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A Pope of Surprises

Sept. 7, 2013

The Examiner September 07, 2013

From October 1-3, 2013, the Holy Father will be having his first formal Meeting with the Council of Cardinals appointed by him to advise on different matters concerning the Universal Church, including the changes that may have to be made in the organisation of the Roman Curia. In preparation for these important meetings, the member Cardinals have already been in contact with one another and are scheduled to meet together for a few days at the end of September.

During my previous visit to Rome, Cardinal George Pell and I had a dinner meeting at the residence of Cardinal Ivan Dias. Earlier this month, when I was in Rome, I had a meeting with Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, the ‘Governor’of the Vatican City State and the only ‘curial’ member, if you could call him so, of our group. He was the Papal Nuncio to Italy immediately preceding his present assignment. I had met him only briefly before, and this was our first personal discussion. I found him a most endearing person, and the meeting we had was very illuminating.

Since he has been discussing matters with the Holy Father in preparation for our Meeting, he was able to give mean insight into what the Pope expected from us. The following day, I met Bishop Marcello Semeraro, Bishop of Albano, which is on the outskirts of Rome. He is the non-member Secretary of our group. We spent a couple of hours discussing the possible modalities of our Meetng, the agenda and the timetable. Since some papal gardens of Castel Gandolfo border the diocese of Albano, he gave me a guided tour of these very well looked after gardens which are normally closed to outsiders. Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI would take their evening walks here during their annual break.

While I was with Bishop Semeraro, I was surprised to get a call from Cardinal Bertello telling me that the Holy Father would be happy to see me. I was taken aback because the Holy Father was on vacation and not giving any official appointments. He was, of course, going to see me at his residence, and not at the Apostolic Palace where all the official Meetings are held.

As is normal protocol for all meetings with the Pope, I went to Casa Santa Marta half an hour before the appointment. As soon as his Secretary heard I was in Casa Santa Marta, he took me to the floor where the Papal Suite was. He told me that the Pope was on the telephone, and I expected to go to the antechamber and wait till it was time for my appointment. But in less than a minute, the Holy Father came out to the corridor, embraced me and led me to his room. He showed me which chair he preferred sitting on and led me to my chair. I had no fixed agenda to discuss with him. The meeting was totally unexpected, at his invitation, and I had rushed back from Albano to the Vatican to see him. He discussed a bit about the Meeting we would have in October, the programme, and the agenda. He had just returned from the World Youth Day, and so we spoke about Rio. And then we spent much time talking about the Church in India and the Archdiocese of Bombay. He knew two new Auxiliary Bishops had recently been appointed for Bombay, and he asked about them. He was particularly interested in the Seminary.

It was a meeting that made a very deep, personal impression on me. In the course of the different Offices I have held, I have met Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ministers of State and Ambassadors, but this meeting was totally unique. I can hardly describe it. I was conscious that I was in the presence of the Vicar of Christ, the successor of Peter, the Pope himself. But he was so natural, simple and unassuming. I felt totally dumbfounded. He was not speaking to me as a Superior, but just as a brother Bishop — sharing pastoral concerns, wanting to be encouraging and supportive.

I was very conscious I was taking up his valuable time. He was on vacation and not giving appointments. I learnt from the meeting that he was depending much on advice from our group on different matters. I sensed that I was at the beginning of a new era in the Church, a papacy which is focusing on reaching out, particularly to those in difficulty.

There were still more surprises from Pope Francis. I rose to wish him goodbye and went towards the door. The Pope said, ‘I am coming with you.’ He came to the elevator, called for it, and waited till the elevator door closed, waving to me as it did so. Before leaving, I asked him to bless me which he did joyously, and he said he was blessing not only me, but all in the Archdiocese — priests, religious and laity. He requested me to ask the people to pray for him. Holy Father, we surely will. I am aware that such a farewell will not always be possible. The Pope generally has a long line of people waiting to see him. And it is just not physically possible for the Holy Father to see off each of his visitors personally. But it shows what he wants to do. How much we have to learn from his word and example. I will always treasure this ‘unofficial’ visit of mine to the Holy Father. May God bless our good Pope. We love you, Holy Father, and we will pray for you.

The next day, I left for Canada for a Mass for all the Indians in Ontario and Mississauga. It was a weekday, and I was amazed to see the number of people that that ended this special Mass. It was estimated that 700 Indians had come. The choir assembled for the occasion, comprised Indians from several parishes, was exquisite. An Indian bhajan was sung before the Mass, and a potluck dinner followed. Mr Kevin Coelho, a friend and companion of mine in school and in the Seminary, who had organised this Mass, was also celebrating his 40th wedding Anniversary around that time, so he too was felicitated.

The next day was again special. The Government of Canada had permitted me to celebrate the Eucharist in a moderate security prison where Mary Wagner, a Pro-Life campaigner was serving a jail sentence for her silent protests outside abortion clinics. Such protests are perceived to be against the law in Canada. She has been in and out of jail for the last few years. I had met her early last year, and she has become a symbol of the Pro-life Movement in Canada together with Linda Gibbon, a Protestant Pro-lifer. Archbishop Larry Saldanha, Emeritus Archbishop of Karachi, concelebrated the Eucharist with me, together with the Prison Chaplain. The security personnel in charge of the prison were very friendly. We chatted before the entry into the jail. Because of their Prison Manual, the number of prisoners attending Mass had to be restricted to twelve. Linda Gibbon, though not a Catholic, was given special permission to attend the Mass.

But there were other prison staff present: nurses, social workers, administrative officials, etc. It was a most moving Eucharist. The Gospel of the day seemed appropriate. After the Mass, I greeted each of the prisoners personally. All of them (except one perhaps) were weeping. I believe it is the first time that they had Mass celebrated in this prison, though they often have prayer services on special occasions. An official accompanying us asked one of the prisoners why she was weeping. She said she felt a healing during the Mass. A couple of prisoners brought their religious articles to me to be blessed. I was reminded of our Prison Ministry in the Archdiocese and throughout the Nation.

Later, after lunch with Archbishop Saldanha, some members of the local clergy, and a few specially invited guests, I moved to the Headquarters of the Scarboro Missions, a Missionary Institute of Canadian Priests, to meet with the Superior of the FABC Secretary General who was celebrating his Sacerdotal Golden Jubilee. There was a Eucharist celebrated for him. I then had a day’s break, when I got an opportunity to see the wonderful natural beauty in Canada, and then the long trip back home. I am still recovering from my meeting with Pope Francis. The group of Cardinal advisors he has appointed have a number of official meetings at the end of September in preparation for the Meeting with the Holy Father in October. The Holy Father has invited us to join him on his visit to Assisi on October 4. It is his Feast Day, and it will be his first visit to Assisi.

On my return home in the plane, I met a reputed economist who remarked about the impact Pope Francis was making on the people. I do not think the economist was a Catholic. He commented on how Pope Benedict had given the theological foundations for a return to the Gospels, and Pope Francis was reminding us of Gospel truths in his own inimitable, direct and challenging way. “This is just as Jesus did in His time,” I thought to myself!

Cardinal Oswald Gracias
Archbishop of Bombay

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