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Liturgical conundrum in the Syro-Malabar Church. The Vatican seeks way out: Pew Research study.

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

Episode 1

Liturgical conundrum in the Syro-Malabar Church

The Vatican seeks way out: Pew Research study of Syro-Malabar Church

Investigative Reports

By. Wimal Mary Das

Episode 1

Over the past 90 years, the top leaders of the Syro-Malabar Church have grappled with a vexing problem: An enigmatic question to discover its identity.

To a certain extent, the liturgical problem had been hatched in the corridors of the Vatican. Speaking precisely, it happened in the closed rooms of the Oriental congregation without the knowledge of the local Church in India.

What would be the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church? Well, the impetus to discover the identity of the Church by the Oriental congregation could be assumed to be a good move, but those intricacies shaped the unresolved problems.

Back in 1887, Pope Leo XII established the Syro-Malabar episcopate. The liturgy was a significant item to decide. The pivotal turn took place with the establishment of the vicariates of Ernakulam, Changanassery and Thrissur on July 28, 1896. Furthermore, Mar. Aloysius Pazheparambil, Mar. Mathew Makil and Mar. John Menachery were appointed as the first three native bishops of Ernakulam, Cheganassery and Trichur dioceses, respectively.

Liturgy, the crux of the problem

After consecrating the three bishops at the historical seminary of Kandy in Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon), then-Nuncio Michael Zaleski, along with trio, deliberated on the future of the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church.

What would be the real solution, and what kind of liturgy will the newly formed Syro-Malabar episcopate follow? It was easy back then; the three bishops eagerly adopted the translation of Latin liturgy into Syriac, the language used back then to celebrate the Holy Mass at the newly formed Syro-Malabar parishes. The identity was not a matter of debate, but they profusely embraced it without any discrepancies.

The Liturgy project, language-based (1896-1935)

During this time, the discussion centered on the language of the celebration more than the identity of the Church.

For the newly formed episcopate, it was certain that the Syro-Malabar Church inherited a consolidated historical heritage from a different era of its historical growth. The vortex of heated discussion hurled over this enigmatic question: is it Roman, Syrian, or Chaldean heritage that the Syro-Malabar Church must choose?

The first solid study on this matter was by the Apostolic delegate of the time, Michael Zaleski. He categorically stated that it is more of the mixed version of heritage that the Syro-Malabar Church can adopt. Prelates of the Syro-Malabar Church of the time accepted his stand.

He systematically analyzed the heritage of the Syro-Malabar Church. He asserted that as per the liturgical matters, the history of the Syro-Malabar Church could be considered two time periods — Menesian and Post Menesian Period of Liturgical renewal.

This refers to the liturgical renewal that Bishop Alexis Menezes brought to the Church under his leadership. In order to arrive at this conclusion, he had done a thorough study on the history of the Church. We do not want to elucidate those points here right now.

Four epochs of the history of the Syro-Malabar Church

1. Aftermath of Apostle St. Thomas’ Mission: This period is relatively obscure. It is generally accepted that the way of life of the followers of Christ was known as a way of St. Thomas (Marthoma margam) in contrast to the Hindu or Buddhist ways of life that existed. Marthoma margam symbolizes the way of life the Saint Thomas Christians expressed in the socio-political scenario of India.

2 The second epoch is also obscure until the 14th century. This period is associated with the Persian Church. One of the earliest missionary bishops from the Church of the East who visited India probably in the 4th century AD is acknowledged as Bishop David of Basra. It is only an assumption that he just travelled, not settled. The liturgical connections with Saint Thomas Christians in India are grim and mostly ambiguous other than the presence of three prelates and use of Syrian language prayers and rituals. Apparently, during this epoch, Saint Thomas Christians began to celebrate rituals and prayers in Syriac and used the anaphora of Addai and Mari (without institutional narratives). These liturgical prayers were modified by Mar. Joseph Sulaqa (1555-69) added the biblical narratives of the Eucharistic institution as requested by Portuguese missionaries on the rationale that the existed prayers and rituals were without any coherence and structure. Later other prayers and rituals were modified and corrected by Portuguese missionaries under the leadership of Bishop Alexis Menezes and Synod of Diamper in 1599

3. The third epoch is the period of the Portuguese presence in Kerala. The connection with Portuguese missionaries began to influence the liturgical disciplines of Saint Thomas Christians in Kerala. Archbishop Menezes found many incongruities and discrepancies in the liturgical prayers that existed in the Syriac language. It raised a concern that they were not in conformity with Roman rituals. It is irrefutable that, under the leadership of Archbishop Menezes and the Synod of Diamper, many aberrations and corruptions in prayers were corrected. In the aftermath of Synod of Diamper, with due consultations and dialogues with the local clergy, Archbishop Francisco Ros improvised the existing Syriac prayers accompanied by necessary adaptations in thelLiturgy proposed by the Synod of Angamaly in 1603

4. The fourth epoch is the stage where our prelates are deliberating the future liturgy. They were confident that our liturgical heritage is a mixture and emerged through these three epochs. They had a profound vision of unity in diversity where peaceful coexistence is possible with collaboration with the different liturgical heritages that existed in India.

With their determination and profound faith, our forefathers were so certain that they wanted a peaceful coexistence between brethren faith of Latin Church, not other religions. Their motto was harmony and peace, never used religion as a tool of wielding power and waging war.

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Sep 10, 2021

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