Catholic Church in India ‘Excited’ Over Prime Minister’s Invitation to Pope Francis to Visit

The Hindu nationalist Indian prime minister extended the invitation during an Oct. 30 meeting with the Holy Father at the Vatican.

Pope Francis greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a private audience Oct. 30 at the Vatican.
Pope Francis greets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a private audience Oct. 30 at the Vatican. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

The Church in India has hailed the meeting between Pope Francis and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who extended a long-awaited invitation to the Pope to visit India during their Oct. 30 meeting at the Vatican.

“We are excited and happy over the meeting and the invitation to the Holy Father to visit India,” Archbishop Felix Machado, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told the Register Nov. 1.

“Had a very warm meeting with Pope Francis. I had the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues with him and also invited him to visit India. @Pontifex,” Prime Minister Modi tweeted after the “historic” meeting, which was scheduled for 20 minutes but went on for almost an hour. 

When he met the Holy Father during his trip to Rome to attend the G20 meeting, Modi became the fifth Indian prime minister to call on a pope at the Vatican.

“The Holy Father has been eagerly awaiting this invitation to visit our country. He was disappointed when the [government] invitation did not materialize [in 2017],” said Archbishop Machado in a telephone interview from his Diocese of Vasai, near Mumbai.

Pope Francis had even contemplated a visit to India in November 2017 when he visited the United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh. 

Cardinal Charles Bo of Myanmar told this correspondent in an interview in 2018 that Myanmar was instead included to the trip at the last minute, as the Indian government’s invitation did not come through.

“The fact that the Pope described the invitation as ‘the greatest gift’ shows the keenness of the Pope to visit India,” said Archbishop Machado, who served as secretary of the Pontifical Council for interreligious Dialogue for 15 years at the Vatican.

“The Vatican will now work on the visit and consult with the government, as it is a diplomatic visit. It is a long process,” added Archbishop Machado.

“The choice of venues will be decided by the Vatican, though many regional demands would arise for the Pope to visit them. Our [CBCI] role in this is minimal,” remarked the bishops’ secretary-general when asked about how the CBCI would deal with it.


Remembering John Paul II’s Trips

In fact, prominent dailies in the Christian heartland of Kerala have published details of the 1986 visit of Pope John Paul II when he visited four cities in the state, hoping for a repeat visit from Pope Francis. 

Pope John II visited 13 Indian cities during his 10-day whirlwind trip in February 1986, while his second visit in November 1999 was confined to New Delhi alone to release Ecclesia in Asia, his post-synodal exhortation following the special Asian synod held in Rome in the spring of 1998. 

The first Pope to visit India was Pope Paul VI, who visited Mumbai for the International Eucharistic Congress in 1964.

From regional Church bodies to Catholic organizations, the local faithful immediately hailed the news of Prime Minister Modi, who heads the Hindu nationalist BJP government, extending the much-awaited official invitation to the Pope, a request repeatedly raised by Indian Church leaders and groups. India has nearly 20 million Catholics among the nation’s 32 million Christians, who account for 2.32% of India's 1.38 billion people; 80% of the population is Hindu, and more than 14% are Muslim.

The three cardinals of India — Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, the CBCI president and a member of the Pope’s “council of cardinals”; Cardinal Baselios mar Cleemis, Catholicos of the Syro-Malankara Church; and Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry of the Syro-Malabar Church — had jointly called on Modi in January to reiterate this appeal.

Amid Indian media running banner headlines about the meeting and the invitation to the Pope to visit the country, excited Catholics, from laypeople to nuns and priests, have taken to social media expressing their “joy” over the possibility of Pope Francis visiting India soon.

“Miracles are possible. We will pray now [for the success of the visit],” said Jesuit Father Joseph Kalathil, who is based in eastern Odisha state. He also posted a photo of the Pope and Modi embracing each other.  


Cautious Reactions

However, senior Church analysts — wary because of the targeting of Christians and other religious minorities by Hindu nationalist extremists since Modi was first elected in 2014 — are cautious in their reaction about what it portends for the country amid frequent continuing attacks on Christian targets, especially in BJP-ruled states.

“The prime minister’s invitation to Pope Francis to visit India is a noteworthy event,” said Salesian Father Joe Mannath, national secretary of the Conference of Religious India (CRI), which comprises 2,000 religious brothers, 102,000 nuns and 25,500 priests.

“Whether the evident mutual warmth [from the Vatican meeting] will be the beginning of a new era of greater mutual trust and collaboration is something we cannot predict at the moment,” Father Mannath told the Register when asked about the invitation and possible papal visit.

John Dayal, a prominent lay Catholic leader, told the Register that “the Pontiff will have to assure the Indian Christian community — Oriental Rites, Latin Rite and the many denominations and independent churches — that he has their welfare at heart.”

Outspoken Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, based in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, told the Register, “The visit, if it ever takes place, besides scoring some political ‘brownie’ points for the BJP in upcoming elections, will surely not have any positive effect on on-the-ground realities.”

“Modi and his ilk in the Sangh Parivar [Hindu nationalists] have seized political power mainly by denigrating, demonizing and attacking minorities like Christians and Muslims. They will surely not like to give up their core competency, as evidenced in recent statements by their functionaries,” cautioned Father Prakash.

“Let the visit of the Pope be an instrument to change the minds of those who nurture and preach hatred against religious minorities,” remarked KC Venugopal, national general secretary of the opposition Congress Party, referring to the Hindu nationalists. 


‘A Pilgrimage’

Archbishop Machado told the Register that “the Vatican has vast expertise to deal with any political agenda.”

“India is not just a country, but a civilization,” Archbishop Machado added. “For the Pope, with a keen interest in dialogue, it will be a pilgrimage to this country.”