By Alexandre Moniz Barbosa
In public, he might have rarely smiled during the long years he shepherded the Catholic Church in Goa, he perhaps was weighed down by the responsibilities he carried, yet his colleagues in the curia will acknowledge that he was the quiet pillar of strength that the Church in Goa required to lead it in the midst of changing political situations and social churning that followed Liberation.
He spoke softly, though often lengthily, but when Archbishop Raul Nicolau Gonsalves did speak, everybody listened. He will not speak again, as he breathed his last on July 1, 2022, but what he said in the quarter century, during which he was Archbishop of Goa and Daman and also Patriarch of the East Indies, won’t be soon forgotten.
In Goa’s long Catholic history – of almost 500 years – Rev Gonsalves was the first Goan to be appointed Archbishop of the Archdiocese. Post-liberation, until the retirement of the Portuguese Archbishop José Vieira Alvernaz, who was no longer in Goa, but back in Portugal, there was an apostolic administrator appointed to handle the affairs of the diocese, and Rev Gonsalves was one of them. His appointment as Archbishop came in 1978.
It wouldn’t have been easy for him to be leading the flock, as the unassuming personality that he was, Rev Gonsalves always appeared to be more comfortable within the curia than in public. Priests recall how, when he was appointed archbishop and the announcement had to be made, he casually passed the appointment letter to his secretary with instructions that it be released to the media.
It is only when the secretary read the document that the import and the historic significance of it dawned on him – Rev Gonsalves was the first Goan Archbishop-Patriarch of Goa.
In 2017, the Church wanted to celebrate the golden jubilee of his episcopal ordination, but true to his nature of keeping a low profile, he didn’t want it. And, perhaps, it was this modesty that helped him shoulder on with his responsibilities that in a post-Liberation and Second Vatican Council era can truly be termed as challenging.
Administrating the Church after the events of 1961 would not have been easy. Under the terms of the Concordata that existed between the Vatican and the then colonial government, the Portuguese State was committed to releasing subsidies to the Church in Goa.
That changed after December 19, 1961, and as Rev Gonsalves, in a rare exclusive interview to the media told me, the priority after Liberation was to see that Church personnel could be maintained, and this he said, was achieved ‘not by imposing taxes, but by building up the 'community’. That he did, he built up a vibrant Catholic community in the light of the Second Vatican Council that gave a new direction to the universal Church.
One of his achievements, therefore, was empowering the laity, which came in the form of creating Small Christian Communities in all parishes, and this he admitted, when in the same interview, in reply to a question on these communities, he said, “One gets a sense of achievement because people are realising that they are the Church, and it isn’t as before when only the Bishop and the priests were considered to make up the Church. The realisation among the laity that they are very important for the life of the Church can be considered an achievement.”
It was also during his term that the Church in Goa began to sensitise the people on social issues, playing a major role in people’s movements and especially for making Konkani the official language of Goa. But, he was clear that the pronouncements of the Church on social issues were not his personal view that would be reflected in the pastoral letters or guidelines, but that there was a process involved where ‘lay people would take the initiative to study the issue, consult others, reflect on the matter and then issue guidelines’.
“Guidelines and policies,” Rev Gonsalves told me, “Have to come from the Church, we do not tell people what to do. We rely, now, very much on the Diocesan Pastoral Council in which majority are lay people.”
The Small Christian Communities, the Parish Pastoral Councils and the Diocesan Pastoral Council that have brought the laity to the advisory bodies of the Church in Goa came during his term when he shepherded a flock that was realising their importance in the Church.
Before his retirement, Rev Gonsalves left behind a plan for the Archdiocese in the form of the report of the 2002 Diocesan Synod that he presided over, and where the current Archbishop Patriarch Filipe Neri Ferrao, then the Auxiliary Bishop, was at times seen seated with the delegates during the long sessions at Old Goa.
Two years after that Synod, Archbishop Gonsalves demitted office and moved to the annex at the Bishop’s House and Archbishop Ferrao succeeded him, but the recommendations of that Synod still continue to guide the Catholic Church in Goa. His legacy, therefore, lives on in the Archdiocese of Goa and Daman.