In the Cross the meaninglessness of suffering can give way to a profound experience of the love of God and neighbor in our daily lives.
Fr. Santhosh Sebastian Cheruvally belongs to the diocese of Gorakhpur in India and holds a doctorate in Christology from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.
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