NEW DELHI — Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi is “overwhelmed” with the “enthusiastic reaction” to the announcement of his elevation to the Vatican’s College of Cardinals.
Cardinal-elect Coutts, 72, the former head of the Catholic Church in Pakistan, was among 14 bishops chosen by Pope Francis on the feast of Pentecost, May 20, to be elevated as cardinals June 29 at the Vatican.
“The reaction here is overwhelming. There has been a steady stream of visitors since the announcement came,” Archbishop Coutts told the Register May 30 from his office over the telephone.
Apart from enthusiastic Christians, Archbishop Coutts said, the well-wishers included the Muslim mayor of Karachi; government ministers; leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, a leading Muslim organization; and leaders of Hindus and other segments of society.
“I feel I have been called to be a stronger voice for the Christians and marginalized, given the situation here. It is a big challenge,” Cardinal-elect Coutts said.
“The expectations are very high now, as my predecessor was a towering figure. Many people still have memories of Cardinal Joseph Cordeiro [who died in 1994], known for his dedication to the people,” said Archbishop Coutts, referring to the only previous cardinal in Pakistan’s history.
His own elevation to cardinal, Archbishop Coutts admitted, “will bring opportunities” to present the concerns of Christians and others at different levels.
“There is a terrible image about Pakistan outside [of the country],” he said. “During an international visit, I was asked if there were Christians in Pakistan.”
“But I would tell the world that it is not all darkness. We are more than 3 million,” pointed out the cardinal-elect.
Christians, of whom the majority is Catholic, number less than 2% of Pakistan’s 193 million people, more than 95% of whom are Muslim.
Ordained to the Priesthood in 1971
Born in 1945 in Amritsar, India, Joseph Coutts was ordained a priest in 1971. In 1988, he was appointed coadjutor bishop of Hyderabad. In 1998, he transferred to the Diocese of Faisalabad and subsequently was appointed the archbishop of Karachi in 2012.
Cardinal-elect Coutts, who has also served as the national director of Caritas Pakistan and is actively involved in interfaith dialogue with Muslims, was awarded the Shalom Prize for commitment to interfaith dialogue by the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Germany in 2007.
A holder of a doctorate in philosophy, Cardinal-elect Coutts can speak several languages, including English, Italian, German, French, Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi.
Known for his Santa Claus-like white hair and beard, the soft-spoken cardinal-elect was his humorous self when this correspondent called him up and greeted him, “Congratulations, Your Eminence.”
In a mock rebuke, he modestly replied: “This is not ‘cardinal.’ It’s Bishop Joseph Coutts speaking.”
‘Great Moment of Pride’
The joy of the upcoming elevation of Archbishop Coutts to cardinal on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul spans the sectarian divide, said Archbishop Joseph Arshad, the president of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference and chairman of the National Commission of Justice and Peace of the Pakistan Catholic Church.
“It is a truly historic and great moment of pride for the Catholic community and the entire nation,” Archbishop Arshad said in a May 27 press statement.
The statement hailed the cardinal-elect as “a visionary with immense knowledge and in-depth understanding of political matters.”
Father Emmanuel Yousaf, the justice and peace commission’s national director, expressed optimism that “with this appointment the issues of human rights in Pakistan will carry more weight and people will have a stronger voice internationally.”
“We believe that his leadership will boost our morale and Archbishop Coutts will be a reason for progress of the local Church,” he said.
“It is a great moment for the Church in Pakistan, as Archbishop Joseph Coutts becomes a cardinal,” Peter Jacob, an outspoken Pakistani lay leader and columnist, told the Register.
Jacob noted that “while the Roman Curia will have the benefit of his long-standing experience as shepherd in Pakistan, the Christians in Pakistan, as well as his wide links among the Muslim, Hindu, Parsi and Sikh communities, will be proud and satisfied that his elevation will bring a voice from the country.”
Michelle Chaudhry, a Catholic who heads the Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation, a Pakistani social-action network, echoed the sentiments that the elevation of Archbishop Coutts was “a moment of great pride not only for the Pakistani Catholic community, but also for the country at large.”
Describing him as a “visionary and ardent advocate of interfaith harmony and religious tolerance,” Chaudhry said that “his efforts to bring communities together and promote a peaceful coexistence in Pakistan are second to none.”
Said Chaudhry, “Today as Pakistan stands as one of the most glaring examples of religious intolerance, a decision such as this gives us hope and will certainly contribute toward strengthening religious harmony and tolerance, hence making Pakistan a better place for all.”
Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.