Interview By Hazel Concessao
It is moment of pride both to Mangalore and the diocese of New Delhi as its Archbishop Vincent Concessao, a Mangalorean, completes 50 years of priesthood. On this occasion, in an exclusive interview, he spoke to Hazel Concessao on a number of topics, from his personal life to the communal environment in the country.
A brief profile
Born on 28 September 1936 in Puttur, a town near Mangalore, New Delhi’s Archbishop Vincent Concessao is 5th among eight siblings – Gerosa, now a retired nun under the religious order of Bethany sisters, followed by Richard, Austin, Walter, Vincent, Dorothy, Matilda, and Arthur. Their parents Francis and Appoline Concessao were from devout Catholic middle class background. The young Vincent was educated at St Francis Xavier Primary School and thereafter, at St Philomena’s Boys’ High School, Puttur, Karnataka, where he completed his secondary education. Perhaps inspired by his uncle, who was a priest, Vincent entered seminary in 1953. It illuminated the beginning of an impressive history in the making.
The strong-minded Vincent was ordained on 4 December 1961 at Mangalore. Fr Vincent landed in Delhi in the year 1962 and took up the appointment as Assistant Parish Priest in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Goldakkhana. In the year 1965, he was sent to Loyola University, Chicago, USA, for his postgraduate studies in Sociology. On his arrival back to Delhi, he was appointed as the Director of Chetanalaya.
While he was still serving as director of Social Action of the Archdiocese of Delhi, now christened “Chetanalaya”, he was given additional charges as Parish Priest of a newly started Parish for the rehabilitated slum dwellers of Delhi in Madangir and Dakshinpuri, now known as St. Teresa’s Parish in Pushp Vihar and as Rector of Pratiksha, the Residence of Delhi Major Seminarians studying at the Vidyajyoti College of Theology. In the latter capacity, he served from 1985 to 1990.
He was also appointed leader of inter-diocesan and inter-congregated team of four Priests and three Sisters to start a new mission station in Rohtak district of Haryana. He was to be there for six months, but because of the flood that shook Delhi, he returned to Delhi and could not go back because of the rehabilitation of the flood affected people and various other projects undertaken for them. Thereafter he was called to the Cathedral of Sacred Heart, where he had first launched his pastoral ministry, and was appointed Parish Priest. Two years later, he was elected Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Delhi. In 1995, he was appointed auxiliary Bishop of Delhi and titular Bishop of mascula. The Episcopal Ordination took place on 1st of April 1995. He was chosen Archbishop of Agra on 21st of January 1999 and then on 19th of November 2000 was transferred to Delhi as its Archbishop.
If Archbishop Vincent Concessao exercises his mission from New Delhi, country’s capital and epicenter of Indian politics, he is also sure to have been blessed with two other critical components. His clear thinking and strong-minded attitude. That is what makes him extremely practical while dealing with bountiful hitches, glitches, obstacles and obstructions. It is not easy.
In spite of crisis from all corners, he remains admirably pleasant. Hats off to the grit and determination behind the man’s fascia. The ever-smiling face produces inspiration in abundance. When I say, he is admirably pleasant and exceptionally practical; I mean every word of it!
Excerpts from the interview
Hazel: Could you identify the reasons behind your decision to accept the divine call?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: It is difficult to identify any one reason that inspired me to be a priest. Of course, my uncle was a priest but perhaps more than that the many good things that I had heard about priests in the parish as also what I had experienced in their service of the people like their concern for the poor and the courageous stand they took to oppose communal forces must have contributed to my decision to join the seminary. In addition, we were taught to pray as children that if it was his will, the Lord should invite us for his special service in priesthood or religious life. That was part of our regular night prayer. However, what stands out clearly from my experience is that it is ultimately God who calls and we surrender to him. I was not aware of this when I wanted to join the seminary but it dawned on me much later very clearly after I was ordained.
Hazel: Can you recall any incident behind the option?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: This is what happened. My father had high blood pressure, diabetes, and a few days before I was to join the seminary he got his third paralytic stroke. His condition was rather bad. He wasn’t fully conscious and my mother asked me to write to the Seminary Rector that I would delay joining the seminary but I said, “No, I’ll go on the appointed day”, just like that, without any conscious reflection or consideration. It was only after my ordination when I visited one of my uncles who was sick that he told me that he was really surprised the way I decided to go and then he added , “I think had you not gone then probably you would never have gone” as there were many challenges to face in the family. It was then that it struck me that when God calls nobody can stop. His grace overcomes all obstacles. Of course, once I was inside the seminary building it was quite a miserable experience for some days initially but then that disappeared after some time.
Hazel: Could you brief us on your seminary days?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: My seminary days were quite busy days. We were kept occupied with some activity or other all the time. I was under the impression always that once you join the seminary you did not go back until in my first year I came to know that a couple of seminarians were being sent home because they were not found suitable. That was quite a shocking experience because until then none of the young people from my parish who joined the seminary gave up. All of them were ordained.
Hazel: How did you land up in the northern part of India?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: I was actually wanting to join the Mangalore diocese. The thought of going elsewhere never occurred to me. However, my priest uncle who was lent for a couple of years to the Multan diocese on his way back to Mangalore had come to Delhi and seen that there was a great need of priests here. It was he who asked me to join the archdiocese of Delhi and that is how I landed in the North.
Hazel: Being a Mangalorean, did you face any specific problem while interacting in northern India?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: Initially I did have the problem of speaking in Hindi, as my knowledge was rather limited. However, it did not come in the way of my interacting with people. Very many times, if I could not get a Hindi word I wanted I would use a Konkani word and generally, it worked. If it did not, the parishioners would ask me what I said and I would explain it to them.
Hazel: Could you recall your accomplishments during the initial years of priesthood?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: I certainly enjoyed my pastoral ministry and instructing adult catechumens and perhaps that can be identified as my biggest achievement. This was particularly true of my experience in Madangir, a resettlement colony where I lived and took the initiative to establish a parish with about thirty Catholic families. It is one of the biggest parishes now dedicated to the Little Flower. Perhaps the setting up of Chetanalaya and ensuring that it progressed on the right lines is another important achievement. It was a small organization then. Now it has become a big one particularly with the self-help groups and the involvement in the problem of climate change. My successors did a great job in expanding and updating it.
Hazel: How challenging is the mission while living in place like New Delhi, being the capital and epicenter of Indian politics?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: To my way of thinking, the challenges of the mission are limitless anywhere depending very much, on how much one is able to take them in whether it is the capital or a remote village. What matters is how we see the gap between our Christian vision and the reality around us, to what extent we want to bridge this gap and the measures we take to do it.
Hazel: But how different is it being in New Delhi?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: The environment is all the time challenging in the sense that one cannot close one’s eyes to what is happening and have to respond the best way one can keeping in mind one’s vision. The seriousness with which we respond would indicate the greatness of the challenge, all the more so in our fast changing society today.
Hazel: Last couple of years has been the toughest for the Indian Christians after series of church attacks. How is the present situation in Karnataka, Orissa, Kerala etc and other places?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: While we had the experience of the strategy of the communal forces in various cities of India, more in some, less in others, they are at work with clear objectives, a master plan and are committed to it. They have infiltrated the bureaucracy too and are continuing their work of alienating communities on the basis of religion with a view to bring about their ideal of Ram Rajya which is very much against secular democracy that India has opted for.
Hazel: Are you satisfied with the measures taken by the state governments in controlling the transgression?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: While it is difficult to assess the measures taken by the state governments in controlling the communal forces, the state governments also include the communal forces and therefore one must expect the impact of their presence in the bureaucracy to move in the direction of their own ideals.
Hazel: What more could have been done by the respective state governments?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: From the experience of Gujarat, Orissa, etc it is clear that the perpetrators of violence could get away with murder. The response of the Government to do justice has been rather slow and I am afraid in many cases not at all effective. The State Governments and for that matter the Government at the centre too could be far more prompt and effective in bringing to justice the communal groups and individuals who have perpetrated the crimes.
With prime minister Manmohan Singh
Hazel: What about the ruling party at the centre? What was their reaction? Have they been helpful in controlling the crisis?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: The ruling coalition at the centre certainly is secular in contrast to the communal forces but it too has elements which are not much different from the communal parties and that is one of the reasons why the action taken by the Government is not as effective as it should be. One clear case is the discrimination against Christians of Dalit origin based on their religion, which deprives them of the very many statutory benefits they could enjoy. In spite of the struggle for the last sixty years for equal justice, we do not seem to be any closer to a just solution by the Government.
Hazel: Do you think there is a change of approach by the new leadership in BJP ranks?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: I am not sure about the approach yet. The new leadership in BJP seems to have changed its thinking. Gadkari has spoken of politics for development and expressed his eagerness to work with NGOs as he has been doing in the past for the development of people. He has also expressed his desire to work for the uplift of the dalits and the tribals. It is not yet clear whether it is just a matter of strategy or their goal has changed from Ram rajya to a just society in India as indicated in the preamble of our constitution.
Hazel: Do you think the worst is over and hostility towards Christians may not repeat again?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: It is difficult to say whether the worst is over and the hostility against Christians may not be repeated. A recent study by a judge has indicated that in Karnataka there were a thousand cases of violence against minorities, small or big, within a period of 500 days. The new leadership seems to talk a different language but we do not know whether it is only a matter of strategy or it really means what it proclaims.
I would say that the uncertainty among the Christians still continues as they are not sure when violence would break out, and when it does whether they could count on the Government totally for their security.
Hazel: What is the root cause of hostility by the attackers? Is it an expression of anxiety against conversion genuinely felt by the attackers or politically motivated by the leaders to push themselves to the forefront of political pedestal?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: The root cause of the hostility by the attackers is an ideology, which goes against our very constitution. It’s a methodology borrowed from the Nazis, believing in spreading false accusations, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility and then having recourse to violence to frighten the people to change their religion. The question of conversion is the best example of this. In spite of the repeated accusations up to now, there has not been even one case of conviction against anybody who has done forced conversions. Nevertheless,they would go on repeating it because they believe in the methodology of Hitler who is their hero. Imagine the thinking of passing anti-conversion bills when they cannot identify and convict a single case of forced conversion! The real goal is political. Religion is a very sensitive issue and it can be easily misused to organize people for the vested interests of the organizers.
Hazel: If issue of conversion is just an excuse, what are the causes behind this prejudice?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: One reason for the prejudice is the lack of inculturation of Christianity. However, there have been efforts towards inculturation of Christianity in India but the efforts have not been continuous and serious partly owing to the tremendous cultural diversity of the Church in India and therefore the possibility of having something in common. It is also true that the whole idea of inculturation has been deliberately misinterpreted by the communal forces to say that it is the way the Christians are cheating Hindus in believing that we are not different from them. This is in line with a typical communal strategy. One of the things that became an eye sore for the communal forces in Khandamal was the progress of Christian dalits and tribals in education and economic status. The upper castes could not bear to see other people like the tribals and the low castes making steady progress in society. In fact, they are more worried about the social implications of Christianity than the Christian faith itself. Christianity is against the caste system and it is the caste system that the upper castes that mostly belong to the communal forces thrive on.
With Anna Hazare
Hazel: What is the bearing on FAITH when there is an attack on Church and Christians?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: Of course, the faith does get affected when there are attacks against the Church and Christians. The faith of some gets strengthened and we have excellent examples of this in Khandamal. However, some may give up their faith not out of conviction but out of fear. Many of them return to the Church later because their accepting Hinduism is the result of brutal attacks, which they do not have the courage to face. If you look back and analyze history, we see a lot of truth in the ancient saying: The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christianity.
Hazel: What should be the reaction of Catholic community in such complex trying times and testing conditions?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: I see this complex trying times and testing conditions as another opportunity and challenge for the Catholic community to be further renewed and become more committed to their mission to spread the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Persecutions have never weakened the Church. In fact, from the start, the number of Christians kept increasing the more they were persecuted. We have seen this also among the Christians under the Communist regime. A good example is Poland. It is good to remember that Christianity was banned and Christians persecuted for three centuries in Roman Empire but they could not do away with it. In fact, the result was just the opposite – Rome became the centre of Christianity. Perhaps it is part of God’s plan to purify, unite and strengthen us through the opposition that we are facing.
Hazel: Would you like to express your views on the Paedophilia crisis, which is haunting the Catholic structure on the global front?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: The incident of pedophilia in the Catholic Church is certainly a matter of sadness to all of us. However, the Holy Father and the bishops in countries where they had to face this problem have been clear about getting facts and dealing with them accordingly, ensuring justice to all the parties involved. I think this is a good step. However, a lot of pain has been caused to the church leaders. I must also mention that the publicity given to the problem seems to be out of proportion when you contrast it with the problem in other circles. The lawyers certainly got a good field to increase their income. Moreover, those who are against the church for its uncompromising moral and social teaching got an opportunity to malign the Church with the hope of weakening it. This is also equally sad.
Hazel: Have you ever come across any such cases on the Indian front?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: So far, I have come across only one case in our whole region but there was no possibility of checking whether the accusation was true as the presumed victim was in the US and the priest was here in India. He had a heart attack and passed away. After that, the complainant did not pursue the matter.
Hazel: What is the method of purification to preserve the sanctity of Catholic Church from sinful clerics?
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: As you perhaps know, the present policy is zero tolerance. If a person has been found to be involved in paedophilia he would be defrocked and reduced to the lay state. The CBCI will soon issue documents, which will contain the guiding principles, and the procedure should there by any case of paedophilia.
Hazel: We thank you for your time and inspirational thoughts, appreciate if you could give a message to our readers.
Archbishop Vincent Concessao: The common faith we share in Jesus Christ must be a binding force that unites us in the context of all the differences that distinguish us from one another. It is this unity and solidarity of the Church in the world that will be the greatest missionary adventure to make the world believe that Jesus came from the Father. That was the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper. He must have prayed in this fashion because that was his Father’s will and he must have been inspired by the Holy Spirit to discern it and to pray for it. This has to happen for the simple reason that Jesus prayed for it, and it will happen in its time. The more generous our collaboration the faster it will take place. There is nothing to be anxious about, nothing to be afraid of. We have only to let the Holy Spirit take possession of us and walk in the footsteps of the Risen Lord to our Father in heaven during our pilgrimage here on earth.