Kolkata (AsiaNews) Pope John Paul II travelled to India twice in his 26-year pontificate: once in 1986; the second time in 1999.
The Indian government had invited him in 1980 but he could not go before 1986. Then President Giani Zail Singh had extended the original invitation to the Popetalking to Card Simon Pimenta, who at the time chaired the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, he said: "We need the presence of this man to preserve our religious heritage".
In 1986, in what was his 29th world trip, the Pontiff visited first India's Catholic communities like that of Delhi, where the Church draws faithful from ethnic minorities. He travelled to states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as the cities of Chennai (then still called Madras) and Goa, all with sizable Catholic communities.
On February 3, 1986, he joined Mother Teresa at Nirmal Hriday, a hospice for the terminally ill in Kolkata. At noon, wearing an apron and holding hands with the diminutive Albanian nun, he served food to the inmates with the other nuns.
Card Jozef Tomko, who for 16 years headed the Congregation for the evangelisation of the peoples", remembers this trip.
"There is one image that is engraved in my mind: two million people crowded onto a beach in Madras listening to the Pope whom they consider a spiritual master in the traditional sense of the word. It was moving to see the Pope happy, talking to a huge Indian crowd".
Pope John Paul II made a second trip to India in 1999 to sign the Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, an event that took place in New Delhi's cathedral as a special synod for Asia was underway.
During his visit, the Pontiff told Indians "not to fear the Church" because its "only purpose" was to pursue Christ's mission of service and love". (MA)