From ‘Untouchable’ to Cardinal: Archbishop Anthony Poola Embodies Pope’s ‘Call to Reach Out to the Peripheries’

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The Dalit-born archbishop of Hyderabad will be elevated to the College of Cardinals at a consistory in August.

By Anto Akkara

BANGALORE, India — Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad in south India is overwhelmed by his elevation to the College of the Cardinals.

“I could not believe it, and I had not even dreamed about it,” 60-year-old Cardinal-designate Archbishop Poola, one of the surprising inclusions among the 21 cardinals announced by Pope Francis on May 29, told the Register in a June 1 phone interview. 

In addition to designating Archbishop Poola for the red hat, the Pope has also elevated Archbishop Filipe Neri Antonio Sebastiao di Rosario Ferrao, heading the former Portuguese colony of Goa and Daman on the west of India, raising the number of cardinals from India to six.

“It is an honor for the Indian Church and for the majority-Dalit Christians in the country,” pointed out the cardinal-elect, who heads Hyderabad Archdiocese, capital of the southern state of Telangana.

“I am grateful to the Holy Father Francis for choosing me and giving me an opportunity to serve the poor,” said Archbishop Poola, confiding that there had been no prior intimation or consultation before the announcement. 

Dalit, literally meaning “trampled upon,” refers to low castes of people, treated as “untouchables” in caste-relegated Indian society, which is, according to 2011 figures, nearly 80% Hindu. Islam represents 14% of the population, and 2.3% is Christian. Dalits have to eke out a living by carrying out menial jobs like scavenging while living in segregation from upper castes in rural areas.

Despite changes over the years in the rigidity of “untouchability” against the Dalits, vestiges of this Indian racism still remain, with Dalits being ostracized from walking along the upper caste areas in some states. 

Dalits have special plates used for eating food and have to squat on the floor even in roadside eateries, while upper castes would sit on chairs.

Two-thirds of the 18 million Catholics in India are from the Dalit background, and there have been simmering tensions due to continued discrimination against the Dalits even in the Catholic Church. Cardinal-designate Poola hopes to represent an ingredient for the remedy.

“My elevation as a cardinal is certainly reiteration of the attempt of the Pope to reach out to the peripheries. This is an opportunity for me to be an agent of compassion and mercy to the poor and the Dalits, under the norms of the Church and in obedience to the Holy Father,” Archbishop Poola said.

Born in a Dalit Catholic family in 1961, Poola was ordained a priest in 1992 and became bishop of the Diocese of Kurnool in 2008, before he was appointed archbishop of Hyderabad in 2021.

“This elevation of a Dalit archbishop as a cardinal is historical,” Father Devasagayaraj Zakarias, former secretary of the Dalit Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told the Register from his parish in the Archdiocese of Pondicherry, in southern Tamil Nadu state.

“Even non-Christian Dalits are excited about this elevation, as high positions are often denied to Dalits in India. The Pope has set an example that a Dalit, too, can be a cardinal. This decision gives hope to Dalit Christians. It will certainly lead to drastic changes in the Church,” remarked Father Zakarias, himself a Dalit who headed the CBCI commission for seven years.

“It is a sad fact,” Father Zakarias pointed out. “Dalits face discrimination not only in the society, but even in the Church.” 

Of the 200 bishops in India, there are only 11 Dalit bishops, despite the community accounting for 65% of the Christians, he said.

Despite positive changes in several places and fronts, Father Zakarias elaborated on some of the discriminatory practices against the Dalits in the Church.

“There are still parishes with separate cemeteries and hearses for upper castes and Dalits; special doors to bring Dalit bodies into the church; Dalits denied membership to parish choir or as altar servers; preference for upper castes to receive Communion first, etc.,” he said.

On the structural level in the Church, too, he pointed out: “Caste discrimination lies deep-rooted, with vocations from Dalits discouraged by some upper-caste clergy and instances of Dalit priests discriminated in appointment to high posts, including as provincials of religious congregations.”

Cardinal-designate Poola “has a special responsibility to be a voice for the Dalits. With his elevation as cardinal, the Pope has given a clear message to those who discriminate against the Dalits in the Church. This appointment will have far-reaching impact,” Father Zakarias noted.

“I feel thrilled,” Franklin Caesar, a lay Catholic and one of the founders of the National Council for Dalit Christians, told the Register, endorsing the Dalit Christian euphoria over the appointment of a Dalit cardinal.

“The Holy Father is addressing the racism in the Church. We are very happy that the Pope has done to India now what he has already done to the Blacks in Africa,” pointed out Caesar, known for challenging the constitutional discrimination against Christian Dalits by waging a legal plea for two decades in the federal Supreme Court of India.

(In 1950, the federal government enacted special legislation, paving way for the constitutional discrimination against Dalit Christians. This legislation listed Hindu Dalits as “Scheduled Caste” and made them eligible for free education and a 15% quota in government jobs and legislatures to improve their social status.

While the “Scheduled Caste” privileges were extended to Sikh Dalits in 1956 and Buddhist Dalits in 1990, these have been denied to Muslim and Christian Dalits. 

“We are hopeful now that the appointment of a Dalit cardinal will certainly boost our campaign” to end discrimination against Christian Dalits, Caesar said. “After Archbishop Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi [in the tribal heartland of Jharkhand], himself a tribal, was made a cardinal in 2002, two dozen dioceses have tribal bishops now. But in my Tami Nadu state, there is only one Dalit bishop in 18 dioceses.” 

Some dioceses have even witnessed public protests by Catholics over the appointment of non-Dalit bishops, as witnessed in the Pondicherry Archdiocese recently.

Montfort Brother Verghese Thekkaneth, who heads national campaigns for migrants and domestic workers, enthusiastically hailed the papal appointment.

“I am glad that the Pope has chosen a very pastoral cardinal,” he said. “This will certainly boost the social-action work of the Church to those on the margins.”

Source: National Catholic Register

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