Rediff Navigator News

Kerala faction war may split the Church

D Jose in Thiruvananthapuram

The traditional Chaldeans (East Syrian) and the reformists among Kerala's Syrian Christians are on the warpath again.

Demanding an indigenous liturgy and autonomy to the Church, the reformists have formed the Nasrani Catholic Priests Conference. The priests met on Wednesday, and decided to disobey all the Bishops orders which are not in conformity with their demands. The meeting has also decided to hold demonstrations and hungers strikes against the Syro-Malabar Church comprising Syrian Christians.

Several other organisations like the Liturgical Action Committee, the All India Catholic Priests Association, the Malabar Church Action Council and the Malabar Church Priests Association have also decided to step up their campaign in the light of the Bishops's Synod's failure to find end the conflict.

The campaign would be further intensified after apostolic administrator Varkey Vithaythil submits his report. Vithaythil was in Rome last month to apprise Pope John Paul II of the 13-day meeting of the Bishops's Synod in June, when the reformists had created unruly scenes. The reformists are furious with the 22-member bishops's body, which is second only to the Pope in solving problems plaguing the Church, for not redressing their grievances.

The crisis in the Syro-Malabar Church, which has more than three million followers throughout India, started in 1989, when a new liturgy was introduced. The reformists rejected the new liturgy, saying that it contained features of the East Syrian (Chaldean) liturgy prevalent in the Church from the fifth to 16th centuries, when the Latin liturgy was introduced by the Portuguese.

As protests and demonstrations became the order of the day, the Liturgical Action Committee was formed to spearhead the movement against the new liturgy, much to the chagrin of the traditionalists.

The traditionalists favour the adoption of the Chaldean liturgy as they consider the Syro-Malabar Church ''a daughter church of the Chaldean Church'' which has its headquarters in Baghdad.

An attempt at formulating an indigenous liturgy was made by late cardinal Joseph Parecattil in the early 1980s. However, the Chaldeans did not relish the idea and they campaigned for the adoption of the Chaldean liturgy. The indigenisation effort petered out after the cardinal was removed.

The reformists challenge the rival faction's claim about the Church status. ''How can a Church formed by apostle St Thomas in 52 AD become the daughter of the Chaldean church, established in the fifth century?'' they ask.

The liturgical dispute has apparently given rise to a fierce power struggle in the Church.

While the reformists are said to be in majority in the Bishops's Synod, the traditionalists led by Changanacherry Archbishop Joseph Powathil has the backing of the Congregation of Oriental Churches, the official wing of Vatican that looks after the Syro-Malabar Church affairs.

The reformists say that Powathil has been trying to become the head of the Syro-Malabar Church. Liturgical Action Committee chairman, Professor P T Chacko said that an attempt was made by the Congregation to nominate Joseph Powathil as the major archbishop last year, when Antony Padiyara stepped down.

The traditionalists were up in the arms, and the situation was saved by the timely intervention of the Pope who appointed the apostolic administrator to look after the affairs until a permanent major archbishop is elected.

However, the reformists consider this a Damocles sword. Their leader Xavier Illickal said, ''Taking advantage of the situation, the Oriental Congregation is creating a majority for the Chaldeans in the Bishops's Synod. Recently, five vacancies were filled with Chaldean sympathisers.''

No wonder the Liturgical Action Committee has asked the Oriental Congregation to ''quit India''.

Illickal also alleged that more dioceses were being created in Kerala and outside to increase the strength of Chaldean bishops. Interestingly, the reformists do not have a single bishop.

The reformists's biggest fear is that once Powathil becomes the major archbishop the Chaldeanisation process will be hastened, leading to the destruction of the Church's native identity.

Professor Chacko told the Rediff On The NeT that the problems plaguing the church could been easily solved if the Bishops's Synod was given powers befitting an individual autonomous church.

Although the Syro-Malabar Church got the status of Sui Juris in 1992, the power to select bishops, transfer them, elect major archbishop and formulate liturgy was retained by the Oriental Congregation.

Professor Chacko said this was done with the ulterior motive of heralding the Chaldean supremacy in the Church. He also alleged that the Congregation was trying to split the Church.

Terming the criticism of the Congregation as an indirect attack on the Pope himself, traditionalists accuse the reformists of bringing back Latin traditions.

Though the common laity is deeply concerned about the developments, a majority of them have steered cleared of the clash. Many fear the Church will head for a split if steps were not taken immediately to end the feud.

They feel that the Church, which witnessed a split in 1653 following the imposition of the Roman mode of administration, cannot afford another one.

However, Vithaythil does not seem very optimistic about a rapprochement between the two warring sections. He said the liturgical disputes and the subsequent crisis were the work of a ''Satan'' trying to impede the growth of one of the most vibrant churches in the world.

Turmoil in Kerala church as Malabar-Chaldean faction war hots up

Tell us what you think of this report

Home | News | Business | Cricket | Movies | Chat
Travel | Life/Style | Freedom | Infotech

Copyright 1997 Rediff On The Net
All rights reserved