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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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The Right of Rites

Christians in India continue to strengthen and support their growing churches.

St. Thomas the Apostle was quite a traveler. According to tradition, the doubting apostle brought the Gospel to ancient Mesopotamia and then to Malabar, on the southwestern coast of India, where he was martyred in 72 A.D.

Indians still credit Thomas for their evangelization. Historians know with certainty that Christianity was firmly established by Nestorian missionaries from eastern Syria by the fourth century.

For hundreds of years, these Christians, known as Thomists, have experienced periods of schism and reunion. And since Vatican II, distinctions among India’s Catholics – Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin – have resurfaced.

On the outside, debates appear to involve manners of worship. There is more at stake than ritual. For Eastern Catholics, it has become a question of identity.

Until the 15th century, Thomist Christians were isolated from the churches of Constantinople and Rome. But their contacts with the Assyrian Church of the East, based in Mesopotamia, were extensive. This great missionary church, which at its height in the 13th century spread from eastern Syria through India and China, supplied its Indian faithful with monasteries, schools, priests and bishops. These priests celebrated the liturgy as developed by the Jewish-Christian community in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia.

In the 15th century the monarchs of Portugal and Spain commissioned seamen to explore India and China for gold, jewels, silks and spices. When Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498, he found for his Portuguese king not only those prizes, but a Christian community unlike that of his own liturgical practice. Soon a Latin-rite hierarchy was established to minister to the swelling number of Portuguese merchants. The Portuguese hierarchy then turned its attention to the indigenous Christians.

In 1599, the Portuguese summoned the Council of Diampur. Heavily influenced by the reforms of the Council of Trent, the council replaced the ancient Syrian and distinctly Indian traditions of the Syro-Malabar Church with Latin rites. With the replacement of the native hierarchy the church’s ties with the Assyrian Church of the East were severed.

Those Malabar Christians who did not agree with these reforms aligned themselves with the Syrian Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, whose church originally opposed the Assyrian Church of the East’s “Nestorian” christology. Segments of this church later accepted papal jurisdiction in the early 20th century and formed the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Two-thirds of India’s Eastern Catholics live on the southwest coast, with the heaviest concentration in the state of Kerala. Today, many are migrating to the larger cities of the north in search of better job opportunities. Once there, these migrants must cope with different values and social structures.

In a recent visit to our Association’s New York offices, Bishop George Valiamattam, the Malabarese Bishop of Tellicherryin Kerala discussed the need to teach the basics to those families that migrate and adopt the increasingly western-influenced cultures of the cities.

“Mothers work in the larger cities, so now the media forms our children,” said Bishop Valiamattam, who as a priest worked as a catechist. “The church must instill Christian values first, then build our structures. This is an acute need.”

India’s Episcopal Conference opposed the erection of Eastern Catholic dioceses in the north, as requested by the nation’s Eastern Catholic clergy. Such dioceses would bolster Eastern Catholic parishes which seek to provide the migrant with intellectual, spiritual and emotional support needed to sustain him in his new environment.

Until 1988, Eastern Catholic priests who worked in Latin-rite parishes with Eastern Catholics were required to celebrate the sacraments according to the Latin-rite. Eastern Catholic priests were also prevented from becoming pastors of the newly established Syro-Malabar and SyroMalankara communities. Thus the Eastern Catholic clergy were unable to meet the “acute needs” of their congregations.

The Latin-rite hierarchy argued that such restrictions were a must to avoid the duplication of dioceses – that the Eastern churches are ethnic, legitimate only for their communities in the state of Kerala – and that the challenge for India’s Church, regardless of rite, is to rid itself of its excessive western externals and to Indianize. Some of these efforts of inculturation include the use of Hindu gestures and rituals in the liturgy and the adoption of Hindu religious garb.

Meanwhile, the Syro-Malabarese boast dramatic increases in converts and aspirants to religious life. More than 70 percent of Indian missionaries are SyroMalabarese. Whole dioceses have been entrusted to Syro-Malabarese religious orders, such as the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate. The number of adherents has increased remarkably, from 170,000 in the late 19th century to more than three million at present. Dioceses have been formed from existing dioceses and then split again.

Since Vatican II, Eastern Catholics of all rites – Armenian, Byzantine, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara – have initiated programs of internal form. Liturgical controversies are exacerbated by dissension within the ranks of those communities.

Such calls for renewal include a return to the ancient traditions of each church and the elimination of practices such as Benediction and Stations of the Cross, which are not part of the Syriac tradition. Eucharist in many Eastern churches, for example, is first given at baptism, along with confirmation (chrismation).

In India, this means overruling the Council of Diampur, which eliminated the Indian church’s distinct practices. Unlike other Eastern Catholic churches which retained most of their respective traditions, India’s Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches were heavily Latinized. Most traditions were lost, including the form of the divine liturgy, the Qurbana, the ancient Syriac liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church. In its original form, for example, the bread and wine offered at the liturgy were prepared on the same day as the celebration.

While most of India’s Eastern Catholics have embraced renewal, some oppose it. A few bishops have resisted efforts to reintroduce the original Qurbana. Pope John Paul II himself used the Qurbana during a visit to India in February 1988. This provoked what some called a “liturgical crisis.” In July 1989, the Congregation of the Eastern Churches promulgated a final revision of the Qurbana which many hope will heal the wounds of discord.

Last August, India’s 24 Eastern Catholic bishops held their ad limina visit with the pope. During the visit, John Paul approved the erection of Eastern Catholic dioceses in Calcutta, Delhi and Madras, thus blessing the growth and expansion of Eastern Indian Christianity.

The story does not end here. Regardless of internal discord, the Catholic Church in India – Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara – is growing by leaps and bounds. Notwithstanding its ancient foundation by St. Thomas and his Mesopotamian followers, India’s church is in many respects a young church. And while Christians make up only two and a half percent of India’s largely Hindu population, that percentage translates to about 18 million people. The Indian Church is certainly a substantial one.

More significant than the right of rites, India sees more secularism, perhaps materialism as well. These new values, imported from the West, affect not only Christians, but Hindus and Muslims as well. Religious fundamentalism, often a reaction to threatened cultural and religious foundations, may affect ecumenical and inter-religious relations in India.

Bishop Valiamattam sees that and strives to build a vision for the future with a view to the present and the past.

“We are watching,” he said. “We will learn about what happened in the West by watching the West.”

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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