Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal George Alencherry (center), announcing the papal decision in a webcaste from Rome. Beside him are Bishop Bosco Puthur of the Syro-Malabar diocese of Melbourne (left) and Bishop Stephen Chirappanath, Apostolic Visitator of Syro-Malabar Church in Europe (right). (Photo supplied)
In a historic move, Pope Francis has extended the administrative powers of the Syro-Malabar Church across India, removing restrictions imposed since the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century.
Announcing the establishment of two new dioceses for the Eastern-rite church in an Oct. 9 letter to all India bishops, Pope Francis also authorized it to have pastoral powers across India, a move resisted by the majority Latin-rite bishops in the past.
"With this, the church gets the freedom and rights for pastoral care of its faithful anywhere in India and to engage in evangelization activities across the nation," Cardinal George Alencherry, the Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar, said while announcing the papal decision.
The church of roughly 4 million Catholics based in the southern India Kerala state, will exercise these newly gained rights in unity with India's larger Latin-rite Church, and the smaller Eastern-rite Syro-Malankar Church, the cardinal said in a webcast from Rome.
Two new Eastern-rite dioceses in India's south — Shamshabad in Telangana state and Hosur in Tamil Nadu — were also announced.
The new diocese of Shamshabad covers all areas of India outside the existing Syro-Malabar dioceses, Cardinal Alencherry explained.
"This is a historic move," said Father Paul Thelakat, a senior priest of the church and its former spokesperson. "It removes administrative restrictions imposed on the church by Portuguese missionaries since the 16th century."
The church traces its faith back to St. Thomas the Apostle, who according to tradition evangelized the west Indian coast and maintained relations with churches in Syria. But Portuguese missionaries later "latinized" these Christians and restricted their activities to the Kerala region, Father Thelakat explained.
Emboldened by the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which stressed the freedom and responsibility of Eastern-rite churches, the Kerala-based church’s clergy began working in several places outside Kerala. They often faced resistance from Latin-rite bishops.
Latin-rite bishops, who head 132 of India's 180 dioceses, maintained that establishing Eastern-rite parishes and dioceses in their territory would confuse Hindus in northern India who would interpret it as division among Catholics.
However, Pope Francis said in his letter that "overlapping jurisdictions should no longer be problematic, for the church has experienced them for some time, such as in Kerala."
Pope Francis said in a world where "large numbers of Christians are forced to migrate, overlapping jurisdictions have become customary and are increasingly effective tools for ensuring the pastoral care."
The letter added that the smaller Eastern-rite Syro-Malankara church already had provisions to provide "pastoral care for its faithful throughout the territory of India."
Syro-Malankara Church spokesperson Father Bovas Mathew told ucanews.com that the papal letter is a "milestone" in the mission history of India and had established beyond doubt the Eastern-rite churches right to evangelize.
With the additions, the Syro-Malabar Church has 34 dioceses in total, while the Syro-Malankara has 14 dioceses.
The papal announcement, made at the plenary of the heads of Eastern Churches, comes on the silver jubilee of Syro-Malabar Church becoming sui juris, or self-governing, in 1992. The church was given powers to decide on its liturgy and administration, including the election of bishops and establishment of dioceses.
Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, which covers all three rites, said the papal letter stressed the unity bishops needed to show.
"The bishops are of course happy because it is all done for the growth and mission of the church," said Bishop Mascarenhas.