Kerala on road to become 'Cradle of Saints'; state looking to create 'holy tourism circuit' with 21 in line for canonisation

The tiny state of Kerala is on the road to becoming the 'Cradle of Saints' with 21 people in the Catholic Church awaiting canonisation in the coming years.

Canonisation, a process of proclaiming one worthy of worship, follows three stages of declaring an aspiring saint as 'Servant of God', 'Venerable' and 'Blessed'. While three from the state have already been granted sainthood, another eight are in the second and final stage of the canonisation.

Sister Rani Maria from Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district, Mariam Thresia of Thrissur, Deva Sahayam Pillai of erstwhile Travancore kingdom and Thevarparambil Kunjachan (Kottayam) are in the third and final stage of canonisation.

Kerala clergy. Representational Image. AFP Photo

Representational Image. AFP

Those in the venerable list are Fr Varghese Payyappilly (Kottayam), who was declared as a venerable by Pope Francis on 14 April, Bishop Thomas Kurialacherry (Alappuzha), Fr Mathew Kadalikkattil (Kottayam) and Fr Joseph Vithayathil (Thrissur).

Though Kerala is considered as the cradle of Christianity in south Asia, the state had to wait since 1956 to get a saint. It got the first saint with the canonisation of Sr Alphonsa (1910-1946) of Pala in Kottayam district in 2008.

Since then, two more from the state have been sanctified. They are Fr Chavara Kuriakose Elias (1805-1871) and Sr Euphrasia Eluvathingal (1877-1952). The two were declared saints in November 2014.

The three from Kerala are among six saints that India has produced so far. The first was Portuguese Indian lay brother Gonsalo Garcia from Vasai in Mumbai. He was among 26 Catholics martyred in Japan in 1597. He was canonised in 1862. The other two are Goan priest Joseph Vaz and Mother Teresa, who were declared saints in 1995 and 2016 respectively.

Church officials in Kerala are hopeful that the eight people, who are placed on the path of sainthood, will be canonised in the next few years. The sudden surge in the canonisation of spiritual men and women in Kerala at the beginning of the third millennium has come as a surprise to church activists and historians.

CI Issac, a retired professor of history at Thiruvananthapuram, believes that it may be due to the increasing shortage of nuns and clergies faced by the Catholic Church. He said that it may be Vatican's attempt to overcome the shortage by granting saints as an incentive to the Kerala Church to produce more priests and nuns.

"When Pope John Paul II assumed office, the nun population had shrunk to one-fourth and the strength of clergy came down half its real strength. If this phenomenon is allowed to prolong, Vatican will be forced to shut down several convents in Europe. Hence, the covetous eyes of the Church have been cast on the poverty-stricken Catholic families of Kerala," Issac said in an article in Vijayavani, an internet-based public opinion forum.

He said that the Vatican may have deviated from its age-old policy of sidelining the Kerala Church as a compromise. Issac pointed out that Kerala could book a place in the galaxy of saints after the Pope fast-tracked the procedure for canonisation. He elevated 482 persons to sainthood and put about 300 on a pedestal of different stages on the road to the final destination of sainthood. It was an all-time record in the long history of 261 pontiffs so far, Issac said.

Kerala was once the largest exporter of priests and nuns but a steady drop in the number of boys enrolling in seminaries and girls in nunneries in the last few decades has left the Church without any surplus for exports. In fact, the Church in the state itself was facing acute shortage of clergy and nuns.

The Syro-Malabar Church, the largest of the three Catholic rites based in Kerala to which the three saints belong and which accounts for the majority of the saint aspirants put on the road for sainthood, has already expressed concern over the declining trend in the number of youths joining the vocation.

A six-day synod of the church held in January has warned that many convents and church institutions may have to be shut down if the current trend continues for the next 25 years. The synod has ordered a study to find the reasons for the lack of interest among the new generation to join the vocation and find solutions to them.

Church activists also see financial considerations behind the current spurt in the elevation of more spiritual men and women as saints. Issac pointed out that the Kerala Church had renounced the Second Vatican Council's dictum of removing 2,000 saints on the ground that there was insufficient evidence to their sainthood as some of them were huge money minters.

One such saint was St George, who is dear to the Church. "The reason behind this is that this saint is acceptable to Hindus and thus is a money-minter to the Church. The Church in the era of globalisation is more pragmatic than any other business firm of Kerala," he added.

Concurring with him, Reji Njallani, chairman of the open church movement, said that the Church was finding the going tough with the traditional sources of revenue shrinking due to various reasons. The Church finds immense scope in the saints since they can not only collect money directly from the faithful in their name but also earn a large amount of revenue by promoting pilgrim tourism.

He told Firstpost Christians from across the world have been increasingly showing interest in Kerala after the canonisation of Sister Alphonsa, Fr Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Sister Euphrasia. The Church is trying to cash on this interest by launching the process for creating a holy circuit, connecting the birth-places of all saints in the state.

"The business interest of the Church in creating more and more saints was evident from their choice of saint aspirants. The list they pursue contains very few lay people. All in the list are bishops, priests and nuns. The Church prefers them because their families will have no claim over the revenue they generate," he added.

He said it was difficult to believe that none of the lay people are eligible to be considered for sainthood. "It is not that there are no saintly people among the laity. It's because the Church does not want them as saints. If lay people are declared saints their families may seek a share of the revenue. The Church apparently does not want this," Reji said.

Fr Paul Thelekkat, the chief editor of Sathyadeepam, a Catholic weekly newspaper published from Ernakulam, agreed that there are many men and women among the laity who are eminently qualified to become saints. However, he said there was no need to canonise all.

"We are looking for holy men and women who lived holiness in a heroic manner. They are put on holy pedestals more to imitate and venerate so that their heroism will kindle the fire of holiness in the church. Every saint is put on the pedestal as an example of one who followed Christ to the point surrendering one's own death as a gift to God," the priest told Firstpost.

He said that the Church's interest in saints must be saintly and holy and not any worldly desire that should muddle the whole thing. "Disinterested holy attitude should prevail in all affairs connected with canonisation. No opportunity should be given to the accusation of saints making a factory in the Vatican or anywhere," Fr Paul said.

However, the Church activists believe that the current enthusiasm for creating more saints is aimed at selling them.


Updated Date: Apr 16, 2018 13:50 PM

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