ST. ALFONSA - SAINT OF UNUSUAL HOLINESS
A simple village girl without any title or honor, Sr. Alfonsa was neither a martyr/confessor nor an illustrated minister. She could boast no ecclesiastical or evangelistic achievements or any oratory excellence. She never wrote any treatise or any theological great work. No establishment of any Society or Order is there to her credit. She died simple, as she had always lived. Her identity was basically only as a Franciscan Clarist nun. Yet she became a spokeswoman of the benevolence of Christ in the history of Indian Christianity. As H.H. John Paul II talked of her; she revealed the simple Christian mystical truth by her Christ relation and the portrayal of Christ experience in her life, to the world, more powerful than any theological deliberations. Generations to come will learn through her life, what is the key of fundamental reality and truth of Christianity and Christian faith and to discover the mystery of the grace of sanctity at each vocation.
H.H. Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peterís Square in Rome proclaimed blessed Alfonsamma of the Immaculate Conception, a Saint on 12th October 2008. Around 25,000 people of Indian origin from all over the world attended the ceremony. A 15-member official Indian delegation, led by Union Minister Oscar Fernandes, attended the ceremony. A Catholic delegation from India also attended the event. Though Francis Xavior, Gonsalo Gartia, John D. Britto and Mother Teresa can be called Indian Catholic Saints, St. Alfonsa is the only Catholic saint born, brought up and lived in Indian soil. She also got the honor of being first Indian Lady Saint. Though St. Mother Teresa served India, she was not an Indian born lady.
What made Sr. Alfonsamma a Saint?
It is not the suffering of Alfonsa, which gave the saintliness to her, but it was her attitude towards the suffering set apart for the prosperity of gospel of God. She lived with her suffering in the path as St. Paul said of it: 'Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions.' [Colossian 1:24] She counted herself worthy to suffer and esteem it an honor to Christ. If we keenly study the life of Alfonsamma we get convinced that she was born on this earth only to become a saint and to be the intercessor for the paining mankind. She always carried and manifested the life and passion of Jesus on her mortal flesh.
St. Alfonsa of the Immaculate Conception was born on August 19, 1910 in Kudamaloor a village in Kottayam district, in Kerala to Joseph and Mary Muttathupadathu. Annakutty, a very popular name among the Christians of Kerala, was the childhood name of Alfonsa. She was baptized on 27 August 1910 at Saint Mary's Church in Kudamaloor under the patronage of Saint Anna. Her mother died when Alfonsa was only three months old and on the deathbed she entrusted Annakutty to the care of her own sister. Her foster mother, Annamma, gave her an ideal upbringing and education to make Annakutty a good housewife in the future. The family played in the life of Alfonsa for nurturing and deepening of her Christian faith by regular evening prayers, observance of weekly fasting and participation in the Eucharistic celebration.
Christ began to become a concrete personal relational reality for Annakutty. Due to the personal devotion and deep love for Christ developed in her, she began to yearn for sanctity and zealously aspired to become a saint. In her quest for sanctity, she realized that it was not necessary to accomplish great deeds in order to attain holiness and to express her love of God. Her desire got strengthened while she was reading the biography of St. Marie Francoise Therese Martin of Lisieux, a Roman Catholic Carmelite nun who is a canonized saint and is recognized as a Doctor of the Church, one of only three women to receive that honor and widely known as The Little Flower of Jesus. Annakutty loved the nature and loved co-beings, animals and birds. Her kindness to humanity and nature continued even in the midst of her suffering till her death.
After primary education in Arpukkara Government School she moved to Muttuchira. Though the foster mother was sending her to school and church wearing costly cloth and ornaments, Annakutty was not at all inclined for any luxury of the world from the early childhood. She wrote in her childhood that she wanted to live a saintly life and the life of St. Koch Tressia had inspired her to become a nun and to live a saintly life without any willful sin. She spent her time in secret private prayer and fasting.
Annakutty was a beautiful girl. Because of the beauty of Annakutty, many handsome young men with education and from good family volunteered to marry Annakutty. She pleaded with her family not to get married and she wanted to become a nun. But the family people did not yield to the desire of Annakutty. Her foster mother forcefully engaged her for a marriage proposal. Annakutty found that her beauty is coming on the way to contemplate her desire. She decided to disfigure herself so that she can become the bride of Christ. At the age of 13 years, She jumped into a pit of burning chaff heaped after a harvest. Both her legs were burned severely and swelled and she suffered a lot of pain. She wrote about it: 'My leg fingers were burned and joined together and I cannot explain the pain which I suffered, but suffered everything for the sole aim of living solely with Jesus.' Eventually the family inclined to her strong will.
Annakutty could have become an aristocratic housewife, or a famous professional by her noble birth in an illustrious family. She rejected all her lofty possibilities of life and embraced Jesus as her Bride Groom. On her life journey she embraced the thorny way of suffering, pain and self-denial. At the age of 17 she joined the Franciscan Clarist Congregation. She arrived at the poor Clares convent at Bharananganam in 1927. She got many offer in other well-off convents. But she declined everything and had chosen the poor life in the Clarens convent. She declined the suggestion of the Bishop to change the convent with a polite reason that she loves poverty. She received the postulant's veil on 2 August 1928 and took the name Alfonsa. She received the holy attire on May 13, 1930 from Bishop James Kallaseryy at Bharananganam.
The nuns are known as the bride of Christ. On May 19, 1930 Alfonsa came to the Bharananganam Church for ordination wearing all the ornaments and the wedding attire, her family had preserved for her wedding. She loved Jesus so severely. She suffered a lot for this cause out of her love towards Christ. The life of that small flower was deep intention and oath to become the bride of the Christ.
Further she went to Changanassery for studies but she was inflicted with severe bleeding. The major themes for supplication of man to God in their prayers are to alleviate suffering, escape from illness and avoidance of pain. Here we see a miraculous birth, unlike any common human, who desired for more and more crosses and pain on her body. She wrote: "the suffering in my life make me more and more purified and gave more and more spiritual vigor. I am the bride of Jesus and my sufferings can never be compared with the suffering of my bridegroom Jesus."
Though she started her career as a teacher at the school at Vakakkad, she soon had to leave it for health reasons. Her students knew well that she was suffering from different ailments, but her students who are living now recollect that she was always pleasant in spite of her pain. On 11 August 1931 she joined the novitiate. She took her permanent vows on 12 August 1936. Those who knew her witness that there was something about her that made her different from the others and great grace of God was visible on her face.
Out of her short life, she spent 16 years on sick bed with intense pain and suffering. But she lived her full life in the joy of an intimate relationship with Jesus and compassionate to fellow human beings. She tolerated everything with pleasant and joyous face. While she was wriggling with severe pain, there was not even drop of anger or intolerability in her face. She was always seen with a smiling face. She did not express even a slightest impatience. It is this mental and spiritual growth in her, which is unthinkable for the common people, which is turned out as the essence of her holiness. In spite of all these, this vowed ascetic life is seen and revered by the world as a realized fullness of a model Sanyasin. Sr. Alfonsa was a suffering silent preacher.
She constantly accepted all her sufferings with serenity and trust in God, being firmly convinced that they would purify her motives, and unite her more closely with her beloved divine Spouse. She wrote to her spiritual director: "Dear Father, as my good Lord Jesus loves me so very much, I sincerely desire to remain on this sick bed and suffer not only this, but anything else besides, even to the end of the world. I feel now that God has intended my life to be an oblation, a sacrifice of suffering" She came to love suffering because she loved the suffering Christ. She learned to love the Cross through her love of the crucified Lord. Sr. Alfonsamma was a conglomeration of Love, Faith and Endurance. She exposed unbelievable courage and patience under afflictions. As St Paul put it; She was sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things. She dedicated her life to the poor and the underprivileged, despite her sickness and physical suffering.
On 14 June 1939 she was struck by a severe attack of double pneumonia, which left her weakened. On 18 October 1940, a thief stumbled into her room in the middle of the night. This traumatic event caused her to suffer amnesia, and weakened her again. Her health continued to deteriorate over a period of months. She received extreme unction on 29 September 1941. Her health improved over the next few years, until in July 1945 she developed a stomach problem that caused vomiting. She bravely endured her illness until her death, on July 28, 1946, at the age of just 36.
Her funeral was done in Bharananganam in the Kottayam District without any ostentation or pomp. People thought of it as an ordinary nun expired after a prolonged sickness. Also as it was raining heavily only few people attended the funeral. As there was nobody came from her home, the coffin was carried by the Convent sisters. Surprisingly her spiritual Guru Fr. Romulus very unexpectedly happened to attend the funeral. Fr. Romulus was the only person who truly knew the hidden sanctity of this young nun. In funeral address, Fr. Romulus compared Sr. Alfonsa to St. Marie Francoise Therese Martin of Lisieux and told, "...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."
All her life of 36 years she lived within the four walls of the Convent as a true Sanyasin. Sr. Alfonsa had fulfilled her responsibilities in spiritual fullness over her vocation as a student, teacher and a nun. The simplicity of St. Alfonsa was the loftiness of her life. She herself symbolized her life as a small bird flying in the sky making only minute reverberations in the air.
In 1945 some children started an Alfonsa reverence as a group out of some innate insight for their supplications to God through Sr. Alfonsa for their petty educational prosperity. Further it was extended to their parents and the local people. Slowly the small village of Bharananganam became world famous for the faith of intercession of Sr. Alfonsamma. Alfonsa is considered as the saint of children.
Saint is a term applied in Old Testament to any Israelites as one of the chosen people of God. In the New Testament it is used of any member of the Christian Church; for example St. Paul addresses his letter to the Philippians "To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi". However this is a common collective use of the term. In this sin-bound world, the saintliness of an individual can be ascertained only after his/her death and with the intervention of God to expose the effect and influence of the lived saints on the faith world. It was in the 6th century that this word became a title of honor specially given to the departed souls and it is in this sense the term is understood in contemporary Christianity. Originally it was the honor given to martyrs and confessors of early centuries and Eucharist was celebrated in their patronage in an atmosphere of triumph. The first churches were dedicated to the martyrs. After the early Christian period the word took on another meaning, being applied to anyone who had led a life of heroic virtue and had died a holy death in peace. Sr. Alfonsa comes in this category as the martyrs and confessors. They resemble the martyrs by their acts of self-denial and their lives of heroic virtues.
Dogmatically the veneration of saints in the Church can be understood only in the light of the dogma of the unique mediator ship of Jesus Christ (1 Tim.2:5) As per the teachings of the Catholic Church, Jesus Christ alone is the redeemer of human by His death on the cross; no divine gift can come to man except through man's Redeemer. Hence, all the prayers of that on earth and of the saints in heaven are efficacious only through Christ.
The early Fathers unanimously taught of the intercession of the saints. For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catechesis, says: We then commemorate those who have fallen asleep before us, patriarchs, prophets, Apostles, and martyr, in order that God, by their prayers and intercession, may receive our petition. The saints, who are specifically pleasing to God, join their prayers to the prayers of those who seek intercession with them, and their aid to men is through the merits of Christ, man's Redeemer and one Mediator and not of the Saint.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, states briefly the principle underlying the veneration of relics and images: It is manifest that we should show honor to the saints of God as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God and our intercessors. Wherefore in memory of them we ought to honor every relic of theirs in a fitting manner, principally their bodies which were temples and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and as destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence.
Veneration of the saints is practiced even in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The liturgy of the Church takes account of the feasts of the saints throughout the year and establishes the manner of celebrating feasts. Many Churches are dedicated to the patronage of saints. Also altars are consecrated in the name of the canonized saints. There are more than 10,000 Roman Catholic saints and beatified people. Among the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Communions, the numbers may be even higher, since there is no unified process for canonization. St. Geevarghese Mar Gregorios of Parumala is the first canonized saint of Malankara Orthodox Church.
The Bishop of Palai began the diocesan process of beatification of Sr. Alfonsa in 1955, and on November 9, 1984, she was declared venerable at the altar. It was the first official step towards exposing of the hidden sanctity of Alfonsa. H.H. Pope John Paul II beatified Sr. Alfonsa on 8th February 1986 at Nehru Stadium, Kottayam, 40 years after her death, along with Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara. The Pope emphasized her passionate love for Jesus and her simplicity saying that, 'this young saint offers us a path of Christian perfection attainable for all the faithful.'
A commemorative postage stamp was released by the Government of India as a honor to Sister Alphonsa on the 50th anniversary of her death. The Vatican has taken more than 55 years to scrutinize Sister Alfonsa's life and work before conferring one of church's highest spiritual honors and proved the worth of saintliness of Alfonsa. She is only the second Indian to be elevated to sainthood after the 16th century martyr, Gonsalo Garcia, who was canonized in 1862. Albanian-born Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who died in 1997, was beatified and canonized as a saint in 2003.
The glory of God is the holiness of each person and of the whole Church. The tendency of the world is to repudiate suffering and the cross. Scientific developments constantly explore ways and means for alleviation of pain. Many in this modern world find justification for termination of pregnancy when the fetus is abnormal, or choose euthanasia than suffering the extreme pain, viewing worthiness of life in a materialistic point of view. Here, we have now a saint who toppled the concept of worldliness upside down and demonstrated an unusual holiness in what world consider worthless.
Saints and holy men/women like Parumala St. Geevarghese Mar Gregorios, St. Alphonsamma, St. Mother Teresa adopted to Indian Soil, Blessed Fr. Kuriakose Elias Chavara, Blessed Fr. Kunjachan, Pampadi Kuriakose Mar Gregorios, Sadhu Kochoonj Upadeshi and many like these, known and unknown; they all are the lived holy legends of our land who deliberated a subjective realization as the outcome of a personal experience of Christ and with intimacy of union with Christ through their dedicated Christian heroic virtues. They bear witness to the beauty and greatness of the religious vocation for the name of Christ, in our Country.
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