Singing Bishop Valerian D’ Souza

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Camil Parkhe

Pune, 25th February 2023: “Dear Camil, Let me be the first to wish you Happy Birthday” was the message I received from Bishop Valerian D’Souza on the eve of my birthday some years back when I had just opened my Facebook account. Fondly remembering with this repost, Singing Bishop Vally on the eve of his birthday on October 3.

“Come in..!” was the reply when I knocked at the semi-open entrance of his residence. As I entered, I saw Bishop Valerian D’Souza sitting on a chair impeccably dressed as was his wont – with a felt cap, legs with socks on placed on a small stool and with a rosary in his hand.

“Oh Camil..!” was his response in his deep voice when I stood before him. I had kissed his prelate’s ring when I had first met him as a reporter of The Indian Express 30 years ago and again when I interviewed him for Sakal Times when turned 80 in 2013. Over the years, I had developed a close bond with Bishop Valerian. But when I called on him February 6 evening, little did I realise that this would be our final meeting or that I would be one of his last ‘courtesy call’ visitors.

Originally hailed from Parra village near Porvorim in Goa, bishop Valerian was born in Pune and studied in St. Vincent School where he was a footballer. When Fr. Valerian was appointed a bishop in 1977, Pune diocese was the third largest diocese in India. It had 11 revenue districts – stretching from Ratnagiri touching Goa to Nandurbar in north Maharashtra.

“The journeys which I have undertaken to carry out my pastoral duties in my Pune diocese in the 33 long years as bishop was equivalent to six times travel round the earth,” Bishop Valerian D’Souza had once remarked to me in an interview. Pune diocese was later bifurcated into three dioceses – Pune, Nashik and Sindhudurg.

As per the Canon law which governs the Catholic Church, a bishop has to relinquish his administrative duties after turning 75. Bishop Valerian served as the prelate of Pune diocese till 2008 for over 31 years – he was appointed a bishop when he was only 42. Nowadays a priest is appointed a bishop only after crossing at least 50s, if not 60s. Thus, Bishop Valerian was one of the longest serving bishops in Indian Catholic Church.

Whenever Bishop Valerian visited a church for the Confirmation sacrament (only a bishop can administer this sacrament) or during his pastoral tour, he was handed over a guitar and requested to sing. And the whole congregation would listen in a rapt attention with an awe as the bishop strummed the guitar to sing the hymn ‘Man of Galili ..” This had earned him the title of ‘The singing bishop’ not only in India but also in Germany where he would often go on pastoral visits. Incidentally Bishop Vally (as he was affectionately called ) would never sing any other hymn. He would candidly admit that he did not know other songs to play on guitar.

Since I arrived in Pune in late 1980s, I had developed a close relationship with His Lordship as we used to refer to a bishop not long ago.

Whenever the bishop called me by my name, I was always conscious of the fact that his father’s name was also Camil. (This is a very typical Goan name, there were three Camils in The Navhind Times daily in Panjim where I worked!) Due to the request of Fr. Nelson Machado, Bishop Valerian had blessed my marriage with Jacqueline at the Tadiwala Road Church.

A few years later, Bishop Vally helped me to get funds for publication of my book on ‘Contribution of Missionaries in India’. Later, he also released both the Marathi and English versions of this book. The Marathi book was released at a function organised by the Pune Union of Working Journalists and in the presence of my boss in The Times of India Resident Editor Ravi Srinivasan, Marathi writers Sada Dhumbre and Anil Dahiwadkar. The English book was released by Bishop Vally at a function hosted by Pragat Padvidhar Sanghatana’s Sonyabapu Waghmare and J. D. Adhav.

Bishop Valerian had an annual interaction with us journalists in Pune. Every Christmas, his office would send to all newspapers in the city a typed Christmas message. The message was never more than four paras and it always had a short story or an anecdote. All English newspapers would consider it as their duty to carry the Bishop’s Christmas Message with his photo in December 25th issue. It seems the practice had started when Pune’s then only English daily Pune Herald (later Maharashtra Herald and now Sakal Times ) which most circulated among the Catholics, the Sindhis and Parsis in Pune Camp would prominently carry the bishop’s message. When Indian Express and Times of India started their Pune edition, they too picked up this tradition.

When he turned 80, I interviewed him for Sakal Times. I was shocked to know that the retired bishop had turned to the Facebook for delivering his Sunday sermons! He said that everyday he received at least 10 request for being friends of the Facebook. Our editor Rahul Chandawarkar who was equally fascinated with the tech-savy bishop carried the interview as the anchor on the first page.

Bishop D’Souza had played host to the visit of Pope John Paul II to Pune on February 10, 1984.

“Anywhere in the world, in his address, the Pope always spoke a few words in local languages. The Pope was pleasantly surprised when while welcoming him at the Ramwadi grounds in the city , I spoke in his mother tongue, Polish,” Bishop Valerian told me during this interview.

And so last fortnight, as I was about to conclude my courtesy visit, I asked bishop Valerian to allow me take a selfie with him. He obliged smilingly. When I fumbled with my mobile set, the 86-year-old bishop guided me how to click a selfie ! How I now wish that I should have once again kissed the prelate’s ring before I bid him a final goodbye ! 

 February 25 is the third death anniversary of Bishop Valerian D’ Souza