Kathmandu (AsiaNews) – Mgr Anthony Francis Sharma, 69 years, has become the first bishop of Nepal. He was consecrated in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Kathmandu on 5 May in a solemn and at once festive celebration presided over by Mgr Pedro Lopez Quintana, Apostolic Nuncio for India and Nepal.
Before hundreds of bishops, religious and faithful who came from across the country and abroad, the new bishop assured all of his utmost commitment to building a new Nepal and to working for peace, prosperity and the collaboration of all the faithful. Mgr Sharma was born in 1937 to a Hindu Brahmin family. In 1956, he entered the Society of Jesus to become the first Jesuit of the country in 1968. After a long stay in Darjeeling in northern India, he returned to Nepal in 1984.
The Catholic faith came to Nepal in 1951 thanks to the invitation of the king to some priests to take scholastic education in hand. Thus the schools of St Francis Xavier and Saint Mary and others were set up, and are still held to be among the country’s best education institutions. But until 1991 conversion from the Hindu to the Christian faith was punishable by up to six years in prison. Until April 2006, Christians were submitted to constant persecution. With the deposition of King Gyanendra in April and the declaration of Nepal as a secular state in May 2006, 238 years of persecution under Hindu theocracy came to an end. On 10 February 2007, Pope Benedict XVI elevated the country to the rank of Vicariate with a surface area of 147,000 square km (half the size of Italy), a step that precedes the creation of a diocese, and appointed Fr Sharma as bishop.
The episcopal ordination was welcomed with joy by citizens of all faiths. Pawan Mahara, a Hindu who studied in a Christian school, told AsiaNews that the appointment of the bishop underscored the religious freedom now enjoyed by the country and was a “help from Pope Benedict XVI to consolidate its secular status.”
He held that Christians will now be able to overcome the fear “of being accused of making use of schools and health centres to carry out conversions” and they “will be able to play an important role in the struggle against illiteracy and disease, especially in backwards rural areas.”
Emmanuel John, a local Catholic, said the appointment “is a divine blessing for Catholics of Nepal”. He estimated that out of 28 million residents, there are one million Christians and around 7,000 Catholics. John told AsiaNews that Mgr Sharma “has already done a lot for the country”, although for many years he was for all intents and purposes confined to Kathmandu. “Now, the Church in Nepal has around 50 priests, 140 sisters and hundreds of social workers committed to respond to the needs of people across the country. There are around 30 educational institutions, including a university and several high schools. And more than 20 health centres. But now they will be able to do even more.”