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ROME – Since his election Pope Francis has been described as a pope of firsts, and on Sunday, he unveiled the first Indian cardinal who is a Dalit – the name for the group of people below the traditional Indian caste system, who were formerly called “untouchables” and face widespread discrimination.
Archbishop Anthony Poola of Hyderabad, the capital of southern India’s Telangana state, was among the 21 new cardinals announced by the Argentine pope May 29.
For years now India’s Dalit Catholics, who represent 65 percent of all Catholics in the country, have been complaining about being underrepresented within the hierarchy: Of the country’s 31 archbishops, only two are Dalits, and of the 215 bishops, only 11.
Poola’s appointment takes on special significance considering the controversy over the appointments of bishops in another southern state, Tamil Nadu, where some activist groups have bitterly contested the fact that only one diocese out of 18 has a Dalit prelate.
“To some extent, this decision will help heal the wound for those who feel we have been marginalized within the church,” Poola told Crux on Monday. “But in Tamil Nadu they have been fighting for a Dalit bishop for the past 10 years, seeing that he would come from ‘a minority,’ but represent the majority of the local Catholics. I am not sure my appointment will change their stance.”
“I think that there is a good sense that it is the will of God through the Holy Father, and they respect the decision of the pope,” he continued. “But I do think they are still hoping to have a Dalit bishop in the region.”
In vintage Francis style, those who were named were not told in advance that they would be elevated into the college of cardinals.
“I found out from friends from Sardinia, who called me and told me that they were watching the TV and that he had mentioned my name!” Poola said. “I told them it must be fake news. And then I got another call from Sicily. And then some priests in Rome called me. And after a while, the nuncio called me.”
By the time the papal representative in the country, Italian Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, called him, “I knew it was not fake news!” said the cardinal- designate with a laugh.
“It is God’s will that I accept with humility: I am not worthy,” he said. “I am grateful to Pope Francis for his trust. I was a priest in the diocese of Cuddapah for 16-and-a-half years, then I served as bishop of the diocese of Kurnool for 12-and-a-half years. Finally, in 2021, I assumed responsibility for the diocese of Hyderabad. This appointment of mine as a cardinal I believe is a privilege for the Telugu region and will grow the faith of the church in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.”
He said it is “good news for Dalit Catholics and for the entire church in India. I believe it will bring the encouragement of Pope Francis to many.” He also sees it as a “sign of maturity” for the Dalit church in India, which has been asking for a liturgical rite that represents their culture and background, in addition to more representation among the hierarchy.
Poola is convinced that “at least one of the reasons,” he was tapped by Francis was the fact that the pontiff “always looks towards the peripheries, towards the poorest of the poor. I say this for myself, as I am not worthy, but also for the region where I am at, as it is among the poorest in India, but also the one with the largest concentration of Catholics.”
In the hours following Francis’s announcement, the cardinal-designate received many messages of congratulation, including from some who said they appreciated “my simplicity, willingness to work hard, and the reformation I’m trying to lead in my archdiocese, empowering women and children.”
“I wish and pray that some new ‘havoc’ will happen in our region following this news, in cooperation with my brother cardinals in India, and inspired by the Holy Father,” he said.
On Sunday, the pontiff announced he would create two new cardinals for India during the consistory that will be held in Rome Aug. 27: Poola and Filipe Neri Ferrão, Archbishop of Goa and Daman and president of India’s Latin rite bishops’ conference. This means that come late summer, India will have six cardinals, five of whom, being under the age of 80, are eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope.
India, the world’s second most populous nation, has a relatively small Catholic community: They count for some 20 million people, representing 1.5 percent of the total population. Yet in August, India will be in a statistical tie with Brazil for the third most represented nation in the college of cardinals, preceded by Italy (20) and the United States (10).
Mexico and the Philippines, home to a fifth of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, are far behind, with three and two voting cardinals, respectively.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma