The Vatican’s top diplomat in India told a gathering of bishops there that the Church has an important role to play in standing up for the poor and asserting the right to religious freedom.

At the 36th biennial assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) in Bangalore on Jan. 31, before 180 Indian bishops Apostolic Nuncio to India Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli called to mind St. John Bosco, whose feast was celebrated that day.

“St. John Bosco is a shining example for all, emphasizing his zeal for Jesus and unwavering commitment to his missions,” Girelli said in his homily during the conference’s inaugural Mass. He also stressed the need for individuals “to be disciples of Jesus first and then take on roles as shepherds and fishermen, caring for others with genuine concern.”

“The Church can play a crucial role in shaping the moral character of the society,” Girelli exhorted while delivering the keynote address on the theme “The Church’s response to the sociopolitical situation in India.”

“To safeguard human dignity, collective responsibility must be encouraged. The economy must serve the people, not vice versa … There should be solidarity towards all, especially the poor,” the nuncio pointed out in an indirect reference to India’s economic inequality. The majority of its 1.43 billion people live in poverty, despite the country’s booming economy.

Referring to the continuing bloody ethnic conflict in Manipur state, which borders Myanmar, Girelli, who formerly served as nuncio to Indonesia, Jerusalem, and Palestine, said: “For building peace, the need of the hour is to address the root cause [of the conflict] and develop a culture of peace touching the conscience of the people.”

The apostolic nuncio to India, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, delivers the keynote address at the bishops' conference. Credit: CBCI
The apostolic nuncio to India, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, delivers the keynote address at the bishops' conference. Credit: CBCI

Beginning in May 2023, Manipur has witnessed a protracted violent clash between the majority Meiteis, most of whom are Hindus, and the minority Kukis, almost all of whom are Christians, leaving more than 200 dead. Over 50,000 Kukis along with over 10,000 Meiteis have been driven out from their respective minority areas in the simmering violence.

As a “concrete suggestion” for the Church, Girelli said that “with general elections coming up, all Christians eligible to vote should be motivated to cast their votes, as it is an important duty.”

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In casting their votes, the nuncio said, “one has to keep in mind that the representative will respect religious freedom, uphold human dignity, and foster the democratic process.”

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, CBCI president, in his address acknowledged that the Church in India is going “through difficult times.”

“More than 200 precious lives are lost, hundreds of Churches [have been] burnt down, hard-earned property is destroyed, and thousands are displaced,” Thazhath said about the Manipur violence.

Thazhath had led a CBCI delegation to Manipur in July.

“Attacks on Christians, especially from communal [Hindu fundamentalist] forces, continue to increase in different parts of India in different forms,” Thazhath lamented.

“Destruction of churches and places of worship, harassment of people serving in orphanages, schools, hostels, and such institutions by raids unwarranted for, arresting priests and religious under false allegations like conversion have become more common,” he added.

Archbishop Felix Machado, CBCI secretary general, called out the names of 36 new bishops — an unprecedented number. The bishops were appointed in the 14 months since the last assembly was held in November 2022.

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Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Major Archbishop Cardinal Baselios mar Cleemis, Cardinal Anthony Poola, and Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil welcomed the new bishops.

During the weeklong assembly, experts will address the bishops from India’s 174 dioceses belonging to three rites — Latin, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara — on the sociopolitical situation in the country and the benefits and challenges of “artificial intelligence.”