Interview with His Beatitude, newly-appointed Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Major Archbishop-Catholicos of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Your Beatitude, you are becoming a cardinal and will have the opportunity to work in close association with His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. How do you react to this prospect?

His Beatitude Baselios Cleemis: The Holy Father has nominated me to the College of Cardinals. It is a great honor bestowed on my motherland, India, and the Syro-Mal­ankara Catholic Church.

The Universal Church has always shown affection and deference to the spiritual inheritance of India. Providence has granted me a role as a vital link in the glorious chain that connects the Holy See with a great nation.

Along with my brother cardinals from India, I look forward to taking on the role of a partner in the universal ministry of the Church. It gives me a chance to relay the universal outlook of the Church to the people of India and convey their evaluations, observations and views directly to the mainstream of the Universal Church and to the Supreme Pontiff. My new mission gives me a chance to present my country before an international forum of spiritual leaders especially in the Catholic world. It also permits me to share the faith and liturgical patrimony of the Malankara Church with the universal treasury of Catholicism. It is my rare privilege and responsibility to bring to the attention of the Universal Church the rich cultural heritage of my motherland — India.

Your Beatitude took part in the Synod of Bishops held in Rome in October 2012 on the theme of New Evangelization in the Year of Faith. How do you evaluate the state of faith in Kerala and India, in particular?

Cleemis-cardinalCleemis: I would like to highlight three aspects of evangelization: (1) a witnessing model; (2) attention to the sense of the sacred; and (3) promoting fullness of life.

Firstly, I spoke of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who brought a very practical means of evangelization, a witnessing model. She bore witness to Jesus everywhere. She remains the most effective missionary in the history of the Church in India.

The second aspect concerns those in the ministerial priesthood, people endowed with “gift and mystery.” They have to take more genuine steps in the liturgical celebrations to make the sacraments a more tangible means of “Emmanuel experience.” Socialization with everyone has found place everywhere, but conversation with the Lord has been put into a corner everywhere.

My third point is a call for greater involvement of the Church in enhancing human dignity. We have to speak for the voiceless, pursue justice and promote democratic values to lead people to life in abundance.

I think my people are fully responsive to these aspects in their faith life in Kerala and other parts of India where they are pursuing their careers. The large number of migrants from Kerala who are settled in the far corners of the world, yet retain the sacred ties to the faith of their fathers, offers these places a vivacious witness. There is certainly the need for re-evangelization and new evangelization throughout the world, and Kerala is no exception.

What is the nature of evangelization in India?

Cleemis: There are people who remember forcible conversions adopted by certain religions in the past in the subcontinent. To them words such as proclamation, profession and evangelization are alarming. But the advent of Christianity had nothing to do with physical force. The work of our missionaries has more to do with restoring the dignity of human beings based on the love of Jesus than displacing any faith by force. Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation, once said that, to a hungry man, God can appear only in the form of bread. Evangelization is about bringing the good news of love, light and warmth to the people of all sections with a special reference to the poor and the oppressed. The people of God have a duty to share the gift of the Gospel with their less-privileged brethren.

Syro-Malankara faithful during a Mass in the Cathedral in Trivandrum, in south India (Photo: Archives Major Archdiocese of Trivandrum).

Syro-Malankara faithful during a Mass in the Cathedral in Trivandrum, in south India (Photo: Archives Major Archdiocese of Trivandrum).

We often hear about the persecution of Christians in different parts of India. What is the situation in Kerala?

Cleemis: It is true and tragic that such incidents have taken place in certain parts of the world. Religious persecution done to any believer, be he Hindu, Muslim or Christian, is an act of violation. The events of Khandamal in Orissa, for instance, are deeply disturbing. Occasional incidents are alarming signs which require watchfulness. However, I must say that, by and large, India is a tolerant nation with deep spirituality. I always feel that, more than the army or police, it is our Hindu brethren who have protected our rights all throughout. Christians account for less than 3% of a vast nation of which 85% are Hindus. We have a noble Constitution which guarantees freedom of worship. The presence of a vigilant media, vigorous democracy and vibrant judiciary is truly comforting.

As far as Kerala is concerned, it is referred to as the cradle of Christianity in India. Right from ancient times, the land and its people were open to new ideas and cultures. St. Thomas did not preach the Gospel to atheists. It was to a community of spiritually awakened local Hindus. He interacted with scholars and seekers of wisdom who were touched by the message of Christian charity. The hallmark of life in Kerala is religious and communal harmony. Religious fundamentalism is a scourge which has to be purged from all faiths.

Our close interaction is a model for the whole world.

In Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala, the main square has a cathedral, a mosque, a basilica, and a temple standing next to each other.

The ceremonies, rituals and festivals of these houses of worship have gone on for decades with no problem whatsoever. The Imam’s call, the hymns from the basilica, and the temple bells all present a harmony of faiths as doves of peace hover over the bustling city. But I must say we have to adopt more measures to bring more unity, peace and cooperation among the faith communities and spread such values to a wider world.

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