Q & A with Sr. Licia Puthuparambil, taking canon law to nuns worldwide

Sr. Licia Puthuparambil is part of the five-member Canon Law Council of the Rome-based International Union of Superiors General. The union, known as UISG, is a canonically approved organization of the superiors general of Catholic women congregations.

Puthuparambil, a member of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate, had cancer in 2016. Currently, the 57-year-old nun works from her community's provincial house in Bengaluru, southern India. She conducts retreats and speaks at meetings of her congregation as well as others in India when she is not traveling overseas to attend Canon Law Council meetings.

Puthuparambil, who has a master's degree in canon law from St. Peter's Pontifical Institute in Bengaluru, has been a member of the Canon Law Society of India since 2000. She has also served her congregation as a provincial secretary, provincial councillor, formator, teacher and local superior.

GSR: What prompted you to study canon law?

Puthuparambil: Canon law wasn't exactly my first choice of study. My superiors asked me initially to study either missiology or catechetics. But from my novitiate days, I wanted to make an in-depth study of the congregation's charism. So I wanted to study the theology of consecrated life.

At that time, there was only one institute that offered such a course, the Institute of the Theology of the Consecrated Life in Rome, affiliated to the Pontifical Lateran University. As studying in Rome was difficult for me at that time, I opted for canon law. The 1983 Code of Canon Law has a new canon on the patrimony [charism] of the institutes of consecrated life.

Our founder, late Bishop Louis La Ravoire Morrow [who founded the Sisters of Mary Immaculate in 1948], wanted all sisters to be well-qualified as doctors, teachers, lawyers, nurses, architects, pharmacists, dentists, musicians, theologians and canon lawyers, so that they could be effective evangelizers and catechists.

How did you become a member of the Canon Law Council?

In January 2015, Loreto Sr. Patricia Murray, executive secretary of the UISG, informed me about their plan to create a world council of women religious canon lawyers, now known as the Canon Law Council. They wanted to select one member from all five continents. She also wrote that she had collected addresses of all canonist nuns in India from the Canon Law Society of India and requested them to send their curriculum vitae to select one.

As India had a dozen nuns with doctorates in canon law at that time, I stood no chance, as I had only a master's. However, I responded to Sr. Murray, since I wanted to serve and empower women religious. My superiors allowed me to apply. I was pleasantly surprised when I was selected. The selection letter explained I was chosen because of my involvement in empowering women religious and the theses I had written for my theology and the canon law courses.

The UISG appreciated my service to Mater Dei [a theological institute for women religious in the western Indian state of Goa], both as the director of theology and as a professor. They also considered my work as the president of the Mumbai unit of the Conference of Religious of India and for the canonical guidance given to major superiors and their councils in India.

What is the mission and vision of the council?

In 2015, the executive board of the UISG decided to support leaders of religious women congregations worldwide. The initiative was called the Canon Law Council. At its first meeting in Rome in March 2015, a six-member team defined its objective as: to provide canonical guidance to leaders of religious institutes of women in Africa, Asia and elsewhere in order to strengthen the ongoing ability of the religious institutes to provide valuable services in capacity-building for the church and society.

Besides Sr. Murray and me, the team comprised Loreto Sr. Mary Wright, an Australian; Charity Sr. Marjory Gallagher, a Canadian; Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy Sr. Mary Gerard Nwagwu of Nigeria; and Franciscan Sr. Tiziana Merletti of Italy. [Gallagher died Nov. 25, 2016.]

We then tried to chart programs and identify women religious canonists worldwide. We also wanted to find out countries that had no women religious canonists. We wanted to organize an international meeting and conduct workshops on canon law in various countries and set up a scholarship program to help women religious to specialize in canon law.

What are the council's current activities?

We identified sisters with doctoral or master's degrees in canon law around the globe and invited one or two from each country to an international meeting in December 2015 at Nemi, Italy. Its theme was "Women canonists at the service of religious life." It was attended by a total of 40 women religious canonists representing all the five continents.

The council organized two canon law workshops in Rome in 2016, first in May for 180 superiors general and another in November for provincials. It also has guided superiors general with headquarters in Rome since 2015.

In February this year, the council collaborated with the Association of Consecrated Women in Eastern and Central Africa to organize a four-day workshop in Nairobi, Kenya. As many as 73 superiors general from English-speaking African countries attended it.

On Feb. 25-26 this year, the council organized another workshop in collaboration with Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya for 81 provincial superiors, their councillors and formators at the Dimesse Sisters' Spirituality Centre in Nairobi. The next workshop for the superiors general of Francophone African countries is being planned for 2018 at Yaoundé, Cameroon.

How does the council's work impact congregations worldwide?

CLC is only one of the branches of the UISG, "the global tree," with about 2,000 women religious congregations worldwide as members. We explained the genesis, vision and mission of the council to the superiors general at a May 2016 Rome meeting.

The UISG is constantly in touch with the members through its website and bulletins. The union organizes CLC activities and makes them available to superiors general of its member congregations. We post all information about CLC programs on the UISG portal much in advance. The generals can also request the UISG to hold workshops for them. Some contact the council members through email for canonical guidance and counsel.

Do you receive any feedback from the congregations?

We conduct evaluations after each workshop. The participants said they were grateful and delighted with the knowledge gained from the workshops. The most preferred topics were obligations and rights of the members of a religious institute, procedures for council meetings, dismissal procedure, formation and relationship between religious and diocesan bishops.

Many consider Code of Canon Law is only canonists' "business". But our workshops have convinced generals and provincials that the church laws affect their daily lives. The workshops helped bring solidarity among the participants. Our programs have convinced them that most problems they faced were common. Many were happy to listen to women canonists for the first time. They appreciated the facilitators for answering their questions with clarity and conviction. Hence, there is a strong request from the participants to hold more such programs for others.

What are the council's long-term plans?

The CLC is committed to helping global congregations with passion and increased sense of solidarity. The long-term plans include empowerment of superiors and leaders and training more religious in leadership, theology and canon law.

Could you narrate some examples of the impact on the congregations and the sisters?

Sisters who have studied canon law have certainly created enormous impact on the lives of the women religious. When the major superiors are enlightened and empowered, the congregation as a whole is empowered.

For example, during the workshop in Kenya, several superiors general admitted how ignorant they were in dealing with the members who were staying outside the community and working in various institutions without the legitimate permission of the superiors. All of them expressed that, after the workshop, they felt empowered to deal with them in the right manner. The workshop certainly cleansed the religious institutes and to give them some order in their work.

Soon after the workshop, one superior general approached me, saying she has 12 sisters in her congregation who after the completion of their higher studies refused to return to the congregation and got employed in European countries and the U.S. Now she has resolved to deal with them legally and establish order in the institute.

Another perennial problem the major superiors face is the relationship with the diocesan bishops. Some of them were even less aware of the autonomy that exists. All those who attended the workshop have realized the necessity for the written agreement or contract to be made between the diocese and the institute/diocesan bishops and the major superiors.

Often, the sisters were not careful in registering their land in the name of the institute. But during the workshop, they were enlightened on the need to register the land in the name of the institute and not in the name of the diocese or diocesan bishop or in the name of the vicar general of the diocese. [When land is bought with the congregation's money and used by the congregation, the land must be registered in the name of the congregation and not in the name of another entity or people not directly related to the congregation.] They are now determined to do what is necessary and enjoy the autonomy that is provided by canon law.

What made you become a sister?

I was born in Kerala. I was just 6 when I first felt the desire to become a religious sister. My catechism teacher spoke about heaven and hell. At that tender age, I thought the shortest way to heaven was by becoming a nun.

The desire grew stronger as years passed. My parents, too, inspired me with their devout life and spirituality. The reading of the autobiography of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, The Story of a Soul, when I was a teenager strengthened my desire to become a cloistered nun.

In 1973, I became a member of the Christian Life Movement. Eventually, the desire to serve those who have not known Christ became stronger. Later, I met some Sisters of Mary Immaculate. Their devotion to the Immaculate Mother and St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus as well as their missionary life inspired me to join them in 1978.

What do you do in congregation now?

While I was engaged in pastoral ministry and marriage counseling in Mumbai, I was diagnosed with cancer in February 2016. I moved to Kerala for treatment. This was the most fruitful period in my life, when I experienced the depth of God's love for me through my sisters, relatives and friends. After chemotherapy, I underwent radiotherapy. The treatment was completed in August 2016. The caring love, prayers and sacrifices of my sisters and brothers helped me recover faster.

I was appointed to our provincial house in Bengaluru in November 2016. I was chosen as one of the preparatory commission members for the provincial chapter earlier this year. Besides my CLC involvements, I am engaged in guiding retreats and taking classes for the sisters of our institute and of other religious institutes.

[Philip Mathew is a journalist based in Bangalore, southern India. This article is part of an ongoing collaboration between GSR and Matters India, a news portal that focuses on religious and social issues.]