The Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Bombay and also president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), was one of the ten cardinal electors from Asia who voted in the conclave which elected Pope Francis. In this exclusive interview, he reflects on that conclave and the election of the first Pope from Latin America.


This was your first conclave. You elected a Pope. What were your feelings then?

Cardinal Oswald Gracias: When I entered the conclave we were all apprehensive, uncertain. I was personally nervous to be taking part in a decision which is so important for the Church, so important for the world. How could we do that? Yet there was a good preparation in the Congregations. We knew each other, but also, much, much more importantly, at the higher level there was the spiritual preparation; we prayed a lot. It was an emotional experience, the Mass for the election of the Pope before the conclave began, and then, when we entered the conclave, there were prayers too. It was exciting to see all the cardinals there, deep in prayer, all of us conscious that we had to participate in a decision that was so important.

I felt very, very strongly the presence of the Holy Spirit, that He was guiding us, and I felt too the effect of prayers, people all over the world supporting us with their prayers. There was great joy at the end of it. You feel this is what God wanted, this is what God has led us to, and here is a man chosen by God.

When you reached the magic number of 77 – the number required for the election of the Pope, what did you feel?

Gracias: There was tremendous joy, enthusiasm. You’re overtaken by events. The Holy Father was sitting practically opposite where I was seated.

Where were you seated exactly?

Gracias: I was on the right hand side as you face Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, and he was on the left. Cardinal Hummes was next to him, and next to me were Cardinal Bagnasco, who is a good friend, and Cardinal Sarr.

So I would see him every time I looked up, I would see him across from me. I would see him so often. We were in two rows on either side, as you know. He was in the back row on the left side, and I was in the back row on the right-hand side, so we were face to face. There directly opposite me was the man who is now our Holy Father.

What was his face like as the voting began to indicate him?

Gracias: It was like he was accepting God’s will. He’s a man of God. I could see he was accepting God’s will and obeying what the Lord wanted. It was very clear that he was the man the Lord wants. He felt and we all felt that the Lord wanted him, and he was not going to refuse the cross when it was being given to him. That was his attitude: I’ll carry the cross; I’ll be Simon of Cyrene to Jesus.

Did he say that?

Gracias: No, but that was the thought that came to my mind. There was no doubt in our minds; in everybody’s mind it was the same thing: here is God’s choice.

After his election and his acceptance he went into the Room of Tears. He went in dressed as a cardinal and came out dressed in white. What was the impact on the cardinals?

Gracias: When he came out it was about 7:10 — I remember looking at my watch. In the meantime, at 7:06, they announced it to the world.

One of the things we were looking for when he was elected was, what name is he going to take? I remember we were craning our heads to listen to this, and he said, “I take the name Francis, in memory or in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.” We all asked each other, which name has he taken. I remember Cardinal Levada was in front of me and he turned around and asked what name has he taken? I told him.

What was the reaction of the cardinals when they heard the name “Francis”?

Gracias: We were happy. For me the name was a message, and my first comment to him there, when we went to express our obedience, was: “We love you. India loves you. Bless India.” And I told him, “Most Holy Father, your name has impressed me personally so much. The whole program is there in the name.” His reaction was, “Greetings to India, warm greetings to India!”

And as I was leaving he said, “Please pray for me!” And he meant it. He is an ardent believer in prayer. He is a person of deep prayer and deep holiness, and that is what we wanted. That is what the Church wanted.

Being in the conclave has been almost like being in a retreat, alone with God. We cardinals met and were speaking to each other, of course, but it was not a social gathering. It was not a business gathering either, nor was it an executive committee meeting trying to plan something. Rather, it was trying to open oneself to God, to see what God wants. I would probably be reflecting the sentiments of all the cardinals when I say this: there was such peace and calm and joy among us, and such enthusiasm in the world. I am humbled by the fact that I was God’s instrument in this choice.

India had five votes in the conclave. At the beginning was it so clear?

Gracias: Well, the Holy Spirit was indicating already, the Holy Spirit was leading us in a particular direction. God was there right through. It was clear. We were happy also; there was no point in going on. The message also was clear that we were all of one mind, one heart, united, open to the Spirit and open to the needs of the world, and we wanted to participate really in giving to the Church and to the world a leader, the Successor of Peter, and the vicar of Christ on earth.

What does it mean for Asia to have Francis as Pope?

I think no Pope, no man, no person whoever it is, would know every continent perfectly. But Pope Francis has been to Japan. He was telling me at breakfast this morning that as provincial he sent Jesuits to work in Japan. But the point is not the provenance, where does the man come from; it is the mentality, the openness; and I find he is open and he is concerned. He is from Latin America, his grandparents are from Italy, but his heart is for the world. And I do feel that somehow he’ll have a special love for Asia, and certainly Asia will be a focus of his attention.

I feel very consoled, really delighted, deeply satisfied that we have a Holy Father who will have a place in his heart also for Asia. Of course he can’t be exclusive to Asia. He will also have to have a place for Africa, for Europe and for Latin America, but he will certainly have a place in it for Asia, too.

I think I reflect the feelings of all my brother cardinals in Asia, and all my brother bishops too, that we really rejoice to have a Pope who is really a Pope that the world needs and a Pope that Asia needs.

I would say the world needs him. That was really my thought at the beginning. We are only 3% of the population of Asia although we have 60% of the world’s population, and therefore my feeling was always that we need a Pope who is a spiritual leader not just of the Catholics and Christians, but of all religions and of all people of goodwill. The world is looking for that. Asia is looking for that. And that’s the spiritual effective strength and mentality of our new Holy Father, and I think this is also the new evangelization. That’s why I am thrilled to be part of this process, and I am proud to be part of the Church in which Jesus is with us.


(Originally published on the Vatican Insider website.)

Facebook Comments