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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Once Again, Syro-Malabar Yogam

A maturing church, reaching back to its ancient roots meets to address its present-day challenges.

Last November, 353 Syro-Malabar Catholics gathered at Mt. St. Thomas in Kerala, India, for an event that has not occurred in centuries. This gathering, a “Major Archiepiscopal Assembly,” included archbishops, bishops, priests, religious and members of the laity – all representatives of the Syro-Malabar Catholic community, an autonomous (sui iuris) Eastern Church in full communion with the Church of Rome.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which today numbers 3.5 million faithful, traces its origins to the Apostle Thomas, who arrived on the shores of southern India, founded seven churches and died a martyr death in 72 A.D.

Over time, those who embraced the Gospel preached by Thomas became known as Thomas Christians. Eventually this Christian community, who maintained communion with the Universal Church, established jurisdictional links with the Persian Church, which was East Syrian in its rites, traditions and disciplines. The Catholicos-Patriarch of this church sent bishops to the Thomas Christians, led by a metropolitan archbishop who held the title of Metropolitan of all India. These bishops administered the Thomas Christians in accord with East Syrian disciplines and celebrated the sacred mysteries, including the Qurbana, or Eucharistic liturgy, according to East Syrian traditions.

After the European powers began to colonize India in the 16th century, the ancient bonds uniting the Persian and Thomas churches were severed. The Portuguese authorities, and later the Holy See, doubting the Thomas Christian Catholicity, appointed Latin bishops to govern them. Over time, many Thomas Christians left the community and sought communion with the Syrian Orthodox or Protestant churches, thus dividing the apostolic Thomas Christian community.

At the end of the 19th century, the Holy See began a process of restoring a native hierarchy for this “Syro-Malabar Catholic” Church, yet it lacked a major archbishop. In 1992 Pope John Paul II, recognizing this need, appointed Antony Cardinal Padiyara, Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, as Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Many thought this appointment might heal the wounds dividing the Syro-Malabar community.

For decades, debate had raged within the church over the form of the Eucharistic liturgy to be restored in place of the Westernized liturgy imposed by the Latin bishops in 1599. One group advocated the complete restoration of the pre-16th century East Syrian Qurbana. A second desired a restoration of this liturgy but with certain adaptations to meet the needs of the region modern Christian community. Questions of adequate pastoral assistance for Syro-Malabar migrants – particularly in other regions of India – and concerns for the changing political and social scenario in India concerned all Syro-Malabar Catholics.

Since ancient times, the yogam, an assembly of Syro-Malabar clergy and laity, gathered to tackle issues such as these affecting the community. Even during the colonial period, when Portuguese bishops convened synods among Thomas Christians, the laity participated. This institution existed without parallels in either the Eastern or Western Christian traditions. There, different “synodal” models existed, but participants included bishops almost exclusively.

In 1990, the Holy See promulgation of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches established the structure of a major archiepiscopal assembly and its role for each Eastern Catholic Church governed by a major archbishop. The code defines this assembly as a consultative body made up of elected members representing the entire church. With the major archbishop as president, the assembly assists him and the synod of bishops in dealing with questions of major importance, such as church discipline, liturgy and apostolic mission.

In this spirit, 60 representatives from various Syro-Malabar Catholic dioceses and religious congregations met on 6 March 1998 to discuss plans for the first assembly in centuries of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. A working paper for the assembly, “The Syro-Malabar Church Towards the Third Millennium – Mission and Witness,” was prepared and distributed to the Syro-Malabar faithful with a pastoral letter from the church leader, Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, C.S.S.R., Apostolic Administrator. Mar Varkey exhorted the faithful to study the paper, pray over it and convey their comments to him for discussion. It is interesting to note that more than 2,000 responses were received and most expressed love and concern for the church. A refined working paper was then prepared and sent to those participants elected to attend the assembly.

All Syro-Malabar bishops, superiors general of institutes of consecrated life, rectors, deans of seminaries and faculties are ex-officio members of the assembly. The majority of participants in November assembly, however, were elected representatives from each diocese.

Priestly representatives were elected by diocesan priest councils according to the percentage of priests in each diocese. Similarly, the lay delegates, with a minimum of two and a maximum of 10 from each diocese, were elected from the pastoral council. Religious sisters and brothers also elected delegates. The nominated members of the assembly were drawn primarily from those Syro-Malabar communities of the diaspora, both in other regions of India and abroad. Of the 353 participants, there were 25 bishops, 26 vicars general, 51 superiors general of institutes of consecrated life, 15 rectors and deans of ecclesiastical faculties and seminaries, 6 experts, 58 priests, 58 delegate religious, 80 laymen and 34 laywomen.

Mar Varkey Vithayathil inaugurated the assembly on 9 November 1998 with a Eucharistic liturgy. In his inaugural address, the Apostolic Administrator acknowledged the challenges confronting the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church today, especially the climate of divisiveness within the church and anti-Christian attitudes from without. Mar Varkey called for church unity as the prime aim of the assembly:

“In this assembly great importance [will be] given to group discussions. Persons from different dioceses with different views have come…. This is a platform for mutual understanding and discussions. We have to listen to each other with respect and reverence. Truth is not exclusive to any of us.”

Heeding the wisdom of Mar Varkey, the work of the assembly began. The assembly first addressed the basic vision of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church as outlined in the working paper. Since much of the discussion centered on the church liturgical disputes and the lack of discipline that caused these disputes, great stress was placed on the role of liturgy. The assembly then discussed pastoral issues such as the care of the faithful, discipline, evangelization, catechesis, spirituality, ecumenism and ecclesiastical institutions and activities, especially work for the poor. Finally, the assembly discussed the “church and the world,” concentrating on the themes of family, political and economic policies, media and interreligious dialogue.

Divided into 15 groups, this first assembly spent most of its time in discussion and reporting. After much deliberation, the assembly passed a common declaration and submitted some suggestions to the Synod of Bishops:

1. The assembly expressed its wish for the celebration of a uniform Eucharistic liturgy throughout the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. The three methods in use – namely, priest facing the people, priest facing the altar and priest facing the people during the liturgy of the word and facing the altar during the liturgy of the bread – may be permitted. A Liturgical Research Center shall be erected at the Major Archiepiscopal Curia.

2. The assembly exhorted clergy, religious and laity to exercise self-discipline in their disagreements and to respect church order and authority.

3. Since the Syro-Malabar migrants in India and abroad are not often given necessary pastoral care in their own tradition, immediate steps will be taken to erect parishes and dioceses for them. The proper territory of the Syro-Malabar Church is to be extended to all of India. There shall be a Mission Center at the curia to promote and coordinate missionary activities.

4. The assembly was concerned about threats to Christian family life. It hopes to foster the system of “Family Units,” and to strive for better relationships between priests and laity. The assembly also suggested how to prepare a common text for catechism. And while they praised the Charismatic movement they cautioned against errors that may creep into such movements.

5. The assembly reiterated the church commitment to people working in the social, cultural and educational fields. It was also suggested that a center be erected for the dalit or “primitive” classes of Christians in India and envisioned a central system monitoring the church preferential option for the poor. The assembly also expressed its hopes that the church will become more involved in the media and explore opportunities in television.

The Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is actively considering the suggestions of the assembly; it is up to the synod to translate these suggestions into binding decisions.

The outcome of this first Major Archiepiscopal Assembly was positive. After evaluating the assembly, one may say that it sought closer ecclesial integration and collaboration within the Syro-Malabar Church. The introductory words of the common declaration of the assembly describe its outcome:

“We entered the church assembly with great anxiety over the problems that beset our church life…as we depart [with a new sense of] unity, reconciliation and greater communion, we are certain that this assembly will produce its good fruits. We hope the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church will proceed toward the third millennium with a stronger conviction of its mission.”

Father Thazhath is President of the Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Tribunal.

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