India’s laity protests against changes in territorial jurisdictions
Delhi’s Catholics are refusing to move to territories under Syro-Malabar jurisdiction and have written a letter to the Pope
If it isn’t a conflict then it’s certainly not far off from becoming one. If it’s not a revolt then it certainly resembles one. It is above a mobilization of the laity who have ceased to be “sheep” that do not stray from the path marked out by their shepherds. Delhi’s Catholic community has been rocked by the protests of families that are feeling very unsettled because their pastoral care is being entrusted to a new territorial entity, without them having a say in the matter. The territorial entity in question is the Eparchy of Faridabad which comes under the jurisdiction of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. An eparchy is the equivalent of a Latin Church diocese and has legal jurisdiction over the administration of the sacraments and pastoral life of all baptized individuals that form part of it.
The Syro-Malabar rite is one of the three Catholic rites present in India. Aside from the Latin rite which is followed by the vast majority of India’s 17 million faithful – there are two other communities that follow the Eastern rite and are heirs to the St. Thomas tradition: the Syro-Malabar Church (of Chaldean descent) and the Syro-Malankara Church (close to the Syro-Antiochian rite). The three Churches have their own structures and jurisdictions. The two Eastern communities are based in Southern India (predominantly in the state of Kerala) and are spread across approximately thirty eparchies. However, over the years, priests and faithful throughout the rest of the country, have requested and obtained authorization to celebrate liturgies according to their own rite (even in their original languages), claiming the right to administer certain areas. This has led to the establishment of single Eastern rite parishes. When a certain number of dioceses are established within a region, the next step is to create an eparchy.
This process has never been easy and has sparked many disagreements and conflicts between the bishops of the three Churches. The Holy See is aware of these problems and during the various ad limina visits of Indian bishops – who just about managed to put together an inter-ritual Bishops’ Conference – it has always striven to remind them of the importance of unity given that “God is not divided”. But disagreements have resurfaced, bringing certain paradoxes to the fore.
The territorial expansion of the Syro-Malabar Church has always been a delicate subject. Clergy representing the Eastern rite often remind Latin bishops that vocations are flourishing: 70% of all CIndian Catholic clergy comes from Kerala and follows the traditions of the Malabar Church and yet only 0,04% of Indian territory is allocated to the Church. The Vatican took this on board and over the past few years, eparchies have started popping up in Bombay (the Eparchy of Kalyan) and Delhi (Eparchy of Faridabad), but also outside India, in Chicago and Melbourne, where masses of Indian Catholics emigrate to.
Priests, nuns and lay people following the eastern rite are welcomed in all Latin dioceses. Problems arise however, when it comes to institutionalizing their presence. In Delhi, for example, only a minority of local Catholics agreed with the creation of the eparchy, which the Holy See gave the go-ahead for in 2012. The issue continues to cause divisions not only among people belonging to different rites but also among Eastern rite faithful as well.
In November 2013, the bishops of Delhi (Latin rite) and of Faidabad (Syro-Malabar rite) announced that in light of the creation of the new eparchy, Faridabad was to be given jurisdiction and administrative control over all Syro-Malabar faithful in the area. Local faithful formed the Laity4unity movement and began a protest, demanding freedom of choice. They spoke with the bishops and the Apostolic Nuncio. Upholding principles such as co-responsibility, collaboration and subsidiarity, they sent a petition and a 150-page dossier to Pope Francis, recalling that “the divisions between Christians are a scandal.”
Meanwhile, lay groups born in Delhi and following the Eastern rite faiths are forced to pick up sticks and change points of reference and pastoral sees. The move is by no means easy. Having lived in Latin territories for several years or decades, many faithful are no longer familiar with Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala and the language in which the Syro-Malabar rites are celebrated in,. Priests and children seem lost. Practical problems arise when it comes to the celebration of marriages, baptisms and catechism classes. Hence the opposition to these imposed jurisdictional changes. The Laity4unity movement has gathered 6000 signatures but has the support of 26,000 people. Following the appeal sent to the local hierarchy, the petition sent to the Pope, requesting a revocation of the jurisdictional provision is perhaps their last hope.
The other issue plaguing the Indian Church is the caste question. The Syro-Malabar Church tends to see itself as a sort of élite, while Latin faithful belong to a lower social class. Joseph Kurien, one of the men who signed the petition set to the Pope, a scholar and former editor-in chief of the Catholic magazine Voice of Delhi¸ is very clear: the Syro-Malabar Church’s move resembles “ghettoization”. “The entire history of this Church, as well as its attitude even today is to look down with contempt on what it calls “Latins” in Kerala. This latent caste system actively nurtured by the SM Church has led to deep resentment among Latins. This apartheid is solely of the SM Church’s making,” he said in a statement.