Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Sister Alphonsa: India’s first female saint

A young Catholic nun who disfigured herself to avoid marriage has become India's first female saint. She was canonised by Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican last Sunday.

I’ve always had a thing about theist organisations declaring people as “saints”. It’s as if they’ve decided to play the role of God themselves. For who else should decide that someone has lived a holy enough life to be called a saint?

As for Sister Alphonsa, her contribution to humankind was to step into a fire to disfigure her feet so that her aunt would stop pressuring her to marry and so that she could be a nun.

A bit excessive in my opinion and certainly not something we’d want our children to emulate if they decided they didn’t want to get married.

In the Roman Catholic religion, there are more than 10,000 saints.

The Catholic Church is adamant that it does not decide whether someone is a saint or not – but that its job is only to recognise them.

But how can it be sure of always getting it right? After all, the church’s ability to spot saints can’t be perfect, thus meaning that some of the 10,000 saints might have been recognised as saints even though they are actually not. And what about the people who really were saints but have gone through life unrecognised? Not everyone lives a life in the limelight obviously, and a person who lives an obscure but holy life would be easily missed surely.

So is there anything that can help us identify a saint?

Well, yes there is! Because saints are commonly believed to possess miraculous powers.

In the case of Sister Alphonsa, numerous miracles were attributed to her powerful faith after she died. Indeed, her burial place in the Keralan town of Bharananganam has become a pilgrimage site, especially for those seeking relief from ill health.

Attending the ceremony at the Vatican on Sunday was a 10-year-old Indian boy whose club foot was, in the judgment of Vatican officials, miraculously healed after prayers to Sister Alphonsa. A miracle after beatification is required for sainthood.

Happy spotting!

For a full list of saints click here.