As the sound of sleigh bells grow louder and the clip clop of Santa’s reindeer mixes with horns blaring on Mumbai’s crowded roads, Archbishop of Mumbai, Cardinal Oswald Gracias’s already packed calendar gets increasingly tight. Yet 'tis the time for everything bright and everything light, so Cardinal Gracias makes light of his heavy work burden, to give his special message to Mumbaikars, while talking about a number of issues simmering within and outside the community.
Cardinal Gracias in a Christmas Eve interview:
Q: You just returned to Mumbai after a trip to Vietnam and have had a packed calendar off late…
A: I am the Secretary General of the Asian General Bishops Conference and we had a conference in Vietnam in Xuan Loc to be precise, where 100 bishops from all over Asia met to discuss matters of varying interest. One topic specifically that was discussed was the issue of family. How families are coping with complex, contemporary phenomenon like globalisation, economic recession and large scale migration taking place all over the world. These meetings are real melting pots of ideas but ironically, they also bring about the realisation that the ‘Asian soul’ is different maybe from the ‘European soul’. I do not mean soul in a literal way but a more general way -- that of values, attitudes and spirituality. You know in India specifically we see that even the grinding poverty here does not depress us completely. In that I think there is a certain ‘Asianness’, intangible, difficult to define but it is there, nevertheless…
Q: What is your Christmas schedule this year?
A: Though I am very busy travelling, I am still a true-blue Mumbaikar at heart and this Christmas will be back in the city I was born and brought up, live in to deliver my Christmas mass message today on December 24, here, from the Holy Name Church in Colaba, next to this house (the Archbishops House) like I do so everytime.
Q: We read reports about how declining attendance in Churches, especially in the West and it is a worry in those countries…
A: Recently, we had representatives from 120 countries discussing several issues about the community at the Vatican (Rome). It was obvious that dwindling attendance at churches, especially in Europe, was a cause for concern. There were discussions about how one could go about addressing it.
Surprisingly though, one does not see a similar trend in the more technologically advanced USA. There, churches are quite full up. Even in Mumbai, in certain parishes, numbers are dwindling. Take this Holy Name parish for instance. Previously, 30 years ago there were 14,000 parishioners. Today, there are 4,000. Several people living in the area have moved to the suburbs. Lots of others have migrated abroad.
Q: Pope Benedict XVI has started a recent Twitter account and even sent his first Tweet. What do you think about worship via the virtual world?
A: I think it is a great idea to use social media to reach out to people. I do not tweet myself but I see the new media as a Gift of God really, to reach out for the betterment of people. I am not very new social media savvy, but I do have an office who could do that work for me. The Church can look at this as an important avenue to get its message across.
Q: While on the Pope, there has been so much discussion about the possibility of an Indian Pope in the near future. There have been reports stating that an Asian or African Pope might make a statement about a globalised, more inclusive world…
A: This is a question I am frequently asked but I do not think that the nationality of the Pope is paramount. We just need a good person, a spiritual, holy man who is also an intellectual person, has a theological background and can give direction to the Church. Let’s not forget that the Pope is a leader of a state, he also has the weight of moral authority and has to deal with the world.
Q: When you say deal with the world, do you mean administrative and political responsibilities?
A: Yes. Take for example, this office (indicates his desk full of files). We are inundated with administrative work, official duties, which have doubled, trebled unlike earlier days. I think we must bring back the focus on spirituality. I think spiritual leaders are getting bogged down by administrative and bureaucratic responsibilities. We need to start adopting the older model, where the goal should be concentrating on spiritual good and giving spiritual guidance to people.
Q: A New Year brings forth the perennial debate about the Church’s view on homosexuality… there are thousands of conflicted young persons in the community because of these views…Today, we hear of priests coming out of the closet…
A: According to the Church there are two kinds of laws: God given laws which cannot be changed and man-made laws. We believe that homosexuals are to be treated with compassion, understanding and inclusion, be welcoming of them. However, as far as same sex marriage is concerned we think that is not according to God’s plan. Yet, I stress that gay persons are not to be rejected but accepted. I do not think priests coming out is a major problem. After all, who are priests? They are part of society and they reflect the contemporary state of society, whatever affects society affects them too.
Q: A while ago, Savita Halappanavar a young Indian woman died in Ireland after being denied an abortion and being told that Ireland is a Catholic country. Should the Church change its stand on abortion and see each case in context?
A: I regret very much that the Church’s point of view was not clearly put forward in this case. Life is sacred, one cannot directly kill the child. Having said that, one also believes that doctors have to do whatever can be done to protect the mother, do whatever necessary and take medical steps that are needed to save the mother. Maybe, the child may not survive because of that, but those steps need to be taken. That is the official stand.
Q: Sometimes, a woman needs to abort a baby because she cannot afford to look after a child…
A: We have to say no to that, it would be wrong on her part to kill the baby. Maybe, he/she can be put somewhere in a home (like the one we have for example, she could bring him here) to be looked after.
Q: Off late, there have been certain community activists claiming that the community is being discriminated against in jobs and they allege some prejudice…
A: I don’t think there is any persecution as such. There may have been sporadic incidents but one should be careful to avoid exaggeration.
Q: The community has still not been able to shake off the ‘conversions’ tag. Many Hindus do feel, though they may not say it because it is not politically correct that the community attempts to convert persons and there is discontent about this…
A: The Catholic Church is clear on one issue -- there cannot be forced conversions. Though most people do not know this, but there is a stringent scrutiny and a two-year process for a person who wants to become a Catholic of his own free will. It cannot happen overnight. I feel so sorry that these prejudices have somehow crept in, they were not there in my childhood when I grew up in the city. We celebrated every festival together -- Hindus, Muslims, Christians. Today, I think the politicians have instrumentalized religion to create a wedge between people. I tell them you have fractured India. You are riding a tiger and one day, that tiger will swallow you. Many leaders agree that society has been cleaved to a greater extent than it was earlier, but do not accept that they may be responsible. This Christmas, let us try to bring back that little warmth that is lost.
Q: Cardinal, what is your message to the community and people this Christmas?
A: For peace, harmony and the joy of Christmas to prevail over everything. Let us try to lead good, moral lives and for that to happen, we need to bring God back into our life. That is the solution to all our problems.
A recent newspaper report by Agence France Presse (AFP) stated that: The Vatican's newspaper slammed laws on gay marriage as an attempt at a communist-like ‘utopia’, a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out in France to support homosexual unions. In a scathing front-page editorial the official ‘Osservatore Romano’ daily said gay couples were in “a different reality” from heterosexual couples. The paper took particular issue with a decision by French Catholic weekly ‘Temoignage Chretien’ to offer its support for a controversial proposal to allow gay marriage in France, which is due to go before Parliament next year. “It is upsetting because in taking this position, the most banal politically correct arguments were used,” the ‘Osservatore Romano’ said, adding: “Being Catholic is about much more than embracing fashionable cultural standpoints. We cannot base a society on these foundations without then paying a very high price as happened in the past when there was an attempt to achieve total economic and social equality,” the paper said.
Pope Benedict XVI has earned the contemporary label of the: ‘coolest Pope ever’. The cool has come from some of the Twitter fraternity, delighted that the Pope has started tweeting. In his first tweet, the Pope tweeted using the handle @Pontifex -- meaning “bridge builder” in Latin. He posted: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.” There have been plenty of amused and delighted responses from the social networking fraternity. Vatican officials said recently, that anyone could send in a question to the Pope’s personal account via the hashtag #askpontifex or #B16.