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Cover Story

LISTENING TO THE CRY OF THE POOR

NOV 08

Freedom from Poverty and Solidarity with the Poor

In this article, an expert explains the crucial issues involved in poverty—what it is, what causes it, who and how many are affected, the many forms of poverty around us and ways of tackling this central human problem.

Continuing poverty is one of the most pressing problems faced by humanity today. The magnitude of human deprivation is still alarming. As per global poverty update from the World Bank, almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 80 per cent of the world’s population lives in countries where income differentials are widening.

The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (IDEP) is dedicated to focus our attention on the issue of poverty and the dignity of the poor. Every year, October 17th is observed as IDEP. The 2018 theme is “Coming together with those furthest behind to build an inclusive world of universal respect for human rights and dignity.”

Since 1992, United Nation has observed October 17th  as the World Day for Overcoming Extreme Poverty. The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty promotes dialogue and understanding between people living in poverty and their communities, and society at large. “It represents an opportunity to acknowledge the efforts and struggles of people living in poverty, a chance for them to make their concerns heard and a moment to recognise that poor people are in the forefront in the fight against poverty.” (UNSG 2015)

Sustainable Developmental Goals

Poverty eradication is the central theme for many of UN deliberations. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are a collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in its 70th session on October 2015. Of these seventeen goals,  Goal 1 is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere, and Goal 2 is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. All other goals are collectively to contribute to ending poverty.

The global community has agreed to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 (roughly Rs 90) a day by 2030.  According to their agreement, ‘by 2030, reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions’.

To reach the goals of poverty eradication, the global community has agreed to implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all poor and the vulnerable. So, too, to ensure that all men and women, in particular, the poor and the vulnerable, have equitable rights to resources, as well as access to essential social and health services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services.

UN policies and Plans

The UN member states have promised to build the resilience of the poor and those in vulnerable situations and reduce their exposure and vulnerability to climate-related extreme events and other economic, social and environmental shocks and disasters.

The UN member states also have promised to ensure significant mobilisation of resources from a variety of sources, including through enhanced development cooperation, to provide adequate and predictable means for developing countries, especially the least developed countries, to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions.

Further, the global community has agreed to create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions.

Pope Francis: World Day of the Poor

In addition to the UN system, other state actors, such as the Holy See,  observe the Day of the Poor. The Holy see declared 18 November 2018 as the day of the poor and ‘called all to make a serious examination of conscience, to see if we are truly capable of hearing the cry of the poor.’ According to Pope Francis, ‘We are so trapped in a culture that induces us to look in the mirror and pamper ourselves, that we think that an altruistic gesture is enough, without the need to get directly involved.’

The persistence of poverty, including extreme poverty, is a significant concern for the global community, reflected through the deliberations of the United Nations. In its 72nd session, the General Assembly launched the Third United Nations Decade for the Eradication of Poverty (2018–2027), under the theme “Accelerating global actions for a world without poverty.”

Involvement of people living in poverty is essential for the eradication of poverty. The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty aims to ensure that the active participation of people living in extreme poverty and those who are left behind is a critical force in all efforts made to overcome poverty, including in the design and implementation of programmes and policies which affect them.

Creating and nurturing a genuine partnership, based on human rights, and respect for the  dignity people living in poverty are essential to building an inclusive world where all people can enjoy their full human rights and lead lives with self-respect—a necessary step towards poverty eradication.

How do we understand “poverty”?

The World Development Report (1982) defined poverty as “a condition of life so characterised by malnutrition, illiteracy and disease as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.” Being poor is more than just material deprivation. Poverty is a multi-layered issue that concerns a person’s range of survival issues such as access to health care, the ability to influence the determinants of health, available educational opportunities and quality of life.

Poverty is a complex concept which may include social, economic, and political elements. Absolute poverty, extreme poverty, or destitution refers to the complete lack of the means necessary to meet essential personal needs such as food, clothing and shelter.

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI)  has created a Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, which enables us a better understanding of the causes of poverty, an essential step in addressing the issue. The index offers a more in-depth measure of poverty through a checklist of “deprivations.”

The OPHI classifies poverty at an individual level.  The ten indicators of poverty are subdivided into three dimensions, Health, Education and Living Standard.  ‘For the health dimension, the measures are nutrition and child mortality, while, for education, the indicators are the years of schooling and school attendance. The standard living dimension includes access to cooking fuel, sanitation, drinking water, electricity, living space and assets.’ 

According to the OPHI report, more than a fifth (22 per cent)—or 1.6 billion people!—are considered to be poor, and 40 per cent of them live in India.

About 85 per cent of the poor are from the rural areas, where development progress remains elusive. More than half are deprived of health, education and standard of living. They are the ones living in households where educational attainment is less than five years, at least one member of the family is undernourished, and at least one child has died. Access to adequate sanitation presents challenges to 81 per cent of the poor.

Though poverty has been reducing in many countries, through the improvement in sanitation, education and health, the challenges remain for the global community in tackling poverty. It is evident that higher income does not always translate to a reduction in multidimensional poverty.

Connection between Poverty and Human Rights

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In this context, it is essential to acknowledge the connection between extreme poverty and human rights. People living in poverty are disproportionately subjected to many human rights violations.

 “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, and human rights are violated, to come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”

Facilitating social inclusion is fundamental in assisting those left behind and enable them to overcome poverty in all its dimensions.

The commemoration of October 17 each year is an opportunity for people living in poverty to take the floor, share their experiences and expertise on how we can achieve greater social inclusion and poverty reduction, to respect the human rights and dignity of people living in poverty.

The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty underscores the importance of reaching out to people living in poverty and building an alliance around their priorities and concerns to end extreme poverty. It recognises the critical mutual roles and relationships we have with each other based on our collective and equal dignity and shared rights.

Poverty remains as one of the most pressing problems faced by India. The World Bank, in 2011 based on the 2005 Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) International Comparison Program, estimated that 23.6% of the Indian population, or about 276 million people, lived in poverty, that is, spending below $1.25 (Rs 90) per day, based on purchasing power parity.

We cannot simply blame a high population for poverty. When living standards and literary rates go up, people tend to plan their families. This has happened in the more educated parts of the country. To ask a couple to limit their number of children when they are not even sure of the next meal, is a cruel thing. We need to provide a basic minimum before people can feel they have control over their health and their future.

Caste-based social segregation and stigma, and unequal distribution of income and resources is another reason for persistent poverty in India.

Groups Most Affected in India

Older destitute women, women and children from marginalised communities,  indigenous population, members of certain traditional occupations, the urban poor, migrant workers in the informal sector—these groups do experience severe poverty in India. Traditionally oppressed classes, those who belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who continue to be subject to pervasive discrimination, e.g., Dalits and Adivasis, are disproportionally affected by poverty. With 104 million people, 47% of the rural tribal population lives below the national poverty line, compared to the national average for rural areas of 28 %. The level of poverty and malnutrition of the tribal people continues to be a significant issue. Though there are multiple programs for poverty reduction, they are seldom consulted on what is right for them, and their voice is hardly heard in any forums.

Poverty, including its extreme forms, is all around us every day, but receives little attention.  The desensitisation of society to poverty is a real scandal in India.  The destitute older widow on the road begging for survival, the orphan children who do odd jobs on the street, the pregnant mother who lost her child for lack of access to health care, the rickshaw puller whose only asset is his labour power and who is beaten up by the passenger because he insisted on the ten-rupee minimum charge for the trip he just completed—such pathetic human tragedies are all around us everyday.

The face of a traditional fisherman who laboured all night and returns home empty-handed and faces his hungry children, the face of the women waiting for their daily wages after they worked under the guaranteed employment scheme of the government, the face of the ‘Adivasi’ child waiting eagerly for the mid-day meal at the school,  the face of the  girl child who is struggling to cook a meal for her siblings with the fire from the twigs and leaves she collected,  the non-smiling flower girl at the traffic signals of major intersections in the city,  the face of the street sleeper—all these of part of our daily experiences. They are the human face of poverty.

 The poor in India disproportionally experience the violation of their citizenship rights, the impact of environmental change, urban pollution, lack of safe housing, violence, depletion of clean water, lack of access to sanitation and life-saving medicines and health care. Poverty in India particularly impacts children in a variety of different ways:  high infant and neonatal mortality, severe malnutrition, child labour, lack of education and child marriage.

The Way Out

Mass poverty and associated degradation of human dignity is not a product of fate, nor a justifiable social phenomenon. It is a product of specific structural-social arrangements, fuelled by inequitable distribution of opportunities. What is needed is the political will to introduce and execute policies and programs that will increase economic security and expand equitable opportunities for the poor and marginalised. A range of policy options is available to address acute poverty.  Creating jobs and reducing unemployment, raising the minimum wages, supporting equity in pay and benefits, providing paid leave and paid sick days, reforming work schedules that accommodate specific needs of women and vulnerable populations, increasing investment  in affordable, high-quality child care and early and primary education, ensuring and expanding  Universal Access to Health Care, ensuring that  economic growth is equitable, supporting agricultural growth and farm employment, increasing  investment in the development of infrastructure, accelerating overall human resource development, promoting decentralised non-farm employment, increasing social support benefits to the poor, promoting access to assets and credit, strengthening and expanding access to the Public Distribution System (PDS) and promoting increasing involvement of  local governments in poverty reduction and supporting the organizations of the poor and marginalised.

Poverty will remain a question of the political morality of the ruling class and of society in general. The demand for poverty eradication is not a call for charity; it is a fundamental human right. The legitimacy of any ruler should be assessed against his or her willingness and their sense of urgency to address poverty and developing poverty eradication programmes.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND SHARING IN COMMUNITIES:

  • Do I try to understand why so many people are poor, although the world is rich in resources?
  • Am I truly interested in making a difference?
  • What do I do in concrete for at least a few poor persons?
  • If I am an employer, do I treat my employees justly?
  • Have I become indifferent to the poor I see around me everyday—or do I do something about it?
  • How shall we—as a family, religious community, parish or institution—observe the Day of the Poor (Sunday, November 18th) in a meaningful way?

 

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Dr Joe Thomas is the executive director of an intergovernmental organisation of 26 governments-partners in Population and Development. He has hosted high profile bilateral meetings in Kampala, Geneva, New York, Beijing, Dhaka, Jakarta and Senegal. He has been active for 25 years in the field of global health, population and development. He is a technical advisor to WHO in Geneva. He was the Secretary General of the 12th International Congress of AIDS in Asia and the Pacific (ICAAP). As the Director of UNAIDS-Technical Support Facility (TSF) for South Asia, he coordinated the work of nearly 250 consultants in ten countries. Twitter @joethomasIN   web   www.joethomas.in

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INCLUDE US! LISTEN TO US! GUIDE US!

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What do today’s young people expect from the Church?

How can we reach out to youth, help them in areas where they need help, and welcome the huge contribution they are able to make?

A Synod (a special international meeting of Catholic bishops) meets this month in Rome. Theme: Youth, Faith and Discernment.

The preparations have been afoot for over a year.

In March, the church representatives met with hundreds of youth—and listened.

This itself is a change—to listen to youth, rather than just preach to them or advise them. Young people are not children. They not simply the future, as we used to say. They are—and should be—a significant part of our present, both in the Church and in secular society.

The Church prepared a detailed questionnaire on the situation and questions of youth, and received many thousands of replies.

The Synod will include a representative sample of young people—a first for a Synod.

We—church personnel, parents, teachers, so-called experts, etc.—should not forget that what we call progress in any field was usually the fruit of young people challenging the status quo and the established wisdom—whether it was a young Rabbi called Jesus, or a young deacon called Stephen, or a rebellious young son later called Francis of Assisi, a young sister called Teresa in Kolkata, or young inventors like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg—who changed the world around us. Without the questioning and the so-called rebellion of the young, nothing new would have happened—in any field.

Is the Church aware of the enormous potential of this group, and serious about tapping its extraordinary energy, ideas, ideals and passion? Or do “Church people” (bishops, priests, religious and senior lay persons) see the young only as beneficiaries of our ministry, to be told what to do, but to whom we need not listen? Some may even see the young, unfortunately, as problems rather than as a huge reservoir of potential.

When we speak of the “Church,” do we mean both the old and the young, or mostly those who hold special roles and power—Pope, bishops, clergy, religious and  a few lay leaders?

In this short article, I shall try to summarize what I see as the expressed and often silent pleas and demands of today’s young people. My line of thinking is based on decades of being involved with the young, including young religious and seminarians,  and with helping others in youth ministry.

This is what, in my view, the youngsters want to tell us:

DO’S:

  1. Listen to us: Pope Francis seems to have understood this cry of youth very well. That is why he wanted those involved in preparing the Synod to send out questionnaires and really listen to what the young want to tell the Church. Far too often, it is a one-way street: Those in authority speak, and expect the young to shut up and listen—as if they had nothing worthwhile to contribute, as if everything will be fine, provided “you just do what we tell you.” This can easily happen in family, or parish youth group, or school or in a religious formation house—to talk without listening, to advise without understanding the other, to think that we know lots (or everything) and the young have nothing of value to contribute. St. Benedict used to say: “Listen to the young; God often speaks to us through them.”
  2. Include us: The young are as much a part of society or the church or of the religious order as the older members are. Do we include them in the decision-making process? Do we share responsibilities with them? For instance, there are excellent youth teams that organize and conduct prayer services and retreats. There are young graduates who do campus ministry. Peer ministry is a very effective way to reach out to more and young people. The style and tone of Pope Francis and of this Synod seem to be in this direction—not a top-down approach, but really involving everyone.
  3. Empower us: The young, while being gifted, creative and apparently strong, are generally insecure. They often hide their insecurity through noise, laughter, expertise with gadgets, etc. They need encouragement; they need empowerment. A kind word from a parent or teacher or parish priest or principal goes a long way to build up a young person (“Mary, you really read well,” “Anand, your help in preparing the parish feast made a huge difference,” “Sheela, you have a wonderful way with children,” “Prakash, I am edified to see the way you care for your grandfather.”) Empowering is not only in words, but in giving them opportunities to do things, to shine, to succeed, and thus discover their gifts even more clearly.
  4. Respect us: We (authority figures or older persons) have no right to humiliate or insult young people, especially in public, or to speak about them in a disparaging manner. Every human being has to be treated with respect. Respect breeds respect, just as crudeness leads to crudeness. In our culture, “respect” is often (and sadly) understood as a special way of behaving towards persons who hold a particular post, not as the basic right of everyone. Just as I expect respect from my students or employees, I need to treat each of them with respect.
  5. Challenge us: An easy life does not bring out the best in people. A family upbringing or formation setting which is easy-going, undemanding or too comfortable, without sacrifices, duties, insistence on doing one’s work well, being clean, punctual and reliable, will turn us into useless or parasitic adults who cannot hold responsibility, face life, or be dependable. Adults need to set an example of joyful and responsible commitments, and openness to be challenged. From such adults, the young will accept challenges, corrections and even hard demands.
  6. Show us the way: Each human being is living this journey for the first time. We did not have a trial run! Hence it is only natural that we feel confused, unsure of ourselves and the need for a guiding hand. Even when teenagers and young adults seem to revolt and reject what parents and others in parental roles are telling them, later, especially after they marry, they will quote their parents, favourite teachers and the priests and religious who inspired them. They need loving adults who show the way.
  7. Tell us why, not only what: When a boy or girl asks, “Why should I go to confession?” or “Why go for Mass?” they are not denying the Catholic faith. They are looking for the meaning of Confession or the Mass. It is wrong to shout at them for that, or to say, “That is your duty as a Catholic!” Today, with a more educated laity, we, clergy and religious, will face more questions: Why get married in church? Why can’t I marry a non-Catholic? Why send my child for Catechism? What about birth control? Questions show interest, not rebellion. It is an opportunity for dialogue, not a provocation for a fight.
  8. Make serious matters meaningful: The way we celebrate the Eucharist, or hear confession, or have community prayers (for us religious) should show their meaningfulness. They should not come across as dull and meaningless routine, simply imposed by law. If a young religious asks her superiors why to have so many hours of structured prayers, or finds the daily office meaningless, the right response is not that she lacks faith or is proud, or that she is young now and will understand later. Such answers just show that older members have no good reasons for doing what they are doing.
  9. Make important things interesting: One thing I learnt when I came to the Salesian house was that prayer should be made interesting for boys. There is no reason for imposing on a youth group a type of music that appeals mostly to older people, or to preach or write in a way that puts people to sleep! Just as a good maths teacher makes mathematics interesting, and a good music teacher makes the students fall in love with music, we must do the same with spiritual matters and the more serious pursuits of life, like study, service, community life, common prayer, conferences.
  10. We want to see you happy: When we were young religious, we used to watch the older members of our community to see whether they looked happy. We felt: If they look happy, it is worth staying in. If they are not happy, why waste our life here? It matters to children to see their parents and grandparents happy. It is very hard growing up in a home where the older members look miserable. The same with religious communities or the tone of a diocese. The tone is set by the superiors and older members, not by the younger ones. It matters for the faithful to see their priests and religious happy. Look at photos of Pope Francis. Doesn’t he come across as a loving and happy man?

DON’TS:

Here are a few don’ts, too. What are the things the young do not want to see in us. These are the things that would put them off, of make them stop coming to church.

  1. Don’t bluff: Don’t preach one thing and do something else. Be honest. If you make a mistake, admit it, and apologize. If we do not know the answer to a student’s question, don’t pretend to know. Tell them honestly that you do not know, and that you can look for the answer. Then they will trust you. If you try to hide behind clever words, and pretend, they will lose their confidence in you.
  2. Don’t abuse: Behind all abuse—physical, emotional, sexual or financial—lies the abuse of authority. That is, someone who has more power—because of being a parent, or teacher, or parish priest or lay professional or older—makes use of that power to do harm, not to help. Power is given for doing good. Thus, a parent can use his or her physical strength to carry a sick child; a parish priest can counsel an alcoholic; an adult can help a child to cross the street or to learn music; a policeman can protect a citizen from physical harm or theft. Power puts special responsibility on the one having it. It is a terrible betrayal if we misuse power to do harm to a weaker human being. Thus, we should not tolerate wife-beating, or cruelty towards children, or sexual abuse of minors or employees, or police brutality, or government employees asking for bribes.
  3. Don’t imitate us: The young want adults as guides, not simply as friends. To chat and have fun and play with, they have their companions. They will tease a class mate with a different hair cut or type of clothes. Hence teenagers tend to conform to the group’s language, dress code, etc. If we, grown-ups, under the mistaken notion of being popular, tried to dress or act or talk like teenagers, they would find that rather silly. A sixty-year-old mother should not try to dress like her twenty-year-old daughter. A priest or religious should not use vulgar language or crack smutty jokes, even when some young people do it. They need us as their models; they will find it ridiculous if we take them as our models. We can, and should, discuss music and sports with them, of course. But they need to see that we have standards we will not lower. Thus, it is fine for a priest or teacher to play basketball with the students; he would be foolish to start smoking in order to be close to them.
  4. Don’t expect us to be perfect: No one is perfect. No one. Neither the young, nor the old. As one of the great Salesian formators used to tell other formators “The young have a right to be immature. It is we, older people, who should be exemplary.” The young—e.g., our sons and daughters, our students, junior religious, young parishioners—have a right to see greater maturity in us. We have no right to expect them to be mature. It is our “job”—through example, guidance, listening and encouragement—to help them mature. This journey of growth never gets done.
  5. Don’t bore us: Jesus was not boring. The crowds followed him, even for days, even when they had not eaten. Children liked his company, and came to him. Why do some of us make the Good News so boring! Why are some Sunday sermons so badly prepared and a source of patient suffering than an experience the congregation longs for? Today, with the exposure the young (even more than older people) have to social media, they will switch off if the speaker or writer is not interesting. Gone are the days when the temple festival or the village parish feast was a big social function and a big break in the monotony of ordinary life. Today, there are so many, many competing attractions. Just as we can easily flip TV channels or change what we are watching on the smart phone, our listeners will “switch off” if they are bored.
  6. Don’t give up on us: There are times when even the best of us gets fed up, discouraged, utterly alone. There are times when we may see nothing worthwhile in our life. We may feel like giving up. How many couples and parents feel discouraged! How many priests and religious feel unappreciated or disillusioned! This is part of human life. This happens to youngsters, too. In fact, behind the noise and the apparent glamour which they at times hide behind, many young people are lonely, insecure, even fed up with life. Some may attempt suicide. Others run away from home, or escape into addictions—alcohol, drugs, pornography, compulsive use of social media. Behind these erratic behaviours is a search for genuine relationships and a meaningful life. When young people feel like giving up, or are afraid of facing life, they need a strong and caring adult hand (and heart) that does not give up on them. Left to themselves, the young can often feel rudderless, lost and utterly alone. They need us—even though they may not say it.

Can, we, who are supposed to bring Jesus’ loving and compassionate message to all, especially the weak and the lost, be the caring and wise adults the young need in their life? Can we be healing balm for their unhealed wounds? Can we help to steady their boat when the sea is rough and they feel rudderless and terrified? Do we take them seriously, learn from them, listen to them, offer them opportunities to use their enormous potential and boundless energy to make a positive difference? We need their enthusiasm, risk-taking courage, spontaneity, freshness of outlook, creative restlessness and endless questioning, just as they need our serenity, wisdom and witness (if we are serene, wise and inspiring adults). May we find each other’s company stimulating, the mutual challenges rewarding and the mutual support a perennial source of strength. Through it all, may the mutual love deepen and widen! That, coupled with and sustained by a deep God-awareness, is what makes us Church.

 

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Human Formation: Becoming the Best Human Being We Can Be

Sep 08

The key element in family upbringing or religious formation—what makes it a success or a failure—is human formation. It is, unfortunately and frequently, the weakest part of the formation experience. What can we do about it?

Moved by the way people from different religions and castes helped each other during the recent floods in Kerala, a man wrote on WhatsApp: “You were not saved by someone of your religion. You were not saved by someone from your political party. When you grow up, and people ask you what you want to become, do not say, ‘I want to become a doctor, engineer, etc.’ Say, ‘I want to become a human being.’”

What a lovely thing to say!

Has your joining religious life helped you to become a mature and inspiring human being?

This may or may not happen—depending on those who guided your formation process, and your own personal search.

Of the different aspects of religious and priestly formation—intellectual, spiritual, pastoral and human—the weak link is often human formation. Why?

Because it is easier to make sure the formees know the dates of the founder’s life or pass exams in religious subjects, or keep the time table, than help them mature as human beings.

What is Human Formation?

To begin with, what does human formation mean? Which areas of my life should I cultivate, to become a mature adult?

There are six areas:

Physical fitness and capacity for work; emotional balance; relationships; psycho-sexual integration; responsible use of freedom and contact with reality.

Let me explain each of them briefly.

  1. Physical Fitness and Capacity for Work

Religious and priests need not be body builders or champion athletes, but we need to have enough health to do our work and adjust to the ordinary difficulties of life.

We, religious, do not, by any means, spend the whole day in prayer. Most of the day is devoted to work. To work well, we need to keep physically fit. This means eating right—neither depriving oneself of sufficient food, nor overeating—exercising, such as, playing with the students, taking care of one’s personal hygiene, getting enough sleep and using medicine when needed. We should neither neglect our health and become a burden to ourselves and others, nor become hypochondriacs seeking medication and attention for the slightest illness or discomfort.

Manual work should be a part of our formation. This has great formative value. It reaches us the dignity of all types of work, and the hardships of those whose whole life is spent in manual labour. No work should be seen as beneath us, or too hard to try. One of the reasons why Catholic institutions are generally clean, from the chapel and class rooms right down to the compound and the toilets, is that we were trained to keep the premises clean through our own work.

So, too, we learn not to be fussy about food. We have to eat whatever is set before us without complaining or making a face.

If a candidate is overly fussy about food, or seeks too many exceptions from the normal duties that members of the religious congregation do, he/she may not be suitable for this way of life.

So, too, there is a spiritual vision behind this. All of us need to do penance, which is a “must” in our Christian life. The best and most meaningful penance is to be make the sacrifices that my state of life and my duties require. Thus, for a married man or woman, the main form of penance is the daily adjustment to each other, getting up each time a child cries, cooking for a guest without complaining, or helping to clean the house when one would rather watch TV. Similarly, for me, as a Salesian, my best penance is to be with the young for recreation or manual work when I may find it easier to read or watch TV—and to do this cheerfully.  

  1. Emotional Balance

A more important aspect of human formation is emotional balance.

Whether we work in a school or hospital or social services, what matters to the people more than the life of the founder or our particular religious practices is what kind of persons we are. It does matter to them whether I am calm or angry, cheerful or gloomy, generous or jealous. Whatever post I may hold, whatever my academic qualifications, my emotional balance matters much more than my degrees

Emotional balance supposes that I have a positive self-image—positive, not boastful or arrogant—and can handle the ups and downs of life with a certain equanimity. We will not be gloomy for days if something unpleasant happens, nor unduly elated if someone praises us.

Emotional balance does not mean becoming unfeeling, like pieces of furniture. No! It means that we cultivate the so-called positive emotions—optimism, joy, courage, sense of humour—and learn to handle the so-called “negative” emotions—especially anger, fear, jealousy, depression and sexual attraction.

Such emotions are called “negative,” not because they are bad in themselves, but because, when handled badly or neglected, they lead to unhappiness and broken relationships.

Thus, both I and my community members will suffer if I am often moody. Younger people in my care will get hurt and or be afraid to approach me if I flare up easily. If I am a jealous person who cannot accept someone else’s success or popularity, I may do stupid things, like speaking ill of that person or ill-treating him/her, and thus win the contempt of people.

You may have heard the expression, “EQ matters more than IQ.” There is much wisdom in this statement. It means this: Suppose you want to choose a new superior, it is better to choose a person of average intelligence who is pleasant and emotionally balanced, rather than a brilliant person who is hot-tempered, gloomy or given to jealousy.

EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE

You have also have heard of a concept called “emotional intelligence.” It means four things:

  • Being aware of what I am feeling, e.g., when the provincial praised another person rather than me, I felt jealous and hurt.
  • Understanding why I feel this way: In our example, I may realize that I expect to be praised when I do something good; or else I will be disappointed.
  • Learning how to handle this: Can I learn to be happy, whether the provincial praises me or not?
  • Understand how others feel, and why: E.g., the way I teased So-and-so hurt him. When I, as superior, do not affirm people for good they do, they tend to feel discouraged.

Some studies (e.g., that of Fr Paul Parathazham on formees), show that seminarians and young religious show less maturity than their age group outside. Why?

The reasons vary.

One reason is the sheltered life they lead, without having to take responsibility or earn a living.

Another reason is that the superiors training the formees may act more like professors than like formators—that is, they may be teaching a subject in which they have a degree, but not helping the formees in their emotional development. They may not know how to do it. When I am struggling with anger or depression, jealousy or sexual confusion, what I need is not a theology class nor a conference on the life of the founder, but individual listening and counselling. Formators do not always provide this. When this happens, a person may acquire an advanced degree, or make the final vows, or get ordained, but be emotionally immature. Degrees and theoretical knowledge do not, by themselves, heal our emotional wounds, nor make us emotionally stable.

  1. Good Human Relations

Most of what we call ministry consists of relationships.

Most of our happy memories are tied to the people in our lives.

Most of our difficult experiences stem from relationships going wrong.

The well-known seventy-year-long longitudinal study by Harvard University on what makes people happy as they grow older gave this clear result: The main element in our happiness—as well as in our physical health—as we grow older is having close relationships. When the study started with Harvard undergraduates and young people of their age from poorer families, the youngsters said they wanted three things: money, fame and achievement. They believed these three things would make them happy. Did that work? No! As the research group followed this group of men from age eighteen to their 80s and 90s, they found that it is not their blood count and cholesterol levels at forty years that indicated how healthy they would be in their 70s and 80s. Their close relationships were what mattered most—for their happiness and their physical health.

I would encourage all to watch Robert Waldinger’s twelve-minute TED talk on this study.

How we relate to others matters very much—both in marriage and in celibate life. (I believe, in fact, that only a woman who would have made a good wife and mother would be a good nun, and only a man who would have been a good husband and father will make a good priest or religious. The same qualities are needed in both walks of life—especially the ability to relate lovingly and pleasantly.)

HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS

How can we cultivate good relationships? How do we make friends?

Simple. Do the first four things listed below and avoid the last three. You will have friends wherever you go.

  • Help: Whether it is reaching out to flood victims physically, or helping a stranger with a heavy suitcase, or paying a poor student’s fees, there are many opportunities for helping others. When we help, our own joy increases—and we make friends. Reach out. Give a helping hand. During formation, see who is ready to help, and who is reluctant. Celibacy is not simply a choice to give up marriage and parenthood; that would be a meaningless decision. What makes it celibacy is making a life-decision in response to God’s love, and the eagerness to share that Love with others.
  • Listen: Many [i]people look for someone who will listen to them. Am I willing to listen? When someone speaks, do give them my full attention, or do I interrupt much of the time, wanting to talk about myself and my interests? If you are a good listener, you will have friends.
  • Speak well: Speak lovingly to people and speak well of them in their absence. Your friends will multiply.
  • Enlarge your circle of friends: We all start life as a frog in a well—knowing only our family, our village or town, and the ethnic group we are born into. This is a small world. Our lives can be incredibly richer and more beautiful if we overcome our mental and cultural narrowness and build bridges across linguistic, ethnic and other barriers. This is especially important for those who choose celibacy, since it involves the readiness to accept any one from anywhere as my sister or brother and form community with them.
  • Do not gossip: This is an evil we cannot go back and erase. (For a fuller discussion, see MAGNET, October 2016, cover story.) Not only does it do enormous harm to the other; it poisons the speaker’s mind and life. Gossips end up lonely, since people who know them do not trust them.
  • Do not betray confidences: When people confide in us and share personal secrets, they must feel certain that we will not betray their confidence.
  • Do not tell lies: If I tell one lie, I need to tell ten lies to cover it, and a hundred lies to cover the ten. No one will trust my word.

A note to formators: If a young man or woman is a problem in communities repeatedly, and does not improve, but just keeps blaming others, that formee should be asked to leave. Someone who is incorrigible at twenty-two, will be much harder to handle at forty-two or fifty. Religious life or the priesthood is not for those who cannot live with others. The ability to relate to people with warmth, respect and dignity is essential to anyone choosing these special paths.

  1. Psycho-sexual Integration

This big word simply means this: As an adult, do I function well as a woman or as a woman? Do I relate in appropriate ways with men and women? Am I ready for gender-specific roles (e.g., marriage, motherhood, fatherhood)? If I choose celibacy, am I a happy and loving man or woman, who has “integrated” (brought in harmoniously) into the choice I made the kind of warmth, generosity and dedication that I have seen in my parents and married siblings and friends?

Whether married or celibate, we are not angels; we are human. We have all the potential and all the weakness of normal men and women.

Hence the need to learn from others, the need to get help, the need to go to God in humble prayer.

Sexuality—the mutual attraction between men and women, the power of maternal and paternal instinct, the tenderness we have seen and experienced in close relationships, the million variations on this theme that we have seen in novels and movies—is a very central and powerful force. Integrated well, it makes us warm, energetic, caring, creative and tender-hearted human beings. When misused, it can be extremely destructive, as when women and children are trafficked for sex, or minors are abused, or hapless victims are raped and killed.

This power should not be denied or avoided. It needs to be accepted gratefully as one of God’s most beautiful gifts. After all, without our sexual nature, I would not have a mother or father; I would not belong to a family. There would be no parents or grandparents swooning over little children or children running to their parents with smiles or tears. The most touching experiences of human life would be missing.

So, we neither despise nor worship sexuality. We accept our sexual nature gratefully, and seek to integrate it with the rest of life honestly, humbly and under wise guidance.

If, after reflection and wise discernment, a young person finds that celibacy is not what his/her heart is made for, we must help such young people to opt out—gracefully and with our loving support. We should never say that someone “lost his/her vocation.” We should treat those who leave as lovingly as before, and make it plain to them that the religious house which was once their home will always welcome their visits. If we stop loving a person when they make a different choice, it means we never loved them in the first place.

  1. Responsible Use of Freedom

Formators have had almost endless discussions on the question: How do we train our formees to personal responsibility?

There is no one answer to this question. Even a husband and wife will differ on how far to be strict and how far to be lenient with their children.

If we control the formees (or children in a family) too much, they will long to come out of this “jail.” As soon as they are free, they will tend to do all the things we forbade them to do.

If we are too lenient, they may become lazy and easy-going, do poorly in studies and professional life.

The question is harder to answer in the case of diocesan seminaries. A seminarian is not going to live in a structured community after his ordination. Once he is ordained, there will be no bells and no community making sure he prays regularly, or does his work, or lives his priestly life well.

For religious, there is more continuity between the formation house and the so-called regular or normal house. But even in this case, a religious after final vows enjoys much more freedom than during the initial formation.

So, how do we train people to use their freedom responsibly?

How do we avoid the two extremes of excessive control and inappropriate freedom?

After twenty-one years of formation ministry, I am convinced that a loving setting marked by joy and mutual openness yields far better results than a fear-filled and overly controlling setting. When people feel loved, and can see the genuineness of the formators, they open their hearts, accept corrections, admit mistakes, and tend to do the right things even later, when they are on their own.

In a formation house, a young person needs to see formators who are loving and happy, and learn that a genuine and loving life is a happy one.

We need to tell them, and give opportunities for formees to learn, that each of them must take responsibility for the following key areas, which others cannot take charge of:

  • Happiness: Others can do things for me; they can help or hurt me; they cannot give me happiness. I am responsible for my happiness.
  • Goodness: My religious order or seminary gives me opportunities. It cannot make me good. I can remain in religious life or the priesthood and become a saint or a crook.
  • Key decisions: The main decisions of my life are for me to take. Others cannot take them for me.
  • Use of time, money and opportunities: How I use these three gifts shows much about my maturity.
  1. Contact with Reality

A Hindu doctor who had studied in a Catholic school and had also sent his son to the same school, told me: “There are many good things in your church. But one thing is not good: To take young people and provide them everything free. This will make them irresponsible. They will not grow up well.”

What do you say to this?

Since, as the good doctor said, everything is provided to me free,  I can lose touch with the hardships of people and become irresponsible and unreasonably demanding. I may not know how to spend money when it is entrusted to me. I may not know the struggles of lay persons and hence not show them compassion.

Here comes the need of adequate exposure to “real life” during formation. These weeks, for instance, many young religious and seminarians are helping out in the refugee camps in Kerala. I remember the same thing happening in refugee camps in West Bengal during the Bangladesh War in 1971 or during droughts or after the Tsunami. Such experiences not only help us to help others; they deepen our awareness and our compassion. Some of the best memories for any young person are memories of helping others, especially if it involves sacrifice.

Contact with reality also means relating to persons different from us in background—whether by religion, mother tongue, place, caste or tribe. When young people grow up among and with others who differ from them, they tend to develop a more open mind, and be less bigoted and afraid of others when they grow up.

How to Promote Human Formation

How do we help formees in these six areas?

Both the formators and the formee need to do their part. Here are their roles, in a nutshell:

  1. The Formator’s Role

The formator’s main role is to create a healthy atmosphere marked by love and joy. Only in happy and loving settings will young people be themselves, learn with inner freedom and internalize what is being taught. In fear-filled settings, people are busy hiding and pretending. They are waiting to get out of the “spiritual jail” and be themselves. Whether in a family or in a religious formation house, the young have the right to make mistakes, be treated with love and respect and have role models to look up to.

Parents and formators can promote human formation in the following seven ways;

  • Be genuine: Genuineness breeds genuineness, just as hypocrisy will breed hypocrisy and anger. Part of being genuine is to admit our mistakes and apologize when we blunder or hurt someone.
  • Love those in your care: Fr Paul Albera SDB, who had been a boy in Don Bosco’s care, said this about his experience: “We were caught up in a current of love. We felt loved in a way we had never been loved before.” The young can easily make out whether we love them or not. Whether they stay or leave, their memories of a formation house (as of a good family) should be joyful memories of a loving home.
  • Accept criticism: The young will accept our corrections if they see that we are open to suggestions and criticism. If we are touchy, how can we expect younger people to be more mature? Fr Andrew, rector of a major seminary, once told me, “The students pointed out to me some of my limitations. I need to change.” This honesty made him a good formator.
  • Affirm and encourage: A word of appreciation from you will mean much to a young person, whether the achievement is something small (e.g., reading well in public) or big (e.g., looking after sick members).
  • Kindness in small things touches hearts: In a large seminary where I worked for years, the deacons would meet with the staff at the end of the course to thank us. One year, a deacon said, “My best memory is this: When I came to the seminary eight years ago, Fr Rector carried my suitcase to the dormitory.”
  • Give opportunities and demand: We must give the young opportunities for learning, and demand that they perform well. Not to make that demand, or to let them do shabby work, is damaging.
  • Provide counselling and spiritual direction: Most people have personal issues to be sorted out. Many carry unhealed wounds. Individual, confidential help is a must. Once the person speaks, he/she must be absolutely certain that what was shared will be kept confidential.
  1. The Formee’s Role
    You have a right to be imperfect and immature when you start. If you want to mature into a good human being, here is what you need to do:
  • Be honest: Do not pretend or hide. Talk things over with someone in confidence. Even in normal community settings, admit your mistakes and accept correction. Speak up.
  • Tackle your fears: You can become free of your fears. A shy young person can become a confident leader. One help is to talk over your fears and worries with someone in confidence. Another way is to try doing things you were scared of doing, e.g., public speaking.
  • Get healed: You may have unhealed inner wounds going back to your childhood or adolescence. Many do. No need to feel ashamed of it. If your father was a drunkard or if you were sexually abused, or you have been deeply hurt in relationships, get help, get healed and move on! Otherwise, you will waste much of your adult life on licking your wounds in silence.
  • Live meaningfully, not mechanically: Ask questions. Find out the reasons for community practices (e.g., regular prayer or silence). There is a great difference between doing something mechanically and doing it meaningfully.
  • Take responsibility for your life, especially for your happiness and for the person you become: Others can help you or hurt you; they cannot give you happiness, nor make you a good person. That responsibility is yours.
  • Face your sexuality: Becoming a mature man or woman is not a day’s work. It takes years. It means learning from inspiring women and men, learning to relate in healthy ways, channelling our sexual feelings in the proper way, moving from a world of fantasy (e.g., as in pornography) to a world of real human beings.
  • Be fully known to someone: This is very freeing. Most people do not know us, nor understand us, nor care deeply about us. But we need to have at least one person whose love we are sure of, whose judgements we trust, to whom we feel free to share everything within us. This is one of the best helps for growth.

*              *             *

As I conclude this article, I remember with tremendous admiration a Catholic layman I knew very well, who was a model of integrity and concern for others. A brilliant defense officer who never took a bribe nor indulged in anything dishonest, who reached out to others with deep care and compassion, who would spend hours coaching poorer students free of charge, he was much esteemed by close friends. One of them, a Sikh customs officer in New Delhi, who had seen people of all kinds, told this Catholic officer: “Whenever I praised you highly for something, you usually gave the credit to someone else. What if I tell you that you are the finest human being I have ever come across?”

Any of us will feel blessed if we can say that about our parents or superiors or formators. Our real task as parents or formators is precisely this: To be persons about whom, at the end of their formation journey, they can look back and say, “You are the finest human being (or one of the finest human beings) I have ever met.” If that is true, real human formation takes place—every day, everywhere.

Are our formators persons of this calibre? Some are, some are not. May we at least try.

Let me point to someone in whom the young saw this type of quality. She was a Sister in her 30s. She accompanied a group of Japanese college students (hardly any of them Christian) for two weeks during their travels. At the end, a good number of them wrote to her saying, “When I grow up, I want to be a woman like you.”

Good human formation—whether in a family or a seminary or a novitiate—takes place when there are such persons in charge.

For we cannot “produce” a good human being, nor create maturity through some short cuts. God can, of course (as Jesus said), create human beings out of the very stones. But, normally speaking, we become mature and more fully human when we are blessed to live with, and under the care of, other human beings whose very humanity shines forth and captures us. May we provide the young in our formation houses that kind of a healing and energizing presence.

 

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Learning from My Students: My Best Memories as a Teacher

JULY 08

In this honest and moving account of his life as a college teacher, the author looks at what teaching has meant to him, what it has taught him, and the main things he and his students learnt from one another.

How did I ever become what I did not want to become? This is a question I have often asked myself.

In my college days, teaching was certainly not a career option I considered. In fact, I changed track twice, first shifting from science to literature and then taking up a job in banking and again giving it up for good and joining college as a lecturer.

Even after joining, I kept wondering if I should be doing this. Many things conspired to keep me there. Initially it was a very comfortable job in my own hometown. There was a neat salary, other conveniences and a respectability which I think only the teaching community enjoys in Indian society. Teachers are more respected and trusted than anyone else.

But to think of it in such terms was not very satisfying; something was missing. At least, that is how I used to feel. What was I looking for? A deeper satisfaction which I think is more important than anything else. Call it spiritual, if you like.  It’s not success, but a feeling of inner satisfaction which one can get only by ‘walking the extra mile,’ so to speak. (This lesson I learned only later when I reflected on it more deeply.) Engaging with literature in the classrooms was indeed enjoyable, but also tedious. Reason: Many kids come to college, not really of out of a personal choice or keenness in studying a subject but for more prosaic reasons. Learning literature and languages is something that most would like to do without, as some have openly confessed to me. (“What’s the use of learning Milton or Shakespeare? Or reading O Henry and Virginia Woolf?”)

Experiences that Opened My Eyes

I was attending a retreat session for the faculty when I met a famous retreat master who was an excellent counsellor. I told him of this crisis of dissatisfaction that I experienced at that moment. He asked me how I went to work every day, with a sad face or a happy face. That set me thinking. I had to experience joyfulness in my work. I had to work ‘at it.’ I remember that in one of the sessions the preacher quoted St. Therese of Lisieux: “Bloom where you are planted.” That was a great thought. Happiness did not lie elsewhere but ‘here and now.’ Perhaps this was what St. Paul meant when he spoke somewhere of the kairos moment…

 

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LIVE WELL AND LEAVE WELL

AUGUST 7

For our cover story, we interviewed Fr Jerry Rosario SJ, who has donated blood a whopping 194 times—possibly the highest number in India! He has also been active in promoting blood and organ donation.  Anyone who knows Fr Jerry will know his enthusiasm, simple life, commitment to helping people and spreading awareness about urgent human issues.—Editor

01       How did you get into blood donation and, eventually, also into promoting blood and organ donation?

Way back in 1972, when I had just completed my Jesuit Novitiate, I was called upon to donate blood to a poor rural youth by name Murugan who had lost a huge quantity of blood from continuous vomiting.  A few days later, I learnt that my timely blood-gift had saved his life. Though this experience did make a deep personal impact on me, the turning point came with a missed opportunity.

Once, because of some urgent work, I could not go to the hospital to donate blood to Fr Coyle, an Irish Jesuit priest, who needed immediately a post-surgery transfusion. A professional donor took my place, but Fr Coyle died from transfusion-related complications. There and then, I vowed to seek chances to donate blood rather than wait to be asked.

By the way, science has advanced immensely so as to manufacture substitutes or alternatives practically for everything—but not for blood. That means when somebody dies due to non-availability of blood, the potential donors, in a way, have unconsciously and indirectly caused it.

What is the situation in our country? India stands in need of at least 12 million units of blood a year—at the time of medical surgery, delivery, emergency and calamity. Alas, it receives only 78 lakhs. We say, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of our Faith.” Now we could add: Our faith that has grown “works only when we supply blood to others-in-need” (James 2:14-17).

You may remember that the year 2005 was declared as a Special Year of the Eucharist by Pope St. John Paul II. That year saw me releasing a book ‘This is My Body, This is My Blood,’ highlighting not only the Eucharistic life of Christ Jesus but also the Eucharistic human organ donations that we could possibly make, both before and after death.

In 2007, the Tamil Nadu-Pondicherry Catholic Bishops’ Conference, after a session of mine on this noble focus, issued a special Pastoral Letter to be read in all parishes of its region, exhorting human donations. In 2009, as a Creative Jesuit Ministry, the Dhanam Movement was registered to propagate and promote human donations. Dhanam is the Tamil rendition of daan (donation) in Sanskrit. The motto is that ‘all may have life and that, too, in fullness’ (Jn.10.10).

Over the years, the Dhanam movement has organized 450 camps and 630 conferences, big and small, both in urban and rural areas and institutions, to promote blood and organ donations. The awareness is picking up at an encouraging pace. But still, there are miles to go.

02       How many times have you donated blood? For whom?

If you had asked me this question some years back, I would‘ve by-passed it. Till I crossed 100 or so, I did hesitate to talk about my blood donation count. Then I was advised to speak about it so that others can also come forward. Up to May-2018, I have donated blood 194 times. Quite possibly I stand first in our country, having donated that number of FULL UNITS OF BLOOD (not just parts of blood, like platelets).

God has blessed me with one of the rarest blood groups, O-Rh Negative. Accordingly, out of all the donations I have made, sixty-seven were done at the time of delivery for the new-born babies, particularly when they were found affected by the incompatibility of blood groups of their parents. If so, they all are “blood of my blood,” my beloved children, so to say!

Another group was poor cancer patients. I donated my blood for them fifty-five times. It is always advisable to donate blood preferably to the patients at Government General Hospitals and to Red Cross Society and to the terminally-ill. Simple reason: Our blood can also be a “Good News to the poor,” who generally flock to the general hospitals. Moreover, the Government meets the expenses that are incurred for blood-tests before transfusion. That too benefits the last and the least (Mt.25.40)…

 


Fr Jerry Rosario SJ

(jerrysj1@gmail.com)

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LOVE THE LEAST! SEND THE BEST!

JUNE 9

Pope Francis, an example of closeness to the poor and concern for the least, has been inviting religious to “move to the peripheries,” and to choose the best persons for ministry among the poor. Are we doing it?

His father was the Governor General of Canada. He lived in Canada, England and France, and received a very good education. He was a member of the English Navy and later of the Canadian Navy. On completing his doctorate, he taught in a college. He could have had a successful career.

Visiting a psychiatric hospital near Paris, he was touched by the plight of intellectually disabled men. He gave up plans for a career, and decided to take in two of the men, and to share his life with them. Their names were Raphael and Philippe.

This was the beginning of a new life for all three. Jean Vanier—he is the one I am talking about—was not starting an institution, but sharing his life with two concrete human beings, Philippe and Raphael. The well-educated, well-placed Jean found: “Essentially, they wanted a friend.  They were not very interested in my knowledge or my ability to do things, but rather they needed my heart and my being.”

Jean called for help, and a number of young people from different countries volunteered to assist him. This is how the movement now known as L’Arche (“The Ark”) started. There are 151 L’Arche communities on five continents, with some 5000 members. The volunteers, called “assistants,’ share the life of the “core members” (whom others consider handicapped).

In a talk to the students of Harvard University (the world’s richest and most prestigious educational institution), Jean spoke of a choice of “downward mobility.” He was in the Navy, and knew how to command, and how to have a good career. He left it to form community with persons whom others ignore, despise or avoid.

How many of us readily seek such “downward mobility”—to share our lives with the least, and do it with our whole heart and being?

Father Henri Nouwen, well-known priest-psychologist and bestselling author whose forty books are known to many of us, quit his university post and joined a L’Arche Community in Canada. He spent his last ten years ministering to persons for whom his erudition or fame or titles meant nothing. He did the humblest services for them—cleaning, bathing and feeding men who could not even say “Thank you” to him.

Examples Close to Us

This year, I got to know an Indian Sister who had been principal of a large school in one of our cities. She volunteered to work in a poorer country, and was assigned to East Timor, one of the world’s poorest nations, where even ordinary medicines are hard to come by. She looks and sounds happy. Asked about food, she told me, laughing, “Pumpkin in the morning, afternoon and night.” She sounds evidently delighted to live and work among the poor, in a setting far removed from her home or country.

Another Sister, a student of mine at Madras University, did a research paper on: “Do Women Religious Find Fulfilment?” One of the questions in her survey among women religious was: “Looking back, what do you feel most happy about?” Can you guess what makes most religious happy? Having worked for the poor. That came up as the most frequent answer. There is, evidently, a close link between happiness and commitment to the poor.

This was further confirmed in chats with a close friend of mine, a religious priest who had been principal of a famous English medium school in a city. “If I were to start my ministry now, and had the choice, I would work in a village school for poor children. Many of the rich kids who come to our city schools, simply pick up better English and improve their career prospects. We give them better skills to exploit the poor.”

Is your ministry increasing the opportunities of those who already have much, or opening doors of hope to those who have very little?

As a former Salesian who did extraordinary work among the poor as a layman, together with his wife, who had resigned her post as an associate professor and joined him in caring for the poor, asked me, “What is your celibacy about? Is it for expanding the opportunities of those who already have much, or for helping the poor to come up?” Good challenge.

Mahatma Gandhi had this criterion for checking the correctness of our decisions. It is a good principle for what we, in religious circles, call discernment:

“Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving  millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

Abhilasha Bhardwaj, a US-based Indian woman, shares on the web how this talisman helps her to avoid buying luxury clothes, which, after all, are just an effort to impress others, and use that money—or at least a part of it—to help the hungry or the homeless. She knows that her choice of simpler clothes will not remove misery from the world, but “just the wise decision of feeding the hungry for even 20% of this amount will definitely help many from sleepless-food-less nights.”

Isn’t this how we can build a more human world?

Do we, parents and educators, teach this to our children and students, both through exhortations, and still more by example?

Is this what the younger religious and seminarians will see in our older religious and priests?

God will provide!

When, as a young priest, Don Bosco was discerning what ministry he was called to, he thought of the missions; he considered becoming a Franciscan; his spiritual director dissuaded him. He was offered the chaplaincy in a home for girls run by a pious and rich lady from the aristocracy, the Marchioness Barolo. She was a good person, and cared for this young priest’s health and well-being. But she was frustrated at seeing him devote his energies more to the boys of the street. Finally, to persuade him, she gave him an ultimatum: You have to choose between your street boys and my girls. If you continue to spend all your time with those urchins, I will cut you off from financial help. You will be on your own.

Don Bosco told her: “The girls have you. These boys have no one. I will devote myself to helping these boys.”

As for the means to do it, he believed God would see to it.

And God provided in ways far beyond what the young priest could have foreseen.

If we forget that, and go only by human calculations, we will do very little. God has incredibly greater resources than what we can have or bring together. Our ministry towards the poor is based on this trust in God. These are God’s children, and, in caring for them, we are doing God’s work.

I have seen religious and priests do great things because of such trust in God. The Salesian works in Kerala—which was then a part of Madras Province—were started by Fr Francis Guezou, a French Salesian, to whom the provincial gave twenty Rupees! He and another Salesian priest reached Kochi, and—since it was raining—bought two umbrellas for that amount. A Communist who noticed that the two priests were not going out to eat, nor cooking, told them: “I am a Communist. I don’t like priests. But I do not like to see people starving. You can come to my house and eat.” That is how they started.

If you go to Yellagiri Hills (near Jolarpettai) today, you will see a huge centre that trains poor young people from the hills in advanced computer skills. (It has programmes for religious, too.) That, too, was started by the same Father Guezou. One priest gave him Rs 45, and another gave him a table and a bench. He started with that. He trusted God. He loved the poor.

I believe—and have seen—that commitment to the poor and trust in God are closely related. A diocesan priest, a former student of mine, comes to mind. He has done fantastic things—building up whole new parishes, churches and schools in places where there was nothing. You will not find his name on any building. Once, when he told me he wanted to put up a good building for the school for poor children in a slum, I told him, “You have not finished paying the bills for the church. How will you find the money?” His answer edified me: “This is God’s work. He will send us the money. But we should have big dreams.” Within a year, he was able to complete a new school building.

That is another lesson, by the way: People make out whether a priest or religious is after money or not. If someone is money-minded, people will not give that person money. If we are not after money, but dedicated to our ministry, people will give us all the money we need for doing good.

In Church settings, the real issue is not lack of money, but finding the right personnel.

Inspiring Models

Recently I met a Sister Doctor working in a poor village in Central India. Her consultation fees: Rs 50—for three months! That is, once a patient pays Rs 50, s/he does not pay anything for the subsequent visits for three months. “Our people are really poor,” she told me. “Most of them weigh only 35 to 40 kilos.”

There are a number of religious, especially women religious, who have done extraordinary medical work in our poorer villages. Their presence has been a life-and-death matter for many of our people, who cannot afford a trip to the city, nor the fees of corporate hospitals.

There are over 3500 medical centres run by the Catholic church all over India. They range from tiny dispensaries to huge and complex speciality hospitals. They differ in priorities, charges, facilities and target groups. The service many of them have done, and still do, for the poorer sections of our society has been exemplary. May many others, both within and outside the church, follow their example.

A Brahmin professor at one of our IITs told a friend why he became a Catholic. “I am not an emotional person,” he said. “I need convincing reasons for what I do. I was struck by something I read, namely, that 95 percent of the leprosaria in our country are run by the Catholic Church. I asked myself how and why a small community, fewer than 2 percent of our population, is able to do this. This is how I got interested in the Church.”

Meaningful Celibate Life

Leading a simple life and choosing poverty over riches, and service to the poor over serving the rich, is essential to a right understanding of celibacy. Celibacy is not simply a saying No to marriage and sex. It is the heart’s response to an invitation from God. We cannot live it meaningfully if we run after money, comfort, pleasure and power.

Henri Nouwen’s radical criticism of comfortable life-styles is both stern and practical. “A wealthy celibate,” he says, “is like a fat sprinter” [a contradiction in terms].  If we celibates find that our life-style is more comfortable than that of the people whom we serve, that means we have not taken our celibacy seriously. In fact, he adds, many lay people do not take our celibate life seriously, because they find our lives more comfortable when compared to their daily struggles. “Whenever the church is vital, it is poor.”

Nicholas Kristof, a reporter of the world’s most famous and influential newspaper, The New York Times,  is not a Catholic. Writing from Sudan, where he went to report on the tragedies of that nation, he wrote movingly about the Catholic priests and nuns he met there.

“I came here to impoverished southern Sudan to write about Sudanese problems, not the Catholic Church’s. Yet once again, I am awed that so many of the selfless people serving the world’s neediest are lowly nuns and priests — notable not for the grandeur of their vestments but for the grandness of their compassion.…Overwhelmingly it’s at the grass roots that I find the great soul of the Catholic Church…

“I met Father Michael [an American missionary] in the remote village of Nyamlell, 150 miles from any paved road… He runs four schools for children who would otherwise go without an education, and his graduates score at the top of state-wide examinations. ..To keep his schools alive, he persevered through civil war, imprisonment and beatings, and a smorgasbord of disease… Father Michael may be the worst-dressed priest I’ve ever seen — and the noblest…

“There’s Father Mario Falconi, an Italian priest who refused to leave Rwanda during the genocide and bravely saved 3,000 people from being massacred. There’s Father Mario Benedetti, a 72-year-old Italian priest based in Congo who fled with his congregation when their town was attacked by a brutal militia. Now Father Mario lives side by side with his Congolese congregants in the squalor of a refugee camp in southern Sudan, struggling to get schooling for their children.”

After mentioning the deeply committed Sisters and priests he met in the poorest parts of the country, he adds:

“It’s because of brave souls like these that I honor the Catholic Church.”

We have a Pope who is a religious and who lives in a simple apartment at the Vatican. He lived among the poor as a bishop; he learnt from the poor. Immediately after his election as Pope, a Brazilian Cardinal sitting next to him whispered: “Do not forget the poor.” He certainly does not.

Joy and Fulfilment:

I asked Father Thomas Koshy, a Salesian priest known for his decades of work with the street children in Vijayawada, “How many boys and girls have you saved from the streets and helped to settle?”

His answer was a pleasant shock: “Some twenty-two to twenty-four thousand,” he said.

We, religious and priests, can make a huge, huge difference to a very large number of poor people—if we have our heart in the right place. For this, our God-search must be sincere, our priorities (mission-awareness) clear, and we must be free of hidden agendas, like the quest for power, money and comfort. Otherwise, we will waste our life and God-given energies on selfish pursuits. After all, we are put on this earth to increase the goodness in the world, aren’t we? We should not waste this precious gift called life on power games, gossip, social climbing and search for comfort.

Priests and religious who are committed to the poor, and lead a simple life themselves, are among the happiest people in the world. They do not see their life of service as heroic, or as a burden, but as a service of love offered cheerfully. They look happy, and they are. They have neither the time nor the interest to waste on who is doing what, who is getting transferred where, which scandal to spread, or what is there for lunch. No, life is too precious to be wasted on such trivialities or destructive games.

The saints show us how to combine a simple and committed life with great joy. Don Bosco would tell his boys—most of whom were poor, unrefined, uncouth, and unruly—“Here, in your midst, I am completely at home.” He would write to his boys telling them they had stolen his heart. When, at his deathbed, he was dictating his final letter, and came to the part for the boys, his voice broke. The thought of his boys moved him visibly, and he could not speak. This is love—real, palpable, effective, expressed in humble service. No wonder his second successor, Fr Paul Albera, who had been a boy under Don Bosco, could later write, “We were caught up in a current of love. We felt loved in a way we had never been loved before.”

The poor, as Mother Teresa used to say, need our love more than food. Don’t we all?

The best gift we give to the poor is not money or material food, but our genuine love.

If that love is real, the work is not a burden, nor the sacrifices of ministry something to complain about. For, as St. Augustine would say, “Where there is love, there is no fatigue; or, if there is fatigue, the fatigue itself is loved.”

Learning from the Poor

Archbishop Oscar Romero was a somewhat conservative clergyman when he was made bishop. What changed him was his growing realization of how the poor were treated—and how those who spoke for them were killed.

At the age of sixty, he went to school again—he started listening to the poor. They could come to the Bishop’s house and meet him. He would listen to them. He learnt from them. He decided to speak up in their defence.

I remember what a sister told me about her transfer from the city to a poor village. She had worked for years in their well-known city hospital, had VIP contacts, and was popular and influential. When her provincial wanted to send her to a village dispensary, she felt disappointed. Some of her influential friends in the city pleaded with her not to go; they wanted to ask the provincial not to transfer her.

But she went. Later, she would say, “I had worked only in our city hospital. This is the first time I am working in a village. I am learning a lot. Not only about the poverty and lack of facilities they suffer from, but about their faith and goodness. I would see a man taking his sick wife to the hospital on a cycle. They wanted not only medicine, but our prayers. I did not realize earlier that our prayers mean so much to people, especially when they are ill. My prayer life has improved after going to the village. I went there reluctantly, but I am so glad I got this chance.”

What would YOU do?

Here are two true incidents. If you wish, check which style resembles yours more.

Case One: A college student told his principal (a religious priest), “Father, I am going to discontinue. My father cannot afford to pay my fees. We have lots of problems at home.” “How much can your family pay?” “Only Rs 1000 a year.” “OK, pay that, and remain in college. Do not discontinue. We will find the money somehow.”

This priest—as well as his religious order—is giving a strong message: “We are here for you; we are not here for your money.”

Case Two: The driver in a religious house tells the rector: “At times, the Sisters where my daughter is studying are difficult.” “How?” “One month, I was late in paying the fee. My child is asthmatic; a sister made her stand outside in the cold.”

The message here seems to be: “We are here for your money.” Is this how we train our religious and priests?

If we run (or start) a school or college, do we start it in a poor area to make education accessible to the deprived, or in a richer area, where we are more certain of making money? Do we see education mostly as a means to empower the marginalized, or as a source of income? Do we train (and treat) those of us who get teaching posts as persons meant for a mission or more as persons bringing in a salary?

My “job” as a Salesian is not to bring money to the Salesian Congregation, but to bring God’s love to the young, especially the poor. This is what distinguishes a school or other work run by the Church as opposed to an institution run by a business group. Profits are the main concern for them; service, especially of the least, should be our main concern. If we are not careful, what starts as a mission of service can end up as a business.

Life-Style and Formation

Two things influence us more than the Pope’s invitation or example—the general life-style of the members of the order, and how formation is imparted.

Life-style: A religious who had been a superior for years, told me: “This is the first time I am taking an autoric. What I am used to is this: Ten minutes before I need to go anywhere, the car and driver are ready and waiting.” If we get used to comfort and luxury, we will easily forget the poor, and act and talk and take decisions like the rich. And we will enjoy—even seek—the company of the rich more than of the poor.

Formation: Formators must be men and women who lead a simple life, and who have had some experience of working with the poor. Clever theories and fancy degrees do not make someone a good formator. The formees study the formators closely. If what they see is inspiring, the formees will listen and become better persons. If not, they will become cynical, and think: “I have to obey now; later I can have anything I want, and do what I like.”

Balwant Singh Dalwani, a Sikh diplomat who worked in the Indian Foreign Service, resigned early, and worked among leprosy patients in rural Maharashtra. At an inter-religious conference he recited a prayer that touched me deeply. He said: “When I have found Thee, there is no ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’; everybody is mine.”

May we, too, be deeply transformed by our meeting with God, and see everyone, especially the poor, as truly “our own.”

If they are our own, and their needs become our core concerns, then working for them, living like them, and making them our priority will come natural to us. We will have the “smell of the sheep,” because it is among them we spend most time.

We will allot to their service the most gifted among us—not the “leftovers” nor the troublesome ones.

Love will make our work enjoyable, and we will go through the world as joyful witnesses to God’s incredible, tender, never-failing love for each of us.

May our faith in Christ help us to love the least and give them our best.


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Cover Story

What Am I Called to?

MAY 7

In simple, clear language laced with touching examples and heart-warming humour, Sr Esme, who has guided younger religious in their vocational discernment, explains what “vocation” means, how to discern one’s religious or priestly call, what amounts to right and wrong motives, the dangers inherent in “vocation promotion,” and the nature of marriage as a holy vocation.

Before it’s too late!

I was on a train, and as usual it was rather crowded. I must have been in my early thirties then. A young man got in and sat right in front of me. I could see he was trying to draw my attention. I tried to avoid his gaze. But for how long could I just dodge the situation?   I finally looked up. He was a pleasant, well-dressed man. He smiled and introduced himself as an ex-student of one of our leading Catholic schools in Lucknow. I still remember that conversation. ‘When I see someone in this garb (he was referring to my Religious habit), I feel urged to talk.’  He wanted to know about our way of life. Inevitably the question came out: ‘How many children do you have?’  I told him we do not marry. He was surprised. ‘But then how will people remember you?’

He was an educated gentleman, and so I began to ask him whether people remembered Mahatma Gandhi for the number of children he had, or Shakespeare, or Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln. I thought I had convinced him. Then we went on to talk about other things. When I reached my destination, he helped me down with my luggage. He was going further. But he stood there on the platform with me. I told him to get in as the train would not stop long. He lingered on, and looking at me intently he said: ‘Remember what I said, before it is too late!’  He just could not understand our consecrated chastity.

At one time I was a research student, the University being just a few minutes’ walk from our place. We did not have regular classes but went to the University for our laboratory work whenever we needed to. I sometimes met a Professor on the campus, and he would talk to me until the lab assistant came to open the doors for me. As we became more acquainted, he asked me what I am doing and what my plans were for the future. I told him I was teaching, and as for the future, I had no specific plans. We have dedicated our lives for service and can be assigned to any work, anywhere. We got to talking about Christianity, and then Religious life. He asked what that meant, and I told him about prayer, our timetable, our community, my teaching, my school … At another time he asked me about my salary … and I told him about our vows, that our resources are pooled and we give an account of the money we spend. He could not understand our vow of poverty. That we have a vow of obedience completely bowled him off. I did not get an occasion to speak about the vow of chastity!

Okay, we can expect these reactions from people of other faiths. Our way of life is a mystery to them. But let us come closer home. A Sister who joined our congregation after me, was a classmate of my younger sister. A few years after school, she decided to join the Convent. My sister met her. I was already in the Convent by then. ‘What, are you going to join the Convent? Are you mad?’ she blurted out. Nancy looked at her perplexed. ‘But your sister too has joined the Convent!’ ‘Yes’, my sister retorted.  ‘She too is mad!’  That’s about as much some of our own people understand our choices.

I Have Called You

I said, ‘our choices.’ But that is not the full truth. Jesus said: You have not chosen Me. I chose you. That holds good for a Religious Call. But it is equally true for other walks of life too. A common saying is ‘Marriages are made in heaven.’ Somehow in the divine tapestry, God has so fashioned us and so equipped us that He calls each one of us to play a specific role in the drama of life. We are all called to that one goal–holiness of life—that will lead us to union with Him in eternity. Yet He leads us along different paths, to fulfill specific roles, in pursuit of that one goal.

God never repeats Himself. Each one of us is different. No two humans (nor animals, birds, fish and flowers…for that matter) are exactly the same. Every person has a role to fill which only he/she can fulfill. When we ignore or are unfaithful to our call, something in that divine tapestry remains incomplete. No one can fully substitute another!

That is the trust that God places in each of us, His children. He calls us to a specific mission! God did not make junk!

Various Vocations

One may ask: How do I know what I am called to?  Well, we need not go to astrologers or fortune-tellers to get a quick answer. The answer is buried deep within ourselves. To use our computer jargon, we are made by default—we are pre-conditioned, pre-pared for our mission in life. So life itself pre-disposes us to a choice of a state in life—consecrated, married or single!

Somehow, as we grow, we begin to feel the pull from within ourselves towards one or another state of life. For a call to the married life, attractions that we might term ‘natural’ draw two persons together. Somehow they feel they are made for each other. The heart has a language of its own! A couple begins to appreciate the other as each discovers the qualities of the other. They feel comfortable and at ease in each other’s company. A time comes when they feel prepared to strike it together, to decide to journey through life as married partners.

Where do our so-called ‘arranged marriages’ fit in? People speak of a ‘good’ match, a ‘good’ boy, or a ‘good’ girl! What does that ‘good’ mean? No alcohol, no smoking, a fat salary, ‘good’ social status, ‘good’ family background….? Give them a chance to also find out if their personalities are compatible, to look intently at one another to ‘see’ whether they can face life together, as man and wife. Therefore, no vocation should be forced upon anyone. The choice should be in consonance with one’s heart.

I have heard it said that no one is ‘called’ to be a single. And they quote the Bible: It is not good for man to be alone. (Women too?)  I would question that. In God’s divine plan there may be a mission that would require the freedom and single-minded dedication of a lay unmarried person. Take for example a bed-ridden parent. My mother was eighteen years old, the youngest daughter in her family, when her mother got paralyzed. She decided to stay at home and not to marry, in order to take care of her.  Her mother lived on for another twelve years. My mother married only after that—at the age of 30. Some others have remained single and have taken care of the rest of the family all their life. I know of a Religious Sister who felt so drawn to social service that she ultimately decided to step out of the Convent and attach herself to a hospice for the disabled. She was assigned to take care of a man who had had an accident and was paralyzed from the neck downward. She dedicated the rest of her life to care for him, even after he was discharged from the hospice. Eventually—she was in her mid-fifties by then—they decided to get married, sharing their hurts, their hopes and their dreams. Her dedication and care were something extraordinary.

But these are rare cases.

Vocational Discernment

In the case of a call to the Religious or Priestly life, it would be wise to seek guidance from a spiritually-oriented person.

  • Why is the candidate seeking to embrace a Life of Consecration? Has he/she had a strong experience of the Lord, as a result of which he/she wants to take this step?? What is he/she searching for? – a closer following of the Lord, a deeper prayer life, a life of dedication to those in need? What particular type of service does he/she feel drawn to offer?  Right Intentions are essential.
  • Motivations are very important because they are the engine which gives the necessary energy and direction to what one does or wants to do. If these motivations are weak, one can easily be swayed or may even give up when faced with difficulty. For example: in moments of hardship, peer group pressure, criticism, failure, difficult situations in the ministry, inter-personal frictions, …

If one enters with wrong motivations, one may seek for things that are not in keeping with the essence of a life of consecration: for example, comfort, security, promotions, competition and rivalry, opportunities for study, higher social status, etc.

  • Does the candidate have the necessary requisites to embrace the Priestly or Religious Life? The minimum educational qualification required, the age of the person, sufficient physical health and maturity, a basic Christian formation, emotional balance, ability for team work and to live in a community, aptitudes for the ministries specific to the Priesthood or to the Congregation he/she hopes to join…
  • One’s family situation should also be taken into consideration. Children from broken families, those brought up in extreme poverty, those exposed to or victims of domestic violence and abuse may have first to be helped psychologically before they can venture into a way of life that is essentially one of service and self-giving.

Whether the candidate is required at home to take care of the family, or is the only earning member on which the family depends, would also have to be considered.

  • Did the candidate enter into another Congregation or Seminary before? If so, why did he/she leave?

Finally, does one feel at peace deep within when one thinks of the choice about to be made?  Does one feel an inner assurance that this is the right choice? A certain sense of satisfaction, a good feeling that this is what I want, what I am made for, what I am called for?

Who, What, Why, How, Where … and finally, When should I go?

These are some of the points on which the Director will have to assess the candidate. Some or even many of the young people contemplating a Priestly or Religious Life may come in with mixed motivations. They must be helped to sort out these motivations: which ones are genuine, which ones need to be purified, which ones are not compatible with a genuine life of unconditional commitment to God.

Sometimes the candidates may not even be aware of some of their lesser motivations. These may surface only later in life. Here formation plays a vital role. If the candidate has some strong motivations, he/she will easily laugh at and let go of the lesser motivations he/she discovers that may have initially led him/her.

Here are some of the ‘charming’ examples I came across when I was with younger Religious:

  • One was attracted by the Religious Habit, especially the starched collar!
  • Another joined one Congregation rather than some others, because their Sisters wore socks and shoes!
  • Another joined because two of her school friends were also joining.
  • Some came because they saw the Sisters eating with a fork and a spoon.

Wrong Motives

Other motivations are weightier and need to be rectified:

  • Someone was enticed by her aunt who was a Religious in the same Congregation.
  • One confessed that she wanted a more peaceful and retired life, after all the tension she had at home. To live happily ever after… as in the fairy tales. She never dreamed that Priests and Religious too might have their disagreements sometimes!
  • Someone thought that she could lead a chaste life only by becoming a Religious.
  • Another wanted to join the Convent out of sheer disappointment, because her boy-friend had left her.
  • Some wanted an opportunity for higher studies or a special technical training that their family could not afford to give them. Some of them even joined already with the intention to leave after that training period.
  • Some heard that in Religious Life, there is a fair chance to go abroad.
  • Some sought to raise their social status. They would become important, earn degrees, hold a responsible post, and people would look up to them.
  • Some came with the hope of prestigious positions of power, authority and honour.
  • Some were encouraged to become Religious as their parents could not afford to give them a dowry, if they married.

Then sometimes, it is the parents who have the vocation! Family aspirations or ambitions may include having a priest or religious in the family!

  • “At least one of my sons must become a priest!”
  • “When you were nearly dying I promised to give you to God if you got well. Now you must.”
  • “I have so many daughters; at least one or two should become nuns, or else I will not be able to marry off any of them!”

It seems that both parents of St Teresa of Lisieux had once wanted to enter Religious Life. That did not happen, but five of their daughters became nuns!

Some years after I had joined the Convent and my brother had earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, my father, retired by then, said with great satisfaction: You did what I wanted to do but didn’t; he did what I wanted to do but couldn’t. He felt his deeper aspirations fulfilled in his children. He had wanted to be a Jesuit, but the concept of obedience daunted him.

Vocation Promotion

I had not even heard of such a thing when I joined, which was some fifty odd years ago. Now it seems crucial to the very survival of our Institutes. They say we need to advertise! … Jesus too, they argue, went about collecting disciples. But how different were His tactics!

If anyone wants to follow Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.

The foxes have holes, the birds their nests… but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay down His head!

Leave all you have … and then come and follow Me.

He who puts his hands to the plough and looks back, is not worthy of Me.

He who loves father and mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.

Jesus did not mince words when He spoke of the hardships of His way of life. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you too!  But He offered them life eternal. His magnetic charisma drew crowds after Him. The disciples gradually imbibed His values. And after His death and resurrection, they went about boldly proclaiming His message to the point of embracing martyrdom for His sake!

Our ‘vocation promotion’ seems to be preoccupied with numbers. Promoters vie with one another as to who has drawn in the greater number of ‘fish.’ They may tend to water down the radicality of the call, making it ‘more appealing’ – which often means ‘less challenging.’

As a result they may gather in a basket full of jelly-fish!

Religious Life is sometimes shown as a profession—a teacher, a nurse, a social worker …

Or, as a means of self- fulfillment, self-assertion, self-interest!

A newly-professed Sister had gone for vocation promotion with a senior Sister. Talking to the young Sister I was curious about what they tell the girls and how they present Religious Life to them. I was amused when she said that they tell them that they will be sent to finish their studies, that they can do whatever they want, and since the Founder was from Europe, they might even get a chance to visit the place someday.

If that is the bait, what kind of fish can we expect to catch?  Are we honest with them, or just deluding them with empty promises? If and when they do enter Religious Life, what will they be looking for? How will they react when they realize the falsehood of what they were promised?  Are we genuine in our search for suitable candidates? Will we ever find ‘suitable’ candidates, or just a bunch of self-seeking, comfort- and pleasure-loving youngsters?

Why not fire them instead with the prayerfulness and union with God of our founders/foundress, their pioneering apostolic zeal, the self-sacrifice needed for our frontier missionary activities today, the courage to do and to die for Christ? … But that fire must burn in us first!

The First Steps

Most of our candidates have passed Class XII, but they usually need to be taught English, since that is the language used in our formation and in Community. Besides that, they are also grounded in Catechism. Then they are taught computer and music, art and needlework—so that they make use of their time profitably.

The curriculum changes and becomes more spiritual and religious in the Postulancy.

Something unexpected (and instructive) happened one year.

Four or five of these candidates were promoted after a year and were sent to the Postulancy.  Everything seemed fine for the first few months. After a while, two of these went to meet the Provincial. Their request? “We don’t want to be Postulants, we want to continue as candidates.” When asked why, they replied with innocent frankness, “The priest who sent us here told us that we will be taught good English, and that we can go back home after that. Then he will send us for nursing.” Talk of right motivation!

 

The Call to Marriage

Let’s make a switch over to another Call – the Call to Married Life. For the Priesthood and the Religious Life, there is a long probation period of eight to ten years. The candidate is still in time to decide whether he/she wants to continue in the vocation or not. His/her suitability is also gauged by the seminary or congregation. He/she may be asked to discontinue if found unsuitable.

There is no such probation period in marriage. Hence the necessity for the prospective partners to get to know one another fairly well before the marriage is celebrated.

There was the case of a bridegroom who got so annoyed with his bride when she tripped over her gown while climbing the steps to the Church. She looked at him for a while, and then said decisively: If such a little mishap makes you so annoyed. I’ll not have this marriage! And she called it off.

A Support System for Married Couples

The Church insists on a pre-marriage course, at least to explain the Church’s understanding of a Christian marriage. But this often dwindles down to just a few informal talks with one’s parish priest.

Difficulties in marriage are often inter-relational, between the married partners and/or with the in-laws. In Genesis 2:24 we read: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united with his wife, and they become one.”

How, why and when did this get changed, so that it is the wife who has to leave her father and mother?

I feel that married people need a lot more support to make their marriage workable and pleasant. Priests and Religious can hope for transfers or a change of assignments when the going is difficult. In marriage, there are no transfers. It is for better or for worse … The marriage vows say so!

Here is a case. The parents of one of the Sisters were a wonderful couple. The man was very jovial, while his wife was sometimes a bit tense and worked up. This Sister used to relate how, when her mother was off-mood, she would stare at her husband and shake her head resignedly: “What to do man! For bad or for worse I married you!”

 At a more modern wedding, the bride and groom were pronouncing their marriage vows. After that, the ceremony went on and the bride was asked to repeat after the Priest: “I will love, serve, and obey you as long as we both are alive.”  Our petite bride looked up and said in the hearing of all: “No, Father, equal rights!”  The groom smiled at her and added: “I agree!”

There are some statements on marriage that I love to quote.

Someone defined marriage as: Less than two and more than one. The ‘I’ and the ‘You’ are now ‘we.’ Each keeps his/her individuality, but with a lot of adaptation to the other; a lot of give and take. They are no longer just two distinct and separate individuals. At the same time, they are more than one. Neither one nor the other should dominate to the extent that the other loses his/her identity.

 Jokes and Wisdom about Marriage

There are, as we know, many jokes about marriage, which, by all accounts, is a very demanding choice of life.

A woman was always nagging her husband comparing everything she had as better than his – house, furniture, fridge, car, etc.   One day the man was so fed up that he retorted: “Is there nothing that I have which is better than yours?”  The woman thought for a while, and then said: “Yes, your mother-in-law!”

Jokes aside now, I think some ventures like Couples for Christ, Marriage Encounter Weekends, Family Counselling Cells, etc., could be of great help to the vast majority of people who are called to the married state of life.  Youngsters preparing for marriage, couples in difficulty among themselves or with their children, should be offered crash courses on psychology and inter-relationships to help them cope with the inevitable ups and downs of family life.

Maybe I am idealizing my parents, since I left home when I was only sixteen years old. But I must say that I never saw or heard them quarrelling or even arguing with each other—at least they did not do it in our presence. I was under the impression that all marriages were like that, until, as a Sister, I came across people with big marital problems. My father would return home around ten o’clock each night. By that time, we children had had our supper and were already in bed. My mother would wait and have supper with him. After that they would sit in our little balcony for a long chat.   I feel it was just this daily sharing of life that kept them such a contented and united couple. The Marriage Encounter teaches what it calls the Daily 10 and 10. My parents practised this long before this movement was probably invented.

There’s the story of a couple celebrating their 25th Anniversary. That evening the husband said that he wanted to share something that he had never shared all those twenty-five years.

He said: “I hate fried fish. When I came to see you for the first time, your mother served us fried fish and said that you made it. So, I pretended to like it very much. And you have been feeding me fried fish for these past twenty-five years. No offence. I just thought I’ll tell you the truth today.”

“Is that so? I hate fried fish myself. But, because I thought you loved it, I have been making it for you these twenty-five years and pretending that I like it too.”

They hugged each other, cried and laughed. A mutual sacrifice that had bound them together as nothing else could!

And there is this other couple celebrating their 50th Anniversary of marriage. At the reception people kept congratulating the husband who was so healthy and in the pink of health, despite his age. They asked him his secret. He looked at his wife and told the audience: “With her permission I’ll tell you the secret of my health.” She nodded assent, with a laugh. He went on, “On the day of our wedding we made a promise to each other. If I picked up a quarrel, she would leave the room and go into the kitchen. If she picked up a quarrel I would put on my hat and go for a walk. … Then, with a mischievous wink at his wife, he added: And so I have lived outdoors most of the time!”

In both these stories, what is outstanding is the love, forbearance and understanding of the couples. They were willing to pay the price, to let go and let live!

Happy Journey!

Every state of life is sacred, willed by God and sanctified by Him. Every mission is divine.  It is a partaking in the overall mission of building up His kingdom in this world; of creating a new heaven and a new earth. God has blessed each one of us and He fills us with His grace, abundantly. He walks with us every step of the way … that leads to Him and to our eternal abode.

With gratitude in our hearts let us walk this earth lightly, as creatures made for greater things. Let us be pleasant co-travellers with those who are called by that same Almighty Father, to tread the same path as ours. We are a blessing. Let us be a blessing to others too. Bon Voyage!


Sr Esme da Cunha FDCC

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Cover Story

What Am I Called to?

April 06

In simple, clear language laced with touching examples and heart-warming humour, Sr Esme, who has guided younger religious in their vocational discernment, explains what “vocation” means, how to discern one’s religious or priestly call, what amounts to right and wrong motives, the dangers inherent in “vocation promotion,” and the nature of marriage as a holy vocation.

Before it’s too late!

I was on a train, and as usual it was rather crowded. I must have been in my early thirties then. A young man got in and sat right in front of me. I could see he was trying to draw my attention. I tried to avoid his gaze. But for how long could I just dodge the situation?   I finally looked up. He was a pleasant, well-dressed man. He smiled and introduced himself as an ex-student of one of our leading Catholic schools in Lucknow. I still remember that conversation. ‘When I see someone in this garb (he was referring to my Religious habit), I feel urged to talk.’  He wanted to know about our way of life. Inevitably the question came out: ‘How many children do you have?’  I told him we do not marry. He was surprised. ‘But then how will people remember you?’

He was an educated gentleman, and so I began to ask him whether people remembered Mahatma Gandhi for the number of children he had, or Shakespeare, or Albert Einstein or Abraham Lincoln. I thought I had convinced him. Then we went on to talk about other things. When I reached my destination, he helped me down with my luggage. He was going further. But he stood there on the platform with me. I told him to get in as the train would not stop long. He lingered on, and looking at me intently he said: ‘Remember what I said, before it is too late!’  He just could not understand our consecrated chastity.

At one time I was a research student, the University being just a few minutes’ walk from our place. We did not have regular classes but went to the University for our laboratory work whenever we needed to. I sometimes met a Professor on the campus, and he would talk to me until the lab assistant came to open the doors for me. As we became more acquainted, he asked me what I am doing and what my plans were for the future. I told him I was teaching, and as for the future, I had no specific plans. We have dedicated our lives for service and can be assigned to any work, anywhere. We got to talking about Christianity, and then Religious life. He asked what that meant, and I told him about prayer, our timetable, our community, my teaching, my school … At another time he asked me about my salary … and I told him about our vows, that our resources are pooled and we give an account of the money we spend. He could not understand our vow of poverty. That we have a vow of obedience completely bowled him off. I did not get an occasion to speak about the vow of chastity!

Okay, we can expect these reactions from people of other faiths. Our way of life is a mystery to them. But let us come closer home. A Sister who joined our congregation after me, was a classmate of my younger sister. A few years after school, she decided to join the Convent. My sister met her. I was already in the Convent by then. ‘What, are you going to join the Convent? Are you mad?’ she blurted out. Nancy looked at her perplexed. ‘But your sister too has joined the Convent!’ ‘Yes’, my sister retorted.  ‘She too is mad!’  That’s about as much some of our own people understand our choices.

I Have Called You

I said, ‘our choices.’ But that is not the full truth. Jesus said: You have not chosen Me. I chose you. That holds good for a Religious Call. But it is equally true for other walks of life too. A common saying is ‘Marriages are made in heaven.’ Somehow in the divine tapestry, God has so fashioned us and so equipped us that He calls each one of us to play a specific role in the drama of life. We are all called to that one goal–holiness of life—that will lead us to union with Him in eternity. Yet He leads us along different paths, to fulfill specific roles, in pursuit of that one goal.

God never repeats Himself. Each one of us is different. No two humans (nor animals, birds, fish and flowers…for that matter) are exactly the same. Every person has a role to fill which only he/she can fulfill. When we ignore or are unfaithful to our call, something in that divine tapestry remains incomplete. No one can fully substitute another!

That is the trust that God places in each of us, His children. He calls us to a specific mission! God did not make junk!

Various Vocations

One may ask: How do I know what I am called to?  Well, we need not go to astrologers or fortune-tellers to get a quick answer. The answer is buried deep within ourselves. To use our computer jargon, we are made by default—we are pre-conditioned, pre-pared for our mission in life. So life itself pre-disposes us to a choice of a state in life—consecrated, married or single!

Somehow, as we grow, we begin to feel the pull from within ourselves towards one or another state of life. For a call to the married life, attractions that we might term ‘natural’ draw two persons together. Somehow they feel they are made for each other. The heart has a language of its own! A couple begins to appreciate the other as each discovers the qualities of the other. They feel comfortable and at ease in each other’s company. A time comes when they feel prepared to strike it together, to decide to journey through life as married partners.

Where do our so-called ‘arranged marriages’ fit in? People speak of a ‘good’ match, a ‘good’ boy, or a ‘good’ girl! What does that ‘good’ mean? No alcohol, no smoking, a fat salary, ‘good’ social status, ‘good’ family background….? Give them a chance to also find out if their personalities are compatible, to look intently at one another to ‘see’ whether they can face life together, as man and wife. Therefore, no vocation should be forced upon anyone. The choice should be in consonance with one’s heart.

I have heard it said that no one is ‘called’ to be a single. And they quote the Bible: It is not good for man to be alone. (Women too?)  I would question that. In God’s divine plan there may be a mission that would require the freedom and single-minded dedication of a lay unmarried person. Take for example a bed-ridden parent. My mother was eighteen years old, the youngest daughter in her family, when her mother got paralyzed. She decided to stay at home and not to marry, in order to take care of her.  Her mother lived on for another twelve years. My mother married only after that—at the age of 30. Some others have remained single and have taken care of the rest of the family all their life. I know of a Religious Sister who felt so drawn to social service that she ultimately decided to step out of the Convent and attach herself to a hospice for the disabled. She was assigned to take care of a man who had had an accident and was paralyzed from the neck downward. She dedicated the rest of her life to care for him, even after he was discharged from the hospice. Eventually—she was in her mid-fifties by then—they decided to get married, sharing their hurts, their hopes and their dreams. Her dedication and care were something extraordinary.

But these are rare cases.

Vocational Discernment

In the case of a call to the Religious or Priestly life, it would be wise to seek guidance from a spiritually-oriented person.

  • Why is the candidate seeking to embrace a Life of Consecration? Has he/she had a strong experience of the Lord, as a result of which he/she wants to take this step?? What is he/she searching for? – a closer following of the Lord, a deeper prayer life, a life of dedication to those in need? What particular type of service does he/she feel drawn to offer?  Right Intentions are essential.
  • Motivations are very important because they are the engine which gives the necessary energy and direction to what one does or wants to do. If these motivations are weak, one can easily be swayed or may even give up when faced with difficulty. For example: in moments of hardship, peer group pressure, criticism, failure, difficult situations in the ministry, inter-personal frictions, …

If one enters with wrong motivations, one may seek for things that are not in keeping with the essence of a life of consecration: for example, comfort, security, promotions, competition and rivalry, opportunities for study, higher social status, etc.

  • Does the candidate have the necessary requisites to embrace the Priestly or Religious Life? The minimum educational qualification required, the age of the person, sufficient physical health and maturity, a basic Christian formation, emotional balance, ability for team work and to live in a community, aptitudes for the ministries specific to the Priesthood or to the Congregation he/she hopes to join…
  • One’s family situation should also be taken into consideration. Children from broken families, those brought up in extreme poverty, those exposed to or victims of domestic violence and abuse may have first to be helped psychologically before they can venture into a way of life that is essentially one of service and self-giving.

Whether the candidate is required at home to take care of the family, or is the only earning member on which the family depends, would also have to be considered.

  • Did the candidate enter into another Congregation or Seminary before? If so, why did he/she leave?

Finally, does one feel at peace deep within when one thinks of the choice about to be made?  Does one feel an inner assurance that this is the right choice? A certain sense of satisfaction, a good feeling that this is what I want, what I am made for, what I am called for?

Who, What, Why, How, Where … and finally, When should I go?

These are some of the points on which the Director will have to assess the candidate. Some or even many of the young people contemplating a Priestly or Religious Life may come in with mixed motivations. They must be helped to sort out these motivations: which ones are genuine, which ones need to be purified, which ones are not compatible with a genuine life of unconditional commitment to God.

Sometimes the candidates may not even be aware of some of their lesser motivations. These may surface only later in life. Here formation plays a vital role. If the candidate has some strong motivations, he/she will easily laugh at and let go of the lesser motivations he/she discovers that may have initially led him/her.

Here are some of the ‘charming’ examples I came across when I was with younger Religious:

  • One was attracted by the Religious Habit, especially the starched collar!
  • Another joined one Congregation rather than some others, because their Sisters wore socks and shoes!
  • Another joined because two of her school friends were also joining.
  • Some came because they saw the Sisters eating with a fork and a spoon.

Wrong Motives

Other motivations are weightier and need to be rectified:

  • Someone was enticed by her aunt who was a Religious in the same Congregation.
  • One confessed that she wanted a more peaceful and retired life, after all the tension she had at home. To live happily ever after… as in the fairy tales. She never dreamed that Priests and Religious too might have their disagreements sometimes!
  • Someone thought that she could lead a chaste life only by becoming a Religious.
  • Another wanted to join the Convent out of sheer disappointment, because her boy-friend had left her.
  • Some wanted an opportunity for higher studies or a special technical training that their family could not afford to give them. Some of them even joined already with the intention to leave after that training period.
  • Some heard that in Religious Life, there is a fair chance to go abroad.
  • Some sought to raise their social status. They would become important, earn degrees, hold a responsible post, and people would look up to them.
  • Some came with the hope of prestigious positions of power, authority and honour.
  • Some were encouraged to become Religious as their parents could not afford to give them a dowry, if they married.

Then sometimes, it is the parents who have the vocation! Family aspirations or ambitions may include having a priest or religious in the family!

  • “At least one of my sons must become a priest!”
  • “When you were nearly dying I promised to give you to God if you got well. Now you must.”
  • “I have so many daughters; at least one or two should become nuns, or else I will not be able to marry off any of them!”

It seems that both parents of St Teresa of Lisieux had once wanted to enter Religious Life. That did not happen, but five of their daughters became nuns!

Some years after I had joined the Convent and my brother had earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, my father, retired by then, said with great satisfaction: You did what I wanted to do but didn’t; he did what I wanted to do but couldn’t. He felt his deeper aspirations fulfilled in his children. He had wanted to be a Jesuit, but the concept of obedience daunted him.

Vocation Promotion

I had not even heard of such a thing when I joined, which was some fifty odd years ago. Now it seems crucial to the very survival of our Institutes. They say we need to advertise! … Jesus too, they argue, went about collecting disciples. But how different were His tactics!

If anyone wants to follow Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.

The foxes have holes, the birds their nests… but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay down His head!

Leave all you have … and then come and follow Me.

He who puts his hands to the plough and looks back, is not worthy of Me.

He who loves father and mother more than Me is not worthy of Me.

Jesus did not mince words when He spoke of the hardships of His way of life. If they have persecuted me, they will persecute you too!  But He offered them life eternal. His magnetic charisma drew crowds after Him. The disciples gradually imbibed His values. And after His death and resurrection, they went about boldly proclaiming His message to the point of embracing martyrdom for His sake!

Our ‘vocation promotion’ seems to be preoccupied with numbers. Promoters vie with one another as to who has drawn in the greater number of ‘fish.’ They may tend to water down the radicality of the call, making it ‘more appealing’ – which often means ‘less challenging.’

As a result they may gather in a basket full of jelly-fish!

Religious Life is sometimes shown as a profession—a teacher, a nurse, a social worker …

Or, as a means of self- fulfillment, self-assertion, self-interest!

A newly-professed Sister had gone for vocation promotion with a senior Sister. Talking to the young Sister I was curious about what they tell the girls and how they present Religious Life to them. I was amused when she said that they tell them that they will be sent to finish their studies, that they can do whatever they want, and since the Founder was from Europe, they might even get a chance to visit the place someday.

If that is the bait, what kind of fish can we expect to catch?  Are we honest with them, or just deluding them with empty promises? If and when they do enter Religious Life, what will they be looking for? How will they react when they realize the falsehood of what they were promised?  Are we genuine in our search for suitable candidates? Will we ever find ‘suitable’ candidates, or just a bunch of self-seeking, comfort- and pleasure-loving youngsters?

Why not fire them instead with the prayerfulness and union with God of our founders/foundress, their pioneering apostolic zeal, the self-sacrifice needed for our frontier missionary activities today, the courage to do and to die for Christ? … But that fire must burn in us first!

The First Steps

Most of our candidates have passed Class XII, but they usually need to be taught English, since that is the language used in our formation and in Community. Besides that, they are also grounded in Catechism. Then they are taught computer and music, art and needlework—so that they make use of their time profitably.

The curriculum changes and becomes more spiritual and religious in the Postulancy.

Something unexpected (and instructive) happened one year.

Four or five of these candidates were promoted after a year and were sent to the Postulancy.  Everything seemed fine for the first few months. After a while, two of these went to meet the Provincial. Their request? “We don’t want to be Postulants, we want to continue as candidates.” When asked why, they replied with innocent frankness, “The priest who sent us here told us that we will be taught good English, and that we can go back home after that. Then he will send us for nursing.” Talk of right motivation!

The Call to Marriage

Let’s make a switch over to another Call – the Call to Married Life. For the Priesthood and the Religious Life, there is a long probation period of eight to ten years. The candidate is still in time to decide whether he/she wants to continue in the vocation or not. His/her suitability is also gauged by the seminary or congregation. He/she may be asked to discontinue if found unsuitable.

There is no such probation period in marriage. Hence the necessity for the prospective partners to get to know one another fairly well before the marriage is celebrated.

There was the case of a bridegroom who got so annoyed with his bride when she tripped over her gown while climbing the steps to the Church. She looked at him for a while, and then said decisively: If such a little mishap makes you so annoyed. I’ll not have this marriage! And she called it off.

A Support System for Married Couples

The Church insists on a pre-marriage course, at least to explain the Church’s understanding of a Christian marriage. But this often dwindles down to just a few informal talks with one’s parish priest.

Difficulties in marriage are often inter-relational, between the married partners and/or with the in-laws. In Genesis 2:24 we read: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united with his wife, and they become one.”

How, why and when did this get changed, so that it is the wife who has to leave her father and mother?

I feel that married people need a lot more support to make their marriage workable and pleasant. Priests and Religious can hope for transfers or a change of assignments when the going is difficult. In marriage, there are no transfers. It is for better or for worse … The marriage vows say so!

Here is a case. The parents of one of the Sisters were a wonderful couple. The man was very jovial, while his wife was sometimes a bit tense and worked up. This Sister used to relate how, when her mother was off-mood, she would stare at her husband and shake her head resignedly: “What to do man! For bad or for worse I married you!”

At a more modern wedding, the bride and groom were pronouncing their marriage vows. After that, the ceremony went on and the bride was asked to repeat after the Priest: “I will love, serve, and obey you as long as we both are alive.”  Our petite bride looked up and said in the hearing of all: “No, Father, equal rights!”  The groom smiled at her and added: “I agree!”

There are some statements on marriage that I love to quote.

Someone defined marriage as: Less than two and more than one. The ‘I’ and the ‘You’ are now ‘we.’ Each keeps his/her individuality, but with a lot of adaptation to the other; a lot of give and take. They are no longer just two distinct and separate individuals. At the same time, they are more than one. Neither one nor the other should dominate to the extent that the other loses his/her identity.

Jokes and Wisdom about Marriage

There are, as we know, many jokes about marriage, which, by all accounts, is a very demanding choice of life.

A woman was always nagging her husband comparing everything she had as better than his – house, furniture, fridge, car, etc.   One day the man was so fed up that he retorted: “Is there nothing that I have which is better than yours?”  The woman thought for a while, and then said: “Yes, your mother-in-law!”

Jokes aside now, I think some ventures like Couples for Christ, Marriage Encounter Weekends, Family Counselling Cells, etc., could be of great help to the vast majority of people who are called to the married state of life.  Youngsters preparing for marriage, couples in difficulty among themselves or with their children, should be offered crash courses on psychology and inter-relationships to help them cope with the inevitable ups and downs of family life.

Maybe I am idealizing my parents, since I left home when I was only sixteen years old. But I must say that I never saw or heard them quarrelling or even arguing with each other—at least they did not do it in our presence. I was under the impression that all marriages were like that, until, as a Sister, I came across people with big marital problems. My father would return home around ten o’clock each night. By that time, we children had had our supper and were already in bed. My mother would wait and have supper with him. After that they would sit in our little balcony for a long chat.   I feel it was just this daily sharing of life that kept them such a contented and united couple. The Marriage Encounter teaches what it calls the Daily 10 and 10. My parents practised this long before this movement was probably invented.

There’s the story of a couple celebrating their 25th Anniversary. That evening the husband said that he wanted to share something that he had never shared all those twenty-five years.

He said: “I hate fried fish. When I came to see you for the first time, your mother served us fried fish and said that you made it. So, I pretended to like it very much. And you have been feeding me fried fish for these past twenty-five years. No offence. I just thought I’ll tell you the truth today.”

“Is that so? I hate fried fish myself. But, because I thought you loved it, I have been making it for you these twenty-five years and pretending that I like it too.”

They hugged each other, cried and laughed. A mutual sacrifice that had bound them together as nothing else could!

And there is this other couple celebrating their 50th Anniversary of marriage. At the reception people kept congratulating the husband who was so healthy and in the pink of health, despite his age. They asked him his secret. He looked at his wife and told the audience: “With her permission I’ll tell you the secret of my health.” She nodded assent, with a laugh. He went on, “On the day of our wedding we made a promise to each other. If I picked up a quarrel, she would leave the room and go into the kitchen. If she picked up a quarrel I would put on my hat and go for a walk. … Then, with a mischievous wink at his wife, he added: And so I have lived outdoors most of the time!”

In both these stories, what is outstanding is the love, forbearance and understanding of the couples. They were willing to pay the price, to let go and let live!

Happy Journey!

Every state of life is sacred, willed by God and sanctified by Him. Every mission is divine.  It is a partaking in the overall mission of building up His kingdom in this world; of creating a new heaven and a new earth. God has blessed each one of us and He fills us with His grace, abundantly. He walks with us every step of the way … that leads to Him and to our eternal abode.

With gratitude in our hearts let us walk this earth lightly, as creatures made for greater things. Let us be pleasant co-travellers with those who are called by that same Almighty Father,

 to tread the same path as ours. We are a blessing. Let us be a blessing to others too. Bon Voyage!


Sr Esme da Cunha FDCC

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Cover Story

HEALING FROM THE EFFECTS OF SEXUAL ABUSE

March 09

The article on sexual abuse in the previous issue of Magnet referred to the high prevalence rates of abuse in India and described some of its negative consequences. The article concluded with the poignant question Anita, a survivor of incest, asked after describing her pain and anguish: “I am carrying a lot of painful experiences and I want to be a completely changed person. Is it possible for me? The answer given to this question was an emphatic “Yes!”

Sexual abuse can damage not only the body but also crush the spirit. But healing and recovery is possible! Life can be good again!

The following excerpt from the letter that Anita wrote to her therapist after the conclusion of her therapy confirms this:

… I believe through you Jesus has healed me of all the pain, sadness and suffering that I was carrying for years in my life. I can feel my body is pure and chaste. I like it so much now. I feel all the dirt has gone away though there are areas still to be healed–very clearly I can see it… Now I can shed tears of joy, not of sadness, and I really did…. I will try to live a new life covered with peace and joy….

Anita was able to experience healing. She was able to experience herself as good again, and she was able to look to the future with hope and optimism.

Anita’s healing process was facilitated through therapy and the letters her therapist wrote to her. Not every survivor of sexual abuse is fortunate enough like Anita to get the help of a therapist or to have someone to accompany him or her in the recovery process. In situations where recourse to a therapist is not possible, there are a number of self-healing techniques that survivors of sexual abuse can use to heal themselves.

This article describes some of these pathways to healing.  It is addressed primarily to survivors of abuse. However, others too can benefit from it. Some of the techniques and approaches described here are useful for healing from any kind of trauma.

PATHWAYS TO HEALING

The ultimate goal of healing is to free yourself from the negative consequences of the abuse; to accept the abuse as part of your personal history and transform your self-loathing into compassion for yourself; to develop a more positive sense of yourself, enabling you to look to the future with hope and live your life in more serene and satisfying ways. This requires recalling and emotionally re-experiencing the traumatic aspects of the abuse.

This process has to unfold slowly, safely and in an emotionally manageable way; it cannot be rushed. In this process, the issues that will come up and require working through include: your distorted self-concept and thought processes, painful emotions, such as uncontrolled anger, shame, anxiety and guilt, as well as the dysfunctional behaviours that flow from them; negative attitudes toward body and sexuality; impaired relationships; and difficulties around trust and intimacy.  A number of steps you can take to heal yourself are described below.

  1. Break the Silence and Secrecy

Survivors of sexual abuse are usually reluctant to disclose the abuse to anyone, fearing that it could be hurtful to self or to others to talk about their traumatic experience. This may be true of you too. You might have kept your abuse experience secret, unwilling to disclose it to anyone for a variety of reasons.

You might be fearful as to what might happen if others come to know your abuse experience. You might fear that others may not believe your story and instead might blame you. You might also have been threatened by your abuser with dire consequences in case you disclose the abuse.

The shame you associate with the abuse can also prevent you from disclosure. Even though the abuse was something that was forced upon you, still you might feel guilty, falsely believing you were somehow responsible for what happened.

Moreover, your abuse experience is something that you might have tried hard to forget or even denied, and retelling it can be very painful.

If you are reluctant to disclose your abuse experience, you are not alone. One large study of women sexual abuse survivors showed that 23.6 percent of them had never discussed the abuse with another person. These women had kept their experience of sexual abuse secret for an average of 54.3 years! For those who had discussed the abuse, an average of 24.7 years had elapsed between the onset of the abuse and their first disclosure.

Disclosure of abuse is especially difficult for men survivors. Raphael’s case is a good example. Raphael was fifteen years old when he was sexually abused by a man. Raphael felt so ashamed of the incident that he kept it as a dark secret until he was fifty-two, never ever speaking about it to anyone. It was in group therapy that he gained the courage to unburden himself. Disclosures of sexual abuse by a couple of other participants and the response of the therapist and of the rest of the group to those disclosures gave Raphael courage to open up. It took him thirty-seven years to disclose the incident. That disclosure brought him so much relief and comfort: “A huge load has been lifted from me today. Just sharing my secret has brought me the healing I needed. I can now leave behind the shame and the burden I carried for so many years, and move on.”

In his book The Body Keeps the Score (2014), world famous trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk observes: “Finding words where words were absent before and, as a result, being able to share your deepest pain and deepest feelings with another human being—this is one of the most profound experiences we can have, and such resonance, in which hitherto unspoken words can be discovered, uttered, and received, is fundamental to healing the isolation of trauma—especially if other people in our lives have ignored or silenced us. Communicating fully is the opposite of being traumatized.”

If you have been abused and have kept your abuse a dark secret and are burdened by it, you may want to leave the burden behind by disclosing the abuse to someone you trust. Ideal would be for you to work with a counsellor or spiritual director. You need to share only what you feel comfortable sharing and only to the extent you find comfortable sharing. If a counsellor or spiritual director is not available, you may confide in a trustworthy friend or elder.

A caution is due here. Disclosures of abuse do not always lead to happy consequences. You need to find someone who will respond empathically; otherwise you may be re-traumatised.  This is especially true when disclosure leads to court cases. While some survivors find healing in the arrest and sentencing of the perpetrator, in many cases the legal procedure in itself can be more traumatising than the original abuse.

  1. Stop Blaming Yourself

Guilt is a common experience following abuse. Even though you were helpless before the abuser—after all, you were a child then—and the abuse was something inflicted on you against your will, still you might blame yourself for what happened and feel guilty. This happens especially because you might have experienced some pleasure and then concluded you might have wanted it. You need to know that the pleasure was involuntary. It was a natural consequence of your very sensitive sexual organs and sexual areas being stimulated. You were not responsible for it. You may have to say to yourself again and again that you were not responsible for the abuse and place the blame squarely where it belongs, on the abuser. It is the adult who is guilty, not the child. Someone on whom you were dependent or whose domination you were too weak to resist took advantage of your dependency and vulnerability. You need to hold him or her responsible and stop blaming yourself.

  1. Know You Are Not Alone

Often a sexual abuse survivor thinks that she or he is the only one who has had such an unfortunate experience. If you think this way, you can feel very isolated. The reality is that you are not alone. Research and clinical experience show that sexual abuse is the experience of many children, as well as quite a few women, as the article in the previous issue showed.

However, while abuse is the experience of many, your experience is unique to you. No one else would have had exactly the same experience. Everyone’s experience is different. However, you are not alone; many have had similar experience like you.

  1. Believe Healing is Possible

All the negativity that follows your victimisation might make you believe that your life now is useless, that you are condemned to remain a victim and suffer shame and distress all through life, that life will never be normal for you, that healing of your pain and distress is not possible. You may believe that, as one survivor described it, “It’s only going to be downhill.” Such negative and defeatist thinking is part of the cognitive distortions that follow victimisation.

Yet, healing is possible; life can be good again. But you have to work at it; working at it requires effort.

Many survivors have been able to work through the effects of their trauma and are able to lead normal and productive lives. You too can. You need to believe it first and then do your part in order to experience the healing.

  1. Don’t Quit!

Healing from the effects of abuse takes time and involves pain. Sharing your story, breaking the silence and the secrecy, in itself can bring about some healing, but deeper healing involves effort, time and also pain. This is especially true in the early stages of your recovery. Normally the symptoms get worse, that is, you will experience them more acutely, in the early stages of the healing work before getting better.

This can lead to discouragement. That is what happened to Daisy, who was in therapy to deal with her sexual abuse experience. She found the working through too painful and decided to quit. It was only the patient encouragement and reassurance by her therapist that brought her back. Ultimately she was glad she decided to stay with the recovery process. It did heal her.

You too may begin to feel, after you have begun working at your recovery that it is not worth going through the pain involved and may want to stop. This would be a mistake. It is important not to quit the healing work because of the initial distress you might experience.

  1. Educate Yourself on the Nature of Abuse and its Effects

It is helpful for you to be informed about sexual abuse and its effects. You can read about the nature of abuse, its consequences, particularly the traumatic symptoms, such as flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, numbing, intense emotional reactions and hyper-vigilance. There are also books written by abuse survivors sharing both their victimisation and their healing experiences. These can provide you with useful insights and means for healing yourself. Today much useful information is available in books and on the Internet.

It is also useful for you to attend seminars and workshops on sexual abuse and healing.

  1. Express Your Feelings

Sexual victimisation evokes a number of painful emotions, especially anger, grief, fear, guilt and shame. Because these are painful and difficult to live with, you might expend lots of energy in trying to suppress them. However, your healing process is facilitated when you allow yourself to acknowledge these feelings, allow yourself to experience them and express them in helpful ways. This way you reduce their toxic impact.

There are a number of techniques that are useful not only for facilitating the expression of feelings but also for bringing about healing in other ways as well. Among these techniques, two that you can do on your own are Expressive Writing and Expressive Drawing.

Expressive writing is a very easy yet effective technique. It consists in focusing on your abuse experience for a while and then writing freely whatever comes to mind (Pennebaker, 1990). It is important not to censor any thought, feeling, memory or desire but give free expression in writing to anything you experience. Such writing heals by bringing about changes in the traumatic memory tracks in your brain.

You need to set aside about fifteen minutes daily for about two weeks for this exercise. Focus on the abuse experience for about 7-8 minutes and then, for another 7-8 minutes, write freely whatever comes to mind. You can throw away or burn what you have written. The healing is in the writing itself.

It is important to note here that, although such writing may look simple, yet it is not always very easy to do.  Focusing on the abuse and writing about it can bring up some very powerful distressing emotions. However, if you are able to endure this distress and complete the process, it is most likely you will experience considerable healing.

Anthony, a 28-year old seminarian, was first abused when he was a four- or five-year-old by a cousin. The cousin passed Anthony on to a friend of his who also abused him, for about four years. And the abuse continued… by different people, even after he entered a seminary. All the abusers were men, some of whom persons he had gone to in desperation for spiritual or psychological help. The continued abuse distressed him so much that he even attempted suicide. Anthony described the effect on him of doing the Expressive Writing exercise suggested to him (see box).

When I was first asked to write about my story, I laughed inside and said, “What a big deal!” But a thought came: Someone is interested in my story. Someone is ready to help me, so let me give it a try.

But, when I began to write, all hell broke out! And I wrote… and wrote… I wrote 20 pages about my life that was shattered and marred by sexual abuse by a series of men over a 25-year period. It took me three weeks to write those 20 pages.

When I first began to write, I could write just five lines. My eyes swelled up with tears.  I just sat there crying, my being all shattered. Sat to write again the next day, but I couldn’t write a word, I just sat there…, and again the next day, no words came, just sitting there crying and feeling shattered. On the fourth day I was able to begin the sixth line, and the tape of my life began to unwind, and incident after incident of my abuse flashed on my mind as on a movie screen. It took me two days just to settle down after the emotional turmoil that the writing caused.

There was so much shame, so much fear and anxiety, so much anger as I wrote. But I was determined to write on, I wanted healing so much. And as the days went by, writing became easier, the disturbance subsided, I began to feel calm, hope surged in my soul.

When I began to write again, I experienced great calm and peace. I don’t know where that came from and how that happened. I just felt it. There was so much relief. Life was good again.

 

Expressive Drawing is another simple yet useful technique. As in the case of expressive writing, focus on your traumatic experience for a while and then use crayons to draw whatever you feel like. A five-step technique can then be used to process the drawing. These steps are: (1) See Clearly; (2) Free-Associate; (3) Feel the Emotional Impact; (4) Discern the Message/Invitation; and (5) Give a Caption.

After you have completed the drawing, you have to look carefully to see all that there is in your drawing. Many images in the drawing will come into focus only when you take time to contemplate the drawing. In the case of one survivor who did this exercise, what she at first thought was an airplane became a sexual organ when she took time to look at her drawing more carefully. And that image opened up a whole gamut of emotions in her.

In the free association stage, you allow the various images, shapes and colours in the drawing to trigger in you any associations in terms of memories, thoughts, feelings, longings, fantasies and so on.

In the emotional impact stage, you get in touch with the mood and feelings the drawing and the associations to it evoke in you. For example, the mood it creates in you could be one of sadness, anger, confusion, joy or excitement and so on.

In the discerning stage, you try to listen to and discover what the drawing is telling you.

Finally, you give the drawing a caption—a word or short phrase that captures what that drawing means to you or represents for you.

One woman who fought back to avoid being raped, at first could only stare at the crayons and the paper. She then grasped a bunch of red crayons and kept circling around forcefully digging into the paper. When she stopped, there was just a heavy blotch of red on the paper. When asked what she saw, she said: “blood on boil.” When asked what emotions were arising, she said: “Rage, rage, rage!”

Such expressive drawing and contemplation of it can help you tell your story in pictures when speaking or writing about it is difficult. More than this, drawing like this and processing it a number of times through the methodology described above will gradually loosen the grip of the trauma, reduce distress and bring about healing.

Free body movements, such as dancing freely to music after focusing on the abuse experience for a while, also help to loosen and free the somatic memories of the trauma embedded in the muscles and tissues of your body.

What is important in all these techniques is that you give yourself permission to feel what you need to feel and give expression to the feelings freely.

  1. Learn to Calm Yourself

As you begin to narrate the horrendous experiences, or start doing the exercises described above, you may have painful flashbacks and can re-experience the distress—nausea, fear, shame, etc.—that you had experienced during the victimization, and begin to be overwhelmed. If that happens, you can stop the exercises or narrative for a while, calm yourself down and do them again later when you feel some level of control.

There are a number of simple techniques you can use to calm down and stay present. Learning to breathe calmly and stay in relative physical relaxation helps. You can take a few slow, deep breaths, inhaling through the nose and exhaling very slowly (exhalation should be longer than inhalation) through the mouth. As you do so, focus on what is happening to the breath and in the body.

Another simple exercise is grounding. If you are sitting, place both your feet flat firmly on the ground and feel the ground beneath your feet. Feeling your feet touching the floor and focusing on that for a while can make you feel more grounded and in the present.

You can do the same exercise standing. You can give further depth to the grounding by imagining yourself to be a tree standing firm on the earth. Feel its roots doing down from your feet.

  1. Pay Attention to Your Body Sensations

You can also focus on the body sensations you are experiencing, such as pressure, heat, cold, muscular tension, tingling, feeling hollow and so on. With focused attention to body sensations, you can recognise the ebb and flow of your emotions, and with that gain increased control over them (van der Kolk, 2014).

Focusing on body sensations is something that you can do even when you are not overwhelmed and can in itself be a healing exercise. Once you become aware of your body sensations, the next step is to label them. E.g. “When I feel anxious, I feel a crushing sensation in my chest. Or I feel a chocking sensation in my throat.” Focus on that sensation for a while and notice how it changes into something else when you do that.

Focusing on the body can be done with the mind, but also by touch—placing the palm at the location, or tapping the area with the fingers or palm. As you focus on a particular sensation, it might change into some other sensation, or may move to a new location in the body. Focus on the new sensation wherever it is felt and continue to focus on various sensations for a while until you experience some pleasant sensations, such as warmth, tinkling, flow of energy and so on, and a sense of calmness/wellbeing emerges.

  1. Take Care of Yourself

Sexual victimisation can affect your body, mind and spirit. You may develop a very negative attitude especially toward your body. You may feel your body is dirty and no good. You may even believe that you were targeted by the abuser because you had an attractive body. Consequently, you may try to make yourself as unattractive as possible to ward off any future attack. You might neglect grooming, hygiene and exercise. You might dress carelessly. You might over-eat or under-eat to make yourself look fat or thin, and that way less attractive to others.

In this context, it is very important that you not only try to get rid of your distorted thinking about your body but also engage in self-nurturing and self-caring activities. You have to learn again to take care of your appearance, hygiene and health and to participate in social and recreational activities. Give yourself permission to have fun and enjoy life.

You need to develop some compassion for your body that has suffered so much. You need to pamper your body a little to make it feel good. Eat healthy and nourishing food. Wear comfortable clothes, especially inner wear. This is one way of soothing areas of the body that might have been violated or hurt.

  1. Confront Your Abuser

It is sometimes helpful to confront your abuser. Tell him or her whatever you feel like telling them, such as how you feel about what happened, how it has impacted you, how you now feel toward them and so on.

You can do this directly in person. If you plan to confront in person, it is good to have with you someone you trust and with whom you have shared your story to provide you support. You can also do this through a letter or a phone call.

You should do this confrontation only after you have done some working through of your trauma and feel less overwhelmed by it. Otherwise the confrontation itself might turn out to be very distressing for you. You also need to consider how safe it is for you to confront your abuser. It is important that you do not expose yourself to further victimisation and trauma.

When done effectively and safely, such confrontation helps you not only to vent your feelings but also helps you regain the control that the abuse had taken away from you.

  1. Spiritual Approaches

It is also important to note here that this article has only described psychological pathways of healing. However, psychological work is only one aspect of healing the whole person. There are other pathways to healing, especially spiritual approaches, such as prayer, retreats and the sacraments. It is very helpful for you to make use of these to facilitate and enhance your healing from the effects of sexual abuse. Spiritual practices can be deep and powerful. They need to be rightly understood and practiced. When genuine, whole-hearted and exercised in healthy ways, they can be the most healing experience of all.

Useful books

Bass, E., & Davis. L. (1994). The courage to heal: A guide for women survivors of child sexual abuse. New York: Harper Perennial.

Gil, E. (1988). Outgrowing the pain: A book for and about adults abused as children. New York: Dell Publishing.

Halprin, D. (2003). The expressive body in life, art and therapy: working with movement, metaphor and meaning. London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Pennebaker, J. W. (1990). Opening up: The healing power of expressing emotions. New York: Guilford.

van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Mind, brain and body in the transformation of trauma. London: Penguin.

For reflection

  • What are the significant learnings or insights you have gained from this article?
  • If you are a survivor of abuse, which of the approaches suggested here have you tried? What was the result?
  • Which of the other approaches described here do you think might be good for you to try?

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Cover Story

SEXUAL ABUSE IN INDIA

09

Shocking Facts and Figures!

Our newspapers report almost horror stories related to sexual abuse almost every day. These reported cases are but the tip of the iceberg, because many more cases go unreported.

In clinical practice we encounter many who have been abused in childhood and carry the consequent trauma into adult life. Most of this abuse happens in the home by a family member or someone else known to the child.

  • Shivani (survivors’ names in this article are changed, though all incidents reported are real) is a recently married young woman. She had been sexually abused almost every night by her brother from the age of nine until she reached puberty. She was scared to tell anyone and endured the onslaught in silence. Today she has such an aversion for sex that she tries every excuse to avoid intimacy with her husband.
  • Julian was a boarder from the age of eight. The boarding director would come at night to his bed and fondle him—and threaten him with dire consequences if he told anyone. Julian’s academic performance deteriorated; he began to get into fights quite often. Finally, he was dismissed from school for indiscipline. He left broken and disillusioned, seething with anger and plagued by a sense of worthlessness. As an adult he went into depression; his marriage unraveled. It took him some thirty years before he sought counselling.
  • Jessica was a nursing instructor. She would groom her brightest students toward a sexual relationship with her by initially granting them extra attention. She invited Ranjana, a young nursing student, to her room and initially encouraged mutual fondling. Ranjana enjoyed the attention from the Instructor as well as the sexual pleasure. After a while the instructor would present hardcore pornography on her laptop and encourage Ranjana to enact the same…. Today Ranjana is plagued by self-loathing, leading to thoughts of suicide.

These real life incidents point to the horrendous reality. These also show that it is not just men who abuse; women are abusers, too. It is not just girls and women who are victims; boys and men are also abused.

Research data indicate that prevalence rate of sexual abuse both of males and females in India is alarmingly high, higher than international prevalence rates.

Disturbing Facts

In her book Bitter Chocolate (published in 2000), Pinki Virani reported various studies showing a high prevalence of sexual abuse in India—close to 50 % for girls and 30 % for boys under the age of 16.

Sakshi, the Delhi-based organisation which spearheaded work on child sexual abuse in the early 1990’s, did a study of 357 school-going girl children. Of them, 63 percent admitted having been victims. Around half the abusers were from within their homes and close family circles.

RAHI, another Delhi-based NGO, did a survey specifically among non-lower-class women. Seventy-six percent of the 600 English-speaking middle-and-upper-class women who participated in the survey reported they had been sexually abused in childhood. Seventy-one percent were abused by relatives or family friends, 40% by a family member.

More recent studies show greater prevalence of abuse both among girls and boys in India than that reported by Virani. Some also report a higher prevalence rate of sexual abuse among boys than among girls.

The Study of Child Abuse India 2007 prepared by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare of the Government of India reported:

“Out of the total [12447] child respondents, 53.22% reported having faced one or more forms of sexual abuse… Among them 52.94% were boys and 47.06% girls….. The significant finding was that contrary to the general perception, the overall percentage of boys was much higher than that of girls. In fact, 9 out of 13 States reported higher percentage of sexual abuse among boys as compared to girls, with states like Delhi reporting a figure of 65.64%.” (pp. 74-75)

A 2017 World Vision survey of more than 45,000 children in the 12-18 age group, across 26 states in India, revealed that one in every two children in India is a victim of child sexual abuse. It also showed one in four families do not come forward to report child abuse.

According to data released by The National Crime Records Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs in November 2017, there were 39,068 reported cases of sexual assault against girl children and women in India in 2016. Of these 16,863 (43.2%) were against girls under 17 years and 22,205 (56.8%) against women aged 18 and above. Of 19 cities with a population of more than 2 million, Delhi topped the list with 13,260 sexual assault cases against girls and women.

International studies, as reported by David Finkelhor, the leading researcher on sexual trauma in the world, have found abuse rates ranging from 7% to 36% for women and 3% to 29% for men. Most studies have found females to be abused at one-and-half times to 3 times the rate for males. The average is taken to be 30% for girls and 15% for boys. Compared to these rates, the prevalence of sexual abuse in India is much higher.

There is a great deal of secrecy around experiences of sexual abuse. In this context, the actual prevalence of sexual abuse in India could be much higher than what is reported.

Candidates to Religious Life and Priesthood

There is also anecdotal evidence that a large number of candidates now entering religious life or priesthood have been victims of sexual abuse before entering.

At recent meetings of the Conference of Catholic Psychologists concern was expressed about the prevalence of sexual abuse (prior to joining) among girls applying to join convents. A couple of speakers shared their belief—not based on systematic study, but on their impression—that more than 50% of new recruits seem to have been sexually abused before entering religious life.

Denial or Ignorance?

Recently a woman theologian was invited to make presentation on “Affective Maturity” to the students of a well-known Catholic theological seminary in India. As she began speaking about the prevalence of sexual abuse in India, one of the seminarians said with some annoyance: “Sister, this is not really our problem. So, why discuss it?” “You may be right,” the sister replied. “But it might be worthwhile to get others’ opinion too.” She then gave a piece of paper to each one present and told them to only write a “Yes” or a “No” answer to the question, “Have you ever experienced any form of sexual abuse?” After tabulating the results, she was amazed to find that about 45 per cent of them had written “Yes.” She later repeated the same exercise in another theological seminary. About 42 per cent of the seminarians there wrote “Yes.” (Please note: The question was whether they had ever been victims of sexual abuse. It does not imply that they were abused in the seminary.)

A ready conclusion that we can draw from these anecdotes as well as research data is that a large number, nearly one in two, of young men and women entering religious formation houses or seminaries today have been victims of sexual abuse before joining. 

WHAT IS SEXUAL ABUSE?

Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)

There isn’t a generally accepted definition that clearly demarcates which behaviours are considered sexual abuse and which are not. These behaviours range from a single act of nude exposure to repetitive coerced intercourse. The degree of severity is not a criterion for a behaviour to be labelled abuse. Most definitions include an element of force or coercion and age difference (generally five years) between the victim and the perpetrator. However, abuse can also happen in contexts where force or coercion is lacking.

The World Health Organisation defines child sexual abuse as “the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violates the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by this activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person”

Sexual Abuse of Adults

A generally accepted definition of adult sexual abuse in research literature is the following: Any form of sexual exploitation and/or unwanted sexually-oriented contact with a person of the same or opposite sex, including hugging and kissing (with a sexual intent), genital display, genital fondling, and/or sexual intercourse (attempted and/or completed). Included here are any forms of sexual contact between two persons with unequal power status (e.g. Superior-subject, parish priest-parishioner, teacher-student, counsellor-client) even with mutual consent.

One thing to be noted in regard to adult sexual abuse is that, even when an adult man and woman engage in consensual sexual activity, if there is power differential between the two because of his or her status, position or role in society, free and full consent is deemed to be non-existent. Thus, if a principal of a school and a teacher engage in sexual intimacies through mutual consent the teacher’s consent would be seen as not free because of the power differential between the two.

The same can be said of a counsellor engaging in sexual intimacies with a client. The counsellor because of the superior power status he or she enjoys within the counselling relationship would be seen as abusing the client even if there was mutual consent.

Incest

When the sexual abuse is perpetrated by a close family member, it is termed incest. A large number of children are abused by their siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins. A smaller percentage is also abused by their parents. Brother-sister incest is the more frequent form.

International prevalence studies show that incest experience is consistently more common for girls than for boys. These studies also report that the offenders against girls were disproportionately men (about 90%). Incest is more common in what is known as re-constituted families, that is, families in which remarriage occurs after divorce or death of a spouse.

A 2008 Delhi Police Report showing figures for the year till October found that “of the total of 421 rape cases recorded in the city, a shocking 377 incidents took place in the safe confines of the home.”  Of the 509 accused who were arrested, at least 497 were known to the victim.

Paedophilia

A particularly destructive form of child sex abuse is paedophilia. This is abuse perpetrated by adults whose preferred or exclusive method of achieving sexual excitement and gratification is through sexual fantasy or activity involving children (within the age range up to 11 or 12), as compared to the subject’s erotic inclination toward physically mature persons.  Hence, not every form of child sexual abuse can be considered as paedophilia.

The common profile of the paedophile shows that he or she is an immature and sick person. The typical paedophile is shy, timid, passive-dependent, lacking self-esteem, impulse-control and social skills, and is insecure. Many of them harbour deep seated anger and resentment, but have difficulty in expressing them. Many have experienced emotional and sexual abuse in childhood.

One reason they select a child for sexual gratification is the emotional congruence between the two. They have childish emotional needs and feel more comfortable relating to children than adults.

Compared to the paedophile, the child molester (who abuses children while his or her preference for sexual interaction is with adults) is most commonly a respectable, professionally successful, otherwise law-abiding person, even considered to be a paragon of virtue and beyond any suspicion and who for exactly that reason may escape detection.

Rape

The most violent form of sexual abuse is rape. Rape is the forceful vaginal or anal penetration imposed upon an unwilling victim, male or female. A person forced to be the object of fellatio (oral stimulation of the male genital) or to perform cunnilingus (oral stimulation of the female genital) is also a victim of oral rape.

Even when violence is not used, coercing an unwilling person to engage in sexual intercourse is also rape.

Some forms of non-coercive sexual intercourse are known as Statutory Rape. These are situations in which a man has sex with a girl or a woman even by mutual consent, wherein the girl or woman is deemed incapable of giving free and full consent or whose capacity for free consent is impaired. Examples include a man having sex with an under-age girl or with mentally ill persons, and a woman having to consent to sex with a prospective employer who offers a job on condition of sexual submission.

Although most often girls and women are the victims of rape, boys and men are also raped. Rape of males remains one of the most under reported crimes, because of the stigma attached to it, the ostracisation of the victim that often follows it, the embarrassment involved, as well as fear that the law enforcement authorities will not believe it.

Rape is an awfully terrorising experience. The victim is not only terrified by the violation of their self but also by the prospect of physical injury and loss of life itself. The possibility of the rapist killing the victim after the violation is a real possibility. Such terror of injury and death often makes the victim give in and get it over quickly rather than resist. Unfortunately, such coping technique is interpreted as consent and used against the survivor in court cases.

AFTEREFFECTS OF SEXUAL ABUSE: BROKEN BODY AND CRUSHED SPIRIT

Sexual abuse affects a person in profoundly negative ways. Survivors are affected physically, psychologically and spiritually.

Physically, their energy level is often low. Sleep is disturbed. Night terrors, insomnia, and fears of sleeping alone or with lights off are typical symptoms.

Survivors experience psychosomatic reactions such as headaches, colds, allergies, rashes, abdominal pain, digestive problems and, in the case of women survivors, frequent gynecological disorders and itching or pain in the vaginal area for which often physicians cannot find any organic cause. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are common among female survivors.

Damaged Self-Concept

The most pervasive and damaging effects of abuse are related to self-esteem and self-concept. Survivors are plagued by feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and insecurity. They feel there is something wrong deep inside them. At a deep level they feel that the abuse happened because they are bad persons.

Survivors have a particularly hard time loving their body and taking care of it. They often consider their body as dirty and defiled – “damaged goods.” Consequently, they neglect their body-hygiene, grooming, dressing, etc. One woman survivor, who fought back and avoided an attempted rape, felt so ashamed and dirty that for years she would use the roughest washing soaps available and even a hard brush to scrub herself during bath.

Sometimes adult survivors believe they were targeted because they had an attractive body and try hard to make themselves as unattractive as possible to ward of any future unwanted attention. One way they do is by putting on weight. One particular woman survivor put on 25 kilos following her abuse.

In other cases, to overcome the inner suffering and the shame, survivors resort to alcohol and drugs and may become addicted to these substances. Some seek to numb the pain by inflicting physical pain on themselves through self-mutilation, such as cutting and burning.  One woman who had been severely abused by her brother as a girl would burn herself with a hot iron, particularly the genital and breast areas.

Emotional and Relational Problems

Survivors find it extremely difficult to relate in healthy ways to people. Their ability to trust people particularly is seriously undermined. Because of impaired trust, engaging in intimate relationships becomes especially difficult.

Emotional upheaval is frequent. Fear is a common consequence. Survivors become hyper-alert to threats and constantly scan the environment for possible danger. Their life becomes dominated by the effort to ward of danger.

Dealing with anger becomes particularly problematic. Sexual abuse can produce chronic irritability, unexpected or uncontrollable feelings of anger, and difficulties associated with the expression of anger. Because intense anger is largely an unacceptable emotion, its expression is often suppressed or misdirected. Angry feelings can become internalised as self-hatred and depression, occasionally providing a strong motive to engage in self-harm.

One of the hardest things for survivors is to confront their shame and guilt about the way they behaved during the traumatic incident. They often hold themselves responsible, even though it was something done against their will, something that was forced upon them. Many of them feel agonising shame about the actions they took to survive, including not offering enough resistance or keeping silence. The result is self-blame and self-hatred.

Distorted Sexuality

Survivors’ attitude toward sexuality gets distorted. They find it extremely difficult to have a positive attitude toward or acceptance of their sexuality. Sexual arousal gets linked to feelings of shame, disgust, pain and humiliation and they seek to avoid any sexual contact and may even be unwilling to marry for the same reason. Others become sexually promiscuous with the attitude “Anyway, I am ‘damaged goods.’ Let people use me whichever way they want!” Some victims say, “I am only fit to be a prostitute.”

Because they have been prematurely sexually stimulated, many experience hyperarousal (being very easily and frequently sexually aroused). This can lead to compulsive masturbation or to sexual promiscuity.

Helplessness, Hopelessness, Despair

Survivors can feel helpless and hopeless. One major destructive consequence of abuse is a loss of personal power and sense of control over their own lives. During the abuse they felt totally controlled by the perpetrator. The feeling that they have no control over themselves can continue into adulthood and manifests in feelings of being easily overwhelmed.

Survivors often lose meaning and purpose in life. They get tired of the distress caused by intrusive flashbacks (scenes of the abuse coming into consciousness unbidden), shame, guilt and anxiety and wish they were dead. Many consider suicide as an option and quite a few attempt it.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Some survivors go on to experience what has come to be known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) manifested especially as complex re-experiencing of the abuse in flashbacks, great difficulty in regulating their affect, and dissociation, that is, cognitive and emotional distancing from the original experience and a defensive disruption in the normally occurring connections among feelings, thoughts, behaviours, and memories, popularly termed “splitting off,” de-personalisation (sense of total loss of self, detachment from sense of self) and a combination of numbing (shutting down feelings) and hyper-alertness (being wary of people and surroundings and extreme alertness to the possibility of  danger).

Re-Victimization

Survivors often face serious risk of being raped or victimised again. Reasons for re-victimisation, according to John Briere, an expert on sexual abuse trauma, include: (a) survivors’ low self-esteem may lead them to assume that abusive individuals are all that they deserve; (b) the learned helplessness and powerlessness arising from sexual abuse may lead to survivors becoming passive in the face of impending victimisation; (c) abusive men may learn to identify women who have been previously abused and thus are seen as easy prey; and (d) the frequently impaired self-functions of the severely abused survivor may result in a decreased ability to detect impending boundary violations or to reject the persuasiveness of the sexual victimiser.

A major reason of re-victimisation, according to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the leading experts on trauma, is the survivor’s inability to sense what is going on in their bodies which leads to a lack of self-protection. The normal mechanisms that warn people of danger is shut down in the survivor. Consequently, they often walk into danger rather than move away from it.

Damage to Spirituality

Especially in the case of religious women survivors, sexual abuse has a profound negative impact on their spirituality. Sexual victimisation affects survivors’ relationship with God, prayer and sacramental life in significantly negative ways.  Women, both religious and lay, abused by a male, particularly by a father or father-figure, find it difficult to relate to God who is often represented as Father.

A question many survivors ask is: “How could God allow this to happen to me?” Another is: “Where was God?” Faith and trust are often replaced by anger toward God, who is thought to have permitted the victimisation. Their strong sense of guilt also leads them to doubt God’s forgiveness. “Will God forgive me?” is a question heard from many survivors.

The image of a punishing God instilled in childhood intensifies the feelings of guilt and fear of punishment and often leads to scrupulosity and rigid perfectionism. Survivors live a very cautious and controlled life so as to avoid any wrongdoing. They deny themselves many rightful pleasures and gratifications as a form of atonement. On the other hand, the feeling of “Everything is lost, so why bother!” may lead to an attitude of “Anything is okay!” and consequent promiscuity and re-victimisation.

When the perpetrator of abuse is an authority figure in a religious organization, the attitude of anger, resentment and inability to forgive the perpetrator gets generalised toward authority figures and institutions they represent. Survivors get disillusioned with religious institutions and authorities. They experience loss of trust in their religious superiors because often authority figures tend not to believe them or to blame them or refuse to take any action against the perpetrator. They often feel that authority figures are more interested in protecting the reputation of the institution or its officials than in the victims’ welfare.

One thing to be noted particularly as we discuss the effects of sexual abuse is that not every survivor goes through all the effects described. After all, people differ greatly in their inner strength, resilience and emotional resources. The consequences of abuse depend significantly on the pre-abuse personality of the survivor, especially his or her degree of resilience, and the supportive or unsupportive nature of the post-abuse environment. Many are able to take the abuse in their stride and go on to live happy and productive lives. But very many are indeed broken in body and crushed in spirit.

I conclude with excerpts from a letter which Anita, a survivor of childhood incest, wrote to her therapist, after attempting a healing exercise he had suggested to her. Her words express poignantly the deleterious effects of sexual abuse (the underlining is by Anita herself):

You know I am a broken person from my childhood days, as I have told you. I started doing the exercise as you have advised me…I was so disturbed I lost control of my emotions…I cried bitterly about one-and-half hours. All the events came back to my mind. Those days I did not feel anything. Now when I think I am completely exhausted, depressed. Why I am living like this? My body is lost and my life also is lost. With all this doubt today I am a broken person and I want to heal myself fully. …The thought and experience which I don’t want to come into my memory started troubling me—all confused. I don’t know what to do… I am in utter confusion…

At least four days I took to write the letter this much. Whenever I start writing, my tears don’t allow me to write. Then I sit and cry for a long time….

This is hurting me and feel to cry. It pains me. Don’t know what to do… Then guilt feelings like I should not have done all this. I am carrying a lot of painful experiences and I want to be a completely changed person. Is it possible for me? Will I be able to experience a real peace of mind and happiness?

The answer to Anita’s plaintive question is an emphatic “Yes!”

Sexual abuse can damage the body and crush the spirit. But healing and recovery is possible! Life can be good again!

The next issue of Magnet will describe the pathways to healing and recovery.

INTROSPECTION

  • What are your main learnings from reading this article?
  • If you are a sexual abuse survivor, how much of what has been presented is true to your own experience?

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