Archbishop Anthony Paul of Hyderabad, India will have the Cardinal’s Pub during the Kanturi on August 27. Describing his mission as “helping as many poor children as possible,” he thinks of serving the “untouchables,” the poorest and often forgotten in India.
Deborah Castellano Leboeuf – Vatican City
Derived from Sanskrit, the word “dalit” means “broken” or “oppressed”, and refers to those whose social status is so low that they are considered untouchables or outside the four-caste system of Hindu society. Often referred to as “untouchables,” these people were greatly exploited and subjected to atrocities.
In a lengthy interview with Vatican News, future Cardinal Archbishop Anthony Paul, 60, reflects on how the caste system, although technically abolished, still has traces, what it means to serve “untouchables” in India and the current state of religious freedom for the small Christian minority in India.
What were you doing when you learned that Pope Francis had appointed you a Cardinal?
I was in Kerala that day for the graduation ceremony of RCC, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, for the Golden Jubilee. Some of my friends from Sardinia and Catania have texted me. “I congratulate you on the title of Cardinal”. Then I answered that I was only the Archbishop of Hyderabad, not the Cardinal, and that I had served here for 14 months. Then they sent the link. “This is what Pope Francis announced today. They told me your name was written on it in 17 minutes, 12 or 13 seconds, or something like that.”
What does this appointment mean for you personally and how do you look forward to the Holy Father’s help and guidance from Pope Francis?
I was in shock. It was a new surprise for me that I did not expect. I never dreamed of it but for me, I feel it is God’s grace and will, through Pope Francis, that I receive this calling. Pope Francis, our Holy Father. I consider it a great opportunity for me to serve the people, to serve the people of South India and all sectors of the people especially my states of Telangana, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
How do you explain the fact that Pope Francis chose the first Cardinal “Dalit” in history? What message do you think the Holy Father is trying to send?
I understood as soon as Pope Francis took office. It was what I personally understood: love, mercy, and a hand outstretched to the extremities, the poorest of the poor. Therefore, since we always prioritize the poor and the marginalized, we have a strong message of “Poor Church for the Poor”. I can say that whenever there is some kind of destruction, through a hurricane or other natural disasters, or in the recent outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine, I see the concern of the Holy Father for all the peoples of the universe. In a certain way, I think maybe it’s a situation where the Pope expects me to solve the problems of the marginalized and maybe also the Dalits. This does not mean that we ignore other people who are under our responsibility as patrons. It is my responsibility to take care of all persons entrusted to me in accordance with their needs.
The caste system in India is technically abolished, but what is the real situation on the ground?
We can say that the caste system has been abolished, but there are some social factors. We can’t quite say it was cancelled. In fact, there are some differences. There are people who really struggle to have their talents recognized and the different activities they do. Long ago, there was no possibility for “untouchables” to have access to school or education. But today the Indian government, especially in the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where I come from, provides more opportunities to the marginalized, the poor and Dalits, who respect and encourage the poor to go to school and continue their education. There is little jealousy in human nature. I think what I expect of people and what we try to practice is to raise awareness of people and situations, and to try to make everyone equal.
Can you give an example of something you saw in your service to the Dalits or the poorest people in India that particularly affected you or made a lasting impression?
Cornwall Diocese is my original diocese. But I studied in the diocese of Cadapa, which is a parish adjacent to the Diocese of Cornwall. I dedicated myself after my degree as a clergyman and priest. My interest was in serving the people either at the parish, deanship or in the institution level and worked as the head of the sponsorship program etc. But there are remote villages in every parish. These places are very poor and prone to drought. When we have to go to the villages, we can only go in the evening because people go to work during the day, you know, but they only come in the evening and they are there. We ring the church bell and gather the children to teach them catechism. Sometimes people have to cook and come to church. It was wonderful to watch. I felt compassion, love, and above all a great responsibility to the children, the responsibility to give them an education, because they had no money or goods to sell. But if you give them an education, it will be a great gift. Look at my own life story.
How is that ?
After seventh grade, I had to take a break due to poverty. I thought it was the end of my education. But above all it was the missionaries who took care of me, took me to Kadaba and helped me to continue my studies. So, after taking my bachelor’s degree, i.e. graduation course, I thought that I had no connection with this dispatcher. But they took care of me, helped me go to school and made me a worthy person. This is the reason why I wanted to join the institute. I went to Kadapa.
I studied and my goal was to help as many poor children as possible. So I accepted this job, and as a priest I visited villages and worked as a parish priest. It was a beautiful moment for me. It’s like this every time I see poor kids. So I take them myself in my car and ride them. Secular missionaries also had a jeep. At that time there were chests, and those who went into the lobbies used these chests to put their uniforms, plates, and all that they wore. They take the children and entrust them to the boarding school of the principal who is in the parish or at the school. I liked. That’s why I tried to do a lot of service in the villages.
Did your service inspire you?
All my life I have been a simple priest and a simple missionary. I worked for nearly ten years as a missionary. Then I went to the United States for a few years to pursue studies, but mainly worked in the parish as a partner. When I got back, I got the sponsorship program. I was also responsible, as assistant principal, for all Catholic schools in the diocese. There I had an active ministry reaching out to these poor people, 90% of whom are marginalized. There are also other departments where there are poor people and we have to respond to their needs.
What types of discrimination or abuse have you seen?
Discrimination in the meaning of my personal life and childhood. There is a system in the village. There is a social stigma. what should we do ? We can’t help her. Previously, our houses were at the northern end of the village, at the corner of the village. When we go to the upper layer, sometimes when we feel thirsty, there is a well. When we feel thirsty, they pour water into our hands, and we have to drink it. But it did not tire me and was not painful. We have accepted this social stigma. But this kind of discrimination was not observed in the city or in large agglomerations, but in remote villages. Today, this practice no longer exists, I mean drinking by hand or using separate plates and cups for Dalits. It is a kind of discrimination.
Have you ever felt insecure at work?
You see, we have freedom of religion. Every citizen of India is free to practice and accept any religion and live accordingly. In South India, from my experience, I can say that we are very free and that in the political parties also we do not fit into any camp. Anyone in a position of authority, we give them our 100% full cooperation. I have never faced any danger in my work because we also do not discriminate against Hindus, Muslims and Christians. We treat them reciprocally and consider them all children of God.
What is the situation of the Christian minority in India in general today?
In general, a sense of threat arose, because some accidents occur in different parts of India, especially in the north, but also in southern India. There are fanatical groups. But when we deal with the government, they are very helpful, understanding and friendly. They try to solve problems. But in Karnataka, the destruction of some statues and other things disappointed us. Here, in some places, very minor accidents occurred. But when we contacted the government, I can say that we guarantee 100% security.
Do you have a particular devotion or saint that you pray to a lot that helps you day in and day out?
I have a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In our village, there was a chapel. There was a divine statue of Mother Mary, specifically Our Lady of Lourdes. I have a special devotion to her, and in my difficulty, I pray for her, even when I am in my office. Also beside me, Mrs. Velankani [apparition indienne]. I have a special devotion to her. Since childhood, this is my practice.
Whenever I encounter difficulties, and when I am in need, I pray. I pray to Mary the Mother of God, as I experience solace. Turning to prayer, and all my work, and with all my work and other problems, I succeeded. Since my name is Anthony, I am also devoted to Saint Anthony of Padua. Every time I pray, I can say with certainty that I was helped by the powerful intercession of the Virgin Mary and also by the calling of St. Anthony of Padua.