ROME – Cardinal Ivan Dias, a former senior Vatican official and perhaps the most prominent Catholic churchman ever to come out of India, died Monday at the age of 81, defined by his fellow Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias as a “martyr for mission.”

“The church in India has lost an illustrious son,” Gracias told Crux. “Cardinal Ivan Dias made India proud.  …. he loved India, and he worked tirelessly for the progress and uplift of its people.”

Born in a suburb of Bombay, today Mumbai, in 1936, Dias was the second oldest of four children in a prominent family, as his father served as an undersecretary for the government of Maharashtra state. One of his brothers would go on to become a lieutenant general in the Indian army.

Dias entered the seminary in Bombay and was ordained a priest in 1958, heading to Rome for further studies. He was selected to enter the Vatican’s prestigious Ecclesiastical Academy, grooming him for a career as a papal diplomat. He helped prepare Pope Paul VI’s 1964 visit to India before serving in a string of papal embassies, then returned to the Vatican to take over a highly sensitive section within the Secretariat of State responsible for the Soviet Union during the Cold War era.

In the early 1990s, Dias served as the papal ambassador to Albania, where he was responsible for helping to rebuild the local church after decades of Soviet-imposed atheism.

In 1996, Dias was tapped Archbishop of his native Bombay at a time when Indian Catholic thought had become a subject of controversy in the Church, in light of debates over the “theology of religious pluralism,” having to do with how Christianity evaluates the saving capacity of non-Christian religions.

Dias emerged as a forceful conservative in that tension, defending the 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus, issued by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which insisted that non-Christians objectively are in a “gravely deficient situation.”

Dias became a cardinal in 2001, under Pope John Paul II, and was called back to Rome as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in 2006, by Benedict XVI.

He was an unabashed man of tradition, once controversially charging the Anglican Communion with “spiritual Alzheimer’s” or “ecclesiastical Parkinson’s” for forgetting its own teachings and heritage.

Gracias, who sits on the pope’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers, said, “Cardinal Ivan had the courage of his convictions. He never wavered in his zeal for Jesus and the Church.”

Gracias said the loss isn’t just institutional, but also personal.

“I have lost a beloved friend, mentor and guide,” he said. “Just two days ago I visited His Eminence at the [Fondazione Don Gnocchi] clinic, and his eyes smiled at me. He was clearly happy and pleased that I had come to visit him and have me sit at his bedside. This welcome he gave me just two days ago, fills my heart with gratitude.“

Gracias said that Dias was driven above all else by a keen sense of mission.

“Cardinal Ivan Dias was a martyr for mission,” Gracias said. “All his health issues stemmed from his extensive and intensive missionary travels. Cardinal Ivan never complained … he endured his illness and intense sufferings with Christian fortitude and heroism.

“The Church in India, and especially the Archdiocese of Bombay, now has a powerful intercessor in heaven,” Gracias said. “Cardinal Ivan Dias’s intercessions will bring many graces.”