Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Catholicos: Pope Has Given Us Areas of Concrete Attention

Head of Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Says Francis Is Asking Church to Propose Authentic Christian Ways to Make the Family Healthier, More Inspiring

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As more families worldwide are fragile and broken, Cardinal Cleemis says Indian families have a greater role to play and should actively be witnesses to the possibilities of the family unit through demonstrating the strength of their own.

In an interview with ZENIT this week in the Vatican, the major archbishop- Catholicos- of the Syro-Malankara Church says Pope Francis’ call for the synod is timely, while reminding that “All comes from the family. If that is broken and fragile, the fruits will be of the same.”

The president of the Catholic bishops conference of India, who also is the youngest cardinal at just 55, also shares his views on the recently released Relatio as well as why families must remain united because they compose the very fabric of society, on which all else depends.

In addition, Cardinal Cleemis speaks on contemporary challenges of consumerism and individualism, explains ‘arranged marriage,’ and discusses Blessed Theresa’s sainthood.


ZENIT: First of all, for our readers could you tell us your name, title, and responsibilities:

Cardinal Cleemis: I am Cardinal Baselios Cleemis. I am Major Archbishop – Catholicos of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and currently I am also the president of the Indian Catholic Bishops conference. It has 168 dioceses and about 200 bishops in the conference. We are a minority community in India as far as the Christians are concerned. And about 2.5 percent of the population are the Christians, in which 1.8 percent is Catholic. And I come from Kerala, the most southern tip of India. The place from where St. Thomas the Apostle came and preached the Gospel, and therefore we are known as St. Thomas Christians. We have about 17 percent of Christians in that state of Kerala.

ZENIT: What are your hopes and expectations for this synod? What are you hoping to bring back from it?

Cardinal Cleemis: I think the current synod is in continuation of our current search to find out the basic unit of human life. The church has been calling it as the family, the domestic Church. It is the basic of society and the human race. Looking at these years of developments from the social, economic realms, so much has been improved upon, but the most affected unit is the family. It’s fragile and becoming more exposed and broken, as you see. And the Church, of course, very much depends on this basic unit, the family. From there, comes God’s own people, the Chosen Ones, the faithful, and the vocations to priests, religious, and family. All comes from the family. If that is broken and fragile, the fruits will be of the same.

Therefore, the Holy Father Pope Francis has called the worldwide Catholic Church to pray and reflect upon this basic unit of human race and that of the Church: the family. He has given us an area of concrete attention: the pastoral challenges of the families. The Present World. What are the real issues?

So we have come with a background of discussion done early by local churches, with various areas and people. As a result we have come up with the working document, Instrumentum Laboris. And now we have a working paper. And we are reflecting upon that. We have come to our discussions, orientations, and more precisely, now in the small groups, we are focusing on each number and discussing it at length and proposing things to the general assembly, which will propose it to the Holy Father. It will be taken to the next synod as Instrumentum Laboris, the working document. Therefore, the approach has been very comprehensive and very positive. The aim is very dignified and noble. And of course when I came for the synod, I am exposed to a worldwide Church, just different contexts, different social realities, cultural points of view. Also, the faith application in its varied degrees. Therefore, it gives us again the strength to bring back the best out of the whole discussion by these people.

ZENIT: Are you happy with the Relatio that was just released yesterday?

Cardinal Cleemis: See, for example, the people outside of our assembly hall, how many people actually even understand the meaning of the word ‘Relatio.’ This is the output of our free discussions in the synod hall. These are combined together and are presented by the special relator of the synod. After its presentation, they were already some points of disagreements and opinions. It was just presenting our first reflection. Then we have the free discussions. But that is not there because there was no time.  To me, it would have been more advisable to have all these discussions in the small language groups, plus the Relatio already published, combined as a comprehensive opinion of the synod hall. Again, this is a working paper for the next synod. Again, there are issues which require more patience and spiritual virtues to understand and act upon. And also we have to come to more a practical solution to include those people who feel more fragile and broken. That they are included in the mainstream Church. For that, we need more time to pray, and to act upon. That’s what I feel.

Generally, the discussion was very positive to bring the due attention to the family system, to the families, and special attention to the broken families, the fragile ones. There is no doubt about that.

ZENIT: Just to be clear, you believe the document should have included some of the products of these discussion groups?

Cardinal Cleemis: In my assessment, the relatio plus the discussions, what is going on now in the small language groups, plus the presentation in the coming days in the general assembly, and that approved text should have been released.

You’ll see the difference when that approved text comes out, because there are also differences of opinion on these issues. That would have been more comprehensive, more objective.

ZENIT: How would you describe the state of the family in India?

Cardinal Cleemis: Generally, in India, the society depends very much on the family. In India, in our culture, family has a greater role to play, not individuals, but the family as a unit. For example, the family takes care of the child and its education, as well as the religious education and the upbringing of the adult, initiating him or her to the social life of the society. And also, even when he or she is working, the family accompanies, like in spirit, prayer, and so on. And the same family is assisting the son or daughter with the marriage as well. And some people misunderstand this, with the termed “arranged marriage.” It has a very negative connotation, but in our culture it is not true. Especially in the Indian Christian families, the families help the son or the daughter to seek and find out the best partner for him or her for an indissoluble, for a long time, not for a short time. The simple logic is that people depend very much upon the internet to find a suitable match. Is it more sensible to have that advice from the parents and from the family? So the family assists its members to have a very healthy, reasonable, spiritual solution of choosing the partner. Likewise, the family plays a greater role in one’s life, in our context.

Therefore, it is not an affair of individuals, in our culture. The family is a unit. It has its own value. But now the trend of the West has also come to our place in the sense, there are difficulties with employment, the scarcity of time, and so on. Still, the family is considered to be a deciding unit in each one’s life, for the Christians, as well as for Indians in general.

ZENIT: If you could say the biggest difference between families of the Eastern Catholic Churches and those which are not? Is there a certain way the synod should respond to this?

Cardinal Cleemis: I think we have a very strong family system in the Eastern point of
view, because of the parents. The mother and father have a greater role to play in each one’s life. This is not an imposed authority over somebody, but a personal assistance for the further growth. That’s very much seen in the family system, coupled with the culture of our nation. We have also the Oriental Christian point of view of family and we have an old axiom: ‘The family that prays together stays together.’ We have a rather positive approach toward family prayer and all the members of the family, especially in the evening, assemble together and pray, which has sustained the family system. Even if there are issues, concerns, and so on, we have a common prayer in the family which sometimes resolves the issues themselves by prayer itself. And also that atmosphere of the prayer is conducive to having you talk freely among the family members. Otherwise, what will bring you together? Food, a taste? A drink? Hardly none.

But along with the spirit of the prayer, the family will come together as a unit. And also God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s care. Everything is tangible and felt personally by each one. So family prayer makes a big positive difference in the life of the Catholic families, especially Eastern Catholic families. They are strong in that.

ZENIT: What would you say is the biggest challenge facing families in India? Is the synod responding to this?

Cardinal Cleemis: Generally speaking,  the attitude of consumerism. Money makes everything and money decides everything. As Jesus himself said, ‘You cannot serve two masters at the same time: God and mammon. So this is exactly true. The world feels that . The average moral feeling of man is that you need God as some kind of decoration, like a social ornament. But what you need for life is money. So this is the dichotomy. God, for us, is Emmanuel, the one who is with us always. In every aspect of our lives, God is present. To have the globalized sense of assuming wealth is also affecting the Christian families. For example, both are working, husband and wife. They have to work because of the financial need. But then who suffers? The family, the children. They have no time to rear children, to care for the children. So therefore the children lack the care of the mother, for example, or the attention of the father. They lack the spiritual nourishment in the family and so on. It is seriously affecting the family and the family system. So these are the challenges. Your health, your wealth, your beauty, and your power to conquer everyone makes you feel comfortably at home with you – in the sense of individualism, forgetting the person of God. So that’s a serious challenge for the young, more well-economically placed families. This needs to be tackled by the pastors and the Church, in general, to have a serious look into it, and to bring in positive solutions to bring them back into the mainstream of caring families believing in the true presence of God.

ZENIT: Do you expect the synod to produce challenges?

Cardinal Cleemis: I think so because the situations are different from place to place. The Church in Europe faces a lot of different issues than that in our part of the world. So I think it needs to be looked at with a sense of patience.  Everyone has to look into the [situation] of the other ones with more patience and with a more open mindset.  Because if the family is affected, the basic unit of the human race is affected. Therefore, we have to get special attention to it, to this unit of the human race. We have to take collective steps in a collaborative way to face these challenges.

ZENIT: If a change were made in which those divorced and remarried could receive Communion, how do you think the bishops of India would react?

Cardinal Cleemis: I think generally, the impression, what I felt, during all this discussion in the General Assembly, is that everyone wants God’s mercy to be shown, to people who are really in need of that. And everybody is really in need of that, especially those who are fragile, those who are weak, those who are kept outside the mainstream, out of the existing system and so on. Therefore, we need to patiently go through the solutions. We need not be in a hurry to push up these solutions. We need to patiently, pray and reflect upon the solutions. One solution that is applicable in this part of the world may not be applicable to another part of the world. So that should be done by the local bishop’s conference, and also by the local ordinary. They have a greater role to play, at least in bringing solutions to propose in the bishops’ conferences.

So I would advise that we need to continue praying and reflecting and proposing solutions that may serve as providing answers to the issues we have in the universal Church.

Everybody agrees on this point that God’s mercy is to be shared more clearly, more patiently, and more sympathetically with everyone. There is no dispute about that. The General Magisterium of the Pope will not solve all the issues at once. It needs to be done locally. How the small family in that village is going to live this message, this Magisterium, this sacramental aspect of the family, is very important. And how the parish community is going to take care of the fragile, broken family, which is facing lots of issues, for various reasons. These all are important. A simple Magisterium from the top will not solve all these issues but will be an indication of how we are to act upon them, with a lot of mercy, understanding, and, more than this, with a sense of God.

ZENIT: What could the rest of the world learn from families?

Cardinal Cleemis: The individualism is growing every day, even in India- the idea that what matters to me, is myself alone.  People used to say: He and his wife. Not anymore. Now myself alone, one person. This is the danger. A danger to life. For example, in a married couple, if one says, ‘I don’t need children.’ It’s detrimental to the family.  If they don’t cooperate well, it doesn’t bare any fruit. If they don’t bring up any children in the faith life, it is again broken.  So the responsibility is to act as though family is more important now than ever before. Fortunately, we have economic progress, intellectual growth and scientific researchers, what is lacking is a mindset, a conversion of heart to cooperate with the other, to work with the other. That is a gift of God. If you believe somebody is above you, who also has something to do with you, then only will you see the people who are around you. This is very important. The Indian families that migrated to the West, to the US and to other places and so on, I think they have a greater role to play. With their faith life, their prayer life, their parish life, their ecclesial life, their social life. They need to be witnesses for everyone. In that way, they can contribute, by being witnesses for everyone. In that way they contribute much to the upbringing of the Catholic faith life or the Christian faith life around them. So, therefore, I think, I feel that the Christian families in India, especially those here present in the West, have a greater role to play. They have to witness strength of the family which they experience.

ZENIT: Any thoughts on when Blessed Theresa should be a saint?

Cardinal Cleemis: I eagerly look for that day. I am praying for that. She has done so much to India. She has done so much to the world through India, and through the poor people of the world. And I think that since the canonization of John Paul is over now, I think this cause will follow soon which I desire and I look for it. Mother Therese was always waiting for Pope John Paul II to come, to go with him, and so on. She’s always been waiting. So maybe she’s on the waiting list to come to us again as a saint. That will be a day in which I will rejoice much.

ny final thoughts?

Cardinal Cleemis: I think Holy Father Pope Francis’ call for the synod is very timely and very inspiring because, as I said in the beginning, the most affected unit in the human race is the family. It is broken due to various reasons. So, the Holy Father is inviting us, the Church, the body of Christ, to look in and to see the reasons of the fragility of this basic unit, family. And he is asking us, as a Church, to propose authentic, Christian ways and means to make this basic unit more healthy and make the face of the unit more shining, attracting again the human race. Therefore, this synod is a very timely one, which calls for a greater commitment from everyone to build up this broken unit to a more visible, beautiful, mature, and inspiring reality of the world.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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