Variety of experience gives cardinal from India high profile

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Experience as an archbishop, as a Vatican diplomat and in the Roman Curia gave Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias of Mumbai a high profile in the College of Cardinals at the end of Pope John Paul II's pontificate.

Archbishop Ivan Dias of Bombay, India, was among those named a cardinal Jan. 21 by Pope John Paul II. Cardinal-designate Dias is 64. (CNS photo from Catholic Press Photo)

The cardinal frequently is a featured speaker at Vatican-sponsored events, yet he is reluctant to grant interviews, and very little about him has appeared in the press, either in India or abroad.

When the chief Vatican correspondent for Italy's state-run television station -- the station that has an exclusive cooperation agreement with the Vatican for broadcasting papal events -- tried to interview the cardinal, he politely declined all but a brief exchange.

"If you want pictures of me, I prefer you take them while I'm praying, not while I'm talking. People on their knees are more eloquent," he told the reporter. "Humanity needs witness of faith, not orators."

Just a month after the Indian prelate was named a cardinal in February 2001, Pope John Paul named him to be one of three presidents of the world Synod of Bishops and a member of three key Vatican congregations: doctrine, Catholic education and worship and the sacraments.

The need for strong, convinced witnesses of faith is a recurring theme in his speeches and messages, whether addressed to an international gathering of priests, a Vatican conference on health care, a religious order holding its general chapter or one of his rare interviews.

In October, Cardinal Dias was the homilist at one of the liturgies held during a Vatican-sponsored international gathering of priests in Malta. He said that "in a world dominated by information technology, by New Age teaching and by the decline of ethical values," God is calling priests to be models and guides of holiness for others.

Cardinal Dias told the priests, "God forges saints on the anvil of love, which sometimes takes the form of a cross.

"Every saint has had to overcome difficulties and suffering of various kinds, but all of them have done so with a profound interior peace and with spiritual joy. In fact, we know that a sad saint is a poor saint," he said.

While his own cultural background and his diplomatic experience make him sensitive to the need to respect and value other religions, Cardinal Dias, 68, was one of the most outspoken supporters of the controversial 2000 document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the uniqueness of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Speaking to reporters in Rome shortly after the document, "Dominus Iesus," was released, the then-archbishop said, "It is a reaffirmation of what we believe and what we think," namely that "Jesus is the only savior of the world."

"We have a right to say who we are, and others can accept it or not," he said.

Giving strength to the suspicion that the document was prompted particularly by the interreligious efforts of Asian theologians, and especially those working in India, he said clarity was needed in countries where the vast majority of people are not Christian.

Trying to find ways to communicate what the Catholic Church believes and to foster dialogue, some Indian theologians have presented the faith in ways that have not always been as clear as "Dominus Iesus" calls them to be, he said.

"The faith of the people is strong and constant," he said. "If a few theologians are making mistakes, that is a problem for the bishops."

Yet, in a speech to an international meeting of bishops the same week, he said the Catholic Church, through its bishops, "must make every effort to relate to every human being without any superiority complex and with a spirit of true and humble service."

The spiritual beliefs and practices of other religions, he said, are "a genuine invitation to dialogue, not only in those things which they have in common with Christian culture, but also in their differences."

In December 2001, with fundamentalist Hindus continuing their attacks on Indian Christians and with heightened world concern about Islamic fundamentalism in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the United States, Cardinal Dias invited leaders of all Mumbai's religious communities to his home.

The cardinal said the gathering was "a meeting for peace in a world torn apart by war and hatred" and pledged that he and the other leaders would "spread the message to the world" that religious faith always seeks peace and promotes respect for others.

Cardinal Dias has consistently warned of the dangers of materialism. At a 2003 Vatican conference on clinical depression, Cardinal Dias said the Christian virtue of hope, based on faith, is needed not only by individuals, but also by rich countries as a whole and by "the developing nations who often try to mimic the richer ones."

Despite "affluence in wealth, the immensity of knowledge and spectacular inventions and achievements," he said, entire countries are being "crushed down by godless ideologies and enticing proposals that exalt the anti-God cultures, including the culture of death."

The cardinal also told the conference he believed the sacraments of reconciliation and of the anointing of the sick could cure people who are depressed because they are gay.

He told the conference he knew a priest who had helped two male couples and a female couple by leading "them first to receiving individually the sacrament of reconciliation, and then the anointing of the sick because their problem was leading them not to death of the body, but more seriously that of the soul."

"You will be glad to learn that all the three cases were cured completely of their unnatural tendencies," he said.

In his preaching and teaching, Cardinal Dias also has a penchant for combining quotes from Scripture with everyday images.

"The bishop, like the donkey, must carry Jesus high on his shoulders for all the people to see and hear and follow. The hosannas and the alleluias, the palm and olive branches, the clothes strewn before it on the roadside are not for the donkey, but for his lord and master," he told an international conference for bishops in Rome in 2000.

The cardinal's faith and 39 years in the Vatican's diplomatic service have been evident in his pastoral ministry in India, whether he was denouncing the fundamentalist attacks on Christians or leading prayers for peace between India and Pakistan when tensions arose over control of Kashmir.

When he was named to the College of Cardinals, he said his experience in the diplomatic service taught him to avoid confrontation and solve problems through dialogue and fostering good will, reported UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand.

But that did not stop him from clearly asserting the rights of Catholics in India to worship freely, to serve the poor and needy and to invite others to join the Catholic Church.

Ivan Dias was born April 14, 1936, in Bandra, a Catholic stronghold in the western Indian city of Mumbai, then Bombay. After graduating from Jesuit-run St. Stanislaus High School, he entered the seminary.

In a 2001 interview with the Italian magazine 30 Giorni, he said the Blessed Virgin Mary was important in his vocation and is a continuing influence in his faith.

"It was the Blessed Mother who attracted and seized me," he said. "Her image is even on my episcopal ring."

The cardinal said he learned his love for the liturgy from his family.

"As is the case with many Indian families, my mother took us to Mass every day. That is not unusual in India, because it is normal for a family to approach the Eucharist each day," he said.

He was ordained a priest in 1958 and worked at St. Stephen's Church in Mumbai for two years before going to Rome to study at the Vatican institute for diplomats. On completing his studies in 1964, he was appointed to the Vatican Secretariat of State.

He worked for the secretariat's Eastern Europe desk for nine years, at the height of the Cold War, and became acquainted with the then-archbishop of Krakow, Poland -- later Pope John Paul.

He also began picking up familiarity with an increasing number of languages, eventually managing to function in more than a dozen different tongues.

He served at nunciatures in Scandinavia, Indonesia and Madagascar.

He was transferred to the Vatican's Council for the Public Affairs of the Church as chief of the desk that served several former Soviet republics, as well as West African countries and China.

In 1982 he was consecrated archbishop and sent as apostolic nuncio to Ghana, Togo and Benin. In 1987 he was appointed apostolic nuncio to South Korea, where he worked for four years. He said he was impressed by the South Koreans' deep faith, which prompted him to learn Korean.

In 1991 he was appointed apostolic nuncio to post-communist Albania, where his task was to rebuild the church after decades of harshly imposed official atheism.

The future cardinal invited foreign missionaries to the country and worked with the Albanian government to recover Catholic churches and schools. By the end of his tenure in 1997, the Vatican had consecrated six bishops for Albania.

While in Albania, he received the Gold Medal of the Order of Mother Teresa, a national award for service to honor the nun who was born of Albanian parents in Skopje, now in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.


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