When news broke Friday that a Catholic bishop in India serving a poor diocese largely made up of “Dalits,” or untouchables under the old caste system, had been kidnapped and savagely beaten, for most American Catholics it may have seemed a terrible but essentially far-away development.
Not so for retired Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo in Texas, because the Indian bishop at the heart of the story is a personal friend and a former priest of the diocese.
Bishop Prasad Gallela was abducted on April 25, along with his driver, and seriously beaten during the night before being released more than 50 miles away from his diocese of Cuddapah.
Although police are still investigating, early indications are the motives may have had more to do with money than specifically religious factors.
Pfeifer told Crux on Friday that whatever the background to the assault, the victim in this case is “a fine person and a great Church leader” who deserves the concern and support of American Catholics.
Crux spoke to Pfeifer by phone, and the following are excerpts from that interview.
Crux: How did you hear about what happed to Bishop Gallela?
Pfeifer: I became aware of it from various sources, and I e-mailed him immediately. He replied yesterday, and I’m very happy to know he’s able to send messages. That’s something very positive, given the injuries he received. I was shocked that such a fine person and such a great Church leader would be so abused … he could have been killed.
He’s a dear friend of mine. I got to know him probably about 12 years ago, when he first came to the Diocese of San Angelo. I invited him, and he served as a priest here for several years. He was one of the best priests from outside the country I ever received. He’s very capable, he’s got a great pastoral sense, and he adapted very well to the culture of West Texas.
When international priests come in there’s often a conflict of cultures, but he adapted better than practically any other priest I ever had serve here. We became good friends, and I saw the qualities and abilities he has. When he was called back to India to teach spirituality in the seminary, I was disappointed, but I understood why because he’s very gifted and a very spiritual man.
I also wasn’t surprised when he was named a bishop, because I saw the qualities of a bishop in this fine priest. Since then he’s come to see me several times, and I’ve supported him and sent him funds. I have the highest admiration for him.
Do you have any theories about why he was attacked?
Bishop Gallela is not afraid to face the truth of situations, and probably because he was speaking the truth, somebody took action against him. I’m glad to know he’s recuperating.
I’m also in contact with another former priest of the diocese in India who sent a message yesterday saying this reflects a terrible shift in that beautiful country. He said people are losing respect for the Church and for Church leaders, in a shocking way. He said we’ve seen the frightening spread of radical groups in other countries, and the same radicalism is now growing in India.
If I were to talk to Catholics in San Angelo, what would they remember about Gallela?
I think it’s primarily the way the people accepted him. Sometimes with international priests their manner of speaking isn’t understood, but he spoke very carefully. He understood that West Texas has its own culture, and he threw himself into it totally. He visited people in their homes, and they came to love him, as they still do. It amazed me how highly people spoke of him … they related to him, they affirmed him, and they wanted him to stay.
What impressed you most personally about Bishop Gallela?
Basically, he’s just a great human being. He has very many gifts, he’s got good intelligence, he’s got a deep spirit of prayer. You could see he wanted to be a priest.
He was also very generous about coming to West Texas and learning “Texian,” which is what we speak out here. He picked up on it and could joke about it, joke about his own struggles with the customs here. He became a true Texan.
He had a very good priestly preparation and a good mind. I would describe him as a fine pastoral servant of the Lord for God’s people. His adaptability was marvelous. Of course we have a lot of Hispanics here, and he also made a real effort to learn some Spanish.
Has he talked to you about the challenges he faces in in his diocese in India?
He told me he walked into a very tough situation. It was a big challenge, something very new to him, and he didn’t go looking for it. Although I think he’s been well received by the people in his diocese, especially for his effort to reach out to the poorest of the poor, he said there were conflicts and that respect for Church leaders was eroding – in terms of how people treat priests, robberies at rectories, abusing church properties, and so no.
In the midst of all this is India’s caste system. Conflicts among the various castes can be very pronounced and play a large role in all this, struggles that reflects attitudes towards other people in general.
I remember I once had two Indian priests in the diocese and there was a conflict. The priest who was on the receiving end, a good pastor, told me it all goes back to the caste system, and that some priests fall into it as well.
What are your dominant impressions of Bishop Gallela?
His heart is with his people, especially with the poor. He cares for everybody, he’s open to helping anybody, even within the caste system. Sometimes people aren’t accepting of that, and they retaliate. He’s a very fine man, a man who has the interests of people deeply at heart, and he wants to bring Christ and the Gospel to them. He puts a very human face on the way Christ himself would approach people.
What’s his legacy in the Diocese of San Angelo?
One thing is that he approached me and volunteered to help other international priests adapt. He could say things to them which, if I said it, might come off as offensive. To me, that showed his deep concern for his brother priests. Even after going home, he’s helped me do some background on prospective priests from other places as to whether they’d be suitable for service here. He also helped us develop some very practical pastoral guidelines for international priests, down to details such as what kind of food they eat, where they bank, how to use the post office, and so on.
I wish stories like this got more attention in the secular press. So far there’s been no attention to it even in the local media, which I find really disappointing.