A Young Martyr for Social Justice
*Francis Chittuparampil, OCD
Sr Rani Maria Vattalil to be beatified in Indore
The author, a Discalced Carmelite priest, was a close neighbour and fellow parishioner of the Indian nun who was brutally murdered in 1995 and is now on her way to sainthood.
The Servant of God Regina Maria Vattalil (née Maria Vattalil), professed sister of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation, will be beatified in Indore, India, on 4 November . This young Franciscan nun dedicated her missionary life to concretely sharing the ever glowing flame of Christian faith with the poor in order to enlighten the dark areas of the remotest villages of north India. Her presence itself was an eloquent proclamation of the power of the Word of God and of the closeness of the loving presence of God.
Rani Maria, known as Marykunj (Little Mary) to her family, was bom on 29 January 1954, to Eleeswa and Paily Vattalil, the second daughter of seven children. Pulluvazhy, her birthplace in the Ernakulam district of Kerala state in India, was a remote village consisting of both traditional Christian and non-Christian families. Her parents and family members were traditionally rooted in the Christian faith. Saint Thomas Parish Church, belonging to the Syro-Malabar rite, was the centre of the faith for parishioners. Her parents worked hard in the fields to feed and take care of their children, God’s greatest gifts to them.
The family prayer at the end of the day was a moment when the entire family gathered before the images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and of the Blessed Virgin Mary to raise their hearts to God. Marykunj never failed to be present there and often led the daily family prayer. Besides attending daily Mass, she was also a member of Marian Sodality which was very active within the parish. Her parents taught her to love the poor and the regular workers in the fields.
Rani Maria’s selfless dedication in the remotest villages of central and northern India can be traced back to these lessons. It is of no doubt that the God-fearing and loving parents of the newly Blessed and their exemplary life played a great role in sowing and nurturing her ardent desire to offer herself courageously to the service of the Lord, even to the point of becoming a martyr of social justice. Rani Maria entered the Clarist convent in Kidangoor on 3 July 1972, and made her first profession on 1 May 1974, at the age of 20. With an ardent wish to be a missionary witness to the poor, the young nun was happy when asked to go to the Bijnor Mission in Uttar Pradesh in December 1975, just one year after her religious profession.
She served different mission areas in a short span of time, all with her unique and creative ways of witnessing to the Lord. For eight years she lived and worked in the Diocese of Bijnor, where she found her own way to fulfil her mission, engaging in the specific apostolate of uplifting the poor and the marginalized. For the next nine years (1983-92), she was coordinator of the social apostolate of the Diocese of Satna, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, organizing educational programs for children, young people and the aged, and working for the empowerment of the Adivasis (indigenous people). Her works attracted many to embrace Christianity.
Her final phase of missionary life was in the Diocese of Indore in the same state, from 1992-95. Here she came to be called by her admirers as Indore Rani (Queen of Indore). It was here that she became an enemy of the landlords who were exploiting poor workers, and of the money lenders who were extorting the income of the people in the form of exaggerated interest rates. Maria Rani sought earnestly to make the exploited conscious of their rights, by organizing study classes and forming self-help groups. The programmes and services that she carried out were a true fulfillment of her prophetic mission toward the poor. It gave the exploited hope for a better future, as they fought for justice from their oppressors. Rani Maria argued in favour of those who were unjustly imprisoned and consoled them. All these works infuriated the exploiters, as they challenged their vested interests. But she never stepped back from her initiatives in spite of their threats.
While travelling by bus to Indore on 25 February 1995, fellow travellers witnessed the merciless attack on the nun by Samundher Singh, who had been hired by the exploiters. Sr Rani Maria was brutally stabbed to death in the attack, marking the end of her earthly life of bearing witness to Jesus Christ. Her martyrdom can be called “martyrdom for the social cause of the Church”, as it arose from her fight for the dignity and rights of the human person, created in the image of God.
Through the attention of the late Carmelite Fr Michael Porathukara, Singh repented his brutal acts and was ready to do penance and lead a good life if released from prison. Later, at Fr Michael’s suggestion. Maria’s own blood sister who belonged to the same province of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation as her sister, voluntarily visited Singh and forgave him.
Rani Maria’s mother and brother Stephen Vattalil also visited Singh in prison and assured him of their forgiveness. Together with the Franciscan sisters and Fr Michael, the family approached the civil authorities to request Singh’s release from confinement. He was freed in August 2006 and now leads a simple life in his village, working in the fields and regularly visiting Sr Rani Maria’s tomb. Lending further credibility to his conversion, he wishes to be instrumental in the conversion of those who provoked him to do such a brutal act.
A still greater act of forgiveness stunned the whole world, when Singh was heartily welcomed into Rani Maria’s native family, in Pulluvazhy on 13 January 2007. Accompanied by Fr Michael, Singh arrived at Rani Maria’s family home and fell prostrate at the feet of her mother and ailing father, asking for pardon. Her mother Eleeswa embraced Samunder and with motherly tenderness kissed his hands, which had once been stained with the blood of her own daughter.
This young nun from Kerala, who went to the extreme point of giving her life in order to bear witness to the Gospel through her social activities, is a great example for the world, especially for the youth. Her life and witness exhorts the youth and missionaries to courageously get involved in eliminating corrupt and unjust social evils from the face of the earth. The great instance of forgiveness practiced by Sr Rani Maria and her family members is a challenge to the whole world in which the manufacturing and trading of weapons grow against charity, and walls are built in the place of bridges.
*Professor at Pontifical Theological Faculty Teresianum, Rome
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3 November 2017, page 11
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