On Friday, when I’ve been in Kolkata for nearly a week, I get to watch nuns take their final vows. I vaguely understand what this means, but ask some of the other volunteers (most of whom are Catholic and many of whom came to Kolkata because they were inspired by Mother Teresa) to explain. “It’s their final commitment, saying, yes, this is what I will do for the rest of my life. It is like they are marrying the church,” explains Natalie, a Malaysian friend who later confides that Mother Teresa has been an idol of hers since she was 15.
The mass, as Natalie correctly predicts, is two hours long. There is no air conditioning in the church, of course, and the large fans overhead seem to just be stirring the humid air into which several hundred people are breathing and sweating. I can hardly see the altar from my seat, but everyone shifts around enough that I keep getting great flashes of the shiny pomp and circumstance you get when the colorful world of India collides with costume-heavy Catholicism. The priests wear gold and red frocks and behind the altar is an enormous picture of Jesus studded with brightly colored bulbs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Hollywood marquee.
Large parts of the service involve singing, and while almost everything is in English, the heavy Indian accents render the lyrics unintelligible. But the nuns’ voices sound beautiful anyway. The nuns don’t take their actual vows until about 2/3 of the way through the service. The priest asks them to repeat a long series of commitments after him. Then each of the 19 nuns takes her turn swearing out loud that she is committing herself to a life of “chastity, devotion, and obedience” to “our Lord Jesus Christ.” When the last vow is taken, the church bells are rung for a few minutes. Then the choir sings again.
I watch the faces of the Indian family members who have come to watch their daughters, sisters, aunts make the ultimate commitment to their faith. None betray the happiness or joy I would expect to see on their faces. Are Indians really so deadpan? I wonder.
Later I realize the solemn faces were strictly for church. Back at motherhouse, a few of us slide into the vast celebration the rest of the nuns are holding for the new 19. There’s a cordoned-off section for family and friends, who are now laughing and grinning and peering at the courtyard in anticipation. The upper two floors are ringed with fellow nuns.
After a few minutes, the novice nuns come dancing in singing. Their song is part hymn, part theatrical chorale, but their dance is all Bollywood (a chaste version, of course). After applause, the new 19 appear, and the applause erupts into cheers. Bells are rung from the top floor. Older nuns greet the new 19 with garlands of flowers, and then everyone surges into a second room, where family members kiss and hug their new nuns.
A group of Spanish-speaking volunteers (there is a HUGE Spanish contingent at motherhouse, because South America / Spain = pretty Catholic) serenades one nun with garlands of fresh flowers and a clap-happy chant in Spanish. A Chilean girl who is involved later tells me the nuns asked them to perform this task because the nun, who is Mexican, didn’t have any family members attend. They did a great job, because from watching, you wouldn’t have had any idea the Spanish contingent wasn’t best friends with this nun.
I learn later from an American volunteer—who is back for her second summer at motherhouse—that immediately after this celebration, the nuns are given their assignments. I hadn’t realized that they wouldn’t all be staying in Kolkata. In fact, most of them will be sent off to missions in far-off countries, probably places they have never been, where they won’t speak the language and won’t know anyone, and they’ll stay there for at least 5 years. I didn’t realize that’s how this works. It deepens my appreciation for the “obedience” and self-sacrifice the nuns have committed themselves to taking. And it deepens my appreciation for them.
Watching the families kiss and hug the new sisters as they bury them under countless garlands, I say to Natalie, “Wow. This is pretty incredible. It’s so special we got to see this.”
She smiles. “Yes,” she says. “It should be. It’s like their wedding day.”
Wow, I think. Even more special than I thought. With those words, it feels almost intrusive to be here, uninvited, for the “wedding day” of these 19 women. But in the true Indian way—and perhaps also the Catholic way—no one minds at all that we are there.