KATHMANDU, Nepal, 21 MARCH 2010 (ZENIT)
In Nepal, 75 % of the
population is Hindu. Christians number only 2.5%, and Catholics
number only 7,000.
In 2007, Benedict XVI elevated Nepal to the status of an
Apostolic Vicariate and appointed its first bishop, Bishop
Anthony Francis Sharma.
Bishop Sharma is a born Nepali and was born in Gurkha, in the
central part of Nepal called the Mid-Western region. He was born
and raised in a Hindu family, as a Brahmin.
It was his mother who entered the Catholic Church when he was
barely about 4 or 5 years old and he became also Catholic at the
Bishop Sharma spoke of the situation of the Church in Nepal with
the television program "Where God Weeps" of the Catholic Radio
and Television Network (CRTN) in cooperation with Aid to the
Church in Need.
Q: Who or what was decisive in you're decision to become a
Bishop Sharma: My contact with the then Jesuits working in the
Northern part of India called Darjeeling was decisive. I saw
them serving our people with so much love and care and when I
was asked why I wanted to become a Jesuit, the answer I gave
was: "I see you doing this for my people why can't I join you in
the same venture?" That was what made me decide, and being in
contact with the mostly Canadian Jesuits with the young people
coming to Darjeeling was also what challenged me.
Q: The Catholic population in Nepal is very small numbering only
7,000. What would have been the biggest obstacle for you in
pursuing your dream to become a priest?
Bishop Sharma: I worked in Darjeeling after my studies. I joined
the Jesuits there after my high school studies, and I worked
there for a while, almost 25 years, and then, while I was a
rector of an institution of ours and principal of St. Joseph's
School, I was appointed to Nepal as the first Ecclesiastical
Superior in 1984. So I didn't come to Nepal of my own volition.
I was sent there. I was appointed to Nepal from Darjeeling.
Being of Nepali origin, I suppose was the primary reason.
Secondly, because, I also belong to a Brahmin Caste and the
caste is of importance in Nepal. Nepali society is ruled by a
small minority of Hindus. You said 75%, but that's debated
today, but the Brahmins were the ones ruling the country then so
appointing a Brahmin probably had something to do with my being
assigned in Nepal.
Q: The fact that you are a Brahmin is as important for the
Catholic community as it is for the Hindus, that is, you can
at least the ruling Hindus
in the eyes as being a Brahmin. Was this a factor?
Bishop Sharma: It was a factor then, I think, and I was always
know being a Principal for a reputable school where the kings
the present, past and immediate past king
had gone to school was, I think a factor. I was known to the
Nepali community there. They knew I hailed from Nepal and they
had no difficulty accepting me back into Nepal.
Q: You are the country's first bishop. What was your feeling
when you were called and appointed?
Bishop Sharma: I wasn't quite happy with that. I've been
resisting this appointment for a long time because, I felt, the
rightful people that should be honored with this appointment
should be coming from the ethnic community, a person from the
ethnic community. And this because the majority of our people
belong to the ethnic communities in Nepal.
You said earlier on that 75%
that's debatable I said
because 70% of our population are ethnic and 20% are only
strictly Hindus. But Hindus being the ruling class, they have
embraced the 70% and made it 90%. These ethnic communities
belong to various caste groups; they have their own rituals, own
priests, own rites, everything their own. And they don't like
being counted among the Hindus, but they had no choice being
under the ruling class.
So they were embraced together, and when the tourists come they
are told that 90% are Hindus, 7% Buddhist and 2% Muslims and 1%
Christians, which is not true. Of this 70% ethnic community, 60%
would have more affinity toward Buddhism than Hinduism, so in
effect Nepal should have been regarded as a Buddhist country not
only because Buddha was born there but also that's a fact of
Q: You said that your mother was the one that led you into
Church at a young age. What was her reaction when you were
Bishop Sharma: She never wanted me to be a priest first of all
because I was the only male child in the family and she felt
that I had an obligation. My mother was brought up in Hindu
tradition. She knew Hindu traditions very well. She, though
illiterate, she could recite the book of Ramayana from cover to
cover by memory. And she was very gifted, though illiterate she
was. So she felt that I had to continue the family line
so my becoming a priest was the end of the line and she never
gave me permission for it. This Canadian Jesuit who was my
principal, told me that I had to be a priest, my objection to
him was: "No way Father, I have a duty to look after my mother,"
and this Canadian Jesuits' reaction was: "God will take care of
Q: Has God taken care of her?
Bishop Sharma: Very well, very well, and so I became a priest,
but before I went and joined the Jesuits, I took this Canadian
principal of mine to see my mother. I let her know that I was
going and my mother prostrated herself in front of me: "Walk
over me if you want to go."
Later on when I became a priest, a son is always a son no matter
how bad you are, to a mother you are always a good son, so on
the day after my ordination, I came down to bless my mother but
it was awkward to bless her so instead I asked for a blessing
and turned to her and said: "So how do you feel granny that your
son is a priest, something you never wanted?"
She looked up at me and she says: "You know what I told God
today? I lost, you won." That was her final resignation and the
acceptance of God's will in her life. And this was, all her
life, the attitude she had, she couldn't change Gods'
determination so she had to accept. She never saw me as a
bishop. My mother died before I was made bishop. She died at the
age of 89 in 1989, and I was made bishop only in 2007 but she
would have been happy, no doubt, and proud of that.
Q: You having been born and grown up in Nepal, you've seen the
country change in many ways. Can you tell us how have you seen
the country change in both positive and negative way?
Bishop Sharma: Initially before 1990 it was a Hindu country
totally. The Christians could not be known by name. They lived a
Q: Was there persecution of the Christians at that time
would you call it persecution or discrimination?
Bishop Sharma: Discrimination probably, and lot of Protestant
Christians were arrested for preaching Christianity because
being a Hindu country, preaching a non-Hindu religion was
forbidden under the law. If it was done by a Nepali, the Nepali
would be behind bars for six months, and if it was a non-Nepali,
the non-Nepali would be sent out of the country. So there was
very little preaching, but still there were lots of fundamental
groups around. The Church entered Nepal in 1951 on the
invitation of the grandfather of the late King.
Q: Why did he do that, if Nepal was a Hindu State?
Bishop Sharma: Because he wanted education to be made available
to the people of Nepal. Because a number of them had gone to our
schools, both in India, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Patna, there were
Nepali students there. So the Patna Jesuits, American Jesuits
were invited to open and run schools. And they made their own,
the Rana Prime Ministers Summer Palace [Singha Durbar Palace]
available for this purpose. It is still there. So they can use
that palace as long as they are serving in the educational
So the Church then, despite the anti-preaching law, received a
certain status or ability to be present in Nepalese soil to
To teach, but they were told, in no uncertain terms, that they
were not to preach to the Nepalese. They could serve the
Catholics, but no preaching Christianity to the Nepalese. Even
though they were asked to sign it, the fathers did not sign it,
but somehow they followed that understanding, acted on that
understanding and that has been the mode of our behaviour all
Q: There has been a monumental shift in the history of Nepal.
Recently, Nepal has been declared a secular state, and the Hindu
Kings, which have ruled the country for centuries, have been put
out. Is this a positive step for the country of Nepal?
Bishop Sharma: I think, it is a positive step. Nepal is coming
into the international arena that way and hopefully … for
example … even now Saturdays and Sundays are working days, so we
have Sunday service on Saturday. So hopefully Nepal will follow
the international calendar, so that way we will follow the same.
And also, I think, there will be recognition that way. The
secular state has not been declared in a written form. All that
was done two years ago was when this proposal was made; there
was a desk banging approval by the parliamentarians, they banged
the desk in front of them, and said "yes" that is what we want.
But this effort was by the Maoist and the Communist party. The
Congress and the other parties were not quite in favor of this
but they followed suit. They saw the banging and so they
Q: But you think it will happen?
Bishop Sharma: It will happen with the writing of the new
constitution. This will give us, I suppose, certain freedom that
we can preach freely, no obstacles in any way, but this question
has been asked of me quite often and my answer has been: whether
Nepal remains a Hindu country or becomes a secular country will
make no difference for us. We will continue doing what we have
been doing, serving the people through our social programs and
Q: But you will have greater freedom?
Bishop Sharma: We have more freedom. We will not be challenged;
in the past before 1990 when you opened schools, I had
invariably to appear to the civil authority to explain my
presence because they thought I was just making efforts to
spread Christianity in the country.
Q: In 2007, Benedict XVI elevated Nepal to the status as an
Apostolic Vicariate. Why did he choose this particular moment
after the overthrow of the government? Is it a strategic or a
political move, if you wish to anchor the Church more deeply by
elevating it to the status of an Apostolic Vicariate?
Bishop Sharma: The Catholic Church entered into the political
arena as it were of Nepal not in 2007 but in 1984. In 1982, King
Birendra, before he and his family was massacred, went to see
the Pope with his wife and entourage. The purpose of his visit
with the Pope was to ask the Pope to recognize Nepal as a zone
of peace. You know Nepal is a tiny country with about 147,000
sq. km. of land, and sandwiched between China in the North and
India in the South, West and East. So there was the threat that
any one of these countries would swallow Nepal.
By being recognized as a zone of peace, Nepal would be protected
by the international community and Rome's Papal and Holy Sees'
recognition of the country as a zone of peace would have allowed
Nepal to be recognized as a zone of peace by other countries
without any problem. And the Kings' guess happened and Nepal was
recognized as a zone of peace. The second thing was when the
King requested for this recognition; the Pope realized that
there was no Church present in the country in a recognized form.
So they had to create a Church which was "Missio sui iuris" and
so I was appointed as the first Ecclesiastical Superior in 1984.
Q: The creation of an Apostolic Vicariate, certainly had
symbolic if not legal implication for the Church as it deepens
its roots within the country?
Bishop Sharma: Definitely it has given recognition of our
presence. It has been an honor bestowed upon our people. And
also, I think, recognition of the efforts of our pioneers. The
pioneers who came in 1750, the Capuchins, so all their efforts,
all their dreams have just been realize. Second thing is: The
Vatican s' policy is proceeding in upgrading of Nepal in a
manner that should be done, first as an Ecclesiastical Mission,
"Missio sui iuris "
Mission in its own right, then it became an Apostolic Prefecture
in 1997, 2007 Vicariate, the next step, my successor will have
the joy of having Nepal as a diocese in its own right.
Q: In Orissa State, Bangalore, and other states in India, we see
Hindu fundamentalism on the rise. Are you not afraid that this
will cross over into the border of Nepal?
Bishop Sharma: It has already crossed over. There are some small
indications, but these particular groups of people who are known
as NDA (Nepal Defense Army), who claim to be the Hindu Militant
group, but they are not. They are criminals. They extort money
from people for their own enrichment, for their own purpose. It
has nothing to do with Hinduism. I think we in Nepal have to
expect some kind of aggressive behavior from our Hindu
You know for 240 years, Nepal was a Hindu Kingdom, and suddenly
now is declared a secular state. So there is a big threat. The
King has lost his empire. He was crowned emperor of the Hindu
kingdom, but it does not exist anymore. Hinduness has been
removed so this has been a big threat to the Hindu community, so
we are going to expect some kind of trouble like this,
fundamentalist coming to rise.
Q: The fact that you are saying that it is a group of
extremists, nonetheless you did take the step of saying to the
government that if they did not intervene, you threatened to
close the schools, which would appear to be a pretty dramatic
step in light of the importance of the schools in Nepal, as a
Bishop Sharma: I had to write that letter to the government. At
that time there was no government functioning in Nepal. There
was infighting going on with various parties so no government
was being formed. So I went to the Home Secretary with a
three-paragraph letter. First paragraph describing the situation
and the killing that happened and took place, second paragraph,
what was the result of it and the threatening calls we have
received. And third paragraph is that if we are not given any
protection against these threats and threatening calls, we may
have to go to the parents, tell the parents that we will not be
able to provide and run the services that we have been taking
care of unless you [government] do something about it. That was
the purpose of the letter.
The work of the Church is highly esteemed and this way probably
compelled the government to do something about it. That letter
produced results. As a result members of this group were
arrested; the main man who gave me threatening calls is hiding
somewhere. The police know who he is. His picture is on their
mobile and there is a movement, but this gave us good results.
Q: What would be your hope for Nepal? What would be your hope
for the Church in Nepal?
Bishop Sharma: I suppose you mean our dreams or challenges? The
Church would like to go to the least developed areas of Nepal.
The Capuchins of 17th and 18th century are coming back. The
Capuchins who were the pioneers of the missionary endeavors in
Nepal are returning. As of today, there is one Capuchin who is
learning Nepali in a Nepali village. The community is moving in,
and so we are moving westward to the least developed parts of
Nepal where people don't even have grass to eat.
Q: They don't have food? Why?
Bishop Sharma: Because of food scarcity. I do not know whether
you have heard of the nettle bush? It is a little plant that has
a lot of nettles. It is cooked and fed to the pigs. It is very
nourishing and has lots of protein in it. This is what I mean by
the grass; even that is not available to these hungry people. In
the distant places, rice is becoming a problem now. One time
Nepal use to grow enough rice to take care of its population,
now we have to import rice from India.
Some places are still so far and cut off, there are no roads and
trails only and takes days to reach. Places you can only drop
food by helicopter, but helicopters cannot go every time. Some
of these places they are suffering from lack of food
particularly rice. Rice is our staple food. You know people eat
rice to fill their belly, it may not be enough nourishment in
it, but it fills the belly.
So our choice in going westward is to animate the people, help
people to cultivate, start kitchen gardening, do things on their
own, so Caritas is involved in this, and also providing
education for people who have not been given opportunity by the
government. Our government depends heavily from foreign aid and
the distant places do not get that.
Q: On the side of the Church, from the needs of the Church, what
will be your appeal to the Catholics?
Bishop Sharma: We would like to carry on with our educational
endeavors. We would like to start a health program, because
health facilities are not available. We would like to go and
approach the ethnic and tribal communities who are dying out
like the Raute, Bhote, or Chepangs; these are people who live in
the forest and eat roots. They never had the opportunity for
education. We would like to go and work among them. Bring them
into the mainstream of our country's life.
* * *
This interview was conducted by Mark Riedemann for "Where God
Weeps," a weekly television and radio show produced by Catholic
Radio and Television Network in conjunction with the
international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.