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Syro-Malabar Liturgy


Beginnings. The Indian Church, which claims St. Thomas as its founder, might have started out with a very simple worship form that was congenial to the context in the 1st century. It is very difficult today, however, to discern any element of that worship form and structure. A few of the pre-Diamper manuscripts are extant but do not reveal much of the early Indian liturgy. The decrees and acts of the Synod of diamper point unequivocally to the fact that the Indian Christians generally followed the East-Syrian (Chaldean) liturgical tradition in East Syriac language. The many missionary and other accounts on the lives and customs of the Indian Christians from the 16th century onwards confirm this picture. At the same time it is evident that a number of local observances connected with baptism, marriage, ceremonies for the dead, etc., were also in use. Many of the churches of Christians were built in the same architectural style as the Hindu temples. In the aftermath of the Synod of Diamper (1599), many churches began to be remodeled after the Portuguese style. A few adaptations in the pre-Diamper liturgy alluded to by one or two writers were the use of rice-bread and toddy or arrack for the Eucharist. A 16th-century eyewitness attested to the use (at least partial) of rice-bread. It is possible that in very few places the rice-bread or a mixture of rice and wheat bread was used, if not toddy or arrack. Not only the East-Syrian liturgy but also the local customs formed part of the heritage of the Christians, the "Mar Thoma Margam."

Latinization. With the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, the liturgy was increasingly latinized. A few new elements were introduced into the text of the Eucharistic liturgy; the sacraments were patterned after the Latin models, although the divine office (liturgy of the hours) appeared to have continued untouched until the 19th century. All this was done due to lack of understanding on the part of Latin missionaries regarding Oriental practices and Indian customs. The acts and decrees of the Synod of Diamper became the norms for these changes. In the aftermath of Diamper, a latinized East-Syrian liturgical model remained in use for over three centuries. In the 19th century, the divine office was latinized.

Reversal of Latinization. Ever since the partial restoration of the autonomy of the syro-malabar church toward the end of the 19th century, differences of opinion have emerged on its identity and on the question of its liturgical reform. A small minority has persistently insisted on the complete restoration of the East-Syrian tradition with one or two exceptions, e.g., the use of leavened bread in the Eucharist and marriage of clergy. In the early years, they even wanted to reestablish the jurisdictional ties with the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, a position that was later abandoned. But the Syro-Malabar community as a whole, and the vicars apostolic in particular, were opposed to this minority view. After lying dormant for a while, the restorationists were invigorated by the support it received in Rome from 1930s onwards. In 1934 a papal commission was appointed for the revision of the Syro-Malabar Pontifical. Its work remained incomplete until the late 1950s. In 1954 Pius XII set up another commission for the restoration of the texts of Eucharistic liturgy, sacraments, and the divine office. A controversy arose in the wake of these actions of Rome, especially when the commission repeatedly ignored the suggestions of the Syro-Malabar bishops, who were opposed to restoration of texts without revision and adaptation. The Syro-Malabar community became divided: the majority supporting the position of the bishops and the minority supporting the Roman commissions. From the 1970s slowly a similar division emerged within the ranks of the bishops.

From a historical standpoint, the St. Thomas Christians had been following the East-Syrian (Chaldean) liturgical tradition. At the same time, being an autonomous Church founded in India by an apostle, it is also necessary to emphasize its Indian character. This concern for Indianization or indigenization was intensified especially in the new atmosphere created by Vatican II. This is no easy task. Under the rule of Latin prelates for about three centuries, not only their liturgy had been partially latinized, but a great deal of Latin law, practices, and customs influenced their life. The theological and spiritual outlook had been practically latinized and Westernized. The influence of the Latin West had and continues to influence the Oriental Churches in India, while the Oriental influence is only very feebly felt in the community.

Chaldeanization or Indianization? This particular predicament in which the Syro-Malabar Christians are placed, creates a grave problem leading to a sort of identity crisis. At the risk of overgeneralizing, the predicament has led to the rise of two opposing groups within the Syro-Malabar community. The first group, sometimes known as the Chaldeanization group, has remained a small minority within the Syro-Malabar community. It argues that only the Latin elements are foreign and as such they alone need be eliminated while the East-Syrian (Chaldean) elements are restored to their pristine state in the liturgy. Some members of this group have accepted the position that after the process of de-latinization is complete, then perhaps the question of indigenization or Indianization may be taken up. The second group, the Indianization group, has been able to gain the support of the majority of the Syro-Malabar Christians, especially the clergy and laity. This group asserts that both the Latin and the East Syrian (Chaldean) elements are foreign and both must be eliminated or retained as far as it is necessary for the emergence of a truly Oriental Indian Church.

Members of the Chaldeanization group have advanced arguments in support of their position as follows: The Syriac language, they allege, was known in Kerala even before the Christian era. This meant that the early culture of Kerala had much in common with the Persian culture. The insinuation attempted is that the St. Thomas Christians and the East-Syrian Christians shared a common culture and therefore the East-Syrian (Chaldean) customs and practices, especially the liturgy, belong to this common cultural context. They consider St. Thomas as the Apostle of both India and Persia, and the Christians of India might have shared the East-Syrian (Chaldean) liturgy and customs from the beginning.

Members of the Indianization group considers the Chaldeanization group's arguments and hypotheses as contestable half-truths and unsubstantiated conjectures that are weak and far-fetched. They counter with the following arguments: The Apostle St. Thomas preached the gospel in India and initiated a simple form of Christian praxis, which took root in the natural soil of India, "absorbing from its nourishing elements" and, if found good, even borrowing from elsewhere. They pointed out that the St. Thomas Christians, after having accepted the faith continued to live the same social-cultural life as their neighbors. They consecrated this life with its various aspects food, dress, ablutions, other hygienic practices, marriage customs, ceremonies connected with the dead, other family and social customswith "the word and prayer" (cf. 1 Tm 4:5), made them acceptable to God with the Word they had received from the founder of their Church and the prayer he had taught them. This consecration would have gone on developing and produced, among other factors, an indigenous liturgy. This did not happen, they think, because of undue East-Syrian influence.

Restoration Process Continued. Despite the longrunning disagreement between these two groups, the process of restoration based to a pristine East Syrian (Chaldean) liturgy under the Roman commissions continued. A Syro-Malabar Pontifical restored along East-Syrian lines was promulgated in 1958. After a few changes and alterations, the vernacular Malayalam translation of the portion for priestly ordination came into use. Many have pointed out that the two principal defects of this text were the absence of the Liturgy of the Word and of the Anointing. While this restored text is used in some dioceses, another text that has the Liturgy of the Word and the Anointing is used in other dioceses. Other parts of the Pontifical underwent some changes but were not promulgated except the text for episcopal ordination.

The restored text of the Eucharistic liturgy was approved in 1957 and came into use in 1962, part Syriac and part vernacular. The text was a great disappointment to the community as a whole. Revisions began soon until, finally in 1968, a more satisfactory vernacular text approved by all the bishops, was introduced ad experimentium with the consent of Rome. Despite a few dissenting voices, this text was in continuous use in all the dioceses until 1986.

Experiments. In the wake of the spirit of openness engendered by the Second Vatican Council, a few experimentations were introduced by some individual bishops and groups. Two or more forms of what is called Indian Liturgy were celebrated on an experimental basis in some places. A "short mass" text also came into use in restricted areas. In the absence of texts for sacraments, blessings and Holy Week in the Malayalam vernacular, experimental texts were published on individual initiatives. Vernacular texts for the recitation of the divine office were also made available. The pro-restoration Chaldeanization faction challenged these developments. At the instruction of Rome, the experimental texts were withdrawn after 1980.

Versus Populum or Versus Altare? Sometime in the late 1960s all the dioceses introduced the practice of the celebrant facing to the people (versus populum ), fully or partially during Eucharistic celebration. In the late 1970s the pro-restoration diocese lobbied strongly for the practice of fully facing the altar (versus altare ). Subsequently, the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church adopted a compromise formula: versus populum during the preanaphora and part-communion prayers, but versus altare during the anaphora. As a result of stiff opposition from the vast number of clergy, religious, and laity, many bishops have had to waive the implementation of the synodal decision, allowing priests to face the people throughout the liturgy for the time being until an acceptable solution can be worked out.

Further Revisions. The 1968 text of the Eucharistic liturgy was an experimental text (ad experimentum ). Rome began to insist on a final text. The Syro-Malabar Bishops' Conference (the Syro-Malabar Synod was established only in 1993, after the elevation of the Church to Major Archiepiscopal status) started work from 1980 onwards for a final text with the help of a Central Liturgy Committee. The text submitted in 1981 was rejected by Rome. Another text of the solemn form was sent to Rome with the note that the bishops had seen it ("visum"), implying that the Syro-Malabar Bishops' Conference had not approved it. On the basis of the visum, Rome approved it and Pope John Paul II used it for the beatifying ceremony of Bl. Chavara and Bl. Alphonsa during his visit to Kerala in 1986.

This 1986 text did not find favor with a significant majority of the faithful and clergy in most of the Syro-Malabar dioceses. What they wanted was a simple form of Eucharistic liturgy for ordinary use on Sundays. Disregarding the Roman directives, many parishes continued with the 1968 text. As a result of further communications between Rome and the Syro-Malabar bishops, the Congregation for the Oriental Churches issued its "Directives on the Order of Syro-Malabar Qurbana [Eucharist] in Solemn and Simple Forms." This was approved by the pope in 1988. Based on these "Directives" a new text was prepared, which Rome approved in 1989 and came into use in the same year. This text also did not satisfy the majority of the faithful and clergy. They acquiesced, however, for the time being, accepting the promise given by the prelates of further revision in the future.

Present Situation. On Dec. 16, 1992, the Syro-Malabar Church attained Major Archiepiscopal status. One of the restrictions imposed by Rome was on liturgical renewal, a reservation that was withdrawn only in 1998. Therefore, the whole process of revision and renewal rests with the Syro-Malabar Synod. Following Vatican II, the necessity of inculturating the liturgy to the pastoral needs of the local context has been emphasized by papal and dicastery documents. The Syro-Malabar bishops have acknowledged the importance of a liturgy that is truly pastoral and not a museum-piece or an exercise in archaism, and recognized the clamor of the faithful and clergy for such a liturgy. But no serious attempt has been made so far along these lines. The only positive measure is the introduction of Indian languages and forms of music. The experimental Eucharistic liturgies of the 1960s and 1970s have simply been dropped, at the instruction of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. The tension between Chaldeanization and Indianization remains unresolved.

Bibliography: t. mannuramparambil, The Anaphora and the Post-Anaphora of the Syro-Malabar Qurbana (Kottayam 1984). a. m. mundadan, Sixteenth Century Traditions of St. Thomas Christians (Bangalore 1970). a. narikulam, "The Syro-Malabar Liturgical Reform," Tanima 1 (1993) 518. j. parecattil, Syro-Malabar Liturgy as I See It (Ernakulam 1987). j. podipara, The Syrian Church of Malabar (Chenganacherry 1938). r. f. taft, "The Syro-Malabar Liturgical Controversy," Tanima 4 (1996) 6078. j. thaliath, The Synod of Diamper (Rome 1958); The Syro-Malabar Liturgy and Liturgical Renewal (Alwaye 1980). e. tisserant, Eastern Christianity in India (Bombay 1957) 17586. j. thoomkuzhy, "Liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church," Tanima 1 (1993) 79105. j. vellian, ed., The Romanization Tendency (Kottayam 1975).

[a. m. mundadan]

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