Meet the Archbishop of Bombay
On December 24, His Eminence Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay will officiate his fifth midnight mass as head of the Archdiocese of Bombay whose seat is the Cathedral of the Holy Name, locally known as Wodehouse Church in Colaba.
It is also the Cardinal's 66th birthday, so both day and night are special.
The gracious Cardinal
Essentially a Mumbaikar, Cardinal Gracias grew up in Mahim and finished his seminary studies in Goregaon. But for brief stints in Jamshedpur, Agra and Rome he has served most of his time in churches in Mumbai and was ordained as a Bishop at St Michael’s Church in Mahim in 1990.
In 2006 he took over from Cardinal Ivan Dias as Archbishop of Bombay.
Tall, erect and erudite, His Eminence took time out from a busy pre-Christmas schedule and a table laden with piles of papers, files and books, to talk about his hopes and concerns for his community.
Asked what this year's midnight mass sermon will focus on, he replies, it will be about relationships.
“Jesus comes and his presence transforms relationships. God manifested as man, becomes accessible to us, and we have a personal relationship with God. And as Jesus is our Father we are children of one family, then relationships improve within the family, within the same faith and different faiths, and we reach out to the poor as we realize they are our brothers and sisters. The corollary is that if relationships are improved then peace comes into the world. And in Mumbai, India and the world there is a longing for peace,” says the Cardinal.
Christians can counter corruption
Mumbai has a very vibrant Christian community, so does India for that matter, and he talks about how happy he is that the churches are not dormant, but contributing to society.
Especially in the field of education and health facilities, he says. They focus mainly on rural India, and social awareness where the concentration is not just on charity but empowering people to use their basic rights, shifting from a needs base to a rights base and so bringing dignity into many underprivileged lives.
Also concerned with ecology, the Cardinal points out that as good householders we should not exhaust the earth’s resources given to us as gifts but preserve our environment for our children and grandchildren.
“That is our responsibility for future generations,” he emphasizes.
But the pressing challenge at this time, is for more Christians to “enter civil society in larger numbers; the bureaucracy, in the political field and in positions of leadership in public service,” the Cardinal says.
He feels their values and ethics can be a force to counter the corruption that has become endemic in the system.
In the past many high posts in public service were held by Christians; now he feels there is a shift, and economically driven, most join “multinational” corporations instead. This trend must be reversed and has to be strategically addressed, he stresses.
With his Christmas blessings, I left this charming, most approachable man of God with an affability that puts you at ease in his presence, eminent that it is.
Midnight mass at Cathedral of the Holy Name, Colaba
I was once asked by some house guests, "What time does midnight mass start in Mumbai?"
A curious question. One would imagine midnight? Not so any longer.
Due to noise pollution laws mass now starts earlier and finishes in most churches and outdoor venues before midnight.
There are no noise pollution laws in Rome, but last year, midnight mass was held early to allow for Pope Benedict XVI’s advanced age.
Father Caesar D’Mello is the parish priest at the Cathedral of the Holy Name in Colaba and I met him at his spacious office in the building adjoining the 107-year-old heritage cathedral whose exterior flying buttresses and pinnacles make it an impressive landmark on this leafy street off the Causeway.
Inside, the cathedral is resplendent with recently restored frescoed ceilings, the restoration supervised by INTACH, and at the far end, three glorious stained-glass windows behind the altar soar high in gothic splendor.
He got up to shut the window to block out the noise from construction work going on outside; even church premises are no longer quiet in this noisy metropolis.
Across the quadrangle is the attached Holy Name School where Michelle Obama shook a leg with the school children on her recent visit to Mumbai.
Parish priest for the last two and a half years, Father Caesar talked about the dwindling congregations in the 13 churches in South Mumbai as the Catholic community has moved to Bandra and even further to the suburbs of Mira Road and Borivili.
Alex Fernandes, a life-long Colaba resident who has been attending midnight mass here over several decades, remembers a time when the congregation was 15,000 strong, and the mass was held in the nearby Cooperage football stadium.
With the exodus to the suburbs this congregation has dwindled.
Now, on December 24, midnight mass is held in the Oratory of the cathedral for the 2,500 plus Christian community composed of mainly Goans, Mangaloreans and East Indians.
It’s a full ceremonial mass where the altar servers, ministers and the Cardinal, all dressed in rich red gowns, lead the procession to the altar.
Cardinal Gracias being a multi-linguist, addresses the cosmopolitan congregation in English, Marathi, Konkani and Hindi.
The mass is broadcast live on television and radio all over Maharashtra.
Mass starts at 9:30 p.m., with carols sung by the accomplished choir conducted by Mario Nazareth, and accompanied by the organist on the cathedral’s prized pipe organ. The mass itself starts at 10 p.m. and lasts for an hour and a half.
Fernandes, who has heard many a past Cardinal, says, “It is a Mass everyone looks forward to; the sermon is special and the Cardinals of past and the present are wonderful orators and no one dozes off as they often do in other sermons.”
As I leave his office Father Caesar chuckles as he says, “The idea is to have some socializing after the mass. There are snacks laid out for those who’ve worked hard; the choir and the servers usually stay, but the rest simply want to make a beeline home.”
There are Christmas presents waiting to be opened after all and that surely warrants a hurried exit.
Cathedral of the Holy Name, 19 Nathalal Parekh Marg, Colaba; +91 (0) 2202 0121