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ELEVATING SYRO-MALABAR CHURCH ADDS TO RITE PROBLEMS

Updated: August 08, 1993 05:00 PM GMT
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Father S. Arulsamy is the deputy secretary general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India-Latin Rite. The Aug. 6 issue of ASIA FOCUS carried a commentary by Father Arulsamy on recent developments in India´s multirite Catholic Church.

Raising the Syro-Malabar Church to archiepiscopate status in January also raises several questions for the Catholic Church in India.

India has three rites -- Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara. The Oriental Churches -- Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara -- trace their origin to Saint Thomas the Apostle, but their present form of liturgy, spirituality and theology is similar to the East Syrian and Antiochian liturgical families.

The Latin Church began with Western missioners in the 13th century and especially the Portuguese, who came in the 16th century.

Despite ancient roots, no authentic Indian Catholic Church has emerged. The three rites remained replicas of the Chaldean, Antiochian and Roman Churches.

An authentic Church can emerge only if free and healthy interaction exists between the word of God preached and the human community that receives it. This community then should be allowed to objectify its experience in cultural mores.

This basic principle should not be forgotten when preservation of the rites´ heritages is discussed.

A milestone in the history of the Indian Church was reached when the three rites formed the Catholic Bishops´ Conference of India (CBCI) in 1944 with individual bishops as members.

Over the years, though, the Oriental bishops seemed to grow dissatisfied with this setup. They realized that the Latin bishops´ majority in CBCI prevented their election to high offices. They began demanding separate conferences as provided in the decrees on Eastern Churches and bishops.

Further, the Oriental bishops insisted that the CBCI should be a conference of individual Churches and not of individual bishops.

After almost a decade of representations and counter-representations to the Holy See, the pope´s apostolic letter to the Indian hierarchy dated May 27, 1988, gave the following directive: "The bishops of each of the three rites have the right to establish their own episcopal bodies in accordance with their own ecclesiastical legislation."

The letter also directed the national conference to continue "for questions of common concern and of national and supra-ritual character."

After all of this, relations between the episcopal bodies and the CBCI and among the episcopal bodies themselves have become rather ambiguous.

If every episcopal body is to function according to its ecclesiastical legislation, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India-Latin Rite alone can be called a "national" conference, while the Oriental Churches have their own structure according to the Oriental Code of Canon Law -- the synod of bishops.

India now witnesses an anomalous situation. The CBCI is governed neither by the Latin code nor by the Oriental code.

While the Oriental Churches are busy establishing an autonomous character for their Churches, they have also opened educational, healthcare and other institutions within the Latin rite dioceses, taking recourse to the papal directive that "all the Churches under the pastoral governance of the Roman Pontiff have the same rights and obligations, including what concerns the preaching of the Gospel."

These institutions are mainly in towns and metropolitan cities which are not in urgent need of them. In some cases, these institutions are opened without permission or even knowledge of local bishops.

The Church in India now has 99 Latin, 21 Syro-Malabar and three Syro- Malankara dioceses. Among the Syro-Malabar dioceses, nine are outside the southern state of Kerala -- the Church´s base.

This reality cannot be done away with overnight. The three rites should respect this reality and seek ways to safeguard and realize each one´s rights. This is how the Latin rite bishops interpret the pope´s letter.

But the Oriental Churches seem to understand that the papal letter gives them automatic permission to move into any part of the country without any consultation whatsoever with the other Church, which is already present there.

Instead of a spirit of collaboration and mutual understanding, many activities are taking place on the part of the Oriental Churches which not only vitiate the image of true evangelization, but also confuse the faithful.

The Churches´ right to preach the Gospel is used to legitimize expansion of Church structures all over India. The equal rights of all the three individual Churches are understood in terms of quantity.

There seems to be a hidden agenda of partitioning India in proportion to the personnel of individual Churches. This is causing anxiety and misunderstanding among bishops, clergy and faithful of the Latin rite.

The Syro-Malabar Church´s elevation has given it structural recognition. But the Church is restricted to its two metropolitan provinces within Kerala -- Ernakulam and Changanacherry.

A clarification on this restriction is needed. What is the practical consequence of this restriction? Can the Syro-Malabar Church still continue to open institutions within the Latin rite dioceses without prior permission?

Though Syro-Malabar Church reactions to this restriction are not publicized, its unhappiness is evident from the number of memoranda sent to the Holy See to reconsider its decision.

I am reminded of what liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez said about evangelization of Latin America in the 16th century: "It is not the zeal for the souls that brought Columbus to Latin America but the zeal to annex one more territory for the crown."

Whatever the beautiful theological arguments and official documents quoted, the underpinning reason for this problem of rites in India is nothing but a power struggle.

It is not a problem of the faithful, who form the bulk of the Church, but of the clergy, Religious and the hierarchy.

END

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