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Interview/Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil
By Shevlin Sebastian
“I remember a poor fisherwoman, Kiluki, who used to come to my home every day from Sankhummugham beach in Trivandrum, carrying a basket of fish on her head for nearly five kilometres. My mother, after some bargaining, would buy the fish. After that, both of them would sit down and say the rosary together. This is something I have never forgotten,” says Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, who completed 60 years in the religious life on August 2. “I learnt from my mother how to love poor people and to treat them as my equal.”
The Cardinal, clad in a cream cassock, with red buttons, is sitting in a large spacious room at the Major Archbishop’s House. His eyes are pools of sadness and his voice sounds weary in the pin-drop silence.
“The surprising thing for me is how quickly 80 years have gone past,” he says, with a shake of his head. “It seems like yesterday to me.”
Here are excerpts from the interview:
ON 60 YEARS IN THE RELIGIOUS LIFE
Despite all human weaknesses and shortcomings, I feel I have been loyal to Jesus Christ. What gives peace in the religious life is when you obey your superiors. I have never asked for any job. I have never said no to any job that was given to me. I worked as best as I could in every assignment. That is real happiness.
ON SOCIAL JUSTICE
Everybody talks about social justice and the need to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. It is mostly words and no action. Whichever government comes to power, all this talk about social justice is only talk. Governments have failed because of huge corruption and because officials accept donations from moneybags. As a result, they are unable to implement a socialist policy.
Of course, there were great men like EMS Namboodiripad who made courageous legislation: everybody had to give ten cents of land to the poor. But that kind of greatness has not been seen in subsequent governments, be it the UDF or LDF.
Can you tell us the status of the fracas with the LDF government over education?
The feeling I get is that the government has realised it has made a mistake. It will not like to upset a vote bank. So, the chances of a reconciliation are high.
THE STATE OF SOCIETY
People are reluctant to make any sacrifices. In public and private life, selfishness has grown. The husband is concerned about his career and the wife has her own interests. This results in a lack of love between them. That is why there are so many divorces these days. We are in a rat race. It is only money, money, money.
There is also a lack of empathy for the less fortunate…
Yes. The idea that a suffering person is my neighbour is not there among
people. You throw a few coins at a poor man, but that is not sharing. He is also a child of God, a precious person, but born poor and probably
subjected to oppression for centuries. Whatever the reason, we must
strive to create a more egalitarian society.
ON THE CHURCH
Why is there an erosion of faith among the faithful?
Sufficient care has not been taken to communicate the Christian faith to the succeeding generations. This is why so many young people have no strong convictions about their faith. Added to this, there is the negative influence of the media and new worldly attractions.
There are all kinds of pleasures, going for travels abroad, good jobs and big incomes. The opportunities are many. With material progress, the world has become enticing. It draws you away from faith.
In such a world, should priests continue to be celibate?
Celibacy is all the more needed in a world like ours where the challenges to the faith are greater. Celibacy helps a priest to devote himself totally to the work of God.
ON RUMOURS ABOUT HIS RETIREMENT
I have been thinking about retirement because I am 80. My mental and physical powers are diminishing. So I felt that it would be better to give this office to a younger and more energetic person. However, I had to think about the consequences.
What does that mean?
Many people have told me that my presence is needed to preserve the unity of the church. Otherwise, I would have retired a long time ago.