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Christ, Rite, and Universality

This tension between the universal and the parochial has affected the Catholic Church in India too. The territorial expansion of the Syro-Malabar Rite outside Kerala has brought this tension to the fore.

Christ, Rite, and Universality

By Joe Palathunkal
The Church of Jesus Christ is neither Latin nor Greek nor Slav, but Catholic; accordingly, she makes no difference between her children, and Greeks, Latins, Slavs and members of all other nations are equal in the eyes of the Apostolic See.” - Pope Benedict XV in 1917

Today while the global is expanding rapidly, the local is on a drastic course of assertion. The conflict between the universal and the parochial is palpable all over the world but that is too evident in a country like India that houses nearly 5000 ethnic communities.

This tension between the universal and the parochial has affected the Catholic Church in India too. The territorial expansion of the Syro-Malabar Rite outside Kerala has brought this tension to the fore among the Malayalee Catholics living outside Kerala, in different parts of India as well as the world. The 'Abba experience' of Jesus and his assertion to the Samaritan woman that in future, true worshippers will worship only in Spirit and truth was also a clear indication of this universality.

The Syro-Malabar Catholics were peacefully living with the Catholic bishops of the respective regions and dioceses and their pastoral needs were being taken care of by them in the local way. People had accepted that situation as a normal one by accepting the language and liturgy of the place where they lived and when they went back to Kerala they followed their original rite as followed by their fore- parents.

When Syro-Malabar church wanted to establish its own dioceses in Diaspora with all the physical structures, trouble started because for such structures money was essential which they began to collect or some cases extort from the Catholics living there, and this brought tensions because people were getting their pastoral care through the existing structures without paying anything.

One reason for this trend of expansion is the wrong understanding and interpretation of ‘rite’ itself. According to theologian Fr. Edward McNamara, “Rite is the liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary heritage, distinguished according to people’s culture and historical circumstances, that finds expression in each autonomous church’s way of living the faith.”

For the Holy See any church anywhere in the world is autonomous but it is united with the Chair of Peter in Rome like the branches are united with the vine, and that is the analogy Jesus himself has given us – he is the vine and we are the branches.

Individual churches cannot survive without being united to the vine the Catholic Church. In India the problem arose when the votaries of the Syro-Malabar tradition interpreted the rite as a church which it is not but it is only a way of expressing the Catholic faith, a way of worship or liturgy.

According to the Catholic understanding church is a communion of people who trace their foundation to the rock of Peter and ‘rite’ is merely their spiritual and cultural heritage or way of liturgical worship. In fact, Syro-Malabar is merely a liturgical family.

There are six of them: Latin, Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian, Chaldean, Constantinopolitan (Byzantine); Syro-Malabar tradition belongs to the Chaldean liturgical family. So calling it a different church is a misnomer, at the most we can call it a different Catholic tradition and that will not create fissures in the universality of the Catholic Church or an opposition like the “Coonan Cross Oath” of the 17th century.

Assertion and expansion of the Syro-Malabar tradition gets bolstered by the fact of colonialism which India was subjected to by the Europeans and for too long by the British. There is already a parochial grievance against the foreign imperialism and when a local church has a hurt feeling it gets support from such aggrieved quarters. If Syro-Malabar plays into the hands of such elements it can be dangerous for the Church in India.

There is no doubt that Latin liturgical family is the most widespread and among the 1. 5 billion Catholics at least one billion will come in the ambit of the Latin because of the particular historical circumstances. But it must be noted that neither Jesus nor his apostles had any ‘rite’ and they were and are beacons of the universality though today the Catholic Church has 23 distinct traditions or ‘rites’.

Syro-Malabarians who trace their roots to Saint Thomas who landed in India in AD 52, must remember that the ‘Doubting’ apostle too had no rite and he will definitely doubt their excessive and exclusive claims on him.

These people are raising the flag of revolt against the Latin tradition because they are scared that in the juggernaut of universality they will be marginalized and sidelined but several popes have assured that it will not happen. Benedict XIV, Leo X, Clement VII, Gregory XIII, Leo XIII, John Paul I, John Paul II and Pope Francis are some of them.

“In India, even after many centuries, Christians are only a small proportion of the population, and consequently, there is a particular need to demonstrate unity and to avoid any semblance of division,” says Pope Francis in his October 2017 letter to the Bishops of India allowing Syro-Malabar tradition to establish dioceses outside Kerala.

This is in line with what Pope Benedict XV said – seeing all as equal. But not to do any harm to the universality of the Church Pope Francis also said in the same October letter that the Syro-Malabar faithful outside Kerala have freedom to get ‘pastoral care of either Latin or Syro-Malabar pastors’. So he termed his instructions as an ‘invitation’ for people to grow in their tradition, because “It is essential for the Catholic Church to reveal her face in all its beauty to the world, in the richness of her various traditions.”

Votaries of particular Catholic tradition must be ready to accept the march of the universality bolstered by the information revolution and internet. Instead of becoming a hurdle, they should become a catalyst to enhance this universality without harping on to the parochial. They must also remember that Catholic Church and UN are the most effective instruments of this universality from which nobody can escape however hard they may try to revive and resuscitate the parochial.

(Joe Palathunkal is Associate Editor, Living in Faith)

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