MUMBAI – Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, the first cardinal of the Catholic Church to come from India’s traditionally marginalized tribal underclass, has been hailed as a “trusted advisor, loyal friend and guiding light” after his Oct. 4 death at the age of 83.
Toppo was made a cardinal under Pope John Paul II in 2003, calling his appointment “a mark of distinction for the tribal Church in India and recognition of its growth.” He participated in the conclave of 2005 that elected Pope Benedict XVI, and also that of 2013 which produced Pope Francis.
Topp served as the Archbishop of Ranchi in India from 1985 and 2018, and was twice elected to lead the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
Throughout his career, Toppo was known as a strong advocate for the human rights and dignity of India’s Adivasi, or indigenous tribal groups, who make up roughly nine percent of the country’s population.
“At least a million tribal people in India are now Catholics, conscious of their human dignity and socially accepted,” Toppo once said during a keynote address of the Asian Mission Congress.
Thanks to foreign missioners who worked with tribals in Ranchi more than 100 years ago, he said, “a paradigm shift has taken place in the thinking of our people, so that their strong faith in Jesus Christ continues to liberate, transform, and empower them.”
Toppo often credited a 19th century Belgian Jesuit, Father Constant Lievens, for the Church’s success in evangelizing tribal populations, a result that’s sometimes known as the “miracle of Chotanagpur” for areas of central and western India where there are large pockets of tribal groups.
Toppo lauded Lievens and his fellow missionaries “for transforming a ‘people that were no people,’ mercilessly trampled underfoot, their will to live crushed to powder and dust. But once they accepted Jesus, they rose again with him in baptism into God´s people, a people with a voice, with self-respect and confidence, able to stand up for their rights.”
“As a Catholic community they have increased and multiplied. They have secured for themselves a place under the sun, as ‘children of the light’,” he said.
Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, who’s presently in Rome taking part in the Synod of Bishops on synodality, paid tribute to Toppo, describing him as “energetic, creative and had intense love for the Church and for God’s people.”
“He was India’s first Tribal cardinal, and was much appreciated by all in Rome for his gentleness, wisdom, his warmth and his simplicity,” Gracias said. “He will be missed much. When I spoke to the Holy Father about his death, he spoke affectionately about him. I have lost a dear friend and a close collaborator.”
Archbishop John Baraw of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in eastern India, who is himself a member of the tribal population, likewise lauded Toppo’s legacy.
“You have been a trusted advisor, a loyal friend and a guiding light in the darkest of times,” Barwa said of Toppo. “Your leadership and your unwavering commitment to the Gospel have been a shining example for all to follow.”
Barwa recalled that Toppo had visited the Kandhamal district of eastern India in 2008, after a series of riots led by radical Hindus left roughly 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced, many forced to hide in nearby forests where more died of hunger and snakebites.
“Your leadership during your visit to Kandhamal showcased your deep commitment to social justice and the well-being of the marginalized and oppressed,” Barwa said. “Your unwavering dedication to advocating for peace and reconciliation in the face of such adversity was inspiring to witness.”
Those riots hit the archbishop especially close to home, as his own niece, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, a Catholic nun of the Handmaids of Mary, was in Kandhamal when she and a local priest were dragged into the streets by frenzied attackers shouting, “Kill Christians!” She was raped by at least one member of the mob before being paraded through the streets to the howls of the crowd.
“Our trip to Kandhamal was a powerful reminder of the importance of compassion, empathy and resilience in a leader and you exemplified these qualities throughout our journey,” Barwa said of Toppo.
“Your humility and selflessness in the face of the world’s challenges have left an indelible mark on my heart,” he said.
Pope Francis dispatched an Oct.5 telegram offering his condolences on Toppo’s death.
“I recall with immense gratitude the late cardinal’s years of dedicated priestly and episcopal ministry to the local Churches of Dumka and Ranchi, as well as his contributions to the wider Church in India and to the Apostolic See,” the pope said, praising Toppo’s “devotion to the Holy Eucharist and generous pastoral care of the poor and those in need.”
Toppo’s funeral is set for Oct. 11 in Ranchi, followed by burial in St. Mary’s Cathedral.