India’s Cardinal Gracias discusses the possibility of an Asian pope and highlights the importance of the historic meeting of Asian Bishops in Vietnam in December. He also reveals an important breakthrough that happened during the recent synod in Rome
Cardinal Oswald Gracias, 67, archbishop of Mumbai, is Secretary General of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), which is the umbrella organization of 19 Catholic Bishops Conferences in Asia, covering 29 countries.
When I interviewed him in Rome, November 1, we discussed the possibility of an Asian pope, and talked above the historic Tenth Plenary Assembly of the FABC which will be held in Vietnam, the first ever to be held in a Communist country in Asia and, significantly, at the invitation of the Government.
Planning for the Vietnam meeting had been going on for two years and the event was scheduled to take place November 16-25, but Pope Benedict’s surprise announcement that he would hold a consistory to make new cardinals on November 24 scuttled that prospect and forced the FABC to hurriedly re-schedule and get the Government’s agreement to the new date. The Cardinal revealed how they managed this crisis. He talked too about the meeting and the importance of the FABC for the Churches in Asia, a continent where 60% of the world’s population lives, a mere 3% of whom are Christian.
Pope Benedict announced that he was creating two Asian cardinals - from India and the Philippines. India got its first cardinal in 1953, but if a conclave were to be held after November 24, India will have five cardinals voting to elect the next pope. What does this say?
It is certainly significant. Asia is central to the future of the world, and India and China - which have 37% of the world’s population - are emerging as major players on the international scene. India is a big country, but the Catholic Church there is small. We have 20 million Catholics, just 2.3% of the population. Now we have five cardinal electors, two of whom are heads of their respective Oriental rite Churches. I can tell you that there was incredible joy in my heart when the Holy Father announced that Archbishop Cleemis was to be made cardinal. It was a surprise that the Malankara Church which is small in numbers was given its first cardinal. It makes a difference to them, and I am very happy for this.
Do you foresee an Asian pope?
I would say why not? To tell you the truth, for me nationality does not matter so much at the moment. I think what we need is a holy man. We want someone who can lead the Church, who can give good directions. I think we must take out of our minds any prejudice against any nationality; it could be an African, it could be a South American, it could be a North American, so long as he is a good man. So I am not specifically saying that I want an Asian pope. It has to be the best man. In titanic times such as these, the Church needs very good leadership, and I am sure the Holy Spirit will guide us when the time comes to chose the next pope.
The FABC will hold its Tenth Plenary Assembly in Vietnam, and that’s surely a historic event.
It’s absolutely historic. The Government invited us. I am very hopeful. It was originally scheduled for November 16-25, but sadly we had to postpone it because of the Consistory for new cardinals which will be held on November 24, and which several of our members have to attend.
I imagine it was complicated to change the date
Fortunately I was here at the synod, so I was able to intervene rapidly. And Cardinal Rosales, the Pope’s envoy to the FABC plenary, was in Rome too for the canonization of a Filipino saint, so I was able to talk with him. The evening after the Pope announced the Consistory I phoned the FABC’s secretariat in Hong Kong and the different Bishops’ Conferences and by the following Friday, just two days later, we were able to agree on a new date.
On Saturday morning we were able to inform the Government of Vietnam and explain the reasons for this postponement. They had to take time to study it and say yes. But I anticipate there will be no major problems now. I’m very keen that it goes off successfully for the sake of the Church in Vietnam. This will be a great moment because we are meeting in a country where the Church is small but full of vitality, and we want to be with them. People realize the importance of going to Vietnam. Everybody is excited about this.
Relations between the Holy See and Vietnam appear to be reasonably good today.
A. The relations are improving. The Holy See has a non-resident representative to Vietnam who is also nuncio in Singapore. The Government invited the FABC, and met Cardinal Man. I am confident it will be a very good meeting. We will be about 100 bishops, including 80 voting members. Cardinal Rosales, the papal envoy, will inaugurate it on December 11, and I will preside at the closing session in Ho Chi Minh City, December 16. We will invite Government officials to the inauguration.
Things are improving for the Church in Vietnam. Thank God! As I have said before, the Church does not want to enter into the political life of a country. There’s no need for anybody to be afraid of the Church or the Holy Father, our role is spiritual. Our role is pastoral. We want to show everybody that neither the Church nor the FABC has any intention of intervening in the internal matters of any country. We only want to make sure that the Church is free, that people are able to practice their faith, profess their faith and give witness to others, and if others want to join the faith, we thank God and praise God and they should be free to do so.
What’s the agenda for the meeting?
We have a paper prepared by Archbishop Quevedo on the theme: “The FABC at 40: Responding to the Challenges of Asia.” It reviews what we have achieved over the past 40 years, and tries to see in what direction we should go now. The meeting is a little like the synod. We’ll discuss the draft document, have input from all the conferences, and then prepare a final document saying this is the direction we will go.
As Secretary General of the FABC how do you see its role in Asia?
A. It can play an important part because the countries of Asia have much in common, but they have their differences also. As far as the Church is concerned, some Churches are stronger, others are weaker. I am very keen that the stronger Churches help the weaker ones in different ways, such as by sharing resources. But above all else we help by being there with them, giving them encouragement. We learn a lot from each other too. Moreover, due to political reasons some of us can only meet at FABC meetings or in Rome, so it’s important for that too.
The Catholic bishops from China cannot participate in the FABC meetings.
Today they cannot, but I hope that someday the Chinese bishops too could come to our meetings.
When you addressed the synod you emphasized how important it is that the Church in Asia engages in three dialogues - with the cultures, with the religions, and with the poor of Asia. This is FABC policy.
Yes. That’s basic. That’s the commonality of Asia: cultures, religions and the poor. It’s the specificity of Asia too, and that’s why the Church in every country has got to explore how best to relate to these three realities. The FABC promotes this.
Speaking of the Church in Asia, you told the synod: “For us religion is more a discipleship of a person than an adherence to a doctrine or to a set of rules. The person of Jesus is deeply attractive.”
That I think was one of the key things I wanted to say. It is not just a question of do you believe in this, or do you believe in that. I would say that for the Asian, first of all, it is a question of “Does Jesus mean something to you? Do you have a relationship with Jesus?” And once you have this personal relationship with Jesus then you accept his teaching because he said this. For us Asians, the faith is more person-oriented, not abstract. Everything else flows from that personal relationship with Jesus.
During the synod you networked with CELAM and SECAM the counterparts of the FABC in Latin America and Africa respectively. Could you say something about this?
We had meetings with the Presidents of SECAM, Cardinal Pengo, and of CELAM, Archbishop Aguiar Retes. We three presidents met formally and informally a number of times and discussed in-depth each other’s work and what we can do together. We realize we have so much in common. This is an important development, and we will take it forward from here. I consider this initial contact a real breakthrough.