New diocese signals thaw between rites
But progress remains ambiguous among India's Oriental factions
Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of Faridabad (center) posing for photographs with other prelates after his episcopal ordination
The establishment of a Syro-Malabar Church (SMC) diocese in Delhi Latin rite archdiocesan area is a turning-point in Indian Church history. The SMC, the larger of the two Oriental rites, last weekend erected Faridabad diocese with a Vatican diplomat as its first bishop. The new diocese under Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara came after decades of negotiations with the Vatican to overcome resistance from India’s Latin rite hierarchy. So far, the jurisdiction of the SMC and the other Oriental rite, Syro-Malankara, was restricted to their base in Kerala state in southern India. The rest of the country was solely under the Latin rite, the product of European missionary work that now accounts for 130 of India’s 165 dioceses. The Latin Church has traditionally resisted dioceses of other rites in its territory, saying they would show a divided identity for Catholics. Such opposition basically came from the Roman feudal "thought" that saw diocese as a land area and bishop as the sole authority of all Church powers. The Orientals, on the other hand, view the Church as congregations of people whose spiritual needs should be met while respecting their traditions. The refusal of both groups to understand and accept each other has led to protracted acrimony in India and Rome. The Orientals say the territorial restriction violated the prescriptions of the Second Vatican Council, which upheld the equality of all rites within the Catholic Church. The council also stressed the responsibility of every Christian to evangelize. The main reason for Latin resistance is the differences in liturgy and Church practices. While the Latin rite follows the Roman form of liturgy and uses local languages, the Orientals follow the Syrian form of liturgy mostly in Malayalam, their mother tongue, even in other parts of the country. However, the Oriental diocese sharing Latin rite areas, or Latin dioceses getting established among Oriental Christians, is nothing new in India. It began in the 16th century with the Portuguese setting up Latin dioceses among Kerala’s Oriental Christians, who trace their roots to Saint Thomas the Apostle. Successive batches of Portuguese missioners wanted to "correct" the Kerala Christians' faith practices and spiritual leadership, which triggering a bitter tussle. Violence, litigation and the excommunication of bishops eventually split the monolithic Oriental Church into two in 1653, with one group pledging to have "nothing to do" with Latin missioners. The other group, ancestors of the SMC Catholics, stayed with the Latin Church because of their eagerness to be with the pope of Rome. However, they continued to complain about restrictions from the Latin rite and the Vatican. “The Vatican is doing great injustice to us,” Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, the previous SMC leader, had complained in a recorded interview eight years before his death in 2011. Cardinal Vithayathil's prime concern was his Church's inability to offer spiritual care to its people in Latin rite areas outside Kerala because the Vatican limited his jurisdiction within Kerala, making the southern state his "proper territory." Despite being the major archbishop of a "self-governing" Church to establish dioceses and appoint bishops, he could do nothing of that sort outside Kerala. It is this sense of pain and injustice that is being undone through the establishment of Faridabad diocese. It also indicates a thaw in Oriental-Latin tensions. However, some ambiguities remain. Last month, the SMC Synod announced that the "Vatican has approved" its decision to establish Faridabad diocese for people in and around New Delhi. But some other statements said the "Vatican has established" the diocese. The first would mean the Vatican has recognized the SMC synod's canonical power to set up dioceses according to the needs of its people across the globe. The second would mean restrictions remain, and the SMC major archbishop would have only Kerala as his territory. Faridabad would also encourage the SMC people in other Indian cities to demand similar dioceses. The challenge for all the rites, therefore, is to give a common witness to their faith in a country where Christians form only 2.3 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people.