One thing I have noticed in following the saints over the years is that it is usually women who are the preeminent nurturers of the bodies, minds and souls of those they encounter. It is women who have taken on the task of caring for the lowliest in society, those mundane, some would say, tasks of feeding, cleaning, educating and loving children and the poor.
Most likely this is why women—saints and otherwise—are usually invisible in the annals of history despite Christ’s words to “suffer the little children to come unto me.” Living a life of service to others is considered demeaning in any society that worships power and control above self-giving.
But what is beneath notice to the world is not beneath notice to God. And, sometimes, even the heroism of self-sacrificing women is recognized.
Blessed Rani Maria Vattalil and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton are two such women. Both dedicated their comparatively short lives to caring for children and the poor.
In 1954, St. Rani was born Mariam Vattalil in India. Raised in the Catholic Church, she entered the Franciscan Clarist Congregation at Kidangoor in 1971, ending her novitiate in May 1974 when she made her first profession of vows followed by her final profession in 1980.
Like Elizabeth Seton’s work in Emmitsburg, Rani Vattalil dedicated her life to “siding with the poor and disadvantaged.” (Cardinal Oswald Gracias)
Unlike Elizabeth in early nineteenth century American, this preference for the poor and neglected put Rani in great danger. The Hindu caste system—within which Mother Teresa also worked—designated many of the poor people Rani worked with as “outcasts” and “untouchables.” Thus, in serving them, Rani was considered a dangerous subversive to Hindu society as well as unclean.
She knew this but it did not deter her from her work, even taking the public bus to various destinations in the city. It was on one such bus that she was set upon by three men—Hindu extremists—and stabbed to death. Her body was left by the side of the road like that of a dog—a calculated sign of disrespect.
Even though Elizabeth Seton was not murdered for her care of the poor, it could be argued that she put herself at great risk for an early death by mingling with the sick. Both women knew the dangers of their vocation of service but persevered nonetheless. In this they showed a type of heroic charity that made them fearless of the world’s censure.
The ringleader of the three men, Samundar Singh, was convicted of Rani’s murder and received life in prison. Rani’s mother and sister visited him in prison and told him they had forgiven him. On hearing this, Singh repented. In 2017, Rani was beatified.
I like to think that Rani and Elizabeth have lots to talk about in heaven. I can imagine all the women saints in a kind of celestial coffee circle with Our Lady in the center, praying that we open our eyes and see, not the powerful, and the rich, but the disenfranchised and the poor whether they be refugees, the homeless, children living in poverty or just our lonely elderly neighbor. And that, when we notice them, we reach out to them with heroic charity.
SUZANNE M. WOLFE grew up in Manchester, England, and received a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Oxford, where she co-founded the C.S. Lewis Society. She served as Writer in Residence at Seattle Pacific University and taught literature and creative writing there for nearly two decades. Wolfe is the author of four novels: The Course of All Treasons (Crooked Lane, 2020), A Murder by Any Name (Crooked Lane, 2018), The Confessions of X (HarperCollins/Nelson, 2016, winner of the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award), and Unveiling (Paraclete Press, 2004; revised edition, 2018, winner of the Award of Merit from the Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards). She and her husband, Greg Wolfe, have co-authored many books on literature and prayer including Books That Build Character: How to Teach Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (with William Kirk Kilpatrick, Simon & Schuster, 1994), and Bless This House: Prayers For Children and Families (Jossey-Bass, 2004). Her essays and blog posts have appeared in Convivium and other publications. She and her husband are the parents of four grown children and have three grandchildren.
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