In my last column I wrote of the beatification ceremony in Rome for Mother Mariam Thresia Chiramel Mankidiyan, a Kerala nun who died, aged 50, in 1926. Beatification, a rare privilage so far extended to only three other Indians is the penultimate step towards sainthood. After discussing her life and her remarkable experiences – including levitation and stigmata (bllod spontaneously appearing on her hands and feet as if she had been crucified) – I suggested that Mariam Thresia was probably a more likely candidate for sainhood than Mother Teresa.
This is not because she did more than help the dying to die with dignity as the illustrious Calcuttan nun did. Marinm Thresia tended to the dying and bravely nursed victims of smallpox and leprosy at a time when they were shunned by all caring for people whose illness were disfiguring and contagious. In a caste ridden society she insisted on going to the homes of the lowest of the low and sharing her food with them. But such good deeds alone are no guarantee of sainthood, at least of a sainthood recognised by the Church.
The path to sainthood in the Catholic Church has to be paved with miracles. It was said during Mariam Thresia’s lifetime that she emanated an aura of light and a sweet odour and that her touch could heal – but such unverifiable accounts aren’t good enough. More recent miracles have been attributed to her. One was throughly investigated by the Church and resulted inher beatification. Mathew Pallissery, born with two club feet into a family too poor to afford surgery crawled and hobbled on the sides of his deformed feet till his teens, when his family embarked on 41 days of prayer and fasting dedicated to Mariam Thresia. On the 33rd day, he dreamt that Mariam Thresia came to him and rubbed his right foot. He woke and found it had straightened – he could walk. A year later, the family prayed and fasted again, this time , on the 39th day, it was his mother who dreamt of Mariam Thresia, and she found her son’s left foot had straightened too. There are “before and after” photographs, X-rays and orthopedic specialists who confirm that the cure could not be explained medically abd was more complete than surgery could have achieved. Today Mathew is 44 employed, married and the father of two. He was in Rome to witness at first hand the beatification of Mariam Thresia.
Sainthood requires a second miracle and though Mariam Thresia’s followers have produced another case – also of a club foot cured through similar prayer – the church rules are inflexible: only miracles occurring after beatification can lead to sainthood. So Mariam Thresia fans will have to wait for fresh miracles. But her chances of becoming the first Indian Catholic saint – ahead of her near name sake from Calcutta appear bright. Though the Followers of Mother Tresa are doing their best to push her claim on the fast track, miracles attributable to her intercession have yet to be identified and verified, Mariam Thresia would seem to have the edge.
This is probably just as well since accepting the credentials of a homegrown saint will do the Church more good than honouring yet another white missionary out of turn K.P. Fabian, India’s kind and wise Ambassador in Rome and a practising Catholic himself, wryly remarked to me that Kerala has had Christianity for 2000 years but has only begun producing saints in the last hundred. Clearly the Church has only recently started to recognise the faith of its darker hued ad herents as equivalent to that of the white originators of their religion.
Faith can produce miracles; Hinduism and Islam are replete with similar stories of the lame being able to walk the blind enabled to see. It is belief that matters not the particulars of the belief .But the beatification of Mariam Thresia ( and of a Colombian alongside her ) is an acknowledgement that the future of catholic Church lies in Asia, Latin America and Africa, where it found fertile ground in the intense devotion of ordinary poeple .
It is this that provides a different context to the unseemly “conversion controversy” of last year. To hear Malayalam recited in St Peter’s alongside half a dozen European langage is in its own way, satisfying. I am not a Christian but I rejoice in the magic an Indian woman has brought to Christianity. Perhaps one day it will not just be an Indian saint the world honours in Vatican Square but an Indian pope. Only the most narrow minded of our homegrown fanatics would fail to take pride in that.