Paul VI and India

Author: Eliana Versace

Paul VI and India

Eliana Versace

A Jeep for the mission

In 1964, at the invitation of Cardinal Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay, Pope Paul VI visited India from 2 to 5 December to celebrate the 38th International Eucharistic Congress. Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been Prime Minister since 1947, was a vigorous advocate of tolerance and a leader among the non-allied nations. However, international relations were already tense between India and neighbouring Pakistan, escalating a few years later into an armed conflict over the control of Kashmir. Moreover, even though it was the seventh most industrialized country in the world, India continued to suffer from gross economic inequality, and the majority of the population in rural and suburban areas was living in miserable conditions of extreme poverty. The population of the country, primarily Hindu and, to a lesser degree, Muslim, was only 3% Christian.

Pope Montini’s visit, intended as a “journey of friendship and fraternity”, gave the Pontiff an opportunity to meet the Indian people directly, whom he greatly admired for their “deep religious sensibility, innate nobility, artistic and cultural patrimony, reaching the apex of the human spirit”, as he said before his departure from Rome.

An enormous crowd numbering over four million people converged on Bombay. They came together to warmly welcome Paul VI and formed an unbroken human wall that stretched from the airport all the way to the site of the Eucharistic Congress. At the liturgical celebrations, the Pope met with civil and religious authorities and with average citizens. He visited a hospital, an orphanage, schools, and celebrated Mass at a parish on the outskirts of the city.

According to his secretary Pasquale Macchi, the various impressions Pope Paul VI took away from his visit formed the basis for his encyclical Populorum Progressio, promulgated in 1967. In a private conversation with his friend Jean Guitton, Pope Paul spoke of his journey to India, calling it “a revelation of an unknown universe”. The Pontiff felt “moved by fondness more than curiosity” by the waves of people who came to greet him.

“India”, he continued, “is a spiritual land. It has a natural sense of Christian virtue. I was telling myself that if there were ever a country where the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount were lived — not only by elites, but by people at all levels of society, by a single mass of humanity — then that country is India”, a country whose leaders “are mystics and wise men”. To the people of Bombay, who represented for Paul VI “all the peoples of India and with them all the people of Asia: non-Catholic, yes, but courteous, open, eager for a glimpse of the exotic visitor from Rome and ready to hear him speak”, the Pope wished to present himself above all as a messenger of peace, insisting on the importance of dialogue and fraternal cooperation to render the future of mankind more hopeful and just.

The Pope’s interest in India was deeply rooted in his past. As a young man, Montini participated in the “Indian dream” of his friend Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, a classmate at the academy for diplomatic studies in Rome and the cultured nephew of Leo XIII’s Secretary of State, who — as an appassionato of the history of religions and familiar with Sanskrit and its literature — had long planned a journey to India for missionary purposes.

But it was especially as Archbishop of Milan that Montini had the opportunity to learn thoroughly about the social and religious situation in India and to intervene directly in some very difficult situations. Evidence of this can be found in documentation kept by the Montini Foundation in the diocesan historical archives in Milan. As Cardinal protector of the Sisters of Charity of “Maria Bambina”, who had their generalate house in Milan, he closely followed the missionary experience that the order was having in India, and, in May of 1960, he celebrated in Milan the 100th anniversary of the beginning of their presence in India and in Bengala: “a glorious and blessed history”, wrote Montini in a long letter to the General Superior, Mother Costantina Baldinucci, “that now includes over 1,020 consecrated religious in the Missions and 67 houses across the East: a luminous history of charity and holiness that will be recorded in the annals of Church’s apostolic zeal, and with its examples and tradition is preparing for new conquests for the Kingdom of God”. Montini, who willingly gave concrete help to the sisters’ mission in New Delhi, was personally interested also in the foundation of a new novitiate of the Sisters of Charity in Dinappur, Pakistan.

In any case, the most detailed report of the Indo-Pakistani situation received by the Archbishop came a few years earlier from his Auxiliary Bishop Sergio Pignedoli who had taken a long trip to Asia, the purpose of which — as Montini wrote — was to “observe the people, the customs, and especially the conditions of the Catholic Church” in the vast region of India. The purpose of the trip was to strengthen the ties between priests and church personnel working in those places, and Pignedoli accurately informed Montini on the needs of the local population.

After Pignedoli’s visit to the East, the Apostolic Nuncio in Karachi, Pakistan — Archbishop Emanucle Clarizio — thanked the Archbishop of Milan for the kind consideration he gave to the Diocese of Karachi and described to him the situation in Pakistan where “the number of Catholics is very small (800,000 out of 80 million)” and where the Church’s intervention was most precious, because, “in my modest opinion”, Clarizio wrote on 4 February 1959, “few people in Europe realize how this nation is exploding, besides being in a phase of rapid evolution”. Therefore, encouraged by the visit of the “explorer” Pignedoli, the papal diplomat proposed to Montini the adoption of a missionary diocese in the area that could benefit greatly from Milan’s assistance. Montini responded with regret that it was impossible to accept the invitation, since “all the available resources are already dedicated either to Pontifical missionary works or to missionary initiatives that have a seat in the diocese, as well as to particular initiatives that, in difficult circumstances, courageously promote the work of missionaries”.

Actually, the idea of adopting or of twinning with a large diocese like Calcutta or New Delhi, where many areas were devoid of churches and religious assistance, was initially planned by Montini but then discouraged by Pignedoli because of organizational and bureaucratic roadblocks, although the Church, “despite the splendour of her works or the intensity of Catholic life”, was not imposing herself on the local population. Even though he did not take any official action, Archbishop Montini offered his generous help to the church in India by providing for the interdiocesan seminary in Mangalore in the south of the country. This seminary, founded and staffed by Italian Jesuits since 1880, was the oldest in India and included seminarians from 28 Indian dioceses in addition to two indigenous congregations. Despite numerous requests, the old seminary, due to a lack of space, was not able to accommodate all aspiring seminarians sent from many different dioceses.

The rector of the seminary wrote to Montini that the young men were living in “very tight quarters, even those who were already deacons. Rooms are so small that there is not even room for a dresser or closet in which to put their clothes; all of their belongings need to be kept in a small trunk at the foot of the bed. I do not know what to do”, he continued, “I have no infirmary, no gathering room large enough for lectures or classes. I have no refcctory for the priests. Despite the blazing Indian sun, I am forced to have the lector read by candlelight during the midday meal”.

The archbishop responded, “I am happy to hear of such an abundance of priestly vocations in India”, and even though Montini regretted the impossibility of “adopting” the Mangalore seminary, he was still able to procure one million lire through his secretary Macchi to help improve the living conditions of the seminarians, giving them each a small dresser with a label commemorating Cardinal Montini, “a name well known to them since they had seen it many times on official correspondence arriving from the Holy Father”.

What particularly moved the Archbishop of Milan was an unusual request received in 1960 from the Bishop of Khulna (once in Bangladesh, now in Pakistan). The Bishop, His Excellency Dante Battaglierin, remembering the interest Montini had shown in Asia in having Pignedoli visit the region, described the extreme poverty of the Christians in the area, telling him that “they are being visited less and less frequently, lacking the resources necessary for instructing neophytes, and it is not easy to reach them to give them support”.

He therefore begged Montini to help him by sending an essential element for his pastoral ministry: a motorized vehicle for getting around, since — as the Nuncio Clarizio affirmed — the only reliable means to cover the vast territory “was one’s own pair of legs”. So the Bishop of Khulna asked for a jeep — even a used one — or some other type of secondhand vehicle, hoping that he might obtain this favour from the people of Milan. “A luxury vehicle, in addition to being offensive in an area of such poverty, would be completely impracticable, but a jalopy would be a most precious gift for this poor bishop trying to care for 7,000 baptized Christians scattered among six million non-Christians (Muslims number one third, and the rest are Hindu), within an area as large as Sicily”.

Montini tried to satisfy the Bishop’s request by turning to the diocesan missionary office and even made an appeal to the president of the Catholic entrepreneurs’ association of Milan. The Archbishop of Milan knew well the importance of having adequate means of transportation to facilitate visits across such a vast territory. Therefore, as we read in an unedited note handwritten on 20 July 1959, Montini gave five million lire to Pignedoli, scraping together the sum from donations he had received upon being nominated Cardinal as well as from a family inheritance, specifying that 2,700,000 lire should go to the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta so that they could acquire an automobile for the purpose of assisting the sick and refugees, and 1,000,000 should be sent to a parish church in New Delhi.

This documentation sheds light on the sense and value, both symbolic and concrete, of the unexpected and surprising gesture of Paul VI who, in 1964, after his visit to India, announced that he wanted to give his automobile to Mother Teresa of Calcutta so that she could better serve the poor.

This act, which came as such a surprise to the media and to the general public — just as the Pontiff's appeal that every nation set aside a portion of their arms’ budget to create a world fund to help the poorest nations — came to maturity through the course of the years, responding to the needs of charity which always moved Montini. Indeed, on 22 December 1964, Paul VI affirmed that “truth remains firm, and charity illuminates its splendour. This remains our solid program for the future, as we are convinced that the world needs love, it needs to overcome the chains of egoism, it needs to open itself to a sincere, progressive, universal brotherhood”.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 August 2016, page 13

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