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Toothless tiger and sinister strategies: Synodality and the Syro-Malabar Church

Mr. Johny Chengalan

Synodality is a term that has gained popularity under the papacy of Pope Francis. The openness, transparency and inclusiveness that mark his papacy, make him distinct from many of his predecessors. His exhortation to the shepherds to have the odour of the sheep and his faithfulness to walking the talk or practicing what he preaches has made him stand out as a leader with integrity. Pope Francis didn’t mind swimming against the current in exhorting the people of Europe to welcome Muslim refugees with open arms. For this reason, he became unpopular with a section of the global community. Discarding the past practice of a centralized decision-making mechanism, he has advocated openness in every facet of life in the Church. He said that the opinion of the least in the kingdom of God needs to be listened to. The lone voice of an ordinary member of the Church is important and hence deserves to be heard.

While claiming allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church headed by the Pope and portraying the latter as the best example of being Christ-like, the Syro-Malabar Church hierarchy alone seems to deviate from the path of Synodality charted out by the Pope. That’s why the demand for Eucharist versus Populum raised by half a million believers in it seems to fall on deaf ears. For them, the Synodality means unquestioned obedience to traditions. Ninety-eight percent of Catholics all over the world find Eucharist versus Populum spiritually nourishing enough to continue with it. These feel that the congregation of God’s people can fully partake of the Eucharist only under the people-facing Eucharist. The 50:50 formula denies the faithful the opportunity of being one with the celebrant and the Eucharistic mystery during the Eucharistic prayer. Accepting traditions blindly or embracing them wholly may not be in consonance with the openness that Synodality denotes. And yet in the last one year, the most frequently raised question in Syro-Malabar Church circles is: “If 34 dioceses in the Syro-Malabar Church accepted the new formula, why can’t Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese follow suit?” It is not easy to answer this question, precisely because it ignores the opposition raised by six retired bishops in the Synod against the imposition of the hastily conceived formula. A point to note here is that even when 34 dioceses have accepted the Synod formula, tremors of opposition against it can still be felt in several dioceses. That the Anaphora of Nestorius, father of the Nestorian heresy, condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, has been included in the revised text of the Eucharist shows the danger that wholesale absorption of tradition can entail.

The Synod Fathers should not behave like trade union leaders. They should not project themselves as the sole proprietors of the Syro-Malabar Church. The Synod is a coming together of shepherds to lead the Church in the 21st century and not in the medieval age. Of course, in the 21st century one cannot expect the sheep to be sheepish as they were perhaps in the past. Today’s sheep are educated as never before, opinionated unlike in the past, and also have vivid convictions about what the Church should be and how the liturgy in it is to be conducted. The Synod is not empowered to chastise such a flock but be generous enough to listen to them.

Those who seek to take the SMC to the pre-Vatican period are consciously labouring to keep thousands out of the Church. The freedom to worship in the way they did for the past sixty years cannot be snatched away from them overnight on the ground of obedience.

The day Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese stops celebrating Eucharist versus Populum I will be the first one to quit and join the Latin community for worship simply because the Eucharist I believe in is always the Eucharist versus Populum.

The Oriental Congregation headed by Cardinal Sandri knows that the Syro-Malabar Church is an independent unit of the Roman Catholic Church. So what need is there for his frequent interference and interventions in matters concerning the liturgy of this individual Church? In any case, sitting thousands of kilometers away in Rome can he feel the heartbeat of the faithful of Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese or know the exact conditions prevailing in the Syro-Malabar Church, except through the prejudiced information passed on to him by the Chaldean lobby which has taken control of the department he heads? Why isn’t he visiting Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese to assess the conditions prevailing in the Archdiocese before shamelessly parroting the Chaldean ideology? Does he care to check whether the information passed on to him by vested interests working under him is authentic or prejudiced?

What should Synodality mean for the Syro-Malabar Church now? Six decades ago, when the Vatican Council embarked on a path of reform in the Church, one Bishop in the Syro-Malabar Church chose to adhere to what he claimed was the tradition of the Syro-Malabar Church. A Bishop is empowered to take decisions concerning any matter affecting his diocese, even in matters like liturgy, provided such decisions do not militate against the tenets of the Church. Therefore, displaying the real spirit of Synodality, a term which was not in vogue then, the entire Catholic Church permitted him to have his way without raising objections or erecting obstacles in his path. Cardinal Parecattil and others after him did not organize a smear campaign against the lone crusader for traditionalism and orthodoxy. Like the proverbial Arab who allowed some space for the camel in the tent at night and found himself outside it in the morning, so was the predicament of the Prelates of the Syro-Malabar Church when the lone crusader spread his tentacles wide and pulled the carpet from under their feet. Gradually the crusader took on the role of the conqueror and spread his tentacles everywhere except Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese. He likes to celebrate the surrender of Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese, the last bastion of adherents of Eucharist versus Populum before the Chaldean potentates. However, that is not going to happen. Ernakulam is not an easy ground for any aspiring conqueror basically because it has a glorious history of resistance to injustice.

The Synod of Diamper and the Koonan Kurisu Satyam took place in the heartland of Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese. Just as the dissenting voice of Mar Powathil was respected by the eminent Prelates of Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese, we call upon the advocates of the uniform 50:50 formula to respect the dissenting voice of the flock of Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese. If Mar Powathil and his successors in Changanassery were left alone then, today we demand that we be left alone. That would be Synodality. Synodality is synonymous with diversity. It does not stand in the way of plurality; it respects the other from a Christian viewpoint.

Synodality does not speak the language of coercion, but speaks the language of persuasion. It does not believe in the majority dictating to the minority but accepts the latter’s perspective for the sake of peaceful co-existence. Synodality does not believe in blaming one another but believes in supporting one another. It stands for accommodating and accepting the views of the other, without being swept off one’s feet by any ideology. Synodality is not revelling in authority; it is following the Master’s example of humility and service. It stands for dialogue and discussion; it does not imply unilateral decisions and their implementation. Synodality does not consisting in vilifying those who disagree but believes in respecting others’ freedom to dissent. Synodality does not seek uniformity but exults in unity founded on love and faith. Synodality does not pave the way for hatred; it fosters love as the Master showed. Synodality is being faithful to the Lord and to his teaching. It does not harp on obedience but insists on following the promptings of one’s conscience. It exhorts everyone to be Christ-like in thought, word and deed. It implies giving up what is not in tune with Lord’s teaching.

The 34 dioceses which reluctantly or willingly follow the 50:50 formula should not conspire against the flock in Enrakulam Angamaly Archdiocese. The Syro-Malabar Synod and the Congregation for Oriental Churches should not scheme against us. The Pope should be apprised of the truth. Cardinal Alancherry and Archbishop Thazath should speak the truth. When a Prelates says that 99 percent of the faithful in Ernakulam Angamaly Archdiocese desire Synodal Mass in the Archdiocese, he is not sounding credible. The rally on August 7, 2022, was attended by about 60000 people as per conservative estimates. That makes it at least 10 percent of the flock in Ernakulam Angamaly. So how far is Mar Thazath from the truth?

I have come to know from reliable sources of another step taken by Mar Alancherry to have his way. He has written to the Mother Superiors of the nuns in the Archdiocese who dared to attend the rally at Kaloor on August 7, 2022, to submit apologies for doing so. So, our Major Archbishop can stoop so low, he has proved again. The toothless tiger has to rely on sinister strategies to retrieve power. What a shame!

Mr. Johny Chengalan is a renowned historian, author and accomplished project Manager in India. He is currently residing in Kerala and historian of events in the Syro Malabar Church.

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