THE TOP hierarchy of the Indian Catholic clergy has expressed disappointment over the fact that Pope Francis’ tour of the subcontinent starting Monday does not include India. The Pope is scheduled to visit Myanmar from November 27-30, and Bangladesh from November 30-December 2.
The Vatican announced the schedule in August, and the Catholic cardinalate and ecclesiastics and their associations in India, were in touch until recently with the government to bring the Pope to a country where Catholics constitute the third largest group, with about 28 million followers. But they were not able to obtain a commitment.
Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, Secretary-General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), the permanent association of Catholic bishops in India and which oversees all Catholic churches in the country, said: “It was with a heavy heart, we received the news that the Holy See cannot visit India. This is not vis-à-vis just Catholics in the country, a Holy Visit would have been a prestige for the whole country in the eyes of the world. It is indeed embarrassing that the Pope is coming to the neighbourhood, and visiting two smaller countries and not India. As an Indian, it hurts that the Pope will not be coming here. I hope it hurts all Indians, too.”
The previous papal visit to the sub-continent was in January 2015, when Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka for the canonization of India-born priest Joseph Vaz.
Consultations and dialogue for the papal visit began in earnest a year ago, when Pope Francis declared in October 2016, on the papal plane on his way back from Caucasus in Azerbaijan, that he would “almost certainly” visit India and Bangladesh next year.
The Pope’s remarks had come after the visit of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to his office in Vatican City when she had gone to Rome to attend the canonization of Mother Teresa in the first week of September 2016.
According to protocol, a papal visit is a state visit as the Pope is the sovereign of the state of Vatican City, and it is de rigueur that India sends an invitation to the Vatican as the Pope will be the guest of both the President and Prime Minister.
Archbishops and cardinals of important Catholic associations like Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC), and CBCI, had formed delegations to meet then President Pranab Mukherjee and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to clear the dates of the visit.
However, apart from meeting the Prime Minister, they returned without a commitment from either office.
Archbishop Thomas Macwan, the Archdiocese of Gandhinagar, said, “Of course, I’d be joyous if the Pope came to the country, but it is a decision to be taken by the government. Perhaps, the dates were not suitable for the government. But I’m confident the government will take a decision soon.” Incidentally, Assembly elections are scheduled to be held in Gujarat starting December 9.
The Archbishop of Nagpur, Abraham Viruthakulangara, said it would have been in the fitness of things if the Pope had come and that “it would have been a great boost for the country’s image in the world”. “Look at the size of Bangladesh and Myanmar, compared to us,” he said.
In June, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai, reportedly said that discussions with “PM Modi’s government about the papal visit was taking longer than expected”, and that he “was losing hope about a papal visit in 2017”.
In August, three cardinals, who head the Episcopal Conference, met Modi to express their “wish” for a papal visit this year and reportedly assured the Prime Minister that “the Catholic Church and the community would continue to support the country’s growth”.
Bishop Mascarenhas said: “In this climate of vigilantism and murderous lynchings, the Pope would have come as a Messenger of Peace, bringing a salve to the people who are powerless in the face of the forces of hate and evil.”
The last papal visit to India was by Pope John Paul II in 1999, during the previous NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Bishop Mascarenhas said, “The Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary have always met us with the utmost courtesy. They have never said no to a papal visit, only that they are always considering it. I am hopeful the Holy See can visit us soon as we are in continuous talks with the government. A papal visit would be a pride for India and all Indians.”
The External Affairs Ministry spokesperson did not respond to a query from The Indian Express on why the government did not extend an invitation to Pope Francis. The Vatican Ambassador in New Delhi, Giambattista Diquattro, did not reply to a question on whether the Pope was disappointed at not being able to visit India.