India, the first Dalit cardinal: my mission is to help the poorest children

The next cardinal, the Archbishop of Hyderabad Anthony Poola, says he learned of his appointment from Italian friends: In my country, education is a way of redemption for the “outcast” children, but also for those who are simply in poverty

Deborah Castellano Lubov – Vatican City State

The word “dalit” comes from Sanskrit, literally means “oppressed” and refers to those who have such a low social status that they are marginalized, outside the caste system of Hindu society. Often referred to as “immovable”, these people have over time been exploited and subjected to real atrocities. To them belong‘Archbishop Anthony Poola from Hyderabad, India, who will be appointed Cardinal of the Consistory on 27 August. The first Dalit cardinal in history.

In the interview with Vatican News, the upcoming 60-year-old cardinal reflects on how the caste system, although technically abolished, has not completely disappeared, and on what it means to serve the Indian “untouchables”, as well as dwell on the current state of religious freedom for the small Christian minority in India.

How did you learn the news about the consistory and about Pope Francis’ choice to make you a cardinal?

That day I was in the state of Kerala to attend the award ceremony of the CCR’s Golden Jubilee, the Catholic charismatic renewal. Some friends from Sardinia and Catania have sent me a congratulatory message with my appointment as cardinal. My friend does not understand English well, I thought he did not understand, I repeated that I am only the Archbishop of Hyderabad and not a cardinal that I have served this area for 14 months. Then they sent me the link and wrote that this was what Pope Francis had announced, they told me my name was 17 minutes, 12 or 13 seconds, or something like that.

What does this appointment mean for you personally, and how does it intend to help Pope Francis?

I was in shock. It was news that surprised me and that I had never expected, never dreamed of. It is the grace of God, it is his will, he works through Pope Francis. I consider it a great opportunity for me to serve the people, to serve the entire people of South India and especially the Telugu states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.

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

I understood from the beginning of Pope Francis’ teachings that his priorities are love, compassion, attention to the periphery, to the poorest of the poor. That is why we always prioritize the marginalized, and we can offer a strong message of “a poor church for the poor”. I can say that when there are events such as cyclones, natural disasters or the recent outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine, I see the concern of the Holy Father for all the people of the universe. Perhaps the Pope expects that it can somehow help solve the problems of the marginalized and perhaps also the Dalits, but it is clear that we as a priest do not ignore the needs of other people who are not in our care.

The caste system in India has been technically abolished. But what is the situation?

The caste system has been abolished, but there are some factors that have not changed. As for the real situation and the reality on the spot, there are some differences. There are people who really strive for recognition of their talent and the various activities they perform. Long ago, the “untouchables” had neither access to school nor education. But now the Indian government, especially in our states Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, where I come from, offers more opportunities for the marginalized, the poor and the Dalits, and encourages them to go to school and continue their studies. We try to make everyone aware of these special situations and carry on the concept of equality.

Is there any particular episode against the Dalit people or against the poorest people in India that has moved you particularly?

My home diocese is Kurnool, I studied in the diocese of Kadapa, which is a neighboring diocese. After graduation I entered the seminary and then became a priest; my interest was to serve the people. But there are remote villages in every parish, these places are very poor and prone to drought. When we go there, we do it in the evening because people go to work during the day. We ring the church bell, gather the children and teach catechism. It’s a wonderful thing to see, which moved me to compassion, made me understand the great responsibility I have to children, by giving them the gift of education because they have no money or goods to sell to study. Education is a great gift. In my speech, I relive the story of my life.

What do you mean?

After seventh grade, I had to quit because of poverty. I thought my education ended there. But it was above all the missionaries who took an interest in me who took me to Kadapa and helped me to continue my studies. They took responsibility for me, helped me get to school and made me a good person. That is why I then chose to go into the seminar. I studied, and my intention then, as today, was to help as many poor children as possible. Thus I interpreted the mission of a priest. It was a beautiful moment for me. When I see poor children, I take them myself in the car and put them in shelters. The lay missionaries also had a jeep, took the children and entrusted them to those who could take care of them. This has always impressed me a lot.

Did this inspire your service?

All my life I was 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 did mostly parish work. When I returned, I was appointed head of all the Catholic schools in the diocese. I have tried to reach many poor people, 90% of whom are marginalized.

What forms of discrimination or abuse did you see?

There is a social stigma. What can we do? We can do nothing about it. Our houses were located at the north end of the village, on the corner of the village. When we went to the upper casters because we were thirsty, they poured water into our hands as they had a well. But this was not painful for me. We have accepted this social stigma, which is still felt today above all in the villages and not in the city. Now one no longer drinks from the hand or uses separate plates and glasses for the Dalits, but back then this was discrimination.

Have you ever felt insecure about doing your job?

You see, we have religious freedom. Every Indian citizen has the freedom to practice, accept any religion and live accordingly. In southern India, I can say from my particular experience that we are very free. Every authority gets our full cooperation. I felt no danger in my work because we also do not discriminate against Hindus, Muslims and Christians. 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?

Some incidents occur in different parts of India, especially in the north and also in the south of the country. There are some groups of fanatics. But when we turn to the government, we can say that it is very cooperative and understanding. They are trying to solve problems. But in Karnataka, the destruction of some statues and other symbols was something that hurt us. When we approached the government, we were assured of maximum security.

Do you have a particular devotion or a saint who often prays and helps you day by day?

I have a great devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In our village there was a chapel with a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. I have a special affection for her, and in my difficulties I pray even when I am in the office. On one side Madonna of Lourdes and on the other Madonna of Velankanni, (Our Lady of Health). I have a special affection for her since childhood. When I’m in trouble, I pray. I pray to Mary and experience comfort. Since my name is Antonio, I’m devoted to Sant’Antonio di Padova. When I pray, I can say with certainty that I was helped by Mary’s powerful intercession and also by the invocation of St. Anthony of Padua.

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