Bp. Antonysamy Savarimuthu
When was your Episcopal Ordination?
My Episcopal Ordination was on 15th December, Sunday, 2019.
What was the motto you took as bishop?
‘Fear not, only believe’ from Lk 8: 50
What inspired you to choose it?
To tell you frankly, when I was called to the Nunciature and was told of the appointment, I was much disturbed. I didn’t expect it, and I was very much worried. As I sat thinking all alone in my room, something came from within myself, some kind of an interior inspiration. I heard the words, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ I carried them in my mind. After coming back, I verified it in the gospel and found it in the narration of the incident of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue. But when the words arose in my mind, I didn’t know the context. I feel Jesus gave it to me: Fear not, only believe. This is how I arrived at my motto.
Does not that fear imply that you had apprehension about something dangerous happening, does it?
Not something dangerous. The fear I had was about the responsibility of running a diocese, not knowing how and why I was chosen. I was not prepared for the sudden announcement by the Nuncio. It is not a proposal of the Holy Father, it is a decision of the Holy Father. Although they had placed their confidence in me, I was in fear about shouldering the responsibility.
How would do you describe your diocese?
Our diocese covers Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Tenkasi districts. We have a Catholic population of a hundred and thirty-three thousand. The total population of the area is 33,10,360. We have 104 diocesan priests and 7 religious priests working in the parishes. Besides them, 45 to 50 religious priests are working in the diocese. We have many congregations for sisters. In all, 375 women religious Sisters and 54 religious Brothers, mostly Sacred Heart Brothers, work here.
How would you describe the people of your diocese?
Our people basically are faith oriented. They are strong in faith, because most of our ancestors were converted by St Francis Xavier himself. Before the erection of the diocese of Palayamkottai, this area was evangelized by the Society of Jesus of Madurai Jesuit Province. The old Madurai Mission took care of the spiritual needs of the Catholics. Some of the renowned Jesuit missionaries like St John de Britto (Martyred in Oriyur, now in the diocese of Sivagangai) and Fr Constantine Beschi have spent part of their missionary lives in this area and strenghthened Christians in their faith. From the beginning of the 20th Century, diocesan priests from the Diocese of Trichirapalli catered to the spiritual needs of our Catholics. At the time of the erection of the diocese of Palayamkottai there were only six Jesuit priests working in the parishes. Gradually they were replaced by diocesan priests. At present there is only one Jesuit priest in parish work. There are 16 Jesuit priests working in St. Xavier’s Arts and B.Ed. College, Palayamkottai. Madurai Jesuit Province has contributed much to Christianity in this diocese. The Diocese of Palayamkottai is much indebted to the Society. Also the tireless ministries by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (SHJ) during the infantile period of the diocese are gratefully remembered.
What about the economic and educational background?
Economically our people are poor. Most of them depend on agriculture. We don’t get good rains now. The land is fertile, but rain fails too often. So they lose all the crops. That’s why our people are economically backward.
What about their education?
Taken as a whole, the diocese still lacks in education. But now, after the bifurcation of our diocese, we have just started primary schools, middle schools and higher secondary schools. We have provided awareness on the need of education. The St Xavier Jesuit college is more than a hundred and fifty years old. Even from Kerala, many came to study in it in the 19th century. We have one B.Ed. College and one Arts and Science College. We have ten higher secondary schools and fifty to sixty primary and middle schools in villages.
What will be the priority of your pastoral care for the people?
My priority is to give spiritual touch to the people. Our people have tendency to fall for materialism and secularism. When they come up in life and their social status rises, they go away from the faith. I want to hold them back and build a community that is religiously attuned. For families to grow in spirituality, we must have a faith oriented community. I also want to give priority to education and social development with a spiritual touch. Thirdly, I want to give priority to my priests. I was Vicar General of this diocese for seven years under my predecessor. Let us have dialogue and let us work together. Our diocese is now forty-six years old, which means we are nearing half-century. I have decided to meet my priests individually to discuss the mission for our people.
The Church is stressing on Synodality and the dialogical way of administering the Church, which requires hearing the people of God, talking to them and their participation. What kind of pastoral authority do you plan to exercise keeping that in mind?
Being a canonist, I believe we should discuss, make the people participate, but finally we decide, which means, as bishop, decisions will finally be made by me. We speak of Sensus Fidelium. I wish to respect Sensus Fidelium, because we should not be under the illusion that we know everything because we have studied Philosophy and Theology. People might not have got doctorate or degrees, but they have wisdom. The village people may not be educated, but they have values and wisdom. I want to respect that. In a group, if we have fifty people, we make forty-five ideas. We cannot implement all of them, but basing myself on all good wisdom gathered from the people, I would like to make decisions.
Religious fundamentalism is now a serious problem affecting Indian society and the world at large. In such a situation, how do you perceive the future of the Church?
Some people came to me to speak about the new issues that the country is grappling with, like the National Register of Citizens. The people in general and minorities like Muslims and Christians in particular are aware of these problems. Not only Muslims and Christians but the whole population feels some kind of insecurity. The minorities feel they are neglected, persecuted and considered as second class citizens. In Palayamkottai, we have got a very good rapport with Hindus, Muslims, and other Christian groups. We all join hands. I believe in dialogue and in keeping good relation with all people of goodwill. We have got a beautiful Constitution and, incidentally, I have done my thesis on the constitution and religious freedom. Let that spirit of the Constitution be respected.
There is the Hindutva ideology, which is very much fundamentalistic. There is in it Narcissism and Fascism. That being the reality, we will find ourselves in a dangerous situation as we move on. Don’t you think so?
We must be prudent and desist from doing or saying things that would make our people suffer. At the same time, we have to come out boldly. Persecution has been a companion of Christianity. As said in the Acts of the Apostles, if it is God’s work, no one can stop it. We believe that our God is alive. He is living in our midst. We will maintain readiness for suffering. At the same time, I want to be cautions, because we should not bring avoidable problems upon our people. In the midst of suffering, with prudence and God’s grace, we must go forward.
All over the world there is this Narcissistic tendency of turning into oneself. Every community is in some doing so, not going out of the self. That kind of exodus is totally absent. Ghar Vapsi, returning to one’s own being, has become fashioble. Pope Francis is repeatedly speaking about Narcissism in the Church. Is it not dangerous? Don’t you think even the Church is affected by it?
I am fully aware of it. With all the development and advancement in technology, there is a kind of social upsurge. But people are not feeling secure. Because of insecurity, they are recoiling into themselves. They are ambitious and want to amass for the future. Self-centeredness makes them forget about common good and society. We are spoiling nature just for pleasure, not for our need. We must educate people in the spirit of sacrifice. Individual freedom sometime is exercised at the cost of the degradation of the common good. Of course, individual freedom must be respected. But we should not forget that we are social beings. We must get educated about that in order to come out of selfishness.
You are a believer in Christ who reads the scripture and preaches it. What is in Christ that touches you most and what is that challenges you in the life of Christ?
This is a very good question. Firstly, Jesus’s oneness with the people touches me. He is the Son of God; He became Immanuel – God with us. He had no time even to eat and for prayer and he worked late into the night He was with the people. I like His closeness and nearness. He is sensitive to the needs of the people. Pope Francis often says to priests, you must know the smell of your sheep. I should not live in a Utopian world that is far removed from the people. People may come with requests for employment, financial help or educational help. I am not here to give whatever they ask. By simply being with them. I believe God will provide for them. I am not able to tell how it will happen, but I know God will not abandon them. Jesus’ solidarity with the people touched me, not only now, I felt it even when I was a priest.
You are a man of prayer; what is prayer for you and how do you pray?
I pray usually in the morning and at night. I am very regular for my office reading. I simply sit. There I feel God’s presence. When I come to the part of the prayer of the faithful, then I stop. My thinking goes around on what I am going to do, what the Lord wants. I ask Him: Give me courage. I want to be united with the Lord. Thinking of the Lord and uniting myself with the Lord, sitting in His presence with full awareness even if I am tired, that is prayer for me. I don’t spend much time for it. May be ten minutes. I want to be in His presence with full awareness of His presence. Regular reading of the scripture enlightens me. I spend some time for scripture reading. It strengthens me, gives me peace and makes me feel that I am not abandoned, I am not alone.
Tell me something about yourself?
My father died when I was a seminarian and my mother died after my ordination. I was not here for the funeral of both of them. I was out of country. I have four elder sisters. I am the youngest and the only son of my parents. I was ordained as a priest on 26 April 1987, for the Diocese of Palayamkottai. I studied at St Peter’s Minor Seminary, Madurai, and later at St Peter’s Pontifical Seminary, Bangalore. I was at Institut Catholique de Paris for the Licence and Doctorate in Canon Law. Then my bishop appointed me as Secretary to the Bishop and later Rector of Christ Hall Seminary, Karumathur. I worked in the Tribunal and was visiting professor at St Peter’s Pontifical Institute, Bangalore.
I was Vicar General of the diocese for seven years. I also served as a Parish Priest at Shantinagar and Maharajanagar.
In India, the Church is assailed by a lot of scandals and internal problems, but the Canon Law seems to have failed absolutely in finding a solution for them. Why so?
My feeling is that we have not fully made use of the Canon Law. There are provisions that can solve these problems, but we don’t apply them properly. Bishops and priests forget their call. Once we are ordained bishop or priest, we think that we have got everything, we are very good, we are men of God. Many times we forget to see the other side, that we are also prone to commit mistakes, which need to be rectified.
Many people see it as a terrible failure of leadership. There is the nuncio, there are local bishop’s conferences, there is the CBCI, what has happened to them all?
I understand your point. I am beginning life as a bishop. The Holy Father is fully aware of these problems and he wants to set right things. The document he has brought out recent;y is very strict on that. So, we have to start to act now. Let us not live in the fantasy world where each one things I am holy, I am above everything. I am speaking about myself, I am a human being. If I have made a mistake, I must face it squarelyand submit myself to a procedure that is intended to establish justice. Justice must be done.
You are right, but the pity is that the Pope is made to feel alone and helpless. Many are turning against him. That is the reality.
That’s true. The Pope is leading a prophetic life. We are in a difficult situation. Personally I feel there is a real failure in leadership here. I have been teaching in Pune, and during it I have gathered the sense that that is the general feeling. Each scandal causes some pain.