COCHIN, India (CNS) — Church leaders mourned the death of Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
The cardinal, who headed the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, collapsed while celebrating Mass April 1 and was rushed to a nearby hospital, where he died, reported the Asian church news agency UCA News. The 84-year-old prelate had suffered from heart problems.
His funeral was scheduled for after April 10 because most Syro-Malabar bishops were in Rome for their “ad limina” visits, in which they report on the status of their dioceses.
Auxiliary Bishop Bosco Puthur of Ernakulam-Angamaly will take over as administrator of the Syro-Malabar Church and must convene a synod, which will elect a new major archbishop.
Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram to express his condolences and recalled “the cardinal’s dedication and service to the Syro-Malabars and to the universal church.”
Mumbai Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, praised Cardinal Vithayathil as a “great missionary and exemplary priest, who contributed a lot for the growth of the church in India and the Syro-Malabar Church.”
“He was a man of deep faith who was loyal to the church. He worked strenuously for the good of the church even in his illness,” said Cardinal Gracias. He also was “an effective administrator who took bold decisions for the good of the church in India.”
Archbishop Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal of Trivandrum, head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, said Cardinal Vithayathil worked to unify India’s three ritual churches.
The deceased cardinal provided “a mature leadership to the Indian church when he was president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, 2008-2010, the archbishop said. The cardinal also played an active role in public issues of Kerala state.
The Syro-Malabar Church, an Eastern Catholic Church, traces its origin to St. Thomas the Apostle. The Vatican made the Syro-Malabar Church self-governing in 1992, but retained the right to decide on administrative matters for Syro-Malabar dioceses outside Kerala.
The late cardinal was ordained major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church in 1997, when the Eastern church was divided over its liturgical patrimony and the bishops were divided into two camps.
In 2006, the cardinal reiterated his call for more rights for Syro-Malabar Catholics. He said thousands of Syro-Malabar Catholics who live outside their church jurisdictions “have no parish, church or institutions” and have followed “the Latin traditions for more than 50 years.”
Cardinal Vithayathil was ordained a Redemptorist priest in 1954. He taught for 25 years at the Redemptorist seminary and several other seminaries in Bangalore.
He was elected provincial of Redemptorists in India and Sri Lanka in 1978, a post he held for six years. He was also president of the Conference of Religious India, the national body of India’s religious major superiors.
Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2001.
His death leaves the College of Cardinals with 200 members, 116 of whom are under 80.
Of India’s more than 1 billion people, 2.3 percent are Christian and about 1.6 percent are Catholic. The Catholic Church has 161 dioceses in India; 128 of them are Latin rite, 27 belong to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and six dioceses belong to the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.