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Union with Rome central to Syro-Malabar identity

 Union with Rome central  to Syro-Malabar identity  ING-021
24 May 2024

In January 2024, Mar Raphael Thattil was elected Major Archbishop of India’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. As is traditional, Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil made a journey to Rome soon afterwards, meeting with Pope Francis on 13 May. In an interview with Vatican News, the Archbishop spoke about the history of the Syro-Malabar Church, its missionary work abroad, its ongoing liturgical dispute, and his own recent encounter with Pope Francis. The following transcript has been lightly edited for reasons of style and brevity.

Archbishop, thank you so much for coming. Maybe you could begin by telling us a little bit about the Syro-Malabar Church.

The Syro-Malabar Church is one of the most active and missionary Churches among the Oriental Catholic Churches in communion with Rome. It is a Church founded by the Apostle Thomas. As per our tradition, Thomas came to India twice. First he went to North India, to a place called Bharuch in Gujarat. [Christians there] belong to the ‘Thomas Christians’, because they proudly say ‘Our apostle is Thomas’.

The second visit was to Kodungallur in Kerala. Kodungallur was a Jewish commercial city. Therefore, I consider that Thomas came to Kodungallur and Kerala in search of the Jews, as all the disciples had done. Sometimes people have asked me who translated for Thomas when he spoke Hebrew. The answer for me is the migrants — they were the translators. And our Church is a migrant Church. Maybe because of the blood relations, we travel very frequently. The Syro-Malabar Church has expanded from Kerala to all India and outside India. You will be surprised to know that we have only 35 dioceses. Only 13 are in Kerala; 18 dioceses are outside Kerala in India. And four dioceses are outside India in four continents: USA, Australia, Canada, and Preston, England. So what I would like to tell you is that ours is a missionary community.

And you’ve just become the head of this Church with this long history. What are some of your priorities?

First of all, I would like to thank God because this is the most powerful Oriental Catholic Church. Of the St. Thomas Christians, the major share are Catholics. And our forefathers always, with all the persecutions from missionaries, never wanted to cut off our communion with the Holy Father.

Once there was a temptation in our Church, when they found they were being very much restricted by [Western] missionaries. One group decided to leave Roman Catholic communion, not willingly, but because of the circumstances. Even then, our forefathers said, with all these persecutions, with all these restrictions, we would like to remain Catholic in communion with the Holy Father.

So I would like to proudly tell you that the Syro-Malabar Church has never ever broken its communion to the Holy See and the Holy Father. My wish is that we would continue our mission in the Catholic Church as a powerful Oriental Church, a very proactive Oriental Church ministering in the Catholic communion.

You mentioned union with the Pope, and you met him recently. How did that meeting go?

The Holy Father was very paternal. I never felt I am in the presence of the Holy Father — although he was the Holy Father! — but he was dealing with me as his son. He was listening to me as if I had something to tell him.

And when I spoke about the problems, his attitude was one of consolation: “Don’t worry. When you have a lot of horizons, problems are nothing. Problems make you more active. Problems make you more valid and credible.” I think that this is a big encouragement. Problems are not the end of the world. It will make you more credible and more valuable. So don’t worry about the problems.

It was maybe an accident — I saw the Holy Father at 7:45 in the morning. I may have been the first one received on that day and it was the 13th of May, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. It’s a coincidence, but I think it is very relevant for our Church because our devotion to the Church and Jesus is a devotion to Mary.

I could tell you that our forefathers always recited the rosary, and it may be a surprise for you that even today the Syro-Malabar families kneel before supper before the picture of Mother Mary to recite the rosary. In my experience, my family experience, the only day when we did not have family prayer and rosary is Good Friday. The rosary is very close to our heart. And our Church and our tradition still remain very much Marian in our spirituality. All the feasts, all the feasts of Mary are celebrated with fasting. For example, we have an eight-day fast for the Nativity, we have a 15-day fast for the Assumption, 25 days for Christmas, and 50 days of fasting for Lent.

The rosary is a Latin devotion, whereas the fasting is more typical of the Eastern Churches. So it sounds like there’s a mixture of the two approaches.

We have not received the fasting and penance tradition from the Western Church. It is a culture of India. I would prefer to say that the connection with the feast may be Western, but the fasting tradition comes from Indian culture. For every celebration Hindus, and Indians, fast. All feasts are preceded by fasting and the culmination of the fast is the celebration of the feast.

Earlier, you said that the Syro-Malabar Church is maybe the most active of the Eastern Churches. I know you do a lot of missionary work, both within India and also outside of India. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about that?

After the European missionaries came, most of the [Syro-Malabar] missionaries worked for the Latin Church in India. The Syro-Malabar Church was so generous and gracious as to provide our vocations to all the dioceses and religious congregations. There were about 30 bishops from the Syro-Malabar Church reigning in Latin dioceses. And in the Northeast, the Salesians did not have a province of the Syro-Malabar Church, but almost all the Salesians are from the Syro-Malabar Church.

We did not insist on our ritual identity. No: our quality in doing our mission work comes from our ritual identity and our family traditions. So our Church has always [been] a missionary Church, doing mission by ourselves and also helping the missions of the Latin Church.

There’s been a controversy for a while now in the Syro-Malabar Church about the liturgy. What is the current state of that dispute?

There is a controversy, but that controversy, according to me, is a little bit exaggerated by the media, especially social media. The liturgy is celebrated from the same text. [There has been] absolutely no change in the text. And we have decided, as per our Oriental tradition, to celebrate the breaking of the Word facing the people, and breaking of the Mystery, the Bread, facing the altar.

We have 35 dioceses and nobody mentions that 34 dioceses followed this decision. There is a little difficulty in implementing this in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam, which is the largest diocese and the principal city of Kerala. We have difficulties, but I, being elected as the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, wish to tell everybody: You shall not exaggerate the controversy beyond its real, actual situation.

This controversy can be settled. I hope that it can be settled amicably. There is an issue of ego and emotion because 34 dioceses followed it, but one diocese could not do it. One difficulty is that this diocese at present is under the care of a pontifical delegate, Cyril Vasil, and they have an Apostolic Administrator.

This is a temporary controversy which can be settled by amicable discussions and friendly approaches and things like that. So I don’t consider this controversy as the end of our Church. No. It is the sprouting of our Church. Now we will overcome it, we’ll overcome this difficulty and we’ll flourish. Because among the Oriental Churches, the most powerful Oriental Church, spread all over the world, is the Syro-Malabar church. The Church among the Oriental Churches capable of doing missionary work meaningfully and significantly both inside and outside India is the Syro-Malabar Church. So the Syro-Malabar Church will survive these difficult times and we’ll do our portion.

Would you like to add anything before we end the interview?

Thank you very much because, you know, this interview gives me an opportunity to talk about our Church and about our country, and you have made that opportunity. I tell you that the Vatican media service is very much appreciated by everybody, not only in India, but all over the world. Because I am a travelling bishop; I have travelled to everybody.

I consider that the mileage you give to the minorities like us is a very big thing. If you have given this platform for me, it shows your love for a minority community, a minority Church, but you are valid and you are valuable in the Catholic Communion. Vatican Radio and Vatican Media are very much listened to and attended by people all over the world, beyond your calculations — especially in India.

By Joseph Tulloch