Home > Archives > 10 - 2003 > «She made visible the face of Jesus»
from issue no. 10 - 2003

«She made visible the face of Jesus»

Thus Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias sums up the work of Mother Teresa. The Archbishop of Bombay also speaks of the Catholic Church in India, of relations with the state and with other religions

by Giovanni Cubeddu

“Missions in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II” is the title of the report that Ivan Dias, the 67 year-old, cardinal and Archbishop of Bombay, will give at the end of the conference in honor of the Pope on Saturday 18 October. India is a land of missions, it was so for Mother Teresa – whom Dias knew when nuncio in Albania – and it is so in the ways proper to the Indian Church (back from the ad limina visit), that Dias describes for us here: great patience, openness, freedom.
Mother Teresa with Ivan Dias, Archbishop of Bombay

Mother Teresa with Ivan Dias, Archbishop of Bombay

Your Eminence, Mother Teresa is to be beatified...
IVAN DIAS: To the Indian people it appears natural that Mother Teresa be beatified, and that one day she will also be canonized. Because what she did and testified to is a living thing, valid also today and it is understandable to all Indians, who in the absolute majority are not Christians: Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, Sikhs… The Christians in India are 23,000,000, 2.3 per cent of a population of more than a billion people, and the Catholics are only 1.8 per cent. As for us, the people of God, many in their hearts look to Mother Teresa as to a saint, who made visible the face of Jesus. She who, faced with painful and difficult situations, didn’t hide the fact that she was able to deal with them only because she saw Jesus in the poor; she kept in her heart that passage of the Gospel that says: «Anything you have done for one of these little ones you have done for me». It’s easy to understand then why the government decided to honor her with a state funeral: a tribute that from the independence of contemporary India down to today has been accorded, except for institutional personalities, only to Mahatma Gandhi.
I very much hope that this admirable witness of Mother Teresa spreads ever more widely. Her missionary nuns are already in Bombay, for example, and the brothers of the male branch founded by her, but for a while now I’ve also been seeing lay people who, after her example, follow the nuns and the brothers through the streets and take care of the poorest. And that impresses everybody, Christians and non-Christians.
The Indian episcopate recently made the ad limina visit. How did you prepare yourselves to meet the Pope?
DIAS: It was a normal event, I’d say. Each bishop prepared a report for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. The ad limina visits are programmed on a regional base: we of Bombay belong to the area of west India, the Western Region. The first to visit the Pope were the Syro-malabarese and Syro-malancarese prelates, belonging to the other two Catholic rites present in India. Then it was the turn of us Latins. Each region of India has its own particularity, and the Pope knows it. To us of the west area, however, he also spoke about India in general.
About what?
DIAS: Criticizing the behavior of fundamentalist Hindus who hamper the life of the Church. The Pope was referring to the five Indian States where laws exist prohibiting so-called “forced conversions”. With sensible interpretation, such rules should not worry the Catholic Church in any way. But unfortunately some government officials sometimes apply them in arbitrary fashion, despite the ample assurances of local and central governments that there is absolutely no anti-Catholic pressure and that the laws should only worry little groups and sects which, they say, persuade people by means of bribes. Whoever conceived these ambiguous norms knows, however, that our faith is not an intellectual choice, that one can convert because one has seen good works, has received some benefit… in short, also for some good practical reason. But that is considered a snare by ill-wishers and sets the rigors of the law in motion.
However if norms restricting the freedom of Christians are in force in five Indian States, I don’t believe it’s an insuperable obstacle. If for example someone wants to be baptized openly, he can do it in the neighboring state and return home the same day. Quite definitely, the daily life of the Church, even in a Hindu state, is a great deal simpler than one imagines. Among Christians there is a dialogue on the shared faith. And with ordinary people, of whatever religion, there is the very fine dialogue of daily life.
Have you accepted this attitude on the part of some government officials?
DIAS: Well yes, we believe that the principal source of the obduracy of some Hindus towards the Church lies in their conception of the caste system, that doesn’t admit exceptions to the hierarchy that descends from the Brahmin down to the dalit, the outcast. Whereas if a person is converted to Christianity, he doesn’t belong to any caste any longer, and being without caste would have the same rights as the most important Brahmin magnate! The aim of those who want to turn India into a Hindu State, to stand against Moslem Pakistan, is to prevent this by firmly crystallizing the caste system. The Pope has spoken out against this anti-conversion law because it violates human rights, and has been censured by some Indian politicians, to whom our national Episcopal Conference gave a good answer.
There is discrimination also against the adivasis, who are the original inhabitants of the country. The recent elevation to the cardinalate of an adivasi, Monsignor Telesphore Toppo, Archbishop of Ranchi, is a visible sign that the Church believes all men to be equally sons of God.
A refuge for the poor in the city of Malda in India

A refuge for the poor in the city of Malda in India

How can one be Christian without wanting to revolutionize the caste system?
DIAS: It has to be fairly said that the number of Hindus against the Church is very small, albeit some are today in government. This is not, however, the conviction of ordinary people, because Hinduism as such allows other religions, and in our daily life there is much harmonious co-existence: not least because the Hindus see that the Christians charities are opened to all, without any distinction of caste or social status or religious belief.
Four years ago Hindu fundamentalists burned alive a Protestant Australian missionary and his two sons, because he was working among the lepers. They said in excuse that he was making conversions and that he was unlawfully helping people who, according to Hindu beliefs in karma (reincarnation), were paying for the sins of a previous life through the disease. The Christians instead, like the Good Samaritan, are friends of all; in India almost a third of charity toward the poor, orphans, lepers or Aids sufferers is the work of Christians. Mother Teresa saw and loved Jesus in the poor she succored, in the lepers, and that was how, just for that reason, she found the courage to embrace those disintegrating bodies.
Starting from your diocese, what characterizes your daily life?
DIAS: The bishops of the Western Region have the custom of meeting amongst ourselves twice a year, the whole Latin Episcopal Conference meets once, and every two years we all come together with the Malabarese and the Malancarese. In that way we exchange much information and experiences in fraternal fashion, not least to help one another. Our superiors in Rome are constantly informed of what our Church is doing for the education of children, for the care of patients and for Indian society in general: that is our daily life. We don’t have big problems. There are some Indian states, such as Gujarat, where the pressure of extreme factions is felt: there are in general no dangers for Christian charities, but unfortunately violence has been done to individual missionaries. Two years ago Gujarat suffered the big disaster of an earthquake, and recently there have been clashes between Hindus and Moslems. Five years ago the Hindu factions attacked Christians, now the conflict is rather with the Moslems, and we Christians try to calm tempers. The Catholic Church is often asked to mediate for peace, and it never turns its back. We also help to relieve the sufferings of victims of natural disasters. Following on the earthquake in Gujarat the diocese of Bombay made a collection for homeless families. It went well and Caritas has entrusted us with the building of a thousand homes…
Furthermore, a fine flower we have offered the Church is the numerous religious vocations. There are around 70,000 priests and 100,000 nuns in India for 18,000,000 Catholics, and it’s perhaps the highest ratio in Asia.
The crowds at the funeral of Mother Teresa

The crowds at the funeral of Mother Teresa

Let us come back to the meetings in Rome.
DIAS: Visiting the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the discussion turned to those Indian theologians who have difficulty in explaining our faith in Jesus sole Savior of all men. The theme had already been examined by the Congregation for Catholic Education during the apostolic visit to the seminaries. With the Pontifical Council for the Inter-religious Dialogue there was a fraternal collaboration, as also with the Congregation for Divine Worship. We clearly shared many questions with the Congregation for the Evangelization of peoples. Finally there was the meeting with the Pope, who surprised us all by the interest shown in the problems of our dioceses and by his memories of so many people met and places visited during his trips to our dioceses. In Rome there is the universal Church and the Pope is faithful to his mandate of “confirming the brethren”.
Was there a common denominator in the discussions with the Roman departments?
DIAS: Inculturation. India is a mosaic of cultures. One can’t say that there is a dominant Indian culture. The Indian people is, besides, already deeply religious of itself. Jesus did not come “to abolish” – we tell people who, faced with the challenge of Christianity, are worried about the future of their traditional creed – but to bring fulfillment. In India Jesus can be witnessed to only with patience: there are many obstacles in India that the Church must face, such as the caste system, corruption, co-existence among the religious communities. Since there isn’t a sole Indian culture, but several cultures, much remains in the hands of local bishops. For example, throughout India over two hundred languages are spoken in the central state, and who knows them all? In Bombay alone there are at least seven. So when a liturgical text is translated, the responsibility is left to the local bishop, in whom we must put our trust. We make it known in Rome that a text has been translated, and we don’t claim that the recognitio means that the content of the text is perfect. For the future – on the request of the relevant Roman department – a member of the national Episcopal Conference who knows the tongue de quo will sit on the commission for recognition.
You said that the testimony of great patience comes from the Indian Church.
DIAS: And of great openness, something constituent of the Indian spirit: that is why the ordinary man, in New Delhi as in Bombay, knows that the extremist is a foreigner, is outside the culture of our people. In Bombay there is a Catholic sanctuary frequented – and it is not the only case - by Hindus, by Sikhs also … Every Wednesday there are around 70,000 people praying to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and the majority are not Catholics. And Our Lady grants her favors and graces to all, she is a mother. Ours is a dialogue of life, practical. On 8 September, Mary’s birthday, there are Catholic sanctuaries where from two to three million people gather to celebrate Our Lady. They are days of festival and fairs. Even Hindus go to greet Our Lady on her birthday. They find something special in Mary: «In our religion», they say, «there are women goddesses, instead you have this woman with the child in her arms, a mommy…» Thus some of us have a chance to explain our dear faith to them: that that woman is there because of that child. And who is that child? Jesus.
How is the primacy of Peter experienced by the Churches in India?
DIAS: All the Catholic-Latin, Syro-malabarese and Syro-malancarese Churches are united with Rome, they accept the Pope and his primacy. Others, while faithful to the apostolic traditions, are not in full communion with the Apostolic See of Rome. A Syro-malancarese community united recently with the Patriarchate of Antioch, with which it had had relations for some time. We are open and fraternize with all, whatever their attitude to Rome, we don’t have problems with ecumenism in Bombay. Indeed, for example, we work together with five other non-Catholic communities on charity toward the dead: the State has given shared burial places for Christians, and the five Christian confessions have together created a trust to administer all the requirements. There is such good understanding with these Christian brethren that it’s a pleasure to work together, have this very practical dialogue. Theologically speaking, there are among them those who don’t accept the Pope, who don’t share any situation of faith and morals with us, but in practice we live together as brothers.
As for us Catholics specifically, the Pope is the Pope, and the Curia listens to us with great openness. Here we know each other well, we and Rome, with a respect that does honor to both, and in Rome they know well that it is the local bishop who leads his Church in holy fashion. From this standpoint the ad limina visit is an encounter between the universal Church and the local Church, that already represents and contains the universal: it’s an exercise in catholicity.
Indian Catholics in procession in Darjeeling

Indian Catholics in procession in Darjeeling

Is there anything anomalous to point to in relations between State and Church in India?
DIAS: No. Only the odd friction due to the presence in central government of some representatives of extremist thinking, as I’ve already mentioned. But dealing with it is the business of the Nunciature and of the General Secretariat of the National Episcopal Conference in New Delhi, not of the individual bishop… I mention here only the denial of visa to missionaries, motivated by the problem of proselytism.
India is nowadays acknowledged to have greater international political importance, something the New Delhi government often handles in favor of multilateralism. Does the Church benefit from this favorable situation in the State?
DIAS: As pastor I see that the economic wave of globalization ridden by India is infecting the dough of which my people is made, wiping out its points of daily spiritual reference, and that grieves me. I remember an audience I had with the Holy Father, around 1983-84, when it was expected that Communism would collapse and a new era immediately spring up. The Pope told me that the surrender of Communism, that is of theoretical atheism, was necessary but not sufficient, and that before being able to build a civilization of love, capitalism must be beaten also, that is to say practical atheism. His was not a utopian vision, but a realistic one: he wanted in fact to follow John XXIII, in his desire of seeing a new springtime in the Church, and Paul VI, who awaited the coming of a civilization of love.
Both these Popes, a brief pontificate and a longer one, are still strongly present in the imaginative life of the Church, which identifies them in the season of Vatican Council II. But to get to a springtime one only has to wait for the clay to be kneaded and shaped by the Lord.
You have come to Rome to celebrate the 25th jubilee of the present pontificate.
DIAS: The Pope has given us a beautiful example of what it means to have the faith of Peter and the heart of Paul. When one speaks of Rome one speaks of the faith of Peter, the stronghold founded on the rock that winds and tides do not shake. And like Saint Paul, who became everything to everybody, the Pope has traveled the whole world as herald of the Good News of Jesus Christ and defender of the rights of man and his inalienable dignity. Pope John Paul II has been a real Pope, and has had the time to assert himself.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português