MUMBAI, India – India getting its first Dalit cardinal is a sign that “miracles can always happen,” according to one Dalit activist in the country.
“It came to me as a shock and surprise, that Most Rev. Archbishop Anthony Poola, a man from the Dalit community has been appointed cardinal. It is news of great joy to more than 65 percent of the Dalits in the Catholic Church in India. Pope Francis wants the church to be synodal, listening to everyone including the least. The Dalit Christians feel that they too have been listened to after years of struggle,” said Jesuit Father A. X. J. Bosco.
Dalits are on the lowest rung of the Hindu caste system, and used to be called the “Untouchables.” Although other religions in India don’t use the caste system, the social issues surrounding caste background often lead to social discrimination, including in the Catholic Church.
Although Dalits make up the vast majority of Catholics in the country, they are a minority among the church leadership: Of the country’s 31 archbishops, only two are Dalits, and of the 215 bishops, only 11 are Dalits.
Bosco said Poola “is a cultured gentleman, very kind to everyone.”
“He has a special love for the poor; he is very much concerned about the Dalits. He is open and generous,” the priest told Crux.
He called Poola’s appointment to the College of Cardinals “a success for the Dalit Christians.”
Father Devasagaya Raj, former national secretary of the Commission for Scheduled Castes at the Indian bishops’ conference, said the appointment means “the history of the Indian Catholic Church takes a new turn.”
“We are happy that at last the Vatican has recognized the large presence of Dalits in the Catholic Church. We are happy that the Holy Father, Francis, has included a person from the Untouchable community in the college of cardinals. This shows the inclusive approach of the Holy Father,” Raj told Crux.
He said it was especially significant as the church prepares for the Synod of Bishops meeting on synodality, which is due to take place next year at the Vatican.
“As we are speaking of the synodal church to listen to the least, this is the time that the church in India listens to the voice of the socially marginalized. There lies a great responsibility on the new Cardinal Anthony Poola that he has to represent the Indian church and the socially marginalized of Indian society, namely the Dalits. Once a well-known theologian, Father Felix Wilfred, wrote in an article that the Dalits don’t need a cardinal but the church needs a Dalit cardinal. This need is fulfilled now,” Raj said.
Poola’s appointment comes as a series of protests has been taking place over the appointment of bishops in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where only one diocese out of 18 has a Dalit prelate. Dalit activists have been petitioning the Vatican to increase the representation of Dalits in the hierarchy of the church.
“The Dalit Christians in Tamil Nadu have been fighting the regional hierarchy for the last two years, demanding a Dalit bishop,” explained Bosco.
“One after the other, two bishops and an archbishop who were appointed in Tamil Nadu were non-Dalits. They are angry and frustrated and almost lost their faith in the church. At this juncture, the appointment of Archbishop Anthony Poola as a cardinal brings a little bit of a consolation and a glimmer of hope. Miracles can always happen,” said the Jesuit.
“It has assured us that Holy Spirit has some space even today in the caste-ridden Indian church,” Bosco added.