Gandhi and the Popes

From Pius XI to Francis

by Peter Gonsalves (Author)
©2015 Monographs XV, 244 Pages


Gandhi today is universally recognised as an international icon, but did his influence extend to the Vatican as well? The author unravels the answer by pursuing six research targets. The book opens with a historical inquiry into Gandhi’s unsuccessful attempt to meet Pius XI, and then goes on to examine the writings and speeches of the Popes from Pius XI to Benedict XVI who alluded to Gandhi. Adopting a hermeneutical slant, it also engages in a comparative study of the thoughts and actions of Pope Francis and Gandhi, and highlights some remarkable similarities that call for an explanation. In the process, the book explores and assesses the popular claim that Gandhi was influenced by Christ, and the not so popular conjecture that Francis was influenced by Gandhi.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • A. From Pope Pius XI to Pope Benedict XVI
  • 1. Gandhi and Pius XI – The Missed Encounter
  • 2. How the Popes Speak of Gandhi
  • B. Pope Francis
  • 3. Francis and Gandhi: The Communication Revolution
  • 4. Francis and Gandhi on Religion
  • C. A Question of Influence?
  • 5. Was Gandhi Influenced by Christ?
  • 6. Was Francis Influenced by Gandhi?
  • Conclusion
  • Appendices
  • Appendix I L’Osservatore Romano, How Gandhi Speaks of God
  • Appendix II John XXIII, Excerpts from Pacem in Terris
  • Appendix III Pope Paul VI, References to Gandhi
  • Appendix IV Pope John Paul II, References to Gandhi
  • Appendix V Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Parish Priests
  • Appendix VI Jean-Baptiste Janssens, Letter to Fr. Humbert Pinto
  • Appendix VII Jerome D’souza, The Question Of ‘Adaptation’ in India
  • Appendix VIII Peter Gonsalves, Jesuits – the Gandhian Way?
  • Glossary of Sanskrit and Indian Vocabulary
  • Select Bibliography
  • Index


This work would not have been possible if it were not for the permission granted by the directors of the following institutions based in Rome: Vatican Secret Archives, Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu (ARSI), Biblioteca della Pontificia Università Gregoriana, Biblioteca Don Bosco and Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale. I also thank the Directors of the Gandhian Research Centres in India, particularly Manibhavan, Mumbai, Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, Ahmedabad, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi and the Jesuit Madurai Province Archives (JEMPARC), Shenbaganur. I am grateful to the following publishers for giving me the permission to publish excerpts from the documents of the popes © Libreria Editrice Vaticana; and excerpts from On Heaven And Earth: Pope Francis On Faith, Family, And the Church in the Twenty-First Century by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, translation copyright © Image, a division of Random House LLC. Used by permission of Image Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. ← VII | VIII →

← VIII | IX →

List of Abbreviations


The idea of a book on Gandhi and the Popes was an off-shoot of my broader interest in his unique place in the history of communication. Two of my earlier publications were attempts at demonstrating how the Indian surge for independence was unparalleled in the history of the world. This was not merely because it was the first nonviolent revolution involving more than 300 million people under the leadership of a single individual, but more so, because its weapons of imperial subversion1 were based on a relentless, broad-based, multi-semantic sartorial communication strategy.

In the course of that research – while reading about Gandhi’s participation at the Second Round Table Conference and his consequent stopover in Rome to meet Pope Pius XI – my attention was drawn to a detail mentioned in passing in major biographies of Gandhi: ‘the Pope refused to meet him because he was improperly dressed.’

The opening chapter of this book is the fruit of my desire to verify the truth. Although journalists blamed it on the inflexible Vatican dress code, my own investigations published in 20112 revealed the complex mix of circumstances at the bottom of the proverbial iceberg that were too dangerous or diplomatically sensitive to be exposed by hasty journalese.

Moreover, in the course of my research, I stumbled upon a plot, perhaps hitherto unreported in detail, that reduced both Gandhi and Pius XI to pawns in an insidious game-plan of political one-upmanship – not without dire consequences for India’s march towards independence and the slighting of Gandhi’s moral stature in the eyes of the British. ← XI | XII →

What took me completely by surprise, however, was that barely two weeks prior to Gandhi’s visit to Rome, Pius XI had, in fact, permitted the editor of his official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, to publish a front-page tribute to Gandhi entitled, “How Gandhi speaks of God.” It was based on an excerpt from a speech Gandhi had delivered at the request of the Columbia Gramophone Company. The article’s magnanimous praise of Gandhi triggered my personal interest to search for the opinions of successive popes on Gandhi. I soon realized that I was dealing with an array of papal pronouncements from Pius XII to Benedict XVI that consisted of mortuary tributes, good-will wishes to India on Gandhi’s birth anniversary, and elaborate eulogies on his exemplary life to the point of exalting him as the ‘Hero of Humanity’.

I was about to make arrangements to publish this study as another article when Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation. During the days that followed, the media pitched in with their prognostications while Catholics3 waited for their new pope with bated breath.

And then Bergoglio came.4

Through the year that followed his first appearance on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, I was aware of being a witness to an epochal transformation in papal history, and to the greatest pro-Catholic multimedia avalanche ever! I also found Bergoglio’s style remarkably familiar. Notwithstanding the differences in context, scale, duration and purposes, the methodological principles of his revolution struck me as being very Gandhian. I soon realised that I was not alone. Others shared a similar perspective.5 ← XII | XIII →

I decided to ask Pope Francis directly if he had read Gandhi and if he had been inspired in any significant way. The request I sent him in December 2013 is probably lost in “the mountain of letters delivered every day at his residence.”6

Meanwhile, I cancelled my earlier publishing plans and plunged into further research: a year’s observation and interpretation of the communication revolution of this pope ‘from the ends of the earth’. The freshness that won Bergoglio the world’s admiration and the transparency, forthrightness and humanity he manifested through an abundance of non-verbal gestures and symbolic actions needed to be urgently documented and analysed. I chose to lean on the key insights of Marshall McLuhan and Erving Goffman without, however, entering into a detailed elaboration of each of their theories.

This preliminary communication study on Bergoglio and my hunch about the Gandhian semblance provoked me to scan his pre-election interviews and speeches in search of the substantial core of his teaching. Once again I was intrigued by the many traces of affinity he seemed to share with Gandhi’s own views on religion.

At this point I was inevitably before a dilemma: Should I conclude without accounting for the papal affinity with Gandhian thought? Or should I pursue the hypothesis that the affinity was, in some way, positively linked to an influence: either a Christian influence on Gandhi, or a Gandhian influence on the popes, or perhaps a combination of both? ← XIII | XIV →

The term ‘influence’ when used in human interaction needs clarification. In agreement with current dictionary meanings7, it is “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone.” We are dealing with a ‘causal relationship’ between the influencer and the influenced. The quality of the interaction would depend on various factors, some of which are: the direct or indirect contact between the two subjects, the conscious or unconscious state of compliance, the duration of the influence, the process of internalization, etc.8

At the outset, it must be admitted that, given the complexity of our theme, the internal validity of ‘causal relationships’ in the life of human beings is difficult to ascertain and almost impossible to measure with Skinnerian precision. An investigation like this can, at most, unravel the facts of the case in the space, time and only with the data at the researcher’s disposal; but it can never isolate the history, nature, intensity and extent of a direct or indirect influence exerted by one human being on another.

Aware of these issues, I trust that my readers will acknowledge the indicative and expository value of my research. Throughout this work, the standard principles of the historical method served as criteria for selecting biographical accounts, archival documents, oral testimonies and media reports. Further study would be needed as more archival material, especially from 1947 onwards, is made available to researchers.9

Looking back at this engaging experience of pursuing six research targets from December 2010 through September 2014, I realized that my study had triangulated three major disciplines: history, communication and religion. I had, so to speak, documented a long and patient historical inter-religious dialogue between the Father of Indian Independence and the Holy Fathers of Catholic Christianity. Gandhi’s unfulfilled desire to meet the pope in his own life-time ← XIV | XV → seemed to have followed him long after his death, only to be fulfilled in ways he would hardly have imagined.

This book concludes with eight appendices. Seven of them are excerpts of key texts that are referred to in the chapters. They consist of an article on Gandhi published in the L’Osservatore Romano, letters and speeches of the popes on Gandhi, and writings of two important Jesuits who will be introduced in Chapter Six. Appendix VIII presents ancillary research that explores the impact of Gandhi on Jesuits in India. A glossary of Sanskrit terminology is also appended, although the meanings of the terms are inserted either in the main body of the text or in footnotes. Attempts at maintaining the use of gender-fair language throughout the work have been made. However, quotations of Gandhi and the Popes that are woven into the textual fabric of the book are left untouched.

A work like this depends on the collaboration of many people. I am indebted to Lisbert D’Souza, S.J., Regional Assistant for Southern Asia, and to Juan Carlos Scannone, S.J., one-time teacher of Pope Francis and currently professor at the San Miguel Seminary, Argentina. The former graciously facilitated my research on Jesuits in India, and the latter obliged me with an interview that supplemented my earlier findings on Jesuit formation in Argentina in the 1950s. The academic community of the Salesian Pontifical University (UPS) where I teach has been extremely supportive. In particular, I am beholden to Carlo Nanni, S.D.B., Rector Magnificus and to Mauro Mantovani, S.D.B., Dean of the Communications Faculty for their constant encouragement. I would also like to thank Verona Vaz of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, for her prompt and dedicated assistance, especially during the last phase of this work.

The university environment in Rome offers me the unique opportunity of encountering young adults from all over the globe. I gratefully dedicate this book to them, my past, present and future students. They challenge me and my colleagues to educate beyond national, cultural and perceptual boundaries for a world that is a little closer to the one envisioned by Mahatma Gandhi and the Popes.

Peter Gonsalves
Faculty of the Sciences of Communication
Salesian Pontifical University, Rome
October 4, 2014
← XV | XVI →

← XVI | 1 →


  1  The word ‘subversion’ is to be understood in its etymological sense, ‘to turn from below’, which refers to “the destabilizing of authority by a source that originates from a position of powerlessness.” See more in Chapter 3, p. 80, footnote 81.

  2  Chapter 1 is an updated version of the article published in Gandhi Marg, the longest surviving academic journal dedicated to Gandhian Studies that dates back to 1957. See, Peter Gonsalves, “Gandhi Visits the Vatican, An inquiry into the Pope’s inability to grant him an audience”, Gandhi Marg, vol. 33, no. 3, October-December, 2011, 301–336. Work on this article began in January 2011.

  3  On December 31, 2011, members of the Catholic Church in the world numbered 1,213,591,000. The same day, the world population was 6,933,310,000. Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2011, Rome, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, 18.

  4  This phrase was originally applied to Gandhi by Jawaharlal Nehru. It is an eloquent testimony to the paradigm shift brought about by Gandhian thinking and the beginning of the end to British Imperialism: “And then Gandhi came. He was like a powerful current of fresh air that made us stretch ourselves and take deep breaths; like a beam of light that pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes; like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people’s minds.” Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, New Delhi, Penguin, 2004, 392.


XV, 244
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
Vatikan Christus Benedikt XVI Johannes Paul II Jesuiten
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XVI, 244 pp.

Biographical notes

Peter Gonsalves (Author)

Peter Gonsalves, PhD, teaches Media Education and the History of Communication at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. A member of the Salesians of Don Bosco, a global network for the holistic development of youth, he coordinated its first five-language web portal. He was also president of Intersig, the international wing of Signis, which is an association of Catholic communicators for a culture of peace. His previous publications include, Exercises in Media Education (1994/2000), Clothing for Liberation (2010) and Khadi – Gandhi’s Mega Symbol of Subversion (2012).


Title: Gandhi and the Popes
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