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Gerard O’ConnellDecember 17, 2021
Pope Francis walks next to Indian Cardinal Oswald Gracias as he leaves the morning session of the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican Oct. 9, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis, who turns 85 on Dec. 17, is “looking well and in good health,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, said in an exclusive interview with America’s Vatican correspondent on Dec. 15. “And,” he said, “I can say, with confidence, there is no conclave on the horizon, nor resignation.”

The Indian cardinal, who was in Rome for the first in-person meeting of Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisors since February 2020, also spoke about some of the topics discussed at their reunion and about his hopes for the pope’s visit to India, probably in early 2023.

We spoke together at Santa Marta, the Vatican guesthouse where the pope resides and where the cardinal was staying during his visit. Cardinal Gracias and the other cardinal advisors spent many hours with the pope over the course of their three-day meeting at the Vatican (Dec. 13 to 15).

Pope Francis, who turned 85 on Dec. 17, is  “looking well and in good health,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, said in an exclusive interview.

Pope Francis established the advisory council within days of his election. Cardinal Gracias has been a member from the beginning and has participated in its 39 meetings since then, either in person or, during the Covid-19 pandemic, virtually. There are six other cardinals on the council: Pietro Parolin and Giuseppe Bertello from the Vatican; Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, S.D.B., the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras; Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, Germany; Sean P. O’Malley, O.F.M., the archbishop of Boston; and Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, O.F.M., the archbishop of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Before the meeting, the Holy Father was a little concerned about the latest variant—Omicron—and wondered if we should have this in presence gathering, but we decided to come,” Cardinal Gracias revealed. “The pope was very happy to see us all together.”

The pope’s health

Commenting on Francis’ health, the cardinal said, “I found the Holy Father looking well and in good health. I felt he is looking better than when I last saw him [in February 2020], so I said, ‘Thank God.’”

“There are rumors about his health, but I came early and observed him from a distance at first,” he said. “Then we had our meeting. I’ve met him, I’ve worked with him, and we’ve been together with him now for three days and, in these days, talking with him, discussing. I can say after the surgery, he is back to normal. He’s absolutely fine.”

“There’s no question in my mind he’s well. There are rumors about his health, but they are false rumors,” Cardinal Gracias said.

“There’s no question in my mind he’s well. There are rumors about his health, but they are false rumors,” Cardinal Gracias added. He said he has seen rumors that the pope’s health is declining on the internet but attributed them to the fact “that some are not enthusiastic about the changes he’s bringing in.”

He said Pope Francis “is a man of deep faith, deep prayer. I see that he’s doing what’s best for the church. From my first private audience with him in March 2013, soon after his election, I could see that he’s not a man who would be discouraged. He’s conscious of the fact that there’s opposition, but he’s facing it bravely and going ahead with what he feels that the Lord wants him to do. From my conversations with him over these years, I have understood that his attitude is: The Lord has chosen me, the Lord will protect me as long as he wants. I’m doing my best, and when he wants, he takes me away. That’s exactly his mentality.”

“Let’s pray for Pope Francis,” the cardinal added. “He has so many challenges, and there are people who are putting obstacles in the way, but I suppose that’s part of life and part of the cross he has to carry. But we can help him with our prayers. I thank God that he has a good inner spirit and the Jesuit training. I can say with confidence: There is no conclave on the horizon, nor resignation. He’s feeling very well.”

Pope Francis’ visit to India

Cardinal Gracias, who is the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, is looking forward to Pope Francis’ visit to his homeland. He recalled that the Indian bishops had asked the government several times to invite the pope: “I spoke personally to the prime minister [Narendra Modi] thrice, and he always said ‘yes’ but also said ‘I cannot find a slot.’ I always remember that. That was going on for years. Then suddenly [Modi] came to Rome, and he invited the pope. This came as a surprise.”

The Indian bishops have not yet had “a big discussion” about the visit, he said. “Such visits take time to prepare politically, spiritually. The church would need time to prepare. We’ve done nothing so far.” The cardinal said, “I wanted to meet the Holy Father first, which I’ve done briefly. He always was keen on coming to India; he mentioned that to me many times. But I wanted to have his reaffirmation. When I go back, after Christmas and the New Year, we will set the ball rolling and see what needs to be done.”

"[Pope Francis'] attitude is: The Lord has chosen me, the Lord will protect me as long as he wants. I’m doing my best, and when he wants, he takes me away."

He revealed that during the meeting, Francis spoke about “a number of trips that he has in mind for 2022,” including one to Canada. Cardinal Gracias said that while a visit to India might be possible at the end of 2022 and perhaps coincide with the 50th-anniversary plenary assembly of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences that is scheduled for October 2022, “I think it’s more likely to be in early 2023. It’s got to be early in 2023 because the weather gets hot and then the monsoons begin.”

“I’m very happy for his visit. I’m happy for the church in India,” the cardinal said. “I’m happy for [Pope Francis] because he was so keen to visit India. The church and the people of India will be happy. His visits are always very helpful for the [local] churches. He has been hitting the right note for our times and for our people, and somehow his message goes to the heart, so I am keen and happy about his visit.”

“I hope there are no hiccups along the way. There will always be people trying to scuttle it, I would imagine. [But] Prime Minister Modi is a strong man, and if he has said he’s invited the pope, then there will be no backing down from that,” he said.

“It’s been a long time since a pope visited,” Cardinal Gracias said. Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit India; he came to Bombay in 1964. “No leader has ever gotten such a welcome as Paul VI got. The headlines on the papers said, ‘A saint has stepped on our soil.’” Pope John Paul II visited in early 1986, when he spent 10 days visiting many parts of the country. He returned to New Delhi in October 1999 to present the apostolic exhortation for the church in Asia (“Ecclesia in Asia”).

While there is no definite plan yet for Francis’ visit, Cardinal Gracias expects him to visit four or five places, pray at the tombs of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi and of Mother Teresa in Calcutta, and visit the country’s Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and the Latin churches.

Around 80 percent of India’s population is Hindu, and Cardinal Gracias expects Francis will interact with Hindus during his visit, in keeping with the pope’s dedication to interreligious dialogue.

Inside the council of cardinal advisors’ meeting

Cardinal Gracias said the council of cardinals discussed synodality at its meeting this week. “It is very dear to the pope’s heart,” the cardinal said. “The whole church is now geared up for that. We’ll have to reflect and act and see…. It’s got to be thought out because synodality would have an impact on many things. It’s got to be spelled out: walking together, discerning together, listening to the spirit together.”

“I notice that Pope Francis is a theologian,” the cardinal said. “He’s a very great pastor, yes, but with a strong theological bent. I’m sure he’s thought it out.” He expects the pope to give “some catechesis on synodality as he seeks to move the whole church together.” The pope gives a public catechesis speech at his general audience every Wednesday.

“I notice that Pope Francis is a theologian,” the cardinal said. “He’s a very great pastor, yes, but with a strong theological bent.”

Reflecting on the global synodal process on synodality, the cardinal said that because of the Christmas and New Year holidays and the pandemic, “I anticipate that this will really take off in the New Year. I expect there will be a big push from mid-January onward.”

He revealed that before the synod was announced, the F.A.B.C. had already approved the idea to plan a synodal meeting modeled on the 2007 meeting of the Latin American and Caribbean bishops in Aparacedia, Brazil, and “had identified priorities.” But then the lockdown came.

The cardinal attended the recent ecclesial assembly, a synodal meeting of bishops, priests, religious and lay people in Mexico, before coming to Rome. He said that the ecclesial assembly was “a step ahead of Aparecida.”

Of his experience in Mexico City and at the Amazon synod, Cardinal Gracias said:

When I look at the life of the church in South America I see tremendous possibilities, an outsider may be able to see that more than an insider. I see they are far ahead in many things. People are leaving the churches in South America, but this is because of the lack of pastoral care, lack of priests, and this has to be attended to.

He thinks the Latin American church “has much to give” the Asian church and the universal church and that “Pope Francis is reflecting the Second Vatican Council, and the Holy Spirit is using him to revitalize the church.” He believes the synodality that Francis is pushing “will have a long-term effect on the church, though it could take many years before this bears fruit.”

Turning to Pope Francis’ decree “Traditionis Custodes,” which limited celebrations of the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Latin Mass, Cardinal Gracias said there have been “only really tiny pockets of resistance but nothing much in Asia,” unlike in North American and some other Western churches.

The cardinal also provided an update on the new Constitution on the Reform of the Roman Curia, which, after years of work, is expected to be one of Pope Francis’ major reforms. Cardinal Gracias said the document “is finished; it’s handed over to the Holy Father.” He said Francis “has been studying it very carefully. He wants it to be his own, not that of the council of cardinals. He’s making changes, stylistic changes; his style is very distinctive. He wants to make sure it’s consistent with Canon Law” and has consulted canonists. “The translations have to be worked on,” he said. “That will take a little time. I don’t know how much time, but I hope it can be done by Easter.”

Cardinal Gracias described the hallmark of this new constitution as “service: the service of evangelization.”

“That is the heart of the constitution. It’s a change of mentality. The curia is there to help the pope but also to help the church, to help the local bishops,” Cardinal Gracias said. “I am very satisfied with the text, but it needs a good media presentation, like we had with ‘Laudato Si’.’”

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