“We have to be prepared for whatever may come”

Marco Carvalho

The elevation, last August, of Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão to the cardinalate was celebrated as a joyous and proud moment for every Catholic Goan and was widely seen by the Indian Church as an essential stimulus to meet the challenges it faces. The most demanding of them all is the rise of a Hindu nationalist undercurrent that claims that other religious groups – the Christian minority included – are a threat. Often endorsed by the authorities themselves, the growth of religious fundamentalism is starting to jeopardize the free exercise of the Catholic faith in some parts of India. In Goa, Catholics still flock to the churches in huge numbers, but people hardly pray in the Portuguese language anymore, says Father Joaquim Loiola Pereira, who serves as the secretary to Cardinal Filipe Neri Ferrão, the current Archbishop of Goa and Daman and Patriarch “ad honorem” of the East Indies. In an interview with O Clarim, Father Pereira shares his insights on a range of issues affecting the Church in Goa and in India.

Father, you served as Secretary of Archbishop Raul Gonsalves and you were assigned the same duties alongside Cardinal Filipe Neri Ferrão, the first Archbishop of Goa to become a cardinal since the early 16th century. How was the designation of Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão as cardinal received by the Goan Catholics?

Father Joaquim Loiola Pereira: The elevation of our Archbishop Filipe Neri to the Cardinalate was undoubtedly an occasion of great joy in our Archdiocese, not least because we were left wondering why this grace hadn’t been granted to us much earlier, back when the Archdiocese of Goa was one of the most extensive in the whole wide world, with jurisdiction from the Cape of Good Hope to China and Japan. Back then, it was quite often led by prelates of an unusual stature.

Can this appointment be seen as a recognition of the historical importance that the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman has always had in spreading the Word of God in the Asian continent?

F.J.L.P: I am not sure. If it is such a recognition, as I mentioned before, it is a rather belated recognition. Personally, I believe this appointment has more to do with the personality and action of our Archbishop, who is giving himself up to the Church of Goa and to the Church of India. It is worth noting the role he has been playing as the President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India, the fourth largest in the world, with 190 bishops on its roster.

Is this role –  that of spreading the Word of God –  a mission that the Goan Catholic Church calls upon itself nowadays? Is Goa still a place from which missionaries set out to announce the Good News to the world?

F.J.L.P: Not anymore, unfortunately. The number of candidates for the Priesthood and religious life that we have at the moment is scarcely enough to fill the existing vacancies and answer our own needs. And bear in mind that there are 730 priests currently working in this Archdiocese: 375 diocesan priests and 355 that belong to different religious congregations.

The Basilica of Bom Jesus at Old Goa which houses the sacred relics of Saint Francis Xavier. The Archdiocese of Goa was one of the most extensive in the entire world, with jurisdiction from the Cape of Good Hope in the African continent to China and Japan in the Far East. Goa was a place from which missionaries set out to announce the Good News to the world. (Photo: Oswald Vas)

At a time when the Catholic Church is discussing the Synodic Path, does the appointment of Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão as cardinal help the peripheral Catholic communities of India?

F.J.L.P: Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão’s responsibilities go beyond the role of Archbishop of Goa and Daman. As I said above, he is also the President of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India and, in this capacity, he has actively addressed the issue of peripheral Catholic communities in our country. Whenever he has the chance, he encourages our bishops to take creative pastoral initiatives to help these communities, so that they can be better served by a Church that is willing to be genuinely synodal, by becoming more relevant to the world in which we are living.

What are the main challenges facing the Catholic Church and Catholics in Goa, in a country where Christianity is a minority?

F.J.L.P: A certain polarization has been created between adherents of different religions, caused by a growing religious fundamentalism, which is, to a certain extent, encouraged by the government. Being a part of a measly 1.9 percent minority in the midst of a multi-faith society, we are facing increasing problems with openly professing our faith. This affects our relationship with people of other faiths, as well with government officials.

Recently, news has come out that the Catholic community in Daman is trying to prevent the demolition of the chapel of Our Lady of Anguish, a Catholic temple which is over 400 years old. Are these kinds of conflicts becoming ever more common? Do you fear that these episodes may become increasingly frequent?

F.J.L.P: We have to be ready to face these sort of episodes and conflicts. Given the present circumstances and the attitudes and procedures of certain civil authorities, I would say that these sorts of events will multiply in a not-too-distant future.

Catholic faith was one of the greatest legacies that emerged from four hundred years of Portuguese presence in India. Is Catholicism still part of the Goan identity?

F.J.L.P: Yes, and remains quite strong so far, especially in Goa, where people still flock to the churches in huge numbers to attend daily Mass. The Goan communities in the diaspora are, however, facing certain crises that come from a set of social factors typical of the societies in which they are implanted. Those factors cause a certain exhaustion of the traditional values in which they were created here in Goa.

Portuguese as a liturgical language. Does it still have a place in the Goan churches?

F.J.L.P: The only church where Mass is held in Portuguese every Sunday is the Parish Church of Panjim. Masses in Portuguese are also heard, in increasingly reduced numbers, when someone gets married or other family celebrations are commemorated.

What will the future bring for Catholicism in India and in Goa, in particular?

F.J.L.P: There’s a lot in store for us. A very aggressive form of Hindu nationalism is on the rise. The idea, however ridiculous, that Christians, despite being a very small minority, are up in arms to “christianize” and convert the whole of India is taking on an ever-increasing dimension. Although this nationalist undercurrent represents a small fraction of the Hindu population, they have the ability to raise a threatening cry and to sow tremendous pain. We have to be prepared for whatever may come.