Action Alert!

Catholic World News News Feature

New Head for Syro-Malabar Church February 18, 1997

By Anto Akkara

Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, the newly appointed apostolic administrator of the Syro-Malabar Church in India, assumed office at Ernakulam in the southern state of Kerala on January 18 in a solemn installation ceremony. Present at St. Mary's Basilica, the seat of the archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, were more than 200 priests and 20 bishops, along with delegates from the Vatican.

Archbishop Vithayathil, a native of Kerala and Redemptorist priest, was ordained to the episcopacy in Rome by Pope John Paul II on the feast of Epiphany. He was then installed as the apostolic administrator and acting head of the Syro-Malabar Church, with all the powers of the major archbishop, to serve until a new major archbishop is elected by the Syro-Malabar synod.

The Vatican had accepted the resignation of the last major archbishop, Cardinal Antony Padiyara, on December 18, for health reasons; he is suffering from Parkinson's disease. To fill the gap caused by his resignation, the Holy See chose to appoint an apostolic administrator to head the Syro-Malabar Church. One of the largest of the Eastern-rite churches, with 3.2 million faithful, the Syro-Malabar communion traces its origin back to St. Thomas the apostle, who reportedly reached Kerala in 52 AD.

Cardinal Padiyara had been made the first major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church in December 1992, when the Church was first granted autonomous status. However, at that time the Vatican reserved some important powers, such as the right to appoint bishops and to set liturgical standards. So Cardinal Padiyara shared his authority with the pontifical delegate, Archbishop Abraham Kattumana. It was only when Archbishop Kattumana died unexpectedly, of a sudden heart attack in April 1995, that Cardinal Padiyara assumed the right to preside at meetings of the Syro- Malabar synod.

Father Jose Porunnedom, chanceloor of the Syro-Malabar synod, acknowledged that "until the death of the pontifical delegate, the major archbishop was only an honorary head" of the Church. But even after Cardinal Padiyara assumed his new role, the major archbishop did not have the authority to settle debates on liturgical questions which had caused deep divisions among the faithful. Rome had maintained authority over that key issue, even after granting autonomous status to the Syro-Malabar Church.

The January appointment of an apostolic administrator was one of many moves made simultaneously by the Holy See in an effort to end discord within the Eastern-rite Church. Episcopal appointments and transfers affected seven of the 21 Syro-Malabar dioceses, while the Archdiocese of Chenganacherry was split to form a new diocese. But the appointment of Archbishop Vithayathil was easily the most important effort to restore unity within the Church.

The liturgical dispute which has been dividing the Syro-Malabar faithful pits two groups in stark opposition. On one side are those who favor a "Chaldean" approach, which would return the liturgy to its roots in the Syrian tradition. On the other side are those who favor the "Indian" approach, making the liturgy more responsive to the culture of the country in which the Church is based. Last November, after a meeting of the Syro-Malabar synod, the disputes between those two camps became so heated that there were noisy public demonstrations outside the building where the bishops were meeting.

However, both sides of the conflict have responded favorably to the latest Vatican initiative, expressing their optimism that the new apostolic administrator will be able to settle their disputes bring about a new sense of unity.

Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Oriental Churches, made the wishes of the Holy See quite clear in a formal message to the new archbishop, which was read at his public installation ceremony ""I wish to express my congratulations and my prayers that [the appointment] may bring renewed harmony and hope to the entire Syro-Malabar Church," Cardinal Silvestrini wrote. He expressed the hope that the Church, "blessed with such vibrant faith and evangelical fervor, will be able to move forward with increasing zeal."

The Syro Malabar church, the second most populous Eastern-rite Church (after the Ukrainian Catholic Church) is indeed one of the most vibrant churches in the Catholic communion. The Church, based in Kerala, has provided nearly 70 percent of India's 100,000 priestly vocations.

"Now there is a new atmosphere. The apostolic administrator appointed by the Vatican should be able to sort out the problem," said Archbishop Joseph Powathil of Chenganacherry, president of the Indian bishops' conference, and a leader of the Chaldean faction. He said that the appointment indicated "a renewed effort to end the difference of opinion in the Church." While he rued the hostility and negative publicity created by the liturgical debate, the archbishop observed, "this is the price the Church leadership has to pay for neglecting to educate our people on our liturgy and faith for years."

From the opposite side of the liturgical debate, E.K. Paul-- the chairman of the Malabar Church Action Council (MCAC), which was instrumental in organizing a protest march to the bishops' synod last year to express opposition to the Chaldean faction-- predicted that Archbishop Vithayathil "should be able to develop a consensus on the contentious liturgical question." He added: "The archbishop is a local man and is well aware of the problem facing the church."

Among other things, Archbishop Vithayathil's background as a native of Kerala may help him to understand that the liturgical battles wracking the Church are primarily a local issue, involving contending factions within Kerala itself. "Right now, the liturgical conflict is confined to Kerala only. Syrian (Catholics) outside Kerala are not affected by this," pointed out Father Sebastian Vadakkumpaden, a chaplain for Syrian Catholics in the Archdiocese of Delhi. (Although more than 80 percent of all Syro-Malabar Catholics live in Kerala, nine of the Church's 22 dioceses are located elsewhere.) Nevertheless, Father Vadakkumapaden pointed out that "the evangelization thrust and the mission of the Church especially outside Kerala have suffered due to the conflict."