Kathmandu (AsiaNews) – The funeral of Mgr Anthony Francis Sharma SJ, Nepal's first bishop, took place yesterday in Kathmandu's Assumption Cathedral. Hundreds of people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, took part in the service, some braving the hardships caused by the ongoing Indian embargo.
"Bishop Sharma worked during the royal regime and later witnessed the political upheaval when Nepal was declared a republic. He witnessed the change of Nepal from a Hindu country to a secular state," Father Silas Bogati, vicar general of the Apostolic Vicariate of Nepal, told AsiaNews. In all this time, he played a crucial role in building the Catholic Church in the Asian country.
Born on 12 December 1937 in the Gorkha District into a Hindu family, the bishop died on the day of the Immaculate Conception, four days short of his 78th birthday. After his conversion to Christianity, he became a priest in 1968 in the Society of Jesus.
Since then, he worked for various Jesuit institutions, including the St Joseph's School in North Point, Darjeeling, in the Indian state of West Bengal, where he served as rector. Leading Nepali political figures, including King Birendra and King Gyanendra, attended the same school.
In 1984, he became the Jesuits’ first superior in Nepal. In 1996, Pope John Paul II appointed him its prefect in the country. Finally, in 2007 he was elected as the country’s first bishop. In 2014, having reached retirement age, he left his post to his successor, Mgr Paul Simick.
His appointment as superior to the mission of Nepal was a cornerstone in the spread of Christianity in the Asian country. Thanks to his personality and his long friendship with the royal family, he managed to obtain official recognition for the Catholic Church in 1993. This allowed Catholics to feel part of the nation, whereas they were regarded as "untouchables" until then.
The prelate also welcomed the new republic, which was established after the government and Maoist forces struck a peace deal that ended a decade of civil war.
Some years ago, he told AsiaNews that the separation of state and religion “does not sanction the rights of religions, but creates instead harmony and solidarity and guarantees freedom of worship in an impartial manner."
Despite the severe hardships caused by an embargo India imposed almost three months ago, many Nepalis were able to pay tribute to the bishop and attend the funeral.
Speaking at the service, Prof Upendra Devkota, a former health minister, said, "He was for me an important educator, regardless of our different faiths. He really was a great teacher, respected and loved by both the Catholic community and the faithful of other religions. He was the leader of everyone."
During his ministry, Mgr Sharma was instrumental in the establishment of 23 schools, a pastoral centre, as well as several facilities for the disabled and medical clinics.
Under his leadership, the Catholic community worked to serve the poor and the needy. In 1990 the prelate founded Caritas Nepal to help the poor and marginalised.
Mgr Sharma was laid to rest in Godavari, about 15 kilometres from the capital.