India’s first Dalit cardinal vows ‘to help as many poor children as possible’

The future cardinal reflects on how the caste system still has remnants and what it is like serving India’s “untouchables”

The first Dalit cardinal in history in India, Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad who will be created a cardinal at the August 27 Consistory, said his mission had been “to help as many poor children as possible.”

Derived from Sanskrit, the word “Dalit” means “broken” or “downtrodden,” and refers to those so low in ‎social status ‎that they are considered outcasts or outside the four-tier caste system of Hindu society. Often referred to as “untouchables,” these people have been greatly exploited and subject to atrocities.

In a wide-ranging interview with Vatican News, the 60-year-old future cardinal reflects on how the caste system, even if technically abolished, still has remnants, what it is like serving India’s “untouchables,” and the current state of religious freedom for India’s small Christian minority.

What were you doing when you learned that Pope Francis nominated you to be cardinal?

I was in Kerala State that day to attend the Golden Jubilee valedictory function of CCR, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal moment. Some of my friends from Sardinia and Catania sent a message to me. Congratulations to you for being appointed as Cardinal. My friend doesn’t understand English so well. Then I said I am only Archbishop of Hyderabad, and not cardinal; and it is 14 months that I have been serving here. Then they sent the link. This is what Pope Francis announced today. They told me your name is there at 17 minutes, 12 or 13 seconds, or something like that.

What does the nomination mean to you personally and how do you most look forward to helping the Holy Father and advising Pope Francis?

I was in shock. It was like surprise news for me, that I never expected. I never dreamt. But for me, I feel it is the Grace of God and it is His will through Pope Francis, that I receive the call. Pope Francis, our Holy Father. I deem it as a great opportunity for me to serve the people, to serve the people in South India and all sectors of the people, especially Telugu States of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

How do you interpret Pope Francis having chosen the first “Dalit” cardinal in history? What message do you believe the Holy Father is trying to send?

I understood from when Pope Francis had taken up the office of pontiff. He has been, what I understood personally: Love, compassion and reaching out to the periphery, the poorest of the poor. That’s why as we always give priority to the poor and marginalized, we have a strong message of “a poor Church for the poor.” I can say whenever some kind of destruction came, through a cyclone or other natural disasters, or recently the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine, I see the concern of the Holy Father toward all the people of the universe. In a special way, I think, maybe this is a situation where the Pope is expecting me to solve the problems of the poor, need marginalized, and maybe also Dalits. This doesn’t mean that we ignore the other people who are under our care as shepherds. It is my responsibility to take care of all the people entrusted to me according to their needs.

Activists hold placards during a demonstration against the death of a 19-year-old Dalit girl who was allegedly gang raped by four men in Bool Garhi village of Uttar Pradesh state, and to demand accountability for the inaction of police, in Bangalore on Oct. 1, 2020. (Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP)

And the caste system in India technically has been abolished. But what really is the situation on the ground?

The caste system [was] abolished, we can say, but there are some social factors. Well, we cannot completely say that they’ve been abolished. But the real situation and the ground reality, as for your question, there are some differences. There are some people who are really fighting for recognition of their talent and the different activities they are doing. Long ago, there was no possibility for Dalit, “the untouchables” to have access to school or education. But now the government in India, especially in our states, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh where I come from, there are greater opportunities given to these marginalized, poor and Dalits, which also respects and encourages the poor people to go to school and pursue studies. Some become well-educated and are looking for a life. But they are treated differently as they aren’t ‘locals.’ There is a little bit of jealousy among human nature. I think what I expect from the people and what we try to practice, is raising awareness about people and situations, also these good situations, and trying to bring equality among all people.

Could you give an example of something that you’ve seen in your ministry to the Dalit people or to the poorest people of India that has particularly moved you or left a lasting impression?

Where I was born, Kurnool Diocese, is my native diocese. But I studied for Kadapa Diocese, which is a neighboring diocese to Kurnool Diocese. I signed up after my graduation as a seminarian and as a priest; my interest was to serve the people, whether on the parish level and deanery level or in the institution and I served as the in charge for sponsorship program, etc… But there are remote villages in every parish. These places are very poor and drought prone areas. When we have to go to the villages. We can only go in the evening as people will go for work during the day as you know, but they will come only by evening and they will be there. We ring the bell at the church and we gather the children and teach catechism. And people sometimes have to cook and come to the church. So that was wonderful to watch. That made me move with compassion and love, and especially a great responsibility I felt to the children to give them a gift of education because they don’t have money or assets to sell. But if you give education for them, that will be a great gift. I am looking into my own life story.

How so?

After seventh grade I had to take a break because of poverty. I thought that is the end of my education. But it was mainly missionaries who took interest and brought me to Kadapa and helped me go for education. Therefore, after my B.A., that is a graduation course, I felt that I don’t have any connection with this missionary. But they took charge of me and helped me go to school and made me a worthwhile. That is the reason why I want to join the seminary. I went to Kadapa.

I studied and my intention was to help as many poor children as possible. So, then I took this work and as a priest, as I was visiting villages and wherever I worked as a parish priest. This was a beautiful moment for me. It is that way whenever I see the poor children. So, I myself take them in my car and put them in boarding homes. The lay missionaries also had a jeep. In those days, there were trunk boxes, those who go to hostels used these boxes to put their uniforms, the plate and plus everything they carry. And they take the children and entrust in the boarding to the director, which is in the parish or in the school. That impressed me. That’s why I tried to do much ministry in the villages.

Read the rest of the interview on Vatican News

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