INDIA. The Syro-Malabarians
“Ours is the faith of the apostles, handed down by St Thomas”
The apostolic origin. Loyalty to their traditions.
The relations with the Hindus and a bloom of life that knows no boundaries. Relations with Rome. Interview with George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church on the occasion of his visit to Pope Benedict XVI
Interview with George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church by Roberto Rotondo and Gianni Valente
Rome is a long way from Malabar. But if you want to feel what the closeness that Communio Ecclesiarum connotes and expresses really is, just look at the thread of gratuitous and mutual recognition that unites the Church of Rome and the Syro-Malabar Church. Two realities that for nearly ten centuries have not shared any kind of legal-institutional relationship. George Alencherry who, last May, was elected Major Archbishop of that Indian Eastern Rite Church that flourished by the preaching of St Thomas the Apostle, came to visit the Successor of Peter in his Apostolic See in the month of October. During his visit to Rome, the head of the most numerous and important Eastern rite Catholic community after the Greek-Ukrainian Catholics also wanted to meet 30Days.
The interview took place at the Domus Romana Sacerdotalis in Via della Traspontina.
Benedict XVI and His Beatitude George Alencherry, at the audience with the delegation of the Syro-Malabar Church in the Clementine Hall of the Vatican Apostolic Palace, 17 October 2011 [© Osservatore Romano]
GEORGE ALENCHERRY: I was elected as Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Synod in May, and then the Pope confirmed my election. This procedure was applied for the first time: in fact, the two major archbishops who preceded me had been chosen directly by the Holy See. The election was held on 24 May, and on 29 May I was installed as major archbishop and archbishop of the diocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. This October was my first visit as major archbishop to the Pope, along with the permanent synod of our bishops. It was an opportunity to renew my statement of loyalty and obedience to the successor of Peter as major archbishop. During the trip I also visited other departments of the Holy See, in particular the Congregation for Eastern Churches.
What topics did you deal with in your meetings at the Vatican?
We talked a lot about problems of jurisdiction that create obstacles to our pastoral work. The faithful of the Syro-Malabar Church are about four million, of which 3 million and 400 thousand live in the twenty-eight dioceses in India. Of these dioceses, eighteen are in the territory of the Syro-Malabar Church itself (Kerala, part of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka). We have a territorial jurisdiction only in these eighteen dioceses. And we’d like to have a territorial jurisdiction covering the whole territory of India: this is one of our appeals to the Holy Father and for us it is an important request. We believe it is our right. Before the arrival of Western missionaries – the Portuguese arrived in the sixteenth century – the jurisdiction of us ‘Christians of St Thomas’ was extended to all of India. Then the Western missionaries, because of the influence of European monarchs, took jurisdiction of India, restricting ours to the areas where we were more concentrated.
Your request may seem like a vindication of past rights now almost buried by history ...
No, it is a matter that regards the present, in very concrete terms. Our faithful are growing in number and spreading to other regions. But it happens that there our people can not find adequate pastoral care in keeping with their own tradition, and suffer because of it. Our people are accustomed to our liturgy, our customs, our ways of prayer and lay participation in the administration of parishes. The role of the laity in parish life and catechesis is a characteristic of the Syro-Malabar Church. In many big cities there are large concentrations of Syro-Malabar faithful: seventy thousand in Delhi, fifty thousand in Chennai and Bangalore, almost twenty thousand in Hyderabad. We would like to establish dioceses at least in these large urban centers.
And what were you told?
The Holy See has said that in principle we have the right to jurisdiction. But, since the Latin Church has been installed in other regions, it is necessary to establish some kind of agreed understanding with the Latins. The Holy Father understands our needs and explained that it will be necessary to proceed one step at a time. He recalled the words of Vatican Council II, for which each Church sui juris is entitled to be able to live in autonomy. There is a historical anomaly which must be corrected. We are patient, but it is not fair that it should continue like this.
What are the objections that are posed to your request?
Already, the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and the Latin Churches have overlapping dioceses in our historical territory. But some bishops think that there could be difficulties were we to extend our jurisdiction to territories that fall within their dioceses. Bear in mind that currently in some Latin dioceses the Syro-Malabars represent a large proportion of the faithful looked after by the Latin priests. If we were to extend jurisdiction, very few faithful of the Latin Rite might remain in some of those Latin dioceses. Another concern regards the Syro-Malabar priests who have learned the Latin Rite and work in Latin dioceses. There are more than thirty bishops of Syro-Malabar origin working as Latin bishops in the dioceses of the north.
George Alencherry confirming a child [© George Alencherry]
There is a large number of Syro-Malabar faithful outside India. In the United States there are about one hundred thousand, and for them a diocese that has its center in Chicago was created. The vast majority of faithful abroad are concentrated in the Persian Gulf. In Saudi Arabia there are more than eighty thousand, almost all workers who have moved there permanently. The Pope has appointed two apostolic vicars and a nuncio, but the priests who were engaged to take care of those faithful, even though of Syro-Malabar origin, have joined the Latin congregations and are Latins by training. The absence of priests of our rite has created some tension in those countries. It is another problem we pointed out to the Holy See; we hope that they will listen.
How is the collaboration between the various Catholic Churches in India proceeding?
The three Churches, Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara, are part of the one universal Church, and there is an Episcopal Conference of Bishops of the three Churches. In that Conference, we work together without any problem. The Catholic Church is a communion of particular Churches: there are twenty-two Eastern Churches, along with the Latin that comprise the universal Church. Only by starting off from this theology is ecumenism possible: if the Greek-Orthodox perceived the existence of this communion, they would unite with the Catholics. Ecumenism is not to bring the Orthodox Church under the administration of the Latin. We, from the inside, ask for a real ecumenism. The Orthodox ask for it from outside. But some Latins do not understand it.
And relations with the Hindus?
In general Hinduism is a religion that promotes peace and harmony. Most people look at us with sympathy, and we work together. But as you know, in the recent past there have been groups of fundamentalists who have created problems. In every country, for one reason or another, there are fundamentalists. Just as there are political extremists, who we call terrorists. In India there are extremist groups within Hinduism: whoever believes in authentic Hinduism does not love them, but these groups create problems, especially for Christians. They fear that Christians, through conversions, will take control of the country. But this fear is baseless and indeed Christians do not react with violence to their attacks. The government knows this and is helping us.
The Syro-Malabar Church remained in the faith of the apostles though living in the midst of a culture rooted in other religious presuppositions. This is a wonderful testimony to the fact that the Church is of Jesus Christ (Ecclesiam Suam, Paul VI wrote). What can the story of the Syro-Malabar Christians suggest to the whole of Christianity?
The legacy that we carry with us is the result of twenty centuries of witness to the Catholic faith, to which we have remained faithful even when there were serious misunderstandings on the part of foreign missionaries. Our church has a unique style of catechesis: in families, in parishes and schools, at all these three levels we teach children to keep the faith. Here in Rome there are about six thousand Syro-Malabar faithful: on 16 October we celebrated a beautiful liturgy in the Lateran Basilica. The Basilica was full.
The Syro-Malabar Church confirmed communion with Rome after centuries of no contact. It is the sign that the communion of the Church is not primarily the result of legal relations...
Ours is the faith of the Apostles, handed down by St Thomas. St Thomas could not have started a new Church by his own power alone. In India also he did only what Jesus told him to do. For the same reason, Thomas and all those who received the evangelical annunciation through him are in communion with Peter, and this is a guarantee of our faith. The loyalty to the Pope comes from our experience of the faith, we pray for the Pope in the Eucharistic celebration,in the liturgy we consider the saints of all the particular Churches together with our own. Doctrinally, we protect what we have received from the Nicene Creed. The Eucharist and other sacraments, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, unite us in the one holy and apostolic Church.
A procession on the occasion of 'dukhrana', the commemoration of St Thomas, near the Church of St Thomas, in Palayur, in the State of Kerala
After the feastdays of Our Lord, from Christmas to Easter and the feasts of the Blessed Virgin – the Immaculate Conception, the Nativity and Assumption – the most solemn feastday in the Syro-Malabar Church is the ‘dukhrana’, or commemoration of St Thomas. We celebrate it all over the world, including Saudi Arabia, where you can not hold official celebrations, more than three hundred faithful gathered in a private place and phoned me, asking for a blessing. According to tradition, Thomas founded seven communities in India. Those places have become as many places of pilgrimage. And the first Sunday after Easter is the feastday of St Thomas touching the side of Jesus. It is a great feastday attended by many Hindus also.
Cardinal Levada, at the last Synod of the Eastern Churches, announced that he would consult the Eastern patriarchs on a possible reform of the exercise of the Petrine ministry. What do you suggest, in particular with regard to relations with the Eastern Churches?
The Catholic Church through the Council for Christian Unity, has already begun a dialogue on the primacy. I think we should continue the dialogue and seek a common agreement with the Eastern Churches, as there was in the first four centuries of Christianity. At that time there was a common understanding of the primacy. Now the Orthodox Church argues that it is impossible to go back to theology before the Council of Chalcedon because we do not possess any documents from that era. But I think that from the documents and statements subsequent to the time of Chalcedon there would be the possibility of dialogue and agreement on the Petrine ministry. Because there is the phrase primus inter pares. We all need a Petrine ministry of unity, which is a reference for all the Churches. I hope that a halfway point is found where the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches could come together in full communion with the Church of Christ.
For centuries your Church has had to deal with the processes of ‘latinization’ put in place in your regard. There were those who believed you were heretics or schismatics because you had your own prayers, your liturgies and did not speak Latin. Do you still see residues of that mentality circulate today?
The way of thinking has changed a lot, even in the Latin Church. Among theologians, including most of the bishops and the Apostolic See. Father Placid Podipara, CMI, a well known theologian and historian renowned in our Church, said that the Syro-Malabar Church is Christian by faith, Hindu by culture, and eastern by cult. Unfortunately, the missionaries who arrived in the sixteenth century did not understand it. They had no bad intentions, it was the attitude of the time. But now what they thought was mistaken can be restored. This is what the Second Vatican Council says. Much has changed, but where this change has not taken place, there are problems. And this happens with the mentality of some Latin bishops. I also said this to the Pope: I said: “Your Holiness, there are many Latin bishops who understand the ecclesiology of communion correctly, but there are others ...”.
The liturgy has had a central role for the historical continuity of your Church. How do you see the importance given to the liturgy by the Magisterium of the present pope?
The teaching of the present Pope is really saving the Church of our time. There are many aberrations that were entering the Church, sometimes in the name of Vatican Council II. There are some who misinterpreted the Council, stopping at incidental things and losing sight of the essential vision. The Pope wants to follow what Vatican II really meant to say. And when he, very very slowly, will be able to pass these things, the Church will be truly united. The dissipation and the worldliness of the Church are very extensive, especially in Europe, and the restoration will take longer. But this is the intention of the Pope, and the Syro-Malabar Church is with him.
Yet there were also heated controversies in the Syro-Malabar Church between those who support the full recovery of the traditional liturgical heritage and those who consider this a form of traditionalist aesthetic. Between the ‘chaldeanizers’ and the ‘latinizers’ ...
I will tell you: if something is Chaldean, or European, or from any other place, what is valid is valid. But some, as a result of latinization, are convinced that what belongs to Western culture is good and that what comes from the East is not good. It is an impression created by the latinization, to which we have been subjected for three centuries. Although the universal Church with the Second Vatican Council has given us the freedom to recover the valuable elements of our heritage, a large part of the Church has forgotten them and does not feel the need for this recovery. They say: we will continue to move forward with what we have now, and if we need anything else, we’ll take it from the Latin Church. This is their attitude. Others respond that in order to continue being what we are, we must first of all recover what has been taken from us and that we have lost.
I, in my office, will try to create more unity and a certain uniformity in liturgical celebrations. Not a complete uniformity, but unity on the essentials. To be implemented little by little. Gradually. For example, at first in the Latin Church there were those who said that we celebrate facing the wall. But facing the East is not to have your face to the wall. It is to look at where the Lord comes from. In the theology of our Church, the celebrant and the people offer sacrifice together to God the Father, facing East.
Marian devotion in Srinagar, in the State of Jammu and Kashmir [© AFP/Getty Images]
The world changes, so do we. Our faithful emigrate, to study or seek employment. Only one third of them live in the original dioceses. About two-thirds are outside, in big cities. In America and in Europe there are Syro-Malabar doctors, businessmen, traders on their way up the social ladder. If universal jurisdiction over our faithful is recognized to us, we can help foster this energy so that its strength is in the service of the universal Church. Otherwise what we lose the universal Church will lose. And if our faithful should find it difficult to stay in touch with their spiritual heritage, they will seek spiritual meaning in Pentecostal groups or realities like that. And this is already happening. We are losing our faithful. They come from India to the West, they find someone who says to them, why do you have to go to the churches of the Latins? Come with us, we pray together. We have lost many. We are anxious about this and have expressed our anguish also to the Vatican departments. Everyone seems to understand what we say, but then decisions are not taken. They have to consult so many people, and time passes. And things get worse. Many seem not to understand that if the Syro-Malabar Church thrives and prospers, the universal Church flourishes. Because every particular Church is for the Universal Church. And the Latin Church also is a particular Church. Whereas in the minds of some, universal coincides with Latin. This is obviously not the official doctrine. It is not the thought of any serious theologian. But it continues to be a widespread mentality in many, and creates delays.
Recently, at the Pontifical Gregorian University, there was an important international Congress on the so-called Anaphora of Addai and Mari. Why does this anaphora have a particular importance from the liturgical and ecumenical point of view?
That of Addai and Mari is the oldest Anaphora in the universal Church. In it we perceive the simplest theology of the Gospels, the most germinal understanding of the mystery of Christ, without the doctrinal formulations that came later. As St Mark’s Gospel is the simplest Gospel, that of Addai and Mari is the simplest liturgy. So, when we celebrate it, we experience intensely the presence of Jesus with us. Even the expectations and the supplications of the Church are very well integrated into the Anaphora. It contains the prayers for the weak, the oppressed, the martyred, the poor, the refugees. In other words, it has the beauty of simplicity. The Anaphora of Addai and Mari is used by the Assyrian Church of the East, and has the characteristic of not containing in an explicit manner the words of institution, those spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper (“Take and eat, this is my body ... Take, drink, this is my blood ... Do this in remembrance of me”). The Syro-Malabar Church also used the traditional form of that Anaphora until the sixteenth century, without interpolations. But the Latin theologians argued that without the words of institution there was no true consecration, they therefore considered the Anaphora of Addai and Mari invalid. Then, in 2001, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, with the consent of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, recognized the validity of that Anaphora, used since time immemorial also in our Qurbana, the Eucharistic sacrifice according to the Malabar Rite.