National Catholic Register


Cardinal Dias’ Vatican Appointment Signals Renewed Focus on Asia


Register Correspondent

June 11-17, 2006 Issue | Posted 6/12/06 at 11:00 AM


VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has appointed Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias as the new prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in what many see as one of the most notable decisions of the Holy Father to date.

The 70-year-old archbishop of Bombay will be the first Asian to head the 384-year-old congregation at a time when the Church is striving to break new ground on that continent, particularly in China. Cardinal Dias is also expected to bring a deep spirituality, diplomatic skills and strong organizational abilities to the department.

The congregation has great influence at both the local and universal Church level, so much so that its prefect has been called the “Red Pope.” It is responsible for the administration and financing of all the “mission churches” that number a third of all dioceses around the world, concentrated in Asia and Africa.

Speaking to UCA News May 22, Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi, India, said Cardinal Dias “understands Asia better” that any other Catholic official in the continent and will bring “vast experience” to the position after 39 years as a Vatican diplomat in many Asian and African countries. Said Cardinal Toppo, “His understanding of our culture can greatly help us grow.”

Vatican officials praised Cardinal Dias’ appointment because of the personal sanctity he will bring to the position. “I’ve known him many years and he is truly a holy man of God, there’s no question about that,” one retired senior official told the Register. “He’s a very spiritual man and I’m not in the least surprised he has been brought back to Rome to form part of a new team.”

Born in Bombay in 1936, Cardinal Dias was ordained a priest in 1958 before joining the Vatican Institute for Diplomats in Rome. His diplomatic career took him to Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War, a period when he became acquainted with the then-archbishop of Krakow — the future Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Dias has also served in many other nunciatures, including Scandinavia, Ghana, South Korea and post-communist Albania, where he was involved in rebuilding the Church after decades of state-imposed atheism. That work won him the Albanian Gold Medal of the Order of Mother Teresa.

As a Church leader, Cardinal Dias is not afraid to stand up for the faith. Shortly after his appointment last month, he criticized Hindu nationalist political groups who voiced their opposition to conversions to the Catholic faith in India (see front-page story). Their comments were in reaction to Benedict’s address May 18 to India’s new ambassador to the Holy See in which the Holy Father drew attention to “disturbing signs of religious intolerance” in the country.

Although he rarely gives interviews, Cardinal Dias has often spoken at Vatican-sponsored conferences. His speeches frequently stress the need for strong, convicted witnesses to the faith, and for priests to be models and guides of holiness for others. He was also an ardent supporter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2000 document Dominus Iesus, which affirmed that Jesus Christ is the only path to redemption, and that the followers of other religions are, objectively speaking, in a gravely deficient situation in comparison to those who, in the Catholic Church, have the fullness of the means to salvation.

The document sparked widespread criticism from representatives of other religions. Father Edward Cassidy and then- Bishop Walter Kasper felt that the language lacked ecumenical sensitivity. Cardinal Dias, however, said it was a “reaffirmation of what we believe” and that “we have a right to say who we are, and others can accept it or not.”

He is a firm promoter of the sacraments of reconciliation and the anointing of the sick as a cure for illness, especially depression.

The cardinal’s appointment is seen as a sign that Benedict is increasing the internationalization of the Curia. The cardinal is the second Asian to be given a key position recently: Last December, Sri Lankan Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith Patabendige Don was appointed secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

Pope Benedict was also praised for appointing Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, Cardinal Dias’ predecessor at the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, the new archbishop of Naples. The 63-year-old cardinal replaces Cardinal Michele Giordano who submitted his resignation to the Holy Father upon reaching the age of 75, as required, last September.

Cardinal Giordano was widely respected for his many diocesan initiatives, but his achievements were overshadowed by allegations of financial mismanagement. With the appointment of Cardinal Sepe, who is well known for his organizational skills and played a key role in administering the Great Jubilee Year in 2000, the Vatican is lending a hand to put the diocese on a steadier financial footing. “He has a lot of clout,” said one Vatican official.

Vatican officials expect more changes to come in the make-up of the Curia, but predict that the Pope will continue to carry out a measured “re-formation” of the various Vatican offices rather than a sweeping “reform.” They say that the Holy Father sees the task of assigning roles to different positions in the Church hierarchy as a deeply spiritual responsibility, one of such importance that decisions must be made slowly after much reflection and prayer.

In this way, the Vatican insiders suggest, Benedict intends to strengthen the Church and prepare it to tackle the challenges of the 21st century.


(CNS contributed

to this story.)

        Edward Pentin

writes from Rome.