The leader of the Syro-Malabar Church (SMC) called for fewer restrictions and more powers for his Oriental-rite Catholic Church as he opened its grand assembly Nov. 2.
Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil of Ernakulam-Angamaly, who heads the Church as its major archbishop, expressed thanks to the Vatican for raising the Church to major archiepiscopal status. But he said the territorial limit on its powers, such as the right to appoint its bishops, must be lifted for the SMC to be fully autonomous.
The Redemptorist cardinal said the current restriction of his authority to Kerala state, the Church´s base in southern India, poses "serious pastoral problems."
The Vatican made the SMC a "sui juris" (self-governing) Church in 1992, but reserved the right to appoint bishops and decide on liturgical and administrative matters. It has eased these restrictions since. Now, the SMC bishop´s synod decides on liturgical and administrative matters. In early January, it received the right to appoint bishops for its dioceses in Kerala.
The cardinal now wants the Vatican to lift the territorial restrictions so his Church can attend to the pastoral care of SMC Catholics outside Kerala. Most of them come under Latin-rite bishops, who follow a different Church law code than that for Oriental Churches, which have a different understanding of territorial jurisdiction.
The Latin and two Oriental rites, the SMC and the smaller Syro-Malankara Church, also based in Kerala, make up the Catholic Church in India. The Latin rite follows Roman liturgy, introduced by European missioners in the 15th century, while the Orientals follow Syrian Church traditions and trace their origins to Saint Thomas the Apostle. The SMC has 3.5 million members.
Cardinal Vithayathil said a sizeable number of missioners in the Latin dioceses in India are from the SMC. "But they are doing missionary work in the Latin Church. One wonders why they are not assigned their own mission territories in their own country," he added.
He asserted the SMC would make "the Church of Christ present in every part of India within a short of period of time" were it allowed to evangelize using its ritual traditions and without territorial restrictions.
Its four-day second archiepiscopal assembly opened with a solemn Mass. The annual synod of SMC bishops will meet after the assembly until Nov. 13.
Attending the assembly are 34 bishops and 377 delegates from all 26 SMC dioceses. They are addressing the theme: "Challenges facing family and education." The closed-door meeting is being held at the Church headquarters in Kochi, Kerala´s commercial capital, 2,595 kilometers south of New Delhi.
Cardinal Vithayathil termed the assembly "the best occasion" for the bishops to listen to the laity. "The laity have the right to give advice to the bishops and they should utilize that right," he told delegates.
The assembly comprising all sections of the SMC is supposed to meet at least once in five years. The first assembly was held six years ago to discuss the Church´s liturgy, administration and mission.
Talking to UCA News after his opening address, the cardinal said his Church wants "more powers from the Vatican to carry out our missionary work across India -- that is a legitimate right and we will continue to press for that."
Bishop Joseph Kunnath of Adilabad, who heads an SMC diocese in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, sees "an urgent need" to create more dioceses in places such as Delhi, where the Oriental Church has a large following.
The Carmelite of Mary Immaculate prelate told UCA News he regretted that SMC Catholics in many places now do not get proper pastoral care. "So it is high time more territorial authority is granted to the Church," he said.
Auxiliary Bishop Sebastian Adayanthrath of Ernakulam-Angamaly, who is coordinating the assembly, said it would take "some crucial decisions" on issues such as pastoral care.
He clarified, however, that the assembly is not meant to solve the territorial issue and other problems facing the Church. "It is an opportunity to measure God´s grace on our Church," he told UCA News.
Bishop George Alencherry of Thuckalay, who prepared a report for the assembly on the issue of pastoral care, said the SMC has been trying to obtain jurisdiction throughout India. "But many hurdles come in the way, either from inside India or from official circles of the universal Church," his report said.
He told UCA News that he expects new SMC dioceses would initially be in Delhi and in Bangalore, a city in Karnataka, Kerala´s northern neighbor.
The SMC is the second-largest of the 22 Oriental-rite Catholic Churches in the world, after the Ukrainian Catholic Church. One SMC diocese is based outside India, in Chicago, the United States.