In a historic decision, Pope Francis has extended the administrative powers of the Syro-Malabar Church across India, removing restrictions imposed since the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century.
The pontiff of the global Catholic Church has authorised the eastern rite church to have pastoral powers across India, despite some reservations by the majority Latin-rite bishops in India. The Vatican’s move has been appreciated by Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar, who is also the head of the eastern rite church.
With the removal of the centuries-old restrictions, Syro-Malabar Church has now got the freedom and rights for the pastoral care of its faithful who have migrated from Kerala to other parts of the nation and also to engage in evangelisation activities across the nation.
Incidentally, the smaller Kerala-based Eastern-rite Syro-Malankara Church has already been empowered to play the pastoral role all over India. Major Archbishop Cardinal Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis is the head of the Syro-Malankara Church. Significantly Cardinal Cleemis is currently also the chairman of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, the apex body of the Latin rite and the two eastern rites Catholic church in the country.
The Syro-Malabar Church will exercise its newly gained rights in unity with the larger Latin-rite Church, and the other Eastern-rite Syro-Malankara Church.
While announcing the extension of rights of the Syro-Malabar Church, Pope Francis has also announced the creation of two new Eastern-rite dioceses, Shamshabad in Telangana state and Hosur in Tamil Nadu. The new diocese of Shamshabad will have jurisdiction over all areas of India outside the existing Syro-Malabar dioceses.
The Second Vatican Council held in the 1960s had stressed the freedom and responsibility of Eastern-rite churches. Subsequently, the Kerala-based church’s clergy had begun working in several places outside Kerala despite resistance from Latin-rite bishops.
The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is one of the 22 Eastern (Oriental) Catholic Churches in full communion with Vatican. It is also the second largest Eastern Catholic Church after the Ukrainian Church and the largest of the Saint Thomas Christian (Nazrani) denominations with 4.6 million faithful.
The two eastern rites – Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches, claim their origin from St. Thomas the Apostle, who as per the tradition, preached Christianity in Kerala 2000 years ago and was martyred there.
What are the Church rites?
A rite represents a church’s tradition of worship, prayers and about how the various sacraments are to be celebrated. Both the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara churches, or for that matter, all Kerala churches following St Thomas tradition, mainly use Malayalam as the language for worship.
There are over 20 rites followed in the Catholic church, Roman or Latin rite being the most prominent one. Of India’s 180 Catholic Church dioceses, 132 belong to the Latin rite. Syro-Malabar Church now has 34 dioceses while the Syro-Malankara Church has 14 dioceses.
Both the Catholic Eastern rites have their own church heads who owe allegiance to the Pope. Incidentally, both the present heads of the two eastern rites have been elevated by the Holy See to the ranks of cardinal.