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Syro-Malabar Liturgy (A Book Review)

[This is a book review that I wrote on Francis Kanichikattil's book To Restore or to Reform? A Critical Study on Current Liturgical Renewal in the Syro-Malabar Church in India, Bangalore, India, Dharmaram Publications, 1992, xix, 230p. This book review was published in Studia Canonica, 29(1995), pp. 547-533.]

The Syro-Malabar Church is one of the most flourishing and promising Catholic Churches today. This is the second largest Eastern Catholic Church in the world, with a population of around three million. At present it is the major community of the ancient Thomas Christians in India. According to the tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle evangelized Malabar (presently known as Kerala), the south-west cost of India. This tradition is confirmed by the testimonies of many of the Fathers of the Church. It was not difficult for the Apostle to come to India, because extensive trade relations existed between Malabar and the Mediterranean countries even before the Christian Era.

Tradition has it that the Apostle ordained two bishops, Kepha and Paul, respectively for Malabar and Coromandal (Mylapore). This is supposed to mark the beginnings of the first hierarchy of India. The Church of the Thomas Christians was one of the four great "Thomite Churches" of the East. The three others were the Edessan, the Chaldean (of Mesopotamia or Iraq) with Seleucia-Ctesiphon as its centre, and the Persian (of Persia proper or Iran). These four Churches were "Thomite" in the sense that they looked to St. Thomas as to their direct or indirect Apostle. Among these Churches the Church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon emerged as the organizational centre, mainly owing to the political importance of this place as the capital of the Persian Empire. The Indian Church retained close contact with these Churches. Later, we cannot say when but certainly in or before 7th century, it became hierarchically subordinated to the Chaldean Church, and the succession of indigenous prelates came to an end. In their place the East Syrian prelates started to rule. The apostolic Church of India was thus reduced to a dependent status. This dependence, which lasted until the end of the 16th century, prevented it from developing an Indian theology and liturgy with an Indian culture. During this long period, not a single indigenous bishop ruled over the Thomas Christians.

The Portuguese missionaries who arrived in Malabar by the end of the 15th century, were happy to meet Christians in India in the midst of Hindus and Muslims. But they very soon noticed the differences in ritual and liturgy which were intolerable to them. They wanted "unity in the Kingdom of God", and decided to take measures to achieve this goal. With the rise of Goa as the chief seat of Portuguese political and ecclesiastical power in the East, they converted the Malabar Church, which had become Syrian, into a branch of the Latin Church. Not until 1887, did Pope Leo XIII created the first Vicariates for the Syro-Malabar Church, enacting ritual separation from the Latin Church. In 1896 this Church received indigenous Vicars Apostolic of its own rite. On December 21, 1923 the Syro-Malabar Hierarchy was established by the Apostolic Constitution Romani Pontifices of Pope Pius XI (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 16[1924], pp. 257-262).

Liturgy is essential to the life of the Church. It is through liturgy that the Church expresses herself in the present day situation. Hence reform is inevitable in this area. But some members of the Syro-Malabar Church prefer a total restoration of the old Chaldean Liturgy for their Church, and it has become a major issue in the Church. Those who argue for restoration, want the liturgy to be what it was in the pre-Portuguese period, i.e., they want to bring the Malabar Church back once again to what it was then, a kind of branch of the Chaldean Church. But the Malabar Church in the pre-Portuguese period was Malabar in name only, with no liturgy or spirituality reflecting its rich Indian background. For those who dream about restoring the Chaldean "golden age", just the Latin form of worship is foreign, but the Chaldean form of worship is indigenous to Indian Christians!

The present book is the thesis defended in the University of London by the author for his Ph.D. degree. The author is concerned with the question "restore or reform the liturgy, and his arguments are for reforming it. Reform is a life process. Individuals as well as communities need to undergo reform in order to cope with the changing situation. Because Christian worship is an essential part of the Christian life, reform in this area is unavoidable. Liturgy is a splendid manifestation of the Christian faith; changes and new forms always need to be encouraged, not simply for the sake of variety but in order to remain faithful to the essential purpose of liturgy. Vatican Council II insisted on "returning to the sources" as the guide to reform. This returning should be to imbibe the spirit of the liturgy and not to cling to old forms.

The author divides his work into two parts. The first part, which spans 5 chapters, is an attempt to understand the spirit of the East Syrian liturgy. The second part with its 3 chapters is a study of the recent liturgical development of the Syro-Malabar Church from 1962 until 1989. The author begins the first part dealing with the apostolic tradition of the Church and the socio-religious life of the Thomas Christians. He argues that dependence of the Church on the Chaldean Patriarch was nominal. Though the bishop was sent from the Persian Church, he was the spiritual head administering only the sacraments to the community. Administration was in the hands of the "archdeacon" who was always a priest of the Thomas Christians, with a decisive power over the community. The social customs connected with child birth, marriage and death were similar to those of the natives. The priests did not baptize or say Mass except now and then. The bishop reserved these to himself. So the Liturgy was in Syriac according to the East Syrian rite with local variations, and that's how the Malabar Church became Syrian in Rite. There were restrictions on the clergy in the matter of celebrating the Eucharist. Next the author describes the origin and growth of the East Syrian Church in Persia. The Gospel was first preached there to a community of Jews, and the first converts were Jews. The existing hostility between the Persian and Byzantine empires and the suspicious attitude of the Persian rulers toward the Christians of Persia, eventually forced them to develop a culture of their own. From a very early period the Church used a liturgy known as the "liturgy of the Holy Apostles Mar Addai and Mar Mari". According to scholars, this liturgy was first written in the Syriac language. The author attempts to explain the contributions made to the liturgy by the Fathers and other writers such as Ephrem, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Diodore of Tarsus, Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, Narsai, Gabriel Qatraya, Ishoyahb III and Isaac of Nineveh. The author, in separate chapters, also deals with the mystery aspect of the liturgy, the concepts that the Eucharistic altar as an image of the sepulchre of Christ, the earthly liturgy as an image of the heavenly liturgy and the nave and sanctuary as types of the earth and heaven. East Syrian tradition is Semitic in its basic characteristics, but influenced by the Antiochene tradition. Its liturgy of the Word significantly resembled the Jewish Synagogue service. The use of Bema (a raised platform at the centre of the nave) for the liturgy of the Word, the sanctuary veil, separation of sanctuary from nave, etc. are examples of Semitic traditions.

The second part of the book is a study of the recent liturgical development of the Syro-Malabar Church from 1962 until 1969. It starts with a survey of the Syro-Malabar liturgical reform. It is not unreasonable to conjecture that an Indian type liturgy might have been planted and fostered by St. Thomas in India. However, no traces of such a liturgy are left at our disposal. Even though the Persian prelates headed the Thomas Christians in India for nearly a millennium, their contribution to the ecclesial and cultural growth of the Malabar community seems to be insignificant. Nevertheless, by its contact with the Western Church from the 16th century the Thomas Christian community was enriched by Western theological thinking and mission spirit.

After the establishment of the Syro-Malabar hierarchy, a commission was formed for the work of the restoration of the Chaldean Pontifical for the use of the Syro-Malabar Church. However, the Syro-Malabar bishops were not pleased with the restoration of the Chaldean rite. In 1953 the Syro-Malabar bishops conference appointed a committee of five persons for the study and translation of the Syro-Malabar liturgy texts into the vernacular. It was reported that except Fr. Placid Podipara, all others in the committee were against a total restoration of the Chaldean rites for the use of the Syro-Malabar Church. According to Fr. Placid, the Chaldean Rite was the only developed Rite the Malabar Church ever possessed. But according to most of the bishops, the Syro-Malabar Rite was recognized as distinct from the pure Chaldean Rite, and the changes that obstruct the progress and spiritual life, introduced for the sake of going back to the Chaldean liturgy, would not be appreciated very much. The Congregation for the Oriental Churches considered the opinions of the bishops, but the Text that came into use in the Church in 1962 was really a step to restoration. There was no attempt to reform or to adapt from the Indian culture. The clergy and the people criticized this Text, because they wanted a liturgy more reformed and adapted to the modern situation. Meanwhile the Second Vatican Council created a new awareness in the Church, particularly in the realm of liturgy. The implications of the Council Decree Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Latin Church was a spur to the Syro-Malabar for rethinking and better adaptation. Therefore, another liturgical text, with much reform, was promulgated in 1968 as an experiment.

The author also discusses another development in India: a movement for "Indian Liturgy". "The Church in India Today", a seminar conducted in Bangalore in 1969, was an important event in the history of the Indian Church. Sections 37-40 of Sacrosanctum Concilium were used as sources for the seminar members to formulate certain proposals. To start a few experimentation centres for a better adaptation in the liturgy was one of the fruits of the seminar. The Catholic Bishop's Conference of India which represented both Latin and Oriental bishops gave official approval for its liturgical commission to start new experimentation centres with the consent of the local ordinary. Cardinal Parecattil of the Syro-Malabar Church and Dr. Amalorpavadas of the Latin Church were the master minds behind the inculturation movement in the Indian Church. Separate Texts were composed under their guidance, the prayers containing allusions to the classical Hindu Scriptures, such as the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Even though many, both clergy and faithful, appreciated these attempts on an experimental basis, there was much criticism. The intervention of Rome was not very positive, even though in principle it was encouraging. Due to lack of a consensus of opinions and effective follow-up, many of these programs came to be closed down after a few years.

Attempts made by Rome and by the Syro-Malabar Bishop's Conference to finalize the 1968 Missal are well explained by the author. Some had sharply criticized that the reforms made in this Missal were a willful abandonment of the Churches' own tradition and a formal acceptance of Latin customs. Rome emphasized that the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church must remain absolutely faithful to the Chaldean liturgy. The majority of bishops were, in fact, favourable to a reformed Text, while a minority supported nothing but restoration of the old Chaldean Text. A draft Text of the Mass was submitted in 1981. Rome did not appreciate the reform process undertaken by the Church, and said that many of the changes were a return to Latinizations and in no way Indianisations. The response of the bishops was that the rubrics, such as the celebrant facing the congregation during the Mass, introduction of the theme at the beginning, silent pauses during the Mass or improvised prayers at certain occasions, were introduced not as a part of western imitation, but because they were clearly recommended in Sacrosanctum Concilium which had called for the liturgical renewal. In 1985, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches finalised the Text, and it was inaugurated by the Holy Father in Kerala on February 9, 1986 during his pastoral visit to India. The Text was longer and the language was clumsy. No efforts have been made to make the Text more relevant and indigenous. The goal was to restore the Chaldean Text for the use of the Syro-Malabar Church. The clergy, as well as the faithful, did not very much appreciate the Text. They wished to have a further renewed Text taking the 1968 Text as the basis, with provision for adaptations and options.

In 1987, Cardinal Lourdswamy, the Prefect of the Oriental Congregation, visited the Syro-Malabar dioceses to get an idea of the new situation created by the introduction of the restored Text. Coming back to Rome, he finally drafted a document with the help of those who were concerned and sent it to all Syro-Malabar Bishops in India. It said the good of the faithful, bonum fidelium, was the pastoral norm governing all liturgical legislation. After explaining the substantial unity of the tradition, the document said that it would not deprive the local ordinary of his right and duty to resolve concrete pastoral issues and authorize local customs in the renewed liturgy within the legitimate limits. Wherever possible, provision was made for options. The restorers strongly criticized this new document of the congregation as a drastic change from the long-standing policy of Rome and did not even hesitate to state that Rome's credibility was shaken. However, the Text of the Mass -- in its solemn as well as simple forms -- was prepared according to the directives, and was approved and came into use on July 3, 1989. The Text still needs many improvements both in its linguistic and in its structural form.

As the author contends, an extreme conservative attitude developed by a minority group of bishops created a gap between the restorers and reformers which affected considerably the progress of the liturgical renewal. One of the main problems of the Syro-Malabar Church in liturgical matters was its lack of internal administration with a Major Archbishop or a Patriarch as its head and a permanent synod of bishops as other Oriental Churches have. This situation created a great tension in the process of liturgical renewal. Since there was no decision making body, all matters concerning liturgy and discipline had to be referred to Rome; even on matters of less importance, Rome's approval had to be awaited. The parameters of the problem have now changed, because the Syro-Malabar Church was erected as a Major Archiepiscopal Church -- with some form of central administration -- on 16th December 1992 by the Apostolic Constitution Quae maiori of John Paul II (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 85[1993], pp. 398-399).

A brief explanation of the goals of the Syro-Malabar Liturgy Renewal in a wider perspective of the ecclesial as well as the religious Indian context is also provided by the author. The spiritual rules of the Syrian tradition which could revitalize the whole liturgical renewal process in the Syro-Malabar Church were also explained. The Western Church has taken much pain in implementing Sacrosanctum Concilium in order to make its liturgy well adapted to the new situation. In author's view, this can be a model for the Oriental Churches to bring about necessary reform in their own liturgies. A readiness to adapt to the actual situation, religious as well as cultural, makes liturgy spontaneous and relevant to the people.

In the last chapter, the author presents certain suggestions regarding the structure and language of the liturgical text, the pastoral implications of certain liturgical rites, and the Oriental attitude which is to be fostered for an authentic liturgical renewal. For the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the Syro-Malabar Church at present has only one Anaphora, that of Mar Addai and Mari. In the opinion of the author, the other two traditional Anaphoras of the East Syrian Church, namely, the Anaphora of Mar Theodore and the Anaphora of Mar Nestorius should be restored and reformed. A further number of Anaphoras also would be desirable to be introduced for the celebration of the Eucharist. One of the great defects with regard to the Texts of 1962, 1986, and 1989 seems to be the over emphasis on literal translation of the original Syriac Text. This overstress created long and unintelligible texts which do not correspond to the present situation or interests of the people. A document published in Rome in 1969 gives a number of insights on matters concerning the translation of liturgical texts into the vernacular. It says "the purpose of liturgical translation is to proclaim the message of salvation to believers. [...] The translator must keep in mind that the 'unit of meaning' is not the individual word but the whole passage. [..] The formula translated must become the genuine prayer of the congregation" (CONSILIUM FOR THE PROPER IMPLEMENTATION OF THE CONSTITUTION ON THE SACRED LITURGY, Instruction Comme le prévoit, 25 January 1969, nos. 6,12, and 20, in an English-language translation from the Consilium published in INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION ON ENGLISH IN THE LITURGY [ed.], Documents on Liturgy, 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts, Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1982, document no. 123, pars. 843, and 857, pp. 284, 285, and 287).

Regarding the position of the celebrant during the liturgy, the existing situation gives rise to great tension in inter-diocesan relationships. A majority of the dioceses follow the option in which the priest faces the congregation during the whole celebration. In some of the southern dioceses, the bishops impose the second option, in which the priest faces the altar/cross, even though many priests and faithful do not agree with this. The authority to make decisions regarding this remains with the local ordinary. In order to minimise the tension, the author suggests this authority be transferred to each parish, where the parish priest in consultation with the elders of the parish, Palli yogam, could make the decision, depending on the particular situation and tradition of each parish. However, I personally do not support such a step. In my opinion, a parish church is not an individual Church to take such a major option in liturgy. Furthermore, if the bishops and priests of an individual Church cannot reach at an agreement on such important liturgical norms, do we ever experience the unity for which the liturgy itself is celebrated?

The author contends that the reconstruction of the bema at the centre of the nave for the liturgy of the Word, is simply not relevant in the Syro-Malabar liturgy. First of all the bema has no place in the liturgical tradition of the Syro-Malabar Church. The author suggests that the Western Church could be taken as a model in this case, celebrating the introductory rites and the liturgy of the Word at one side of the sanctuary near the rail. Some churches in the Syro-Malabar Rite had a tradition of using the sanctuary veil. The veil was drawn back during the liturgy. The author is of the opinion that this tradition should be restored wherever possible, because it has a deeper meaning in the East Syrian tradition according to its Fathers. According to my observation, most of the Syro-Malabar churches at present do not have sanctuary veils, and installing such veils only makes the liturgy more complicated than making it simple. As the author himself admits, more than external complexities of the celebration or an awesome sense of mystery, what is needed today is a deeper and more personal understanding of, and participation in, the Eucharistic prayers and actions. Concerning the incensing, the author says it is a solemn rite in the Syro-Malabar liturgy, which gives the celebration a sacred splendor. From a practical point of view it is highly necessary that the celebrant priest should have ample time and serenity of mind to perform these rites in gentleness and calm, in the true spirit of the divine worship. If the liturgical text is too long, and its prayers are unintelligible, both the priests and the people may find it difficult to celebrate in true liturgical spirit. Therefore it is better that the Text should be short, and only the relevant and meaningful rites be restored. Those which are restored should be adapted to the mind and taste of the people to whom they are communicated.

The Syro-Malabar Church was limited by the boundaries of the state of Kerala. Only from 1962, dioceses were created outside Kerala. The new Christians or the would-be Christians of these dioceses outside of Kerala are quite different in language and culture from the people of Kerala. If the Syro-Malabar Church impose its own Syrian-type liturgy without any adaptation to the local situation, as the author contends, this will show great disregard for the culture and way of living of the new Christians of these dioceses. When the early Christian Church broke out from its Jewish boundaries and confronted other cultures, many of the local customs and way of living eventually entered into Christian life. In other words, the original Christian Eucharist was enriched by its contact with other cultures. The same process should continue also in the growth of the liturgy.

The author supplements his work with an appendix, giving the experimental Texts of the Indian Liturgy produced under the guidance of Cardinal Parecattil and Dr. Amalorpavadas. The author has very nicely put forward his arguments for a reform in the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church. Nevertheless, he could have avoided many of the repetitions, and arranged the topics with much more continuity and flow. I think this work is an eye opener for all those who are bullheaded in trying to impose on others their unreasonable demand to live in the past and in a foreign culture, than to be living today, dynamic and progressive. As Walbert Bühlmann has said, nothing damages the Church and her mission more than the desire to cling to historically conditioned forms. If we have the courage to let go of structures that are out of date, God will enable us to find new structures through observing the signs of the times. In doing this, we have to allow for a certain insecurity. It is not necessary to have a map of the Promised Land before we leave Egypt.

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