Can Indian Church Also Hope for Change as Pope Appoints Women to Vatican Panel?

Whether future Bishops will reflect a more gender-sensitive side of church governance remains to be seen.

7 min read
Hindi Female

They are not exactly dancing in the dining halls of their convents, as a popular Hollywood film showed Catholic Nuns some years ago, albeit in an entirely different context. But there is a deep, if silent, beginning of hope that their prayers are being heard, by God high in his Heaven, and by Pope Francis, His representative on earth, at least for the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world. Of these, an estimated 20 million live in India, about 1.7 per cent of the national population. The total number of Christians in India has remained constant at about 2.3 % of the population since independence. India is home to almost every major denomination and liturgical Rites of the faith.

For Pope Francis himself, there is a sense of gratitude that physically tired and perhaps ailing though he may be, he has taken courage to strike a blow against patriarchy in the church, where it has held sway for a long as there has been organised Christianity. Future Popes will find it very difficult indeed to quell these hopes.

  • Earlier this month, the Pope appointed women for the first time to the committee or office that advises him in choosing Bishops for the more than 5,300 Catholic dioceses in the world.

  • This will be the first time that women can speak in such a powerful congregation. Whether they will be heard and future Bishops will reflect a more gender-sensitive side of church governance remains to be seen.

  • There have been many decisions of the Vatican that have taken years – even decades – before they become visible in the parishes. This is the case not just in India, but even in developed countries.

  • The Catholic Bishops Conference of India has created some important documents, including on the rights of Dalit Christians and a gender justice code. But recent events in Jalandhar have revealed the gaps in understanding them.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Pontiff appointed women for the first time to the committee or office that advises him in choosing Bishops for the more than 5,300 Catholic dioceses in the world, each a religious administrative unit. This will be the first time in church history that women will be seen and can speak in such a powerful congregation. Whether they will be heard and future Bishops will reflect a more gender-sensitive side of church governance remains to be seen.


Will the Pope's Message Resonate?

Of course, it needs to be clarified right away that this has nothing to do with the silent or even underground debate on women priests. That has been rejected even by Francis, who is otherwise hailed as almost as revolutionary for his positions on other issues such as communion for LGBTQ persons, rights of Dalits and indigenous people, the firm stand on financial corruption and moral turpitude. This includes his punitive actions against paedophilia and his zero-tolerance policy on predatory sexual exploitation of women by clergy. Women priests and Bishops exist in some Protestant churches, including those in India, but for Catholics, that discussion is a strict no-no.

The three women picked by the Pope for the 14-member committee – the rest are Cardinals – are Sister Raffaella Petrini, deputy governor of Vatican City, Sister Yvonne Reungoat, a French woman who once headed the Italian congregation of nuns called the ‘Daughters of Mary the Helper’, and Maria Lia Zervino, who is not a nun and is the president of the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations.

These are not names that are well-known in the community in India, but which patently have been chosen for their long experience in ecclesiastical governance. The three women, it is presumed, will be able to hold their own when the committee in its fortnightly meetings reviews the names of candidates short-listed by the Pope’s ambassadors in various countries, called ‘Papal Nuncios’. The Nuncios, in turn, seek the advice of senior priests and even laypersons while forwarding names to fill vacancies in dioceses caused by retirement or death.

Under normal circumstances, a priest with about two decades of service is eligible for promotion to a Bishopric, depending on his qualities of mind and character. Bishops traditionally submit their resignations to the Pope on their 75th birthday. Some may serve a year or two more. But all get to keep the title for life. Bishops promoted as Cardinals – and therefore members of the electoral college that chooses the next Pope – get to serve as voters till they are 80. India at present has cardinals in Bombay, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, and two new ones in Panaji and Hyderabad, who is the first Dalit in such high office. Cardinal Telesphore of Ranchi is retired and indisposed.


“The Pope is saying that the church is choosing bishops together with women,” says Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert for the Italian daily La Repubblica. “Even in the most male chauvinist niches of the church, his message will resonate.”

It has.

Setting an Example in India

In India, Sr Dorothy Fernandes of the Religious for Justice group, which fights especially for gender issues, said to this columnist, “The Prophetic stand taken by Pope Francis is encouraging, especially for Religious women who are addressing patriarchy in the Church. In the light of the Franco Mullakkal [alleged rape of a Nun] case, it's an invitation for the men in the Church, especially the hierarchy, to toe the way of Francis."

Referring in particular to the Jalandhar case in which the cleric has been found not guilty by a trial court, Sr Dorothy said “Unfortunately, Rites, patriarchy with its abuse of power of money, political and ecclesiastical, is showing the ugly face of Church. Instead of taking an objective stance, the KBC of Kerala seems to be afraid as if there are too many skeletons in the cupboard.”

The senior Nun says, “It would be a great act if the leadership in the Church could work beyond boundaries and work towards reconciliation. There are enough women in India, both Religious and Lay, who would like to work on panels of reconciliation. This would truly be synodality – walking together and listening to each other – the true following of Pope Francis as set to us by Jesus.”


Still a Long Way to Go

Beyond the anger, frustration and the sense of injury, there is a pragmatic realisation that it will take a long time before things can be said to be even close to the expected ideal, in not just gender issues but justice in all its dimensions. That is in the nature of the construct and the functioning of the Church. The policy may be set in the Holy See, by the Holy Father, as the Pope is known to his people, but its implementation is carried out by the bishop in his diocese through his clergy.

For the record, there are over 5,300 dioceses in the world, with 173 of them in India. Working in these Indian dioceses are about 20,000 priests and close to 1 lakh religious sisters, or ‘Nuns’ as they are popularly known.

There have been many decisions of the Vatican that have taken years – even decades – before they become visible in the parishes. This is the case not just in India, with its diversity and still low levels of literacy in rural areas, but even in developed countries. The social teachings of the Church and other decisions taken at the Second Vatican Council of prelates, which sat from 1962 to 1965, almost sixty years ago, are really to be understood by the common catholic young man or woman. The documents exist in English and major world languages, but not in every Indian tongue.

Even the Canon law, which governs the life of the church but is subservient to the law of the land in matters criminal and civil, is available as a Book, and every diocese will have a priest who is an expert in it, but other than a few lay experts, it is hardly on the ken of the average catholic. It may take another decade or two as seminaries and formation houses, where priests and Nuns are trained, really pick up the gauntlet and make these central to their curricula.


Understanding Gender Justice, Dalit Rights

The Catholic Bishops Conference of India has also created some very important documents in recent years, including on the rights of Dalit Christians, also implying their selection for the highest posts, and a code for gender justice in the workplace, including the church.

But the recent events in Jalandhar and elsewhere have revealed the gaps in understanding and resistance to implementing them.

Priests are important in the Catholic church for they alone can perform the liturgy of the Holy Mass with the Holy sacrament and communion of bread and wine at its core. But Nuns are the social interface of the church with society. It needs to be remembered that while Fr Stan Swamy shows the commitment of the church to stand with the deprived and the victimised, Mother Teresa personifies the love of Christ for the poor and the suffering. Each is no less important than the other in the service of the people.


How Nuns Play an Important Role in Remote Areas

Just how important nuns are – apart from those who run the coveted Convent schools – can be seen in the way they put their lives at risk in reaching the poor.

Capuchin Fr Suresh Mathew published a list that stunned the church and the secular world alike. The list was of Catholic priests and nuns he could know of who had died in March, April and May 2021 in the COVID’s ravages. It had the names of 168 priests, including three bishops, and 143 nuns. Twelve nuns who belonged to Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity and who had been working among the community, especially among leprosy patients, are no more.

Sr Jessy Kurien, a former member of the National Commission for Minorities Education Institutions, and now practising in the Supreme Court and herself a COVID-19 survivor, says the high rate of casualties among the nuns is due to them working in remote areas, where good medical facilities are rare.

Why do nuns and many priests work in remote areas? Political opponents may have their theories, but the fact is that these are areas where the government is still absent, other than during elections. Medical care is nearly absent. Educational facilities are non-existent. These are areas where the nuns and clergy go to work, voluntarily, on subsistence allowances. They deserve our gratitude, respect and love. And they deserve the protection of the Canon Law and the law of the land.

(John Dayal is a writer and activist. He is a former President of the 102-year-old All India Catholic Union. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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