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India's Syro-Malabar Church dispute: Who will blink first?

The strife taking place is a call to action for ordinary Catholics and Church leaders across the country
Priests of Ernakulam-Angalamy archdiocese face the congregation on Aug. 15, defying their Syro-Malabar Church synod's order to turn to the alter during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass

Priests of Ernakulam-Angalamy archdiocese face the congregation on Aug. 15, defying their Syro-Malabar Church synod's order to turn to the alter during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass. (photo: supplied)

Published: August 22, 2023 04:41 AM GMT
Updated: August 22, 2023 07:26 AM GMT

The ongoing conflict within the Syro-Malabar Church over the celebration of Mass, coupled with its regrettable political spillover, demands the sincere attention of the entire Indian Church.

This is a pressing concern that requires immediate action from both ordinary Catholics and leaders of the Church across India.

It is imperative that the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) and the three ritual conferences recognize their responsibility in this matter and actively contribute to resolving the current turbulence and extreme polarization. 

To pave the way for a resolution to this intricate situation, it is essential to address several underlying issues. "The people of our time prize freedom very highly and strive eagerly for it," said Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II (no. 17). The significance of human freedom, as acknowledged by Vatican II, holds relevance not only in the secular realm but also within the Church.

Catholics, who enjoy the freedom inherent to being children of God, understand the value of the "freedom for which Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). While there is valid concern about preserving the identity of the Oriental rites, it is crucial to avoid stifling freedom.

In a casteist Indian society, we understand how curtailing freedom has been used throughout history to maintain inner-caste identity and cohesion. Any non-conformity invited punishment and excommunication from one’s caste.

There are numerous ways other than liturgy to preserve ecclesial tradition and identity. Liturgical minutiae and uniformity are not a matter of life and death or an issue seriously affecting the faith of the people of God or the substance of the Eucharist.

That leads us to consider another vital principle enunciated by Vatican II; a hierarchy of truths to which Pope Francis often refers. What Vatican II says in the context of ecumenism also applies to other ecclesial life areas.

The hierarchy of truths means that not all truths of faith and practices are of the same value and this has consequences for relationships. When matters of the liturgy are treated as if they were equal to Trinitarian dogmas of the Council of Nicea, or Christological dogmas of Chalcedon, then it is a clear sign of a lopsided approach to Christian faith and worship. We must examine whether one has ignored this vital principle in the heat and passion of the controversy.

The Oriental rites in India should feel fortunate to be sui juris (self-governing) through canonical provision, a synodal structure for governance, which gives sufficient autonomy to the local churches. Regrettably, this is something absent in the Latin Church.

"The bishops seem to decide for the entire Church without regard to the voices of the laity and the clergy"

On another note, it is essential to assess the actual functioning of the synodal structure within the Oriental rites.

Pope Francis’ vision of the synod is a move away from a restricted understanding of the synod as a synod of bishops to the synod of the Church, in which the voice of Catholics will be heard and represented.

It is time, perhaps, to critically study what has become of the oriental synods of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches. We need to examine whether, contrary to the purpose of the synod to foster greater communion, dialogue and understanding, it has turned out to be a new weapon to enforce the authority of the hierarchy.

The synod as it functions today may not be idealized because here, the bishops seem to decide for the entire Church without regard to the voices of the laity and the clergy.

We are in critical times in the country with significant issues affecting the Christian minority community. We know from experience the havoc fascist ideology of uniformity could wreak. Should not the Church become countercultural and be an oasis of diversity and plurality, respectful of the many voices? It is a truism that any ideal of unity cannot be realized by steamrolling differences to create uniformity.

The mission should precede ritual traditions, some of which could be simply dead habits. The Church is not a well-preserved tomb of traditions but a creation of the Spirit who continues to renew and energize it and move it toward the future. The critical condition in the country calls for concerted efforts by all to be committed to a joint mission moving beyond ritual considerations.

Precisely for this reason, at one time, there was a proposal of having one single Indian rite, and it found a great supporter in the late Cardinal Joseph Parecattil, the first cardinal of the Syro-Malabar rite. The idea was to inculturate faith in the context of Indian culture and tradition and not depend on a borrowed identity from Rome, Syria or Chaldea.

Further, we need to reflect on the principle of diversity and plurality in the Church.

As an advisor to the CBCI on inter-ritual matters in the 1980s, I could personally witness how passionately the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara bishops argued on the need for diversity in the Indian Church represented by three ritual churches, leading eventually to the formation of respective ritual bishop's conferences.

Now, diversity should find a place also in the internal life and governance of the ritual churches. The difference in perceptions about liturgical matters and the Qurbana to be celebrated in different variants could express inner-ritual diversity. The celebration of the Eucharist facing the people could be taken as a liturgical variant within the Syro-Malabar tradition.

"Placing exclusive reliance on the established channels of communication within the Church comes with inherent restrictions"

After all, the Church does not intend to impose uniformity, a point driven home by the entire corpus of Vatican II teaching. The temptation of all administrators is to impose uniformity. Like an army commandant who feels secure when all the soldiers are in uniform, one cannot impose uniformity in the Church. The militia model does not apply in the Church.

One may wonder how the Syro-Malabar identity is lost when the freedom for a plurality of celebration in the same rite is allowed. Will it not be an expression of inculturation, given the difference in the tradition and mindset and practices within the same ritual tradition?

There can be a fear of Latinization of the Oriental rites, which could be a reason for imposing uniformity. If that is an argument, then I think the Oriental rites are obliged to consider whether Oriental prelates accepting to be cardinals is not an issue of even more Latinization. After all, technically, the cardinals are the clergy of the Western Patriarchate of Rome. Is it, not an anomaly? It would set an inspiring example if, in future, the oriental eparchs decline cardinalate and stick to their oriental traditions.

The intense dispute highlights another crucial concern within the Church. Placing exclusive reliance on the established channels of communication within the Church comes with inherent restrictions. The presentation of matters can be influenced and tainted by biases.

To counteract these risks and counterbalance the benefits of official communication, it is imperative that at the highest echelons — the Vatican, the curial offices, and the pope himself — there is active cultivation and promotion of unofficial avenues and structures of communication so that not only the voice of pastors are listened to for making decisions, but the voice of the people of God in the local Churches are heard and acted upon.

Further, greater clarity on the role of the papal delegate is called for. Is his role to enforce with papal authority the already made decisions of the Sryo-Malabar Church? Or, is he commissioned to play the role of a mediator in a complex, conflicting, confusing and emotionally charged situation, appealing for dialogue, listening to different voices, discerning and moving towards resolving the problem, which could take more time and patience?

We live in changing times, which affects the Church. A culture of ruling by diktat and threatening with punishment are feudal ways that do not behoove the Church, and indeed in these times of greater awareness and knowledge among the people. If the weight of the authority is imposed and stretched too far, then the consequence is a break.

We know from history how the short-sighted policy of wanting to impose the Latin model since the Synod of Diamper (1599) led to the Coonan Cross Oath (1653) by a dissenting group of Christians. Are we living through a situation of a second Coonan Cross? I hope wisdom will prevail and a solution through dialogue will be found.

In any case, the present controversy should not turn out to be simply a matter of power struggle and prestige. Communion in the Church and its mission in the country is more important than an issue of prestige; who will blink first?

The strife within the Syro-Malabar Church is a call to action for the entire Indian Church. It beckons us to uphold freedom, embrace diversity, and prioritize dialogue. Let us remember that our shared faith and mission are paramount, requiring us to transcend inner-ritual disputes, work towards harmonious solutions, and commit ourselves to a joint mission in these critical times.

* Father Felix Wilfred is a Catholic theologian based in Chennai, India. He has been a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission and a visiting professor at several international universities. A former secretary of the theological advisory committee of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC), the 75-year-old priest was also president of the International Theological Review Concilium published in seven European language editions. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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7 Comments on this Story
Keep the Faith of St. Thomas and do not follow all the nonsense coming out of the Vatican which lost the Faith. The Vatican crowd is a total antithesis of Catholic Faith, they love all what is evil and rejoice in it. Apage Satanas!
I endorse every word of the writer and his dispassionate and objective presentation. Prelates blinded by power cannot blink. A Commission of bishops, clergy and laity from all the three rites should be constituted to study the issue. Till then the status quo ante should be maintained. There is absolutely no reason for the Vatican to invoke threats of ex-communication.
Ironically, the vestments worn are purely Roman! Nothing Syrian or Malabari about it. HYPOCRISY of the highest order.
You are not obeying Pope Francis , or they always “ this is ordered by Pope Francis ! Okay Why synod is not able to do restitution ordered by Pope Francis ? Why Syromalabar is not washing the feet of Ladies as Pope Francis said ? Why viboothi thinkal & vinoothi buthan? Why Syromalabar is removing crucifix and replacing with “ Clavar cross “. Why Curtain in Syromalabar? Why Holy Eucharist which always in the center of Altar was removed from There and move to side in Syromalabar? Do Syromalabar don’t believe in holy Eucharist ? Why the so called SyromalabarPriests goes to other countries and celebrate the nullified People Facing Mass ? Let the synod call back all the Priest who work in Latin diocese first Why a Criminal Cardinal Alencherry who is facing 13 criminal charges related to Land scandal, money laundering is still the head of Syromalabar Church? Let him confess all his grave sins
And what is the dispute? The only thing that Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese does not accept is the proposal that the priest should stand for ten minutes during the mass. That is, there is no difference in the prayer uttered in the Mass, the faithful do not experience any change in this, the only difference is that the priest who recites the Mass does not stand back for a while. We are opposed to the efforts of raising this as a major disciplinary issue and trying to cover up the big corruption mentioned earlier. The answer to why this problem does not exist in other dioceses is that this corruption, looting and injustice happened only in Ernakulam and we will not forget it. In other words, the believers here know that the current mass controversy is not a matter of faith, it was deliberately created to hide the corruption of the elite. From the fact that not even five percent of the five lakh believers here or even 10 of the 450 priests do not oppose the Ernakulam Diocese's position in this matter, let the common people know what is true and we will not let those who have been involved in such obvious corruption and looting go free. Lies cannot destroy the truth. He who is not ready to point out and correct the error is not a disciple of Jesus. Cowards don't need a stand. I am a Christian. I have to have a stand. This is my position.
Thank you dear Fr. Felix Wilfred WAWA for this balanced view.i wish the bishops listen to this. The country is facing survival issues and the synod and bishops are playing the violin when the country is burning.
Excommunication and split threats for such a trivial issue?
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