By Jose Kavi
New Delhi: No Indian has found a place among the 14 new cardinals Pope Francis announced on May 20.
The pontiff seems to have ignored pleas for a cardinal from the Dalit Catholics of India, who form at least 60 percent of the Church members in the country.
Pope Francis, who has been creating cardinals from smaller and “frontier” nations since becoming the pontiff in 2013, may have skipped India all these five years because it now has four cardinals with rights to vote in a papal election.
The Pope has not nominated new cardinal from two other major Catholic countries in Asia — Indonesia and the Philippines.
The Indian Catholics can find consolation that Churches in their neighborhood have cardinals, the latest being Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan. Two years earlier, Pope Francis made cardinals from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Sri Lanka has Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo.
Among the Indian cardinals, the oldest is Telesphore Toppo, Archbishop of Ranchi, whom Pope John Paul II made the first tribal cardinal from Asia in 2003. He is now 78.
The other three were nominated by Pope Benedict XVI — Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, in 2007, and in 2012 George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, and Baselios Cleemis, head of the Syro-Malankara Church. While Cardinals Alencherry and Gracias are 73, Cleemis is only 58 years old.
Although the Church in India traces its roots to Saint Thomas the Apostle who is believed to have arrived on the Kerala coast on 52 AD, it had to wait 19 centuries to get its first cardinal. Pope Pius XII created history in 1953 when he nominated Archbishop Valerian Gracias of Bombay as the first cardinal from India.
Since then, 12 Indians have become cardinals, including the four now living.
The country got its second cardinal 16 years later: Joseph Parecattil, Archbishop of Ernakulam Syro-Malabar Church. Jesuit Archbishop Lawrence Picachy of Calcutta became the third Indian cardinal in 1976. The fourth was Archbishop Simon Lourdusamy of Bangalore, in 1983.
Five years later in 1988, India got two cardinals – Archbishops Simon Pimenta of Bombay and Antony Padiyara of Ernakulam. The country then waited for 13 years to get two more cardinals – Ivan Dias of Bombay and Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam.
Observers of the India Church find it curious that Delhi, the national capital, never had a cardinal. There was strong rumor of Archbishop Alan de Lastic of Delhi becoming a cardinal. However, the Eurasian prelate, who was born in Myanmar (then Burma), was killed in a road accident on June 20, 2000, in Poland, when he was 70.
The cardinals from India have represented various communities in the Indian Church — Goan, East Indian, Eurasian, Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, Tamil and tribal, but none from Dalits, who form nearly two thirds of Christians in the country.
People such as Father A Maria Arul Raja, a professor of Religious Studies at the Jesuit Theology Centre in Chennai, say it was time the Church in India had a cardinal from the Dalit community. Even tribal people, who form 5 percent of Christians in India, have a cardinal.
Father Raja says a Dalit a cardinal would elevate one of the most socially suppressed communities in India. Dalit means “trampled upon” or “broken open” in Sanskrit and denotes people formerly known as untouchables in India’s multi-tiered caste system.
A Dalit cardinal would be “a symbolic gesture to affirm the dignity and rights of the community that has lived in the sub-human condition imposed by the caste system on the community for centuries, Father Raja told Matters India in February after addressing the Indian bishops’ last plenary.
A Dalit cardinal will highlight injustice done to the community in society as well in the Church. “It will be powerful witness to Jesus who took a strong choice for the poor, outcasts, socially excluded,” the priest added.
However, it is the prerogative of the Pope to appoint church leaders as cardinals, he acknowledged.
Another social activist Father Ajaya Kumar Singh too agreed with Father Raja. The Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocesan priest says a Dalit cardinal is overdue.
“Empowerment means being part of governance and decision-making process. Dalits are worst represented in the Catholic Church. They suffer from multiple vulnerabilities. Their representation would give an inclusive, positive and humane face to the church,” Father Singh told Matters India.
Jesuit Father AXJ Bosco, coordinator of the United Front for Dalit Christian Rights, also supports a Dalit cardinal. “If Dalits have to be empowered, they must assume leadership,” he told Matters India.
According to him, leadership in the Catholic Church is with the hierarchy. “Although 65 percent of the Catholics are Dalits, not even 8 percent of the bishops are Dalits; 12 out of 183. Unfortunately, the oppressive caste system, a social evil, dominates the hierarchy and the Church,” Father Bosco regrets.