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A life of suffering

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FR. JOSE M. KOCHUPARAMPIL

When the Vatican officially declares her a saint, Blessed Alphonsa will become the first woman saint from India.

Today Bharanamganam, in Kottayam district, is known as Lissuex of India after the birthplace of St. Teresa of Lissuex IN France.

A life of prayer saturated with suffering is increasingly becoming a ‘no man’s land’ today. However, believers would never dare to deny its value and meaning in their onward journey. This is what Blessed Alphonsa, a Catholic nun from Kerala soon to be declared saint, showed and continues to do so after her death seven decades ago.

On June 1, Pope Benedict XVI authorised the Vatican’s Office for the Causes of Saints to canonise her. When the church officially declares her a saint, Blessed Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception will become the first woman and the second saint from India; the first being Saint Gonsalo Garcia, a Franciscan lay brother from Bassein, nowVasai, near Mumbai. Gonsalo Garcia suffered martyrdom by crucifixion in 1597 in Nagasaki, Japan and Pope Pius IX canonised him in 1862.

Cheerful offering

Unlike Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkota, Blessed Alphonsa was never known for her social outreach ministries. Her life was largely confined to the four walls of her convent and to her bed due to her illness. She transformed her years of suffering into a cheerful offering to Jesus. About suffering she wrote, “Grains of wheat, when ground in the mill, turn into flour. With this flour we make the wafer of the holy Eucharist. Grapes, when crushed in the wine press, yield their juice. This juice turns into wine. Similarly, suffering so crushes us that we turn into better human beings.” In all those years of her suffering she was constantly guided by this philosophy.

Other than an insatiable zeal for a total and unconditional surrender to Jesus, there was nothing exceptional in the little girl, Annakutty, as she was affectionately called at home. Born in a traditional Catholic family in Kudamaloor, Kerala in 1910, she lost her mother soon after her birth. At 17 years, she joined the Franciscan Clarist convent at Bharanamganam, Kerala and received her religious name, Alphonsa.

As a nun, she taught briefly in an elementary school. But her continuous and recurring illnesses finally claimed her life on July 28, 1946 when she was 36. Before long, her students began visiting her tomb and offering prayers. As they continued, they started receiving favours. Ever since, her tomb has become a well known pilgrim destination. Today Bharanamganam, in Kottayam district, is also known as Lissuex of India after the birthplace of St. Teresa of Lissuex, France.

Stages of canonisation

In the Catholic Church, pronouncing a person saint is a laborious and time-consuming task. For any deceased Catholic, the process should begin from the local level. At the demand of those who received favours through the intercession of a deceased person, the diocesan authorities begin the process. When this stage ends, the candidate will be called Servant of God. In the case of Blessed Alphonsa, the diocesan process began in 1953 at the diocesan centre, Pala. Then the case is referred to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints (CCS) in Vatican.

In the second stage, the Servant of God receives the new title, Venerable. Then the third phase begins. The CCS will conduct a rigorous investigation into the person’s life and writings to determine whether the candidate demonstrates a heroic level of virtue or suffered martyrdom. This phase also requires a miracle attributed to the intercession of the candidate and it has to be proved a miracle. Once this process is complete, the candidate qualifies to be beatified. Upon beatification the candidate gets the title Blessed. In the case of Blessed Alphonsa, Pope John Paul II pronounced her Blessed on February 8, 1986.

The next stage is the canonisation where the candidate is declared saint. This final stage also requires a miracle at the intercession of the candidate. The miracle that paved Blessed Alphonsa’s way to sainthood was the cure of the 10-year-old boy, Jinil of Kuruppanthara, who was born with twisted legs. Upon his birth, medical experts certified that due to the deformity the boy would be a lifelong cripple. In 1999, the boy’s parents took him to the shrine of Blessed Alphonsa to be prayed over. Thereupon the legs became normal and the boy began to walk.

In the Catholic Church, a miracle is understood as an event that can be witnessed by senses but is in apparent contradiction to the laws of nature. The multitude who throng her tomb believe that Blessed Alphonsa continues to bring God’s blessings upon her devotees as she enjoys a special place in heaven through her heroic life of suffering.

In a recent interview to the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) Father Francis Vadakkel, Vice Postulator for the canonization of Blessed Alphonsa, said all the formalities related to her canonisation have been completed and a date will be declared after the much-speculated November consistory in Vatican. The Church in India and Syro-Malabar Catholics across the globe are eagerly awaiting the message.

Many a church and shrine across Kerala and in other states already bear the name of Blessed Alphonsa. In the United States, among 1,00,000-strong immigrant Syro-Malabar Catholics, two parishes have already been named after this ‘suffering servant’ of God. As the Catholic Church officially calls her worthy of veneration in the universal church, it is certain that many more churches and shrines across the globe will bear her name calling the believers to the awareness of the perennial worth and value of human suffering.


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