Our culture insists on a very broad definition of the word “victim”. By secular standards (and according to a popular online dictionary), anyone who has suffered harm at the hands of another is considered a victim. Of course, this definition is so broad that every man, woman, and child could claim to be a victim at some point, sometimes more than once in a day.
But the life of Saint Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception (1910-1946) demonstrates that being a victim means something very different to Catholics.
The name she was given at birth was Annakutty Muttathupadathu, and she was born the last of five children in Kudamalur, India. Her mother, Maria, was eight months pregnant with Annakutty when she woke up to find a snake wrapped around her waist. The shock from that frightening event caused Maria to give birth prematurely. It may have contributed to her death three months later as well.
Annakutty was raised by her devout Catholic grandparents from the time she was an infant. She was a pious little girl who made friends with both Christian and Hindu children at school, and she had a happy childhood, despite the early loss of her mother. Her friends later recalled that after she had received her first Holy Communion at the age of seven, she would sometimes tell them, “I have Jesus in my heart.”
But when she was ten years old, in accordance with the final wishes of her deceased mother, Annakutty was placed in the care of her aunt. Unfortunately, her aunt was a demanding and strict woman. Although the aunt was Catholic, she was frustrated by Annakutty’s devotion to prayer and her affection for the Carmelite nuns at a nearby monastery. The aunt simply ignored the girl’s repeated requests to enter religious life and instead began organizing an arranged marriage for her.
Annakutty patiently endured her aunt’s unrelenting pressure to marry and repeatedly prayed for God’s guidance. At the age of thirteen, the thought occurred to her that she would be free from her aunt’s demands if she were disfigured in some way. Unlike Saint Catherine of Siena, who merely cut off all her hair, Annakutty took much a more drastic step to avoid being forced into marriage. She fell (not accidentally) into a fire and badly burned both her feet. She could only walk with difficulty for the rest of her life.
Annakutty’s priest confessor recognized that this zealous teenager had a religious vocation, and he encouraged her to attend a school run by the Franciscan Clarists of Bharananganam. She was so inspired by the sisters’ example that after she completed her studies, she became a postulant in that order. In 1930, she was clothed in her religious habit and took the name of Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception.
No sooner had Sister Alphonsa begun religious life than she began suffering from a laundry list of painful and exhausting medical problems: wounds, fevers, shocks, and tumors. These illnesses generally kept her from being able to teach and even brought her close to death on one occasion. When others were certain she was about to die, Alphonsa prayed a novena for healing through the intercession of Kuriakose Elias Chavara (1805-1871), an Indian Carmelite priest who had not yet been canonized. She miraculously recovered after completing the novena.
Yet despite—or because of—her suffering, Alphonsa also showed great spiritual depth. Her spiritual diary includes reflections about her struggles, as well as the spiritual maxims she had learned. For example, she imposed small penances upon herself whenever she showed even the slightest lack of charity toward others. Her writings also show her great love for her Spouse, Jesus Christ. Indian Catholics often compare Saint Alphonsa’s biography and writings to those of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, with good reason.
The religious sisters in her community witnessed Alphonsa’s patience, innocence, and joy despite her limitations, physical pain, and constant medical problems. After her death at the age of thirty-five, numerous people claimed to have received miraculous cures through her intercession. Most of these cures involved foot conditions or were experienced by children at the school where she taught. Pope John Paul II declared Alphonsa to be a blessed in 1986, and she was canonized in 2008, to the great rejoicing of the Syro-Malabar Church in India.
If the story of Annakutty’s life were told from a secular perspective, she would be considered a social justice martyr—an oppressed victim of male patriarchy, chauvinistic marital practices, emotional abuse, and inadequate medical care. However, the world’s definition of victimhood generally focuses on injustice, anger, and revenge. As Catholics, we have a different way of looking at the word “victim”.
As Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary1 defines it, a victim is a “living being offered in sacrifice to God.” Put another way, a human victim, according to our faith, is not someone who is hurt, but someone who is offered.
Fr. Hardon also defines a uniquely Catholic term: victim soul. A victim soul is a “person specially chosen by God to suffer more than most people during life, and who generally accepts the suffering in union with the Savior and after the example of Christ’s own Passion and Death.”
By that definition, Saint Alphonsa was truly a victim soul. Not only did she suffer the loss of her mother, abuse from a controlling adoptive mother, repeated denials of her vocation, and years of physical pain, she offered up all that suffering to her Divine Spouse. Rather than resenting her frustrated hopes and repeated illnesses, she saw them as gifts to offer to God. Just as a wife makes sacrifices for her husband or a mother endures discomfort for her child, so Alphonsa saw her misery as a gift she could give to God, accepting His will over her own. The witness of her life as a victim soul has made her, by God’s grace, a powerful intercessor and a model of holiness to the Church in India and throughout the world.
Saint Alphonsa of the Immaculate Conception would have rejected the secular label of victim for her suffering. But her offering of her life, like that of an innocent lamb,2 reminds us that we Christians are called to offer up our sufferings to God—and thus become like the perfect victim, Jesus Christ Himself.
1 Rev. John Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary (Bardstown, Kentucky: Eternal Life, 1999).
2 Isa 53:7
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