When Portuguese missionaries arrived in what is now modern-day Kerala, India, they came face-to-face with an ancient community of Christians dating back to the ministry of the Apostle Thomas.
They encountered a Church with a Syriac liturgy, Persian bishops, its own unique form of administration and religious practices which, while Christian, also reflected the Indian cultures amidst which they had developed.
Initially positive, engagements with the ‘Thomas Christians’ eventually gave way to conflict as Portuguese clerics attempted to latinise their liturgy and to bring their Church under Roman Rite control.
In the following century, the Thomas Christians fractured into those who stayed in communion with Rome, the Syro-Malabar Church, and those who rejected the Jesuit headship of a Roman Catholic Portuguese bishop. These would later join the Antiochian churches and come to be known as the Syrian-Orthodox Church).
The global head of the Syro-Malabar Church today, Major Archbishop Cardinal George Alencherry, was in Perth last week to celebrate the liturgy with joyful local members of his Church and to confer the Sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation) on some of the community’s children.
“The Portuguese saw our liturgy and way of administration, at first, as quite strange because it was very much assimilated to the ways of the country,” he told The Record in an interview.
“At that time, the outlook of the missionaries was quite different. They had a monolithic understanding of the Church; that whatever was not the Roman way, or the Latin way, was not correct.”
After concerted petitioning in the 19th century, Rome granted two vicariates to Syro-Malabar Catholics which were eventually succeeded by the first Syro-Malabar dioceses.
In December 1923, the Syro-Malabar hierarchy was restored, with its own Metropolitan as head of the Church. In 1934, Pope Pius XI announced that latinisation of Eastern liturgies should no longer be encouraged; an acceptance of difference which has only solidified following the Second Vatican Council: “The Apostolic See itself understood the errors that had happened and they asked us to restore whatever was possible of the original liturgy and theology of Church administration and so on,” Cardinal Alencherry said.
With the Catholic Church experiencing something of a free-fall in Europe over the past 50 years, contemporary Western Catholics might be more forgiven for looking to Eastern rites for advice about the challenges of increasing secularism.
While the Church in the developed world faces the prevailing notion that religion is peripheral to ordinary life, the faith of Syro-Malabar Catholics is so integral to their lives that it does not make sense to speak of them as being distinct, the Cardinal said.
When asked what he might say to Roman Catholics in the West living with the stark post-Enlightenment divide between faith and reason, public life and private faith, he outlined what the Syro-Malabar Church does to cultivate its own faith.
“You are asking that question from the perspective of the Roman Rite Church. Such a question does not arise on the part of the Syro-Malabar Church because, right from the beginning, even the child is motivated to go to Mass by himself,” he told The Record.
There are certain elements the Church has stuck to, even during the latinisation period, he said; the first being their approach to liturgy.
“The liturgical celebration makes itself an experience for the community as a whole. The prayer is jubilantly taken up by all the people and not only the priest. We do not even have the expression ‘attending the Mass’. We are celebrating the Mass,” he said.
Children undergo extensive catechisation, including in their own families, with 12 classes of catechesis.
“The faith gets deepened in the person and they cannot simply forgo it. Even if there are temptations and certain failures etcetera, they will repent and come back; that is what is happening in our lives,” Cardinal Alencherry said.
Kerala has the highest media saturation of any state in India. Secularisation, the Cardinal agrees, is an encroaching trend but it is one the Church feels able to meet. He points to the large congregations he has seen during his visits to metropolitan centres throughout Australia.
“Even here in the West, where secularisation is at its highest, people still keep the faith.”
Family prayer, learning to recite prayers by heart, and regular meetings between families where people pray, share stories and eat together, anchor the faith in lived experiences, as does the Church’s system of fasting and abstinence.
“It was the same in my days, also. I still know the prayers I recited and studied when I was young and they sustain me now also,” Cardinal Alencherry said.
Perhaps the greatest point of difference between the Syro-Malabar and Roman Catholic communities is the way in which they are governed.
There are no clerical or lay fiefdoms in the Syro-Malabar Church; instead, the laity and their pastors govern the Church together. Every major decision is made conjointly by representatives of the people, and clergy.
Lay representatives are elected while priests have a canonical right to appoint experts as the need arises but the number of elected representatives always exceeds those appointed, Cardinal Alencherry said. If a priest has a dissenting opinion he must put it to the bishop and the bishop will make the final decision.
“It is not that easy to govern the Church together with the laity but, at the same time, we cherish it because the involvement of lay people in the Church becomes more vibrant. They will do anything for the Church. If they have a say in the matter, people contribute.
“It is not whether the Church does something for the people. No, that question does not arise. The people feel that they, together with priest and bishop, are the Church. Everybody is motivated together. That has become a tradition. It was not my merit or the merit of the people today. It came up like that, and we are very fortunate.”
That is not to say the Syro-Malabar Church has been free from internal divisions about its theology, identity and future.
For most of the 20th century, Syro-Malabar Christians relied on the Apostolic See in Rome to appoint their Major Archbishop, in large part because there was no prospect of them being able to agree upon a candidate themselves.
Where some advocated restoration to a pre-Roman, more Syriac-style of church, others felt at home with the way the rite had developed, including its Latin additions and wanted it to continue in that vein.
By the early 1990s, differing opinions were reconciled and the Syro-Malabar Church felt finally able to become sui juris, a self-governing entity.
“There are struggles,” Cardinal Alencherry said,”[but] we succeed rather well together”. Cardinal Alencherry is the first Major Archbishop in modern times to be elected by the Syro-Malabar Church’s own curia and not appointed by Rome (the curia was established in 1993).
The Church currently has 30 dioceses and 48 bishops united in the pursuit of a three-fold program of restoration, renewal and adaptation. In spite of past latinisation, their rites are unmistakably organic in origin.
Their marriage rite, for example, contains some of the same elements seen at Hindu marriage ceremonies – the garlanding of each spouse, and the wearing of wedding necklaces.
The sacramental understanding of what occurs and what marriage is, is the same as it is in all other Catholic rites.
The Cardinal said he had canvassed the idea of an Australian eparchy for the Syro-Malabar Church at the recent synod of Australian bishops and was encouraged by the support he found there.
Several Eastern-rite churches already have their own separate and independent ecclesial structures in Australia, including the Ukrainian Catholics, the Maronites and the Chaldeans.
Theirs is a rite, the Cardinal said, which will “easily merge with other ecclesial disciplines”.
“Australia is one of the countries that gives us much freedom. Certain episcopal conferences [and certain countries in Europe] are not that open. They may object, saying that it will create disunity but it is not true.
“Even if we follow our own liturgy and community life, it will always be in unity with the Australian Church.”
Cardinal Alencherry is also enthusiastic about the idea of a seminarian exchange program; an enthusiasm born of personal experience (the Cardinal spent time in Canberra when he was a seminarian).
A Roman rite seminarian from Canberra had recently spent time in Kerala with pleasing results, the Cardinal said.
“He was very much edified and very happy. He told [the coordinator of the Syro-Malabar Church in Australia] Fr Francis [Kolencherry] that his vocation is very much deepened now.
“The mutual exchange will enrich all the Church. We have many things to share with you and you have many things to share with us.”