“I believe we must have a universal sharing of priests.”
In an exclusive interview with ZENIT this week in the Vatican, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), suggested this as he reflected on Pope Francis’ Synod on the Amazon, taking place this October 2019 in the Vatican.
Cardinal Gracias was president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference. He also is one of the Pope’s advisers of the Council of Cardinals, the currently so-called ‘C6.’ The Indian prelate was also part of the organizing committee for the February 21-24, 2019, Summit for the Protection of Minors, and will be present for the Pope’s upcoming Nov. 19-26, travel to Thailand and Japan, as he has been for all Francis’ trips to Asia.
In the interview, Cardinal Gracias reflects on the Synod and explores various solutions to issues facing the Church in the Amazon, noting there are numerous possibilities beyond those discussed by the media.
Here is our exclusive interview:
ZENIT: Your Eminence, how would you describe your experience at the Synod thus far?
Cardinal Gracias: I was surprised when the Holy Father nominated me, since I didn’t know much about the Amazon. But now I must say it has been a wonderful experience, listening to all the interventions on the Amazon and from the bishops. One thing that struck me so far is how the Church is universal, and the problems of one place really are the problems of the whole Church. I feel solidarity with them and see there is so much to learn from them.
ZENIT: What in particular is there to learn?
Cardinal Gracias: The problems are similar: exploitation of nature, violence against indigenous people, and injustices. This we also see in India, in Asia. I see that with the Church in the Amazon, there are difficult circumstances and great challenges, but they are really on the right road. They are going ahead with courage with the people, trying to think of the future. It is a great learning experience, and I am happy to have been part of it.
ZENIT: And what you experience in the Synod Hall is also reflective of this?
Cardinal Gracias: I think it has gone well. Everyone has spoken freely what they feel and what their anxieties are. Now we need to see what is ahead. We must remember that at the end of the day, a synod makes recommendations, but only recommendations. Then, the Holy Father makes a decision. He decides with the Magisterium, how he believes things should go, in that sense.
ZENIT: This is a special synod concerning a special region, but it has a universal meaning for the whole Church. Given this, what lesson will you bring back to India?
Cardinal Gracias: Yes. I do keep asking myself, what can I learn from this too for my country, for India, for Asia. Next year in 2020, we have a special meeting in Bangkok, in November. I am certainly taking a lot from the methodology and matters being discussed. We have to take care of our indigenous people more. The cry is the same, whether in the Amazon or from our indigenous people in India. We have been giving special attention to the tribes, who are being displaced. Their land has been being taken away. They have not been given opportunities, and they are particularly at a disadvantage. There is so much that needs to be done for them. We do not have exactly the same problems they do but there are many similarities.
ZENIT: Could you elaborate?
Cardinal Gracias: Well, we do not have the same shortage of priests. For us, there is no crisis. For them, there is a crisis; to have the Eucharist once every six months, once a year, is unacceptable. We must find a way out. But there is also, not as dramatically or drastically, the question of exploitation of nature. India is really one of the advancing countries, so nature is being used and abused. But the government is conscious of it and making efforts to protect it. There is a ministry for the environment, which has already been instituted for a few years now, and I see many efforts, and projects by the government to protect the environment now. I recognize as well, when someone reacts to wrongdoings, saying: ‘No, this goes against nature.’ The Church can help and is helping make people more conscious and sensitive to this need.
ZENIT: The idea of protecting Creation is so widespread, but there is no super-national authority, which goes beyond borders, and enforces it. What can be done to protect nature and prevent its exploitation? How can global policies be adopted to tackle the emergency? Is there a way?
Cardinal Gracias: I think for this, we need governments. Governments make decisions, laws, and enforce the laws. Now, we have to lobby with government, develop peoples’ consciences. I think that if the people understand, they can help influence the governments to make improvements, working for the good of all. Also, it is important to work toward this awareness through interreligious and ecumenical dialogue. I do think the Church has been truly in the leadership for ‘care for Creation.’ The Asian Bishops Conference, the FABC, has especially been speaking about this; and for at least five to seven years, we too have been sending bishops as delegates to international conferences on such themes. So, Asia really has been in the lead. However, now we all need to come together and push forward. We have begun working, we will continue working, but now, maybe, we have a more focused idea of how we need to go.
ZENIT: Unlike the Amazon, India is a densely populated nation. What are the main environmental emergencies in India today?
Cardinal Gracias: Unfortunately, because it is so densely populated, there are not such big forest areas, but there are some. The idea is to not let them be diminished. People should be conscious, and leave the forests as they are. The government, fortunately, is conscious of this, and I am grateful they are. For example, when tigers were becoming extinct in an area, the government stepped in, and helped prevent their extinction. We cannot let this momentum go. This commitment of government, the corporate world and each person in their daily lives is what makes that possible.
ZENIT: Pope Francis often speaks about work also affirming human dignity. How can one reconcile having a good developed economy which offers work to individuals along with caring for Creation and indigenous peoples properly?
Cardinal Gracias: Yes, Pope Francis has spoken about this very often. Very often. He is conscious of this problem. We have spoken about it also at the Synod. We are conscious that there has got to be economic progress. We cannot stop economic progress, but economic progress cannot go unbridled, for a profit motive. Pope Benedict had already begun, speaking very much, and strongly and clearly, about ethics and ethos. It was something new when he spoke about it the first time. Pope Francis has continued in this line.
ZENIT: Do you see any difference in their approach to this matter?
Cardinal Gracias: While Pope Benedict gave the theoretical principles, Francis has spoken more on the practical level of what we should do. Pope Benedict was showing it was not only good ethics, but good economics, which he expressed in various ways. Pope Francis has been stressing that too. The sad reality is that, according to all the relevant studies, large gaps still exist between the rich and the poor. There is economic growth, but these gaps exist.
I agree, Deborah, we cannot change it overnight. We have to educate people, change mentalities. Material goods and money is not everything. How important it is to give proper value to human life, quality of life, dignity, the quality of life, of society, of the poorest. There must be a special eye and care for the weakest, poorest, and those on the margins, as Pope Francis does and wants. Every society must keep these elements in mind.
ZENIT: In India, we know that there is not a shortage of priests. What remedies would you suggest, to help others?
Cardinal Gracias: As far as priests are concerned, well, that is a real issue. There is an unacceptable situation. This morning at breakfast a bishop told me of a parish 130 kilometers wide. He was discussing with me what we could do.
ZENIT: And what did you discuss together?
Cardinal Gracias: We could see the possibility of using some very good laypeople. A temporary solution could be ordaining permanent deacons for the Eucharist specifically, only for the Eucharist. It is not really ordaining priests, priests, for everything. For confessions, you need moral theology. You need so much formation. Really. But for the Eucharist, this could be considered as a temporary solution.
I do not think this should be left to the individual bishop, it should be the bishops’ conferences deciding, Rome giving approval to the request, and the regional bishops saying jointly, “we will take care of the formation.” It must be something very thoroughly well done, Deborah. This is present in Canon Law. But this impacts the whole world. Since it is present in Canon Law, you cannot say it is only for this place. Therefore, it needs to be thought out very, very carefully, with strict safeguards, proper thinking of the future, and of the impact on the universal Church, when you work to find a solution.
I think we also must have a universal sharing of priests. Vietnam has so many vocations. Thank God. I have been there and seen the seminaries full. There is not a single seat left.
ZENIT: That is very encouraging…
Cardinal Gracias: Yes, and the cardinal told me: ‘If anybody leaves, I have people ready to join.’ So that it is a great sign. They can send and train priests to go there [to the Amazon]. India does not have an excess, but a good number of priests. We can send priests there. And perhaps the Philippines too, and potentially Korea. I think some of the Asian countries can help. Also, we must start making an active campaign for priests, an active campaign for indigenous vocations. But to have that, various elements are essential.
ZENIT: Could you give some examples?
Cardinal Gracias: We would need to have formation and seminaries adapted to them, and training adapted to their culture. No watering down. They would need fully trained priests clearly, fully trained. I think that is important. The Church should consider and could do this. Adapt the formation to local people. Have seminaries adapted in the ways that it could adapt, to their needs: the culture, food, style, timetable, adapted to them. Then gradually, you will get them into the mainstream. You do not begin by forcing them. No, no forcing. This [solution] is possible and I think it should be done.
ZENIT: Pope Francis has said on a papal flight’s press conference, that the door for having married priests was closed, even if in some other rites, there exist married priests. But those rites have their own histories, you cannot compare them with the idea of the ‘viri probati,’ since it is a different situation.
Cardinal Gracias: Right, exactly.
ZENIT: In the meantime, numerous religious sisters have pointed out: We are more or less, the protagonists doing the work on the ground in the Amazon, and have spoken about how women deacons would be something to consider given that they are doing work similar to it…
Cardinal Gracias: Well, I also feel women are doing so much in the Church. They should have a greater role. Not more than what they are doing, but there is no recognition of the women’s role. There is not Church, official Church, approval. Again, I am thinking of Canon Law when I say there exists so many possibilities the Church can approve. Already Saint Paul VI had invited conferences to start ministries. I thought at that moment, I had thought of a Ministry of Women. No one was very interested at that time. I think now is a time to start the Ministry of Women. Women, administrators of the community.
They cannot be parish priests, but Canon Law allows that if a bishop cannot find priests, then he can put a group of people, or a person, –a ‘person’… it doesn’t say man—so a religious community could be in charge of the whole animation of the community. It means, as the Pope says, someone who is available to the people, guides the people. There are so many senior superiors with such a maturity, and motherly qualities, I am talking of women–who are and would be able to help the community so very much. Now, regarding deaconesses, the Holy Father did appoint a commission, which is studying this question.
ZENIT: Right. Yes, he had.
Cardinal Gracias: I knew some people on that committee, and I do not think they submitted their proposal at the end. But if we cannot get deaconesses, that does not mean we cannot get anything. We can get as close to that as possible. Many many, many ministries are possible, and we should explore. With great theologians and Canon lawyers, together working would be able to find a way for much greater involvement of women.
ZENIT: So according to Canon Law, it would be permissible for Ministries of Women to be instituted.
Cardinal Gracias: Yes, it would be necessary to have clearance from Rome.
ZENIT: Of course.
Cardinal Gracias: But they would have to decide and discuss and come to an agreement, saying we want this ministry in our country, in this part of the world. Then they would have to send it and present it to Rome. Then those in Rome who better understand the situations in those countries and the challenges could better look into it. However, I feel we have not gone far enough in exploring valid possibilities… We have not used all the opportunities we could have, using the theology and Church teaching. We perhaps have not developed sufficiently the theology, perhaps since there has been such focus on the ideas of ordaining married priests or women deaconesses. There is so much else that can be done.
ZENIT: Is there anything else on the Synod you would like to add?
Cardinal Gracias: I am happy. I have participated in six or seven synods. There is new methodology to a certain extent in this one, and there is very intense participation. I have hardly seen anyone dosing off.
ZENIT: Thank You, Your Eminence.