The misplaced Cult of Saints-
Fr. T. Sebastian
Any one traveling through Kerala will most certainly not fail to notice the numerous shrines and churches dedicated to the Saints in that small State. It is a matter of wonder why Christianity in that State which claims its origin to St. Thomas the Apostle, should have settled down to such extravagant devotion to certain particular saints. Undoubtedly, every Saint who has been declared as such by the Universal Church is worthy of our veneration because they reflect in their lives the glory of God. Some of them gave their lives in professing their faith and became martyrs. Others lived their life faithfully in accordance with the gospel and radiated the presence of Christ in their lives. We call them confessors. Whatever may have been the circumstances in which they lived on earth, it was only through the grace of God they displayed to a heroic degree the love and compassion of God for humanity in tangible forms. They had so merged themselves in God that whatever they asked they received in prayer. People called them miracles but for them it was nothing else but God’s glory and compassion being manifested to the world afresh
Among the Saints who have caught the fancy of the Christians in Kerala are: St. Thomas the Apostle, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Jude the Apostle, St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, St. George, St. Sebastian, St. Francis of Assisi and recently St. Alphonsa of Bharananganam has been added to the list. There are a few churches dedicated to Our Blessed Mother Mary as well as St. Joseph. Most other saints don’t seem to figure anywhere in the devotional life of the people of Kerala, possibly because they are not known for any particular cause which interests them. It is amazing to see the extravagance of pomp and splendor displayed by Catholics in manifesting their devotion to the Saints even appearing to be bordering on idolatry and superstition. The bishops and priests seem to concur with this trend whole-heartedly. In these days churches built in honor of these saints go into high profile budgets of crores of rupees. No thought is spared for the millions in the rest of India who struggle for their bare existence. Does the fact that we have the money justify lavishing it on iron and bricks? What glory do we give to God by building elaborate churches in honor of saints but do not lift a finger to build the living temples we have around us?
The Saints are sought after for favors and little is done to encourage people to emulate them. It is indeed a sad fact that such great men and women who walked this earth filled with love of God and neighbor are today sought after merely for temporal favors. Aren’t the saints trailblazers for the rest of humankind, showing us all how our life in its ordinariness can be made extraordinary by the grace of God and humble surrender to him? Are they not men and women who braved enormous struggles in their lives and did the will of God heroically, setting the example of authentic Christian life? They never sought to make their lives easier for themselves. But today everyone runs to them to be freed of their burdens, be it physical or mental. It is fitting to remember the words of Jesus who said: “Come to me all of you who work hard and who carry heavy burdens and I will refresh you” (Mathew 11: 28). This is a clear invitation to seek refuge only in Christ and learn from him how to handle the burdens of life. That is what the saints did and became what we know them to be. Unfortunately, more often than not, we prefer to take the easier route and seek to free ourselves of troubles, for which the saints seem to be an easy way out. Hence the novena to St. Antony is more sought after than an hour of adoration in the Eucharistic presence.
The feast days of saints are celebrated with special solemn Masses, novenas and processions with much fanfare bearing the statutes of the saints. But on the other hand Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Sacred Heart, Immaculate Conception or the Assumption pass off making hardly any ripple in Catholic circles. Processions with the Blessed Sacrament are rarely seen any longer in churches throughout Kerala. They have all been relegated to the distant past. Homes are no longer consecrated to the Sacred Heart. But novenas to St. Anthony and St. Jude go on in full churches. In some churches Eucharistic adoration that had been traditionally held on Friday has been shifted to Tuesday because St. Anthony draws the crowds and not the Eucharistic Lord. Obviously there has been a misplacement of values. But why this frantic effort to win the favor of the saints? The chief underlying reason seems to be the failure of people to grasp the mystery revealed to them. “It is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col.1:26-27). Secondly, the mistaken notion that God’s blessing is equivalent to freedom from troubles and hence the pursuit after the saints for favors. We look up to the saints for help in attaining our temporal needs that are never ending when abundant life has been granted us by God. It is of supreme importance to bear in mind at this juncture that any form of devotion to the saints including Mary, Mother of God, that does not lead one to Christ, is misplaced and a form of self-seeking.
St. Alphonsa, the first saint of India and especially of Kerala, is drawing crowds of pilgrims from all over India and abroad to Bharananganam in the diocese of Pala. Alphonsamma, as she has been affectionately called, was a saintly nun who taught the world the way to bear joyfully suffering in all its forms, thus setting an example of bearing one’s cross without complaint as Jesus taught. She sought to live a hidden life away from the limelight but God in his designs has proclaimed her greatness to the whole world. However, it does not suffice that we flock to her place, admire her virtues, pray to her and carry away relics of her. Off course it is not possible for us to imitate her as we can only be who we are. Nevertheless, her life should serve as an inspiration to us, so that we cherish the values she cherished. How appropriate would it be to have a hospice within the vicinity of Bharananganam where terminally ill patients or those from the economically weaker sections are treated free or at reduced cost with the offerings received at the shrine of St. Alphonsa! But the present scenario is much money falling into the multiple collection boxes in and outside the shrine of St. Alphonsa and the proceeds going directly to the treasury of the bishop to be used for unknown reasons. Blessed Kunjachen of Ramapuram in the same diocese distinguished himself as a holy man by dedicating his life to the dalit people around. The Church today heaps praise upon him for his good works and people flock to Ramapuram, but nothing is done to promote the cause for which he stands out as a model pastor. There is no institution for the development of the dalit population anywhere around. It is a fact that Christians continue to do business with the saints but do precious little to walk the road they walked.
People of all faiths continue to throng pilgrimage centers wherever they are in India or abroad. The recent example of the disaster that overtook thousands of pilgrims in Uttarkhand is still fresh in our minds. No miracle was worked to save anything or anyone. Only Christ the Good Samaritan appeared in the form of heroic army personnel. Even the Grotto of Lourdes in France was not spared in the devastating flood that overtook that town in the recent past. The message is clear that what is required of everyone is to open their eyes and experience God in and around them, for that is the central message of the Incarnation in Christ. It implies that we tone down our craving to see wonders realizing that everything in life is a wonder to the one who has eyes to see and ears to hear. When the Jews followed Jesus to the place he had gone quietly to be free from being crowned king on account of his miracles, he rebuked them saying. “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because of the signs you saw, but because you ate bread to your satisfaction. You must work not for perishable food but for the lasting food which gives eternal life.” (Jn.6:26-27). Signs and wonders are given to us under special circumstances so that we may awaken to the presence of God in our midst and stop pining for more wonders. In this year of faith it should be our endeavor to tone up our faith in Christ the center of Christian life and grow to our maturity in Christ. “The core of the Christian vocation is Christ,” said Pope Francis at his inaugural Mass on 19th March 2013. Let the saints remain as our models and intercessors and not the focus of our piety.