SYRO-MALABAR RITE DEBATES LITURGICAL PATRIMONY
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
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
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,"
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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