The first Dalit cardinal: “My mission is to help as many poor children as possible”

Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad in India receives the cardinal’s bar under the consistory on 27 August. He describes his mission as being “helping as many poor children as possible”, and reflects on serving the “untouchables”, the poorest and often forgotten in India.

Deborah Castellano-Lubov – Vatican City State

Derived from Sanskrit, the word “dalit” means “broken” or “oppressed”, and refers to those whose social status is so low that they are considered outcast or outside the caste system of Hindu society. Often referred to as “immovable”, these people have been widely exploited and subjected to atrocities.

In a lengthy interview with Vatican News, 60-year-old future cardinal Archbishop Anthony Poola reflects on how the caste system, although technically abolished, still has remnants of what it means to serve India’s “immovable” and the current state of religious freedom for India’s small Christian minority.

What did you do when you were told that Pope Francis had appointed you cardinal?

I was in the state of Kerala that day to attend the graduation ceremony of the RCC, the Catholic charismatic renewal, on the occasion of its golden anniversary. Some of my friends from Sardinia and Catania sent me a message. “I congratulate you on being appointed cardinal”. I then replied that I was only the Archbishop of Hyderabad, not 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 on it after 17 minutes, 12 or 13 seconds or something.”

What does this appointment mean for you personally, and how do you look forward to helping the Holy Father and advising Pope Francis?

I was in shock. It was like a new surprise to me that I had not expected. I had never dreamed of it. But for me, I feel that it is the grace of God, and it is his will through Pope Francis that I receive this call. 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 sections of the people, especially the Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

How do you interpret the fact that Pope Francis chose history’s first “Dalit” cardinal? What message do you think the Holy Father is trying to send?

I understood that as soon as Pope Francis took office as pope. He was what I personally understood: love, compassion, and an outstretched hand to the periphery, the poorest of the poor. Therefore, since we always prioritize the poor and the marginalized, we have a strong message of “a poor church for the poor”. I can say that every time there has been some kind of destruction, through a cyclone or other natural disasters, or recent outbreaks of war between Russia and Ukraine, I see the concern of the Holy Father for all the people of the universe. In a particular way, I think it might be a situation where the pope expects me to solve the problems of the marginalized and perhaps also of the Dalits. This does not mean that we ignore the other people who are under our responsibility as priests. It is my responsibility to take care of all the people who are entrusted to me according to their needs.

Street children in Jaipur

The caste system in India has been technically abolished, but what is the real situation on the ground?

The caste system has been abolished, we can say that, but there are certain social factors. We can not completely say that they have been abolished. In fact, there are some differences. There are people who really struggle for the recognition of their talent and the different activities they perform. Long ago, there was no possibility that the “untouchables” could gain access to school or education. But today, the Indian government, especially in our states Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where I come from, provides more opportunities for the marginalized, poor and Dalits, who also respect and encourage the poor to go to school and continue their education. There is a bit of jealousy in human nature. I believe that what I expect from people and what we are trying to practice is to raise awareness of people and situations and try to bring equality among all.

Could you give an example of something you have seen in your service, to the Dalits or the poorest people in India, who in particular have moved you or left a lasting impression?

The Kurnool Foundation is my home diocese. But I studied for the Kadapa diocese, which is next door to the Kurnool diocese. I committed after my diploma as a seminarian and as a priest; my interest was to serve people, whether at the parish and dean level or in the institution, and I served as the leader of the sponsorship program, etc. But there are remote villages in each parish. These places are very poor and prone to drought. When we go to the villages, we can only go in the evening because, as you know, people go to work during the day, but they only come in the evening and they are there. We ring the church bell and gather the children to teach them catechism. And people sometimes have to cook and come to church. It was wonderful to see. I felt compassion and love, and above all a great responsibility to the children, to give them an education because they have no money or goods to sell. But if you give them an education, it will be a great gift. I look at the history of my own life.

What do you mean ?

After seventh grade, I had to take a break due to poverty. I thought that was the end of my education. But above all, it was the missionaries who took an interest in me, brought me to Kadapa, and helped me to continue my studies. Therefore, I thought after my BA, that is, a graduation course, that I had no connection with this missionary. But they took care of me, helped me go to school and made me a good person. This is why I wanted to attend the seminar. I went to Kadapa.

I studied and my intention was to help as many poor children as possible. So I accepted this job, and as a pastor, I visited villages and worked as a parish priest. It was a beautiful moment for me. This is how it is every time I see poor children. So I take them myself in my car and board them. The lay missionaries also had a jeep. At that time there were coffins, those who walk in the foyer used these coffins to put their uniforms, the plate and more everything they have on. And they take the children and leave them at the boarding school to the principal, who is in the parish or in the school. It made an impression on me. That is why I tried to perform a lot of service in the villages.

Has it inspired your service?

All my life I have been a simple priest, a simple missionary. I worked for almost ten years as a missionary. Then I went to the United States for a few years to study, but I worked mainly in the parish as an associate employee. When I got back, I got the sponsorship program. I was also responsible, as assistant director, for all the Catholic schools in the diocese. There I had a lively ministry that reached out to these poor people, 90% of whom are marginalized. There are also other sections where there are poor people and where we need to respond to their needs.

An Indian girl prays.

An Indian girl prays.

What forms of discrimination or abuse have you seen?

Discrimination in the sense of my personal life and my childhood. There is a system in the village. There is a social stigma. What should we do ? We can not help it. Before, our houses were at the northern end of the village, at the corner of the village. When we go to overcast people, sometimes when we are thirsty, there is a well. When we are 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 the large urban areas, but in the remote villages. Today, this practice no longer exists, I mean drinking by hand or using separate plates and glasses for the Dalits. That’s a little discrimination.

Have you ever felt insecure in your job?

You see, we have religious freedom. Every citizen of India has the freedom to practice, accept any religion and live accordingly. In southern India, I can say with my experience that we are very free and that we in the political parties do not lean towards any camp either. Anyone in a position of authority, we give them our 100% full cooperation. I have not experienced any danger in my work because we do not discriminate against Hindus, Muslims and Christians either. We treat them equally and regard them as all children of God.

How is the situation for the Christian minority in India in general today?

In general, a sense of threat has been created because certain incidents are taking place in different parts of India, especially in the north but also in the south of India. There are fanatical groups. But when we turn to the government, they are very cooperative, understanding and friendly. They are trying to solve the problems. But in Karnataka, the destruction of some statues and other things disappointed us. Here, in some places, much lesser incidents have occurred. But when we contacted the government, I can say that we are 100% assured.

Do you have a specific devotion or saint that you often pray to that helps you from day to day?

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 affection for her and in my difficulties I pray for her even when I am in my office. Next to me is also Our Lady of Velankanni [apparition indienne]. I have a special affection for her. Since childhood, this is my practice.

When I have difficulties, when I am in need, I pray. I pray to Mary the Mother of God where I experience comfort. By turning to prayer, all my work and with all my work and other problems, I have found success. Since my name is Anthony, I also have a devotion to Saint Anthony of Padua. Every time I pray, I can say with certainty that I have been helped by the powerful intercession of the Virgin Mary and also by the invocation of St. Anthony of Padua.

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