Syro-Malabar Rite Debates Liturgical Patrimony

Author: Anto Akkara


by Anto Akkara

The eighth synod of the Syro-Malabar Church (SMC)-- one of the world's largest Eastern-rite Catholic churches-- ended November 15 in Ernakulam, India, the seat of the 3.2 million-member church on November 15, with the SMC bishops once again resolving "to strive to bring about liturgical unity."

The synod "reviewed the existing differences of opinion in the Syro- Malabar Church and opined that bringing about liturgical unity is the effective way to end the controversy. Steps in this direction are being taken," said a SMC press statement on the Synod, which took up two weeks and was attended by 21 of the 23 bishops of the SMC.

The Syro Malabar Church (SMC) in India traces its heritage back to St. Thomas the Apostle. After an early flirtation with the Nestorian heresy, the Malabars were restored to full communion with Rome in the 16th century. The hierarchy of the SMC was formally approved by the Vatican in 1923, and in 1993 the SMC was raised to the status of a major archepiscopal church. A vibrant and growing Catholic community, the SMC boasts 22 dioceses, which account for almost half of the 8,000 diocesan clergy in the 130 dioceses of India; the Church also provides more than 60 percent of the 82,000 missionary workers among the 15 million Catholic community in India. However, the church is plagued by controversies involving the nature of the liturgy and the demands of some SMC leaders for full autonomy.

One group, a minority within the SMC, now seeks to restore the entire Syrian liturgy which was followed by the Malabar church for centuries. A majority would prefer to modify the traditional SMC liturgy, to adapt the worship to present conditions in India. But these are only the most obvious among many differences on the question of liturgy.

The question of autonomy stems from the fact that the Syro-Malabar Church does not have the authority to name bishops, or to settle sensitive liturgical questions, without the involvement of the Vatican. Some Eastern-rite churches, such as the Ukrainian Catholic Church, have a greater degree of "sui generis" autonomy.

"The Synod is making efforts to end the differences of opinion on liturgy. But a concrete decision has yet to emerge," Father Jose Porunnedam, the chancellor of the Syro-Malabar synod told CWN on November 17.

Earlier this year-- from January 8 to 16-- a special SMC synod met in Rome, along with Vatican officials. That meeting had called for "improving the spirit of communion among the members of the hierarchy and to further the understanding between the Congregation for the Oriental churches and the Synod of Bishops." However, recent developments show that the differences still persist.

The latest synod was marked by a rare protest march to the synod venue on October 30. Over 1,000 priests, nuns and lay people from the 13 Syro-Malabar dioceses of the southern Kerala state marched behind a banner that proclaimed: "We are not Chaldeans. We are Indians." That demonstration was staged by the Malabar Church Action Council (MCAC) provided a vivid illustration of the tensions within the SMC between those favoring the traditional Syrian or Chaldean liturgy (who count some supporters within the Vatican Curia) and those seeking a more distinctly "Indian" approach. The MCAC announced that it had come to protest the "Chaldeanization attempts by the minority group with the collision of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches" and to demand full autonomy to the church including the right to appoint bishops.

"Through the clandestine manipulations of the Oriental Congregation which wants to keep the (Syro Malabar) Church perpetually under its colonial hegemony, two important portfolios such as the right to take decisions on matters of liturgy and the right to appoint and transfer bishops have been arbitrarily reserved to Rome to this day," alleged the memorandum presented to the synod by MCAC.

"The controversy on liturgy is due to attempts by some to project the 'Thomas Christians' that we are as a Chaldean Church," argues E.K. Paul, MCAC chairman. "Even before the Chaldean connection started in the 4th century, the Thomas Christian church had developed of its own. Due to historical reasons we might have been influenced by it (Chaldean rite). But originally we were an independent church, and not an appendix of the Chaldean church," Paul told CWN.

But Joseph Thazhethupurackal-- who edits and publishes Nazraen, the New Delhi-based journal which supports the pro- Chaldean group-- claims that the Chaldean liturgical ritual now used by the SMC was itself inherited from the times of Saint Thomas the Apostle, who reached Kerala 52 AD. "And so, we have only one liturgical identity. That is of the Chaldean rite. But the problem is majority of bishops and priests are Latinized," Thazhethupurackal complained.

The (anti-Chaldean) Priests Conference of SMC blames an influential bishop in the Indian hierarchy for "approving and propagating the distorted view of the Oriental Congregation that the church in Kerala, which was established in the 1st century, had been under the dominance of the Chaldean church" and even staged a march in open protest in August with over a hundred priests marching in cassocks (SMC priests always wear cassocks in when in public in Kerala).

The majority of church historians presume that the arrival of a Jewish Christian trader from Mesopotamia in the 4th century paved the way for domination by the East Syrians-- better known as Chaldeans-- over the Thomas Christians who had flourished in India and especially in Kerala. While the bishops originally hailing from Persia who arrived here were placed in charge of liturgy, the administration of the church remained under the control of the local archdeacon, who was also the head of the local community. Hence, the Kerala church used the Chaldean liturgy but remained culturally and socially Indian.

However, pro-Chaldean groups dispute this interpretation of history, and say that the arrival of Thomas of Cana with his family was only in the 8th century and that from the time of Saint Thomas the Apostle brought the Christian faith to India, the church here has followed the Chaldean rite.

Amid these arguments and counter arguments, one thing is unchallenged: The SMC remains unique in several ways. Few scholars would debate that the present SMC status is, as a popular expression puts it: "Hindu in culture, Christian in religion and Oriental in worship." The church is known as Syrian for its contact with the East Syrian church and for the Syriac language which was used in church worship until 1968, when the Mass was said for the first time in Malayalam, Kerala's mother tongue.

The SMC is deeply rooted in Indian culture. Since the time of St. Thomas the Apostle, many Hindu practices have been adopted and several Hindu customs are now essential part of Syro-Malabar rite. Marriage and the anointing of the sick--rites associated with birth and death-- post-funeral dinners and the blessing of the house on the seventh or eleventh day after death, all embody Hindu traditions. Even Christian feasts and fasts are undertaken according to local discipline and austerity.

In the 16th century, Portuguese missionaries with the support of an aggressive colonial army converted many Indians, while imposing a Western form of administration on the government and even the Catholic Church. Their efforts eventually provoked a reaction; the Koonan Cross Oath of 1653 was the culmination of resistance against the Portuguese Jesuits, who were found sadly lacking in their little respect for local traditions and practice. The over- zealous missionaries had tried to force western Latin church practices, and had interfered with the church functioning. In place of the Chaldean Persian bishops who had served them for centuries, the Catholics of India now had European bishops-- a practice which continued until late in the 19th century, when the first Syro Malabar vicariate was established in 1896.

While the majority of Indian Catholics were eventually reconciled under the authority of a Jesuit bishop, many left the community permanently. Their departure led eventually to the development of the Syro-Malankara rite, a separate group which re-united with Rome early in the 20th century.

When the Thomas Christians were separated from the Latins by the establishment of their own apostolic vicariate in 1887 and a hierarchy was established in 1923, it was called Syro-Malabar Church. After setting up the SMC hierarchy in 1923, Rome initiated several steps to protect the liturgical patrimony of the SMC, and a pontifical commission was appointed in 1934 to restore the traditions of the Syro-Malabar liturgy.

Through the 1960s there were several changes in the SMC liturgy, and in 1986 another new liturgy was approved in Rome. The new liturgy, intended to bring the SMC more in line with the Chaldean tradition, was introduced in 1986 during a visit by Pope John Paul II. However, a majority of SMC faithful, including bishops, object to this "Chaldeanization." EWTN NEWS FEATURES FOR NOV. 18, 1996


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