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Colonial Vatican and Independent India

Vatican’s recent interventions in the Syro – Malabar. Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli must respect the laws and regulations of India. Archbishop Garelli’s actions are a clear affront to India’s sovereignty and self-esteem

Colonial Vatican and Independent India

Paulose Vareed

India celebrated 75th anniversary of its independence on 15 August 2022 with much gusto and fervour. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, in his famous ‘tryst with destiny’ speech cautioned that ‘uprooting foreign domination’ was not complete until each and every Indian breathes ‘the air of freedom’. A huge step towards that was taken when the Constitution of India was adopted. One of the major features of the Constitution is the chapter on fundamental rights. Crux of all the fundamental rights is recognition of human dignity. Article 19 is of particular significance as it guarantees certain freedoms. It assures every citizen freedom of speech and expression, right to assemble peaceably and without arms, right to form associations or unions, right to move freely throughout the territory of India, right to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India, and right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. This article is held to be one of the basic features of the Constitution. That means that even if all the members of the Parliament and state legislatures wished it cannot be abrogated. One is reminded of the Indian Constitution and this article, in particular, looks at Vatican’s recent interventions in the Syro – Malabar Church.

Archbishop Girelli’s Trip to Kerala

On 27 July 2022, as the preparations were in full swing for the 75th anniversary, the Apostolic Nuncio to India Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli took a three-and-a-half-hour flight from Delhi to Kochi located in the southern state of Kerala. His mission was to force Archbishop Antony Kariyil to resign as the Metropolitan Vicar of the Ernakulam – Angamaly Archdiocese and to banish him from the Archdiocese. His one-day visit was a huge success and Archbishop Kariyil resigned and retired to a monastery outside the territorial limits of the Archdiocese.


The Syro-Malabar Church, one of the sui iuris major archiepiscopal churches in India, is embroiled in a huge controversy involving its head Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alenchery. The Cardinal is accused of corruption in certain land dealings in Ernakulam – Angamaly Archdiocese. He is facing several criminal and civil cases in various courts in Kerala. In light of the allegations, he was divested of his administrative powers over the Archdiocese and administrators/metropolitan vicars were appointed. In a deliberate move to divert attention from the land scandal, the Synod of Bishops unilaterally decided to implement a uniform mode of celebration of Holy Mass during the peak of Covid 19 pandemic. This is an emotive, contentious and divisive issue in the Syro-Malabar Church and the split is wide open between ultra-conservatives and reformists. The ultra-conservatives now led by the Cardinal want to take the Church back to the early sixth century not only in liturgical matters but even on social issues like position of women in society. The reformists led by the priests and faithful of Ernakulam – Angamaly Archdiocese want to take the Church forward in the spirit of Vatican Council II.

Archbishop Kariyil was appointed as the Metropolitan Vicar of the Archdiocese in August 2019. One of his tasks was to ensure restitution for the losses incurred by the Cardinal in the controversial land dealings. He was directed by the Synod to sell the properties belonging to the Archdiocese to persons identified by the Synod at a price determined by the Synod. This directive defied all logic and was not acceptable to the Archdiocese. Archbishop Kariyil refused to comply with the directive. It may be recalled that such a sale would have violated the secular laws of the land. This issue was discussed in an earlier post ( On the issue of uniform mode of celebration of Mass, respecting the sensibilities of the priests and faithful he allowed the continuation of versus populum mass in the Archdiocese till December 2022. The Synod having a brute majority of the ultra conservatives, used all means to force Archbishop Kariyil to follow its directives on both the issues. As their attempts failed, Vatican was approached to ‘discipline’ him and make him an example for all those dared to challenge the autocratic Synod. Vatican willingly obliged and Archbishop Kariyil was forced to resign.

Archbishop Kariyil’s Letter

Archbishop’s resignation did not come as a surprise to many. Social media groups supporting the Cardinal were predicting such an action by the Nuncio for past few days. It was also rumoured that he was asked to immediately vacate the Archbishop’s house and stay outside the territorial limits of the Archdiocese. In a move that can be seen as an attempt to put an end to all the rumours, Archbishop Kariyil on 3rd August 2022 wrote a letter to the priests and the faithful of the Archdiocese explaining the events that led to his resignation. This letter written in Malayalam is an important reference point for anyone studying the Catholic Church. It will be a great service to future historians if the letter is translated into all major languages including English.

The letter reveals that his resignation was not voluntary. He was forced to resign by the Nuncio. His request for an explanation and request to approach the Pope were not acceded to. In no uncertain terms it was made clear to him that if he did not resign within twenty-four hours the process to remove him would commence. The letter reveals that he was asked to resign as Vatican perceived his actions as disobedience. Refusal to sell the property belonging to the Archdiocese to persons identified by the Synod at a price determined by the Synod, and extension given for the celebration of uniform mode of mass were interpreted as grave indiscipline. He confirmed that the Nuncio ordered him to retire to a monastery outside the territorial boundaries of the Archdiocese.

It is reported that a senior bishop visited him multiple times and forced him to withdraw the letter. It is also reported that Archbishop Kariyil had to be admitted to hospital after each such visit. After one such visit his condition deteriorated and he had to be shifted to a hospital with better facilities. Reports also suggest that there was considerable delay in shifting him as the speciality hospital was located within the Archdiocese and permission from Vatican was necessary for him to enter the Archdiocese.

Response by the Synod

The Synod responded to the letter by a six-page press release that is a classic example of obfuscation, half-truths and outright lies. Regarding the punishment, the press release had this to say: “There is no need for those who understand the administrative systems of the catholic church and those who are aware of the measures taken in accordance with Church laws against those who work against discipline, obedience and submission to ponder over the reasons for his resignation.” The press release warned the faithful about participation in a mega rally to be organised for the continuation of versus populum mass. “Those who organise rallies and issue statements questioning the actions of the Holy Father Pope Francis and the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches and challenging the authority of the Synod are indulging in grave indiscipline. Faithful should make extra efforts to recognise the ulterior motives of those who work against the integrity and discipline of the Church”, it warned. Despite such stern warnings, around 90,000 people attended the rally and vowed to fight for the continuation of versus populum mass in the Archdiocese.

Colonial Vatican

It is given that the faithful do not expect any justice from the Syro Malabar Synod. The Synod bishops have proved again and again that there was nothing Christian in their actions. However, there seems to be a lot of hope and expectations among the faithful that the Vatican and the Pope, in particular, would listen to their legitimate demands. But the recent actions prove otherwise. It appears that Vatican Curia is still living in the colonial era. As discussed in a previous post the Apostolic Nunciature in India and the Nuncio works under domestic and international law relating to diplomatic privileges. (

As per the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, 1961, the diplomats including Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli must respect the laws and regulations of India and have a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs India. Archbishop Garelli’s actions are a clear affront of India’s sovereignty and self-esteem. Archbishop Kariyil was directed by him to do an illegal act in contravention of the existing secular laws of the country. When he refused to comply, he was asked to resign and a punishment clearly in violation of his fundamental right under the Indian Constitution was imposed. Archbishop Garelli and Vatican might not have come out of the mindset of 1931. At that time the Pope refused to meet Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, as the ‘half naked fakir’ was not dressed according to Vatican dress code! Colonialism might have ended but it is too early for the colonial mindset to change!

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