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Does India have enough Latin Catholic bishops?

Pope Francis appointed six new bishops Saturday to Latin Catholic dioceses in India. It was the second batch of six new prelates for the Latin Church in India in 2024.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay, at Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine, Villianur, Puducherry, India. Jayarathina via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). 

No other country in the world has received as many new bishops in the first two months of this year as India.

And yet, there is a perception that the appointments are not coming fast enough — that India’s Latin Catholic dioceses, in particular, are languishing without bishops. 

What’s the basis of this perception? Are there any problems with appointments to India’s Latin Catholic sees? And if so, what are the consequences?

The Pillar takes a look.

A map showing Latin Church dioceses in India. Ecclesiastical provinces are shown in blocks of a single color. The Discoverer via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). 

What’s the situation?

India’s more than 20 million Catholics generally belong to three of the 24 sui iuris Churches that comprise the Catholic Church. They are members of the Syro-Malankara Church, Syro-Malabar Church, or the Latin Church, which is the largest Church in the Catholic communion. 

Statistics are hard to come by, but most sources agree that the majority of India’s Catholics belong to the Latin Church. There are roughly half a million Syro-Malankara Catholics, 4 million Syro-Malabar Catholics, and, by inference, more than 15 million Latin Catholics in India.

The Syro-Malankara Church has 11 dioceses in India, while the Syro-Malabar Church has 32, and the Latin Church has 132.

Crucially, Latin Catholic dioceses are found all across India, while most Syro-Malankara and Syro-Malabar dioceses are located in southern India. The Syro-Malankara Church has two giant dioceses covering the rest of India, while the Syro-Malabar Church has one that encompasses 23 of India’s 28 states.

The Latin Church also has its geographical quirks. The Diocese of Darjeeling, for example, includes the overwhelmingly Buddhist country of Bhutan, which neighbors India. 

The far northern Diocese of Jammu–Srinagar covers the entire union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, an area of 85,838 square miles with just 8,000 Catholics.

The Diocese of Jhansi, in northern India, serves only 4,000 Catholics, while the Archdiocese of Bombay ministers to almost half a million.

India’s Latin Catholic dioceses are united under the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI) — not to be confused with the similar-sounding Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), which brings together Syro-Malankara, Syro-Malabar, and Latin bishops.

Following the six appointments on Jan. 16 and the six nominations on Feb. 17, there are currently eight vacant Latin Catholic sees in India (and just one Syro-Malabar vacancy):

What’s the problem?

On the face of it, there is no problem. Eight vacancies out of 132 dioceses (6%) doesn’t seem like an abnormally high figure. 

For comparison, the U.S. has seven vacancies, at the time of writing, out of 144 Latin Catholic dioceses (5%).

But more Indian Latin Catholic vacancies are on the horizon:

  • Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay, will turn 80 on Dec. 24, meaning that the Vatican will need to name a successor to lead India’s largest Latin Catholic diocese.

Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, who has a pivotal role in Latin Catholic appointments as the apostolic nuncio to India, evidently has his work cut out. (The Syro-Malankara Church and the Syro-Malabar Church are responsible for their own episcopal appointments, which are then confirmed by the pope.)

By the end of 2024, there could be an additional nine Latin Rite dioceses needing new shepherds, all in distinctive local settings and with specific needs.

Bishop Kannikadass William Antony. Screenshot from @mysorediocese2189 YouTube channel.

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The specter of scandal

But the inevitable turnover due to age is not the only problem for the Latin Catholic Church in India. Looking at the list of currently vacant sees, we see that one of the dioceses, Cuddapah, has been vacant for more than five years — an unusually long time. 

The diocese, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, serves around 140,000 Catholics and is in the care of the 84-year-old apostolic administrator Bishop Bali Gali.

Why has the see been unfilled for so long? It could be due to the circumstances of the last bishop’s resignation. 

Bishop Gallela Prasad, whose episcopal motto was “Ego sum Pastor bonus” (“I am the good shepherd”), resigned at the age of 56 amid allegations that he had used diocesan funds to support a wife and teenage son, which he denied.

Cuddapah is not the only Latin Catholic diocese whose bishop exited amid controversy. 

The Diocese of Jullundur, in the northern state of Punjab, has been vacant since Bishop Franco Mulakkal resigned in 2023 at the age of 59. The bishop was accused of raping a nun between 2014 and 2016, but found not guilty by a court in Kerala in 2022.

The Diocese of Mysore, in Karnataka state, has been vacant since the resignation last month of the 58-year-old Bishop Kannikadass William Antony. The bishop was subject to an extraordinary list of accusations, including collusion in murder, kidnapping, molestation, harassment, and the misappropriation of relief funds. He denied all the allegations, which he attributed to a group of priests opposed to his administrative reforms.

These three cases likely caused considerable embarrassment at the Vatican. Indian Catholics think that, as a result, Rome is now exercising extra caution over appointments to the Latin Catholic Church. 

All three bishops were appointed at relatively young ages (45, 49, and 51 respectively). This seems to have prompted the Vatican to rethink its preference for younger candidates. The average age of the six new bishops announced Feb. 17 was 62.

The Vatican also appears to be looking beyond the Latin Church for some appointments. Two of the six latest bishops, for example, seem to have been formed in the Syro-Malabar Church:

Indian sources say it’s not unusual for Syro-Malabar priests and sisters to serve outside of the Eastern Church’s heartland of Kerala, and even under the auspices of the Latin Church. So clergy who are of Syro-Malabar origin can end up leading Latin dioceses.

A notable example was Bishop Franco Mulakkal, who was born in Kerala and ordained as a priest of the Latin Catholic Diocese of Jullundur at a Syro-Malabar church in Thrissur. Due to his missionary work in northern India, he transferred from the Syro-Malabar Church to the Latin Church.

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The cost of vacancies

The difficulty of finding suitable Latin Catholic bishops is not an abstract problem for India’s Catholics.

In a March 2023 article, a Latin Catholic layman noted that his northern Indian Diocese of Allahabad had been vacant for more than two years. (It was filled in August 2023).

He also pointed out that another Latin Catholic diocese, Daltonganj, had been vacant for seven years. (It was filled in November 2023.)

“I humbly request our nuncio to swiftly fill up the vacancies in India,” he wrote. “The vacant look is not conducive to the life of the Church in India that is currently under siege from fundamentalist and communal forces. Credible and decisive leadership is the need of the hour.”

It’s possible that there are too many Latin Catholic sees in India serving a Catholic population that is, in places, too thinly spread. But putting that possibility to one side, the author raises an important point.

The Latin Catholic Church is the main Catholic presence in some of the most inhospitable places for the Church in India. 

In January, the advocacy group Open Doors listed India as the world’s 11th worst country in which to be a Christian. It noted that an increasing number of Indian states were implementing anti-conversion laws, “creating an environment where any Christian who shares their faith can be accused of a crime, intimidated, harassed and even met with violence.” 

This month, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (the body representing all three Catholic Churches) sounded the alarm over rising intolerance.  

“Attacks on Christians continue to increase in different parts of India. Destruction of homes and churches, harassment of personnel serving in orphanages, hostels, educational and healthcare institutions on false allegations of conversion have become common,” it said in a Feb. 7 statement.

Catholics living in such difficult circumstances especially need their bishops. 

With a dozen appointments already this year, the Vatican is clearly striving to keep up the pace of episcopal appointments. 

But Rome might need to move even faster to ensure that Latin Catholic flocks in India are not left long without shepherds.

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