Three Churches in India Work in a More Synodal Way

Light of truth

Bp Raphael Thattil, ShamshabadJ 

I have received a letter of Cardinal oswald Gracias referring to the letter of the Pope Francis to the Bishops of india in which he said the key word is “invited.” ‘They are not forced to take pastoral care,’ which means the syroMalabar faithful are not forced to take pastoral care from the syro-Malabar Bishops. anyone who attempts to put pressure on them would go against the spirit of the letter of Pope. The faithful cannot be restricted by any other authority. The letter therefore gives the impression that there is some sort of a pressure put on the faithful to be compulsorily part of the syro-Malabar Church. how do you respond to this issue? 

This accusation that people don’t want to joint the SyroMalabar diocese was always there. But, at the same time, wherever the dioceses were created, the people have gone for them. For example, in Kalyan as well as in Faridabad there were difficulties in the beginning, but once the people realised that they would benefit from it, most of them wholeheartedly accepted their own rite. The people are accepting their rite not because there are laws and teachings in plenty related to the preservation of the rite, but because there is an inner call to live the faith that they have received. The faith tradition lived and handed over by their forefathers is considered to be a most precious patrimony or paternal property by the migrants. Once the Syro-Malabar Church opens full-fledged centres, the faithful forget about the initial difficulties and flock together and follow their own rite. In his letter, the Cardinal raises a question to the Latin bishops about the ‘adequate’ pastoral care. That is in it an indirect admission that proper pastoral care was not given according the mind of the Second Vatican Council or as the Holy See wanted. This was the real cause behind the initial resistance by some faithful. The word invited is seen only once in the Letter of the Holy Father. It is not in the context of “free choice” as mentioned by the Cardinal but rather an invitation to preserve and embrace own rite. Therefore, the Cardinal has either misunderstood or misinterpreted the context. The Pope invites the faithful to live and preserve their rite and pass it over to their next generations. The spirit of the letter and the invitation is for the preservation of the rite.

The Pope’s letter clearly gives the message that this is not a question of power. is there any sort of competition between the two Churches?

Nothing at all! The letter is given to all the bishops of India. The Holy Father exhorts all to maintain cordiality. We are asked to avoid unhealthy competitions. Collegiality and cooperation will be in danger if the Latin Church and the SyroMalabar Church make their own interpretations according to their own convenience. It is not the right way of interpreting a letter of the Holy Father when it affects two different Churches. A one-sided misinterpretation would only sour the relationship. The letter itself invites the Churches to sit together and go into the depth of the letter and interpret the mind of the Holy Father (mens legislatoris). Any other type of interpretation would be to enforce pressure on the faithful and the Church and will not do any good for the unity and communion of the Indian Church in general.

now it looks as if both of you are interpreting the letter in two competitive ways?

The Letter of the Holy Father is a historical note containing a decision that completes and concludes the debate on a pertinent question that affected the Indian Church since a few centuries. The content of the letter is very clear. Regarding the modus operandi of its implementation, however, there was a discussion in the higher body of the CBCI. Two methodologies were suggested: first, all the three heads of the Churches sit together and interpret it. Second, the already existing “special commission” will take the call for resolving the inter-ritual matters. But to our utter dismay, in this case, the Cardinal has unilaterally interpreted the letter in his own way.

Do some syro-Malabar faithful in the latin diocese need to take permission for baptism, confirmation and marriage from the oriental bishop or parish priest? 

Clear provisions for it do exist in the Common Law and similar directions are seen in the Instructions of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, to which the Holy Father himself makes a reference. I sadly feel that actually the cardinal or the Latin bishops want to insist on an ‘indult’ situation. Indult means a license granted by the Pope authorizing an act that the common law of the Church does not sanction. In Kalyan, after the erection of diocese, some Syro-Malabar faithful wanted to continue in the Latin rite. An indult was given to them to do so by the Secretariat of State of Vatican which was praeter legem. The phrase praeter legem (outside the law) refers to an item that is not regulated by the existing law and therefore is not illegal. Later the indult was objected by the Syro-Malabar Church, especially the Canonists who said that the exceptions shall be intra legem, and not the praeter legem. Praeter legem is an exception, and the Latin bishops seem to want to implement it again for Shamshabad, influencing the Secretariat of State. To the request of a group of faithful of Faridabad diocese, the Holy See did not give them indult, as was in the case of Kalyan, but a decree interpreting the whole thing inside the law (intra legem). This instruction was given by the Congregation for the Oriental Churches for Faridabad, which is referred to in the letter of the Holy Father given on 9th October 2017. Pope Francis in his letter does not refer to the Indult given to Kalyan (praetor legem) but to the Instructions (intra legem) given to Faridabad, which insist that permission shall be obtained as per the provisions of the Law.

In the letter of Cardinal Oswald, is there a reference to Faridabad?

Cardinal Oswald knows the mind of the Church. He knows the Holy Father well, as he is one among the Council of Cardinals. But we are surprised by the “freedom of choice” theory proposed by him as it is seen neither in the teachings of the Church nor in the letter of the Holy Father. The second part of No. 8 of the letter of the Holy Father speaks about the exceptions. In fact, the letter of Holy Father presupposes that there will be people who are having difficulties, as there were already in the case of Kalyan and Faridabad. No serious Church person would generalize the exceptions. The Holy Father emphasizes that now there is no more dispensation required for such people, as it is already given as per the Canon Law, which is also clarified in the Instructions of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. To our great surprise, the Cardinal claims that the letter of the Holy Father supersedes the provisions existing then, referring to the Instructions of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches given to Faridabad.

In the Church there are two points of view regarding this issue. How will it be resolved?

As such, there is no unresolvable problem here, because the letter is very clear in itself. However, the ninth paragraph of the Papal letter speaks about sitting together, speaking together and acting together. That big provision is given in the letter. When we sit together, we cannot interpret just a few lines of one paragraph alone taking them out of text. It is to be understood according the mind of the legislator and in the integrity of the whole document. The letter of the Holy Father very clearly states that the three Churches acting together will be more beautiful, and it shall not be a matter of domination. The Holy Father says that, when this inter-ritual jurisdiction was given outside Kerala, it was well understood that coexistence is possible as Kalyan and later Faridabad and Mandya has proved that the rites in India can together witness Jesus in a better way. My request to all in authority would be to urgently meet together, reflect together and go ahead together as a one and united Catholic Church. We will be able to resolve all the problems, finding practical solutions to them.

Would you want to sit together and resolve the issue?

The Holy Father concludes the letter with this provision of dialogue, because he anticipates difficulties. Whenever and wherever we have difficulties, we have to resolve them in true ecclesial spirit, reflecting, dialoguing and praying together. No individual head of the sui iuris Church shall make own interpretation, but the Indian Church shall act together as one ecclesial body.

Perhaps you want an interpretation that is Catholic and participatory?

Definitely, the aim of interpretation is to bring more clarity on the topic. The interpretation is not aimed at victory for any side, but to understand the mind of the legislator on a pertinent issue. We need to find also practical solutions by consensus in areas where the letter is silent.

Pope Francis wishes to give more power to Bishops’ Conferences to provide some sort of a synodality for the Latin Church. Bishops’ Conferences do not have executive power as a Synod. Now there are a series of problems within the Church, which are pushed to the nuncio and go on unsettled, opening the way for media trials of accusations and counter accusations with no authority interfering. Do you think more executive powers should be vested on Bishops Conferences and on Synods?

I think that synodality is the way of the Church. We can see the Synodal functioning of the Church from the early Christian community. The power exercised in the Church is not monarchical. It is a collegial act. I find we are now in the difficult situation of having an interpretation, which is not collegial, and it will naturally have wide reaching repercussions over the whole Church in India. All the three Churches in India should work in a more synodal and collegial way. At least, the heads of the three churches or the Special Commission of CBCI should sit together and openly discuss matters and find solutions.

It is not a canonical issue; there are also moral scandals coming our way concerning a bishop, concerning a diocese or anything that affects the Church. Shouldn’t the Bishops’ Conference be able to address these kind of issues?

In the present situation, if synodality works, then I think it will be very effective, otherwise the episcopal councils may become mere decorative bodies. Sorry to say that they are not functioning as effectively as they ought to.

The time that we live in really calls for transparency in every matter. Are you suggesting the synodality to Bishop’s Conferences as a solution for it?

I think the present Church has to re-discover the process that was in vogue in the early Church. They came together and discussed whether they should receive pagans or restrict entry only to Jews. They came together and solved it. Synodality is the structure of the Church. I think for both Oriental and Occidental Churches, the crux of the whole issue is synodality. In the Oriental Church it is expressed effectively and in Occidental Churches in a very different way.

Other than the canonical issue, there would even be moral issues. Presently, CBCI or the Bishops’ Conference does not have the power to take any disciplinary action or at least conduct an enquiry on these issues. Do you think that kind of power should be given to Bishop’s Conferences in the Church?

In certain cases, sudden actions are necessary. When such decisions are not taken, it might damage the image of the Church. The pertinent bodies should involve themlves in these issues at least within a month. In certain cases, there may be some doubts about playing the role of leadership or to exercise authority. In the present scenario of the Indian Church, I am sure this is going to be a heatedly discussed. I think some crucial decisions are to be taken and somebody should be asked to act.


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