Shepherd's Voice October 2019


On October 13, 2019 Pope Francis will canonize five new saints for Mother Church. These are:

  • Blessed John Henry Newman (British) – the great scholar-saint of our times and champion of the movement for the Catholic unity of the One Church of Christ
  • Blessed Dulce Lopes Pontes (Brazilian) – a missionary Sister who is known as ‘Sister Dulce’
  • Blessed Marguerite Bays (Swiss) – a laywoman from Switzerland who bore the stigmata
  • Blessed Josephine Vannini (Italian) – co-foundress of the ‘Daughters of St. Camillus’
  • Blessed Mariam ThresiaChiramelMankidiyan (Indian) – foundress of the ‘Congregation of the Holy Family’.

All saints are given to us as models of Christian discipleship and holiness of life. As our Catholic faith teaches, they serve both as models and intercessors for us on our pilgrim way here on earth. Their lives reflect the Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ in its radiance and they beckon us to that same fidelity to the Lord that they showed in their own lives. They were ‘ordinary’ human beings like any one of us, yet they lived their life in an ‘extraordinary’ way, which prompts us to challenge ourselves with the question, ‘if they could do it, why can’t I?’

Mariam ThresiaChiramelMankidiyan was born in Puthenchira in the Thrissur District of Kerala on April 26, 1876, the third of five children, two boys and three girls. She was christened ‘Thresia’ after St. Teresa of Avila. As a growing up child she faced fortunes and misfortunes in the family but her faith in God, her communion with Christ, her love for the Church, her deep devotion to Mary and the Saints, her desire to proclaim the Gospel of Christ and her longing for heaven were never shaken. Perhaps her painful experiences in the family were to be the seedbed of her special calling to one day found a congregation of sisters entirely dedicated to the apostolate of the family – the Congregation of the Holy Family. This is the way God works in his divine plan to bring salvation to our broken world, and his ways always transcend the purely ‘human’ ways of thinking, judging and acting. This is amply manifested in the life of this saint from the soil of India.

Thresia grew up in piety and holiness, within the ancient Catholic traditions and culture of the Syro-Malabar Church, under the loving guidance of her saintly mother Thanda. Already at the age of eight, moved by an intense desire to love God with her whole heart and mind and self, she began fasting four times a week and prayed the Rosary several times a day. She began to spend many nights in vigil in order to grow in the likeness of the suffering Christ and consecrate herself totally to the Lord. As St. Paul would say: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2: 20). In 1884 her mother tried in vain to dissuade her pious daughter from such severe penances. By 1886 she had already made a private vow to remain chaste as one consecrated to Christ and for this she would not consider any sacrifice too big. This does not mean that she didn’t have to pass through the ‘dark night of the soul’ –temptations against chastity and even faith, but she received also the strength from on high and the enlightenment to overcome them.

The death of her mother in 1888 marked the end of her formal school studies and from then on she dedicated herself to contemplation in her local parish church. It was along search to discern her own vocation in life. Formal educational qualifications are important but much more important are the divine wisdom and knowledge that God infuses into our soul as the ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ and which are the guarantee of our salvation. Like Our Blessed Mother and the Saints we see Thresia longing to be filled with the divine gifts. She longed for a ‘hidden’ life of prayer and, in order to accomplish this, she even devised a scheme to sneak away from home and lead an eremitical life in the solitude of the far away wood hills surviving on leaves and water. This was in 1891. However God miraculously revealed to her that this was not at all his plan for her and she totally gave up the idea. She continued to frequent her parish church with her three companions. They would clean the church regularly, decorate the altar and be part of all the religious activities of the parish. She never compromised the centrality of the Holy Mass and the Sacrament of Confession in her Christian life.

The unique spiritual legacy she has left behind is her intense desire to love Jesus and be like him in his toil and ministry. She helped the poor, nursed the sick, visited and comforted the lonely people of her parish. She nursed even hideous and revolting cases of leprosy and small pox, often abandoned to their lot by their poor relatives who had no means of caring for them.

Thresia and her three companions formed a group of prayer and apostolate. Breaking the custom of the time and risking much criticism these four young girls were on the roads visiting the families in need and witnessing to God’s love in Christ. Their hearts were enkindled with the fire of the Holy Spirit to courageously embark on this mission.

Since 1904 she wanted to be called ‘Mariam Thresia’ because she believed that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to her in a vision and asked her to add ‘Mariam’ to her name. In fact she is believed to have been guided continuously in her apostolate by the visions of the Holy Family of Nazareth – Jesus, Mary, Joseph.

Throughout her life she prayed for sinners, their repentance and conversion to God and offered her penances for this great spiritual cause of the Church. In her ascetical and penitential practices she was definitely in line with the life of self-denial and self-transcendence lived by the hermits and monks of old in their pursuit of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience in order to follow the crucified and risen Christ radically. She received several mystical gifts like prophecy, healing, aura of light, sweet odour. Like St. Teresa of Avila she had frequent ecstasies and levitations. It is told that on Fridays, people used to gather to see Mariam Thresia lifted high and hanging in the form of a crucifix on the wall of her room. There is also the evidence that God gave her the gift of the ‘stigmata’ i.e. the five wounds of our Lord Jesus Christ imprinted on her body, but she kept it carefully in hiding from public view in order not to draw attention to herself. Such was her humility.

As it happens in the life of great saints who resist the wiles of the Evil One, and whom sin cannot overpower, e.g., St. John Mary Vianney, Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the Evil One begins to ‘attack’ in mysterious ways. Mariam Thresia was also subjected to such torments by the Devil and his cohorts almost all through her life. This is documented in her brief autobiography. Perhaps this was to keep her humble in the midst of all the mystical favours she had received from the Lord and the ‘fame’ that had come her way. On account of these vexations she was repeatedly subjected to ‘exorcism’ between 1902 and 1905 by Fr. Joseph Vithayathil, the parish priest of Puthenchira and also her spiritual director. He was acting under the orders of the Bishop Most Rev. John Menachery who wanted to ascertain that she was not being ‘used’ by the Evil One to mislead people through extraordinary phenomena which appear ‘supernatural’. This is always the precaution the Church takes in all such circumstances. Mariam Thresia submitted to the exorcisms with utmost humility, which was also the sign of her exemplary sanctity. Nevertheless many people began to regard her as someone ‘possessed’ by the Devil, therefore a ‘dubious saint’; but she had the spiritual support of her spiritual director.

In 1903 she requested permission from Bishop John Menachery to build a ‘prayer house of solitude’ with the intention of founding a new religious community for the apostolate to which God was calling her, i.e., the apostolate of the family. The Bishop, in order to ‘test’ her vocation, asked her to join two already existing religious congregations one after the other but she did not feel that her calling was in those congregations, so she left them. Finally, in 1913, the Bishop permitted her to build the prayer house of solitude she had in mind and had it blessed. Mariam Thresia moved in there, and her three companions soon joined her. They lived a life of prayer and austere penance like the hermits of old, but continued to joyfully visit the sick and help the poor and needy irrespective of caste or creed.

The Bishop discerned that here was truly the hand of God inspiring and impelling Mariam Thresia to found a new congregation in the service of the family. This came into being on May 14, 1914 with the name “Congregation of the Holy Family” (CHF). From a small community of four consecrated women, today the CHF is a huge family of over 1500 highly committed religious sisters belonging to 7 provinces and serving the Church and society in India and abroad with the motto to build up the family as the firm foundation of a healthy society and vibrant Church. We thank God for that miracle.

Mariam Thresia died in 1926. She was declared ‘Blessed’ by Pope John Paul II on January 27, 2000 and will be declared ‘Saint’ by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019.

Two books on her life are very useful for information and meditative reflection: MARIAM THRESIA, A Great Mystic by Dr. Sr. Ruby Therese CHF (Thrissur: Holy Family Publications, 2016) and Crucified with CHRIST for all: A Biography of Bl. Mariam Thresia by George Nedungatt S.J. (Kochi: Little Flower Press, 2002).

May, through her example and intercession, we never flag in zeal for the mission of Christ.

+ Archbishop Anil Couto
Archbishop of Delhi

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