I remember reading about it on an online Asian Catholic news service when it happened: a nun in India assassinated because of her work with the poor!
To kill someone precisely because she’s dedicated her life to lifting people out of grinding poverty, giving them dignity and helping them get an education…? My head tells me there are those who have an interest in keeping poor people poor, and ensuring they remain powerless and vulnerable, and who will react violently against anyone who dares to “interfere”.
But the rest of me can’t understand it.
Mary Vattalil was born and brought up in Kerala, south-west India, as part of a very large and well-established Catholic community which claims to have been evangelised by the Apostle Thomas, and been Christian for 2,000 years. It’s very likely her ancestors were indeed Christians when mine were still pagan.
After leaving school she joined the Franciscan Clarists, an indigenous Indian congregation dating back to 1888. Becoming Sister Rani Maria (it means “Mary the Queen”), she volunteered as a missionary to North India.
You can find poverty all over India, but North India tends to be significantly poorer. She felt a strong call to go and work in states like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, which are both extremely poor, and where Christians form no more than a microscopic fraction of their populations.
Going over the details of her missionary career, I’m struck by her professionalism. Being a missionary to another part of her own country was far from being a soft option. Her mother-tongue would be useless in North India, so first of all she had to learn a completely new language.
Her initial ventures into poor communities in the North would have brought her up against a whole lot of other things that were starkly different to what she was used to, needing years of patient dialogue to work through and understand.
Later on, after gaining considerable experience in the field as a social worker, she arranged to take a Master’s degree in Sociology from Rewa University. In her final posting, in Udainagar, she worked in mountain villages helping people form co-operative saving groups, and showing them how to apply for loans to which they were legally entitled from the state banks. This got them out of the clutches of the local moneylenders and landlords, who were furious and determined to get their revenge.
On 25th February 1995 she boarded a local bus to begin a long, three-day, journey to Kerala to attend to congregational business and visit her family, whom she’d not seen for two years. Among the passengers was Samundar Singh, the landlords’ paid hitman. About 20 km from Udainagar, where the bus route went through a forested area, Samundar took out a knife and began slashing at the nun’s face.
It was a real hate crime: with the leading landlord standing over him, yelling with rage, he dragged her out of the bus and stabbed her again and again. When her body was returned to the convent by the police, it was found to have over fifty stab wounds.
So is this just a story of horror – a depressing piece of history pointing the lesson that it’s useless trying to make this world a better place, because the bad guys are always going to win? Well no, actually.
The Franciscan Clarists have courageously opened more projects of the kind she pioneered, working in remote villages to empower poor communities. Girls from the tiny Christian minority in North India, where vocations used to be unheard of, are applying to enter the congregation. Samundar Singh spent years in prison, but the Vattalil family was able to reach out to him with forgiveness and obtain his release; he deeply regrets what he did, and often visits Sister Rani Maria’s tomb.
Earlier this year, Pope Francis gave approval for Sister Rani Maria’s beatification, and confirmed that the ceremony would be carried out in North India in November. Let’s pray for the Christians of Asia, and let’s ask Blessed Rani Maria to intercede for us so we can have more nuns like her.