ucanews.com reporters, New DelhiPublished: November 27, 2017 09:48 AM GMT
Pope Francis receives flowers upon his arrival at the Yangon International Airport on Nov. 27. (Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)
As Pope Francis began his tour to Myanmar and Bangladesh, Catholics in neighboring India regret missing a chance to meet him in their homeland, nostalgically recalling past papal visits.
Catholic groups began discussing plans to host the pontiff after the Vatican early this year confirmed a papal visit to the region.
Nobody then expected a papal itinerary would not include India, a nation of 19 million Catholics.
Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, president of the Indian Catholic bishops’ conference, said the Indian Catholic Church was expecting to receive Pope Francis.
"But it did not happen," he lamented.
In August, the Vatican announced that the Nov. 27-Dec. 2 journey would only include Myanmar and Bangladesh, whereas the original plan had been to visit India and Bangladesh.
The lack of an official invitation for Pope Francis to visit India is widely seen as being the result of political considerations by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The government is run by the rightwing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Observers say the BJP feared that Modi hosting Pope Francis would have alienated majority-Hindu voters ahead of scheduled 2019 national elections.
However, Cardinal George Alencherry of of Ernakulam-Angamaly, said the outcome had disappointed the entire India church. Cardinal Alencherry is to join a papal Mass to be held in Bangladesh.
A wide cross-section of people ucanews.com spoke to in India said a papal visit would have uplifted Christians now facing violence and threats from hardline Hindu groups, especially in northern India.
One of those who are unhappy about Pope Francis now not visiting India is Johana Xalxo, an Oraon ethnic minority women and a school principal in the capital, New Delhi.
Xalxo, 52, said she was privileged to meet now Saint Pope John Paul II in 1986 when he toured some 15 Indian cities, including her city of Ranchi, capital of present Jharkhand state.
The then 21-year-old was part of a group that danced to welcome Pope John Paul, whose Masses were met with thunderous clapping.
"It was an exciting experience," she recalled.
Xalxo noted that papal visits lifted the morale of indigenous Christians who often felt weak and neglected, providing them with a sense of belonging to a larger community.
She added that a generation of indigenous people had grown up since a pope last visited tribal areas.
The last papal visit was in 1999, when Pope John Paul came to launch the Asian synod document Ecclesia in Asia. The ailing 79-year pope then limited his tour to just the national capital.
The first ever pope to visit India was Pope Paul the VI.
He came to Mumbai, then called Bombay, in 1964 for the Eucharist Congress in the western coastal city, India’s business capital and a Catholic stronghold.
Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Indian Catholic bishops’ Commission for Tribal Affairs, told ucanews.com that people around the world view Pope Francis as a "messenger of peace."
He said much would have been gained from Pope Francis also coming to India this year, particularly considering persecution of religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims by extremist Hindu groups.
Peter Lobo, 59, a retired Catholic police officer in Pune, said Catholics such as himself have been denied a rare opportunity to see Pope Francis.
Recalling how people in Pune welcomed Pope John Paul II, Lobo suspected the government decision not to invite him was part of a political game "to keep the Hindu nationalists in good humor."
Foreign policy takes a beating
M.D. Lawrence, a Catholic layman and college principal in Pune, told ucanews.com that India missed a great opportunity as Pope Francis was also loved by people of other faiths, including Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.
"Myanmar and Bangladesh are small countries who look upon India for leadership," Lawrence said.
"The pope should have first landed in India and then proceeded to the neighboring countries."
Lay leaders such as Shaji George, of the Kerala Regional Latin Catholic Council, see a serious lapse in Indian foreign policy.
If Indian officials had thought Pope Francis would wait for an invitation before setting a tour itinerary for South Asia, he had now shocked them by dropping India from his tour map, George said.
India’s image as a secular nation had taken a beating, he added.
"Pope Francis’ visit could have enhanced that image globally," George told ucanews.com.
"The government and BJP simply lost a chance to express solidarity with a globally accepted spiritual leader and his efforts for world peace."