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Uniform Mass Row: Will a Standoff Split Kerala’s Age-Old Syro Malabar Church?

The Syro Malabar Church is one of the oldest and largest churches in Kerala.

Updated
India
6 min read
Uniform Mass Row: Will a Standoff Split Kerala’s Age-Old Syro Malabar Church?
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In Kerala, the Syro Malabar Catholic church, which is over 2,000 years old has been facing an identity crisis of sorts for the last few months. The Syro Malabar church is the largest Christian denomination in Kerala.

The church, which is believed to be the oldest Christian church, in Kerala has been hit by a controversy over the implementation of uniform mass across its dioceses in the state.

The question is seemingly simple: Should the priest face the congregation or the altar while delivering the mass?

The 'holy mass' is a religious ritual performed in memory of Christ's last supper with his 12 disciples. As part of the ritual the priest breaks bread and offers it to the congregation to remember Christ's crucifixion.

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To bring about uniformity in the delivery of the mass, the synod (supreme council of the church that decides on doctrine and administration) issued a directive to implement a uniform code across all its dioceses or regional administrative units.

This is not a new attempt at implementing such uniformity, but what makes it a big issue this time is the involvement of the Vatican and one diocese’s ‘disobedience’ to the directive.

Out of the 35 dioceses in Kerala, 34 agreed to the unified form of conducting the mass, except for the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. In this diocese, many religious leaders and churchgoers were seen taking to the streets and even sitting on hunger strikes for weeks, to protest the order.

Could there be a split in this age-old church based on the directive on uniform mass? Here's what we know.

The 45th day of the protest against uniform code.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Is the Change in Mass Practice an Affront to Syro Malabar Church Culture?

A dominant section among the Syro Malabar Catholics claims that their ancestors were the first to be baptised in Kerala. They claim that they are descendants of the families which were baptised in Kerala by St Thomas, a disciple of Jesus Christ. They are also known as 'Nasranis'.

The Syro Malabar Church is an Eastern Catholic Church or Oriental Catholic Church under the code of canons of the eastern churches. It is headed by Major Archbishop Mar George Cardinal Alencherry. The word 'Syro' comes from Syria and 'Malabar' is indicative of the Malabar coast in India.

St Mary's Cathedral Church, Changanacherry. 

(Photo: Tania Thomas/The Quint)

What's the significance of the name Syro Malabar?

Kerala has been an important trading point in the Arabian sea. The ancient port city of Muziris, located in today’s Indian state of Kerala, was one of the most important trading ports in the world, almost 2,000 years ago. The port traded with Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, Egyptians, and the Roman Empire.

Along with Muziris, Kozhikode port city on the Malabar coast began to grow in AD 1100 as a notable trade centre under the Chera kings. The port city later became one of the most important seaports in India after the arrival of Portuguese sailor Vasco Da Gama in 1498.

Sailor Vasco Da Gama 

(Image: History Archives)

"When the Portuguese came, they were following a different church, eastern churches are different in their cultural practices from Europe. When Vasco Da Gama came to Calicut he mistook a temple for a church because the Portuguese churches' architecture was similar to a temple," explains Dr Jigy Joseph Koottummel, a professor of English Literature who has been researching on the subject.

As such Kerala has seen an influx of these different cultures, which has influenced the local culture to a large extent. And the Syro Malabar Church has also been highly influenced by these cultures.

Moreover, the church was also influenced by the practice of caste in Kerala.

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Syro Malabar 'Tradition': Caste Within the Church

The dominant caste Syrian Christians among the Syro Malabar Catholics have been claiming that they are descendants of 32 Nambudiri or Brahmin families which adopted Christianity through St Thomas.

The earliest known source connecting Apostle Thomas to India is the 'Acts of Thomas,' likely written in the early 3rd century. A number of 3rd and 4th century Roman writers also mention Thomas' trip to India. These accounts do support the arrival of Syrians to Kerala in the 1st century, along with the arrival of the Jews around the same time.

Yet there is no known historical evidence to support the claim that Nambudiri families exclusively were converted to Christianity, and this has been a source of debate within the community also. Some historians even argue that the names of the Brahmin families were made up by Nasranis to claim dominant caste status.

The existence of separate churches for Dalits who have adopted Christianity, goes on to prove how caste has been intrinsic to the community. 

Historical evidence points to Syrian Christians adopting Brahmin customs in the middle ages.

Medieval historian Pius Malekandathil believes that these customs were adopted during the beginning of the Brahmin dominance of medieval Kerala. He argues that the Syrian Christians in Kerala, integrated with Persian Christian migrant merchants in the 9th century to become a powerful trading community.

Malekandathil says Syrian Christians were granted trade privileges by the local rulers, to promote revenue generation and to undermine Buddhist and Jain traders who rivaled the Brahmins over religious and political supremacy.

The existence of separate churches for Dalits, who have adopted Christianity, also goes on to prove that caste has been intrinsic to the Syro Malabar Church. Other denominations among Christians also practice caste.

The uniform mass row is, however, more about the church's traditional rituals than the 'tradition' of caste practice.

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Uniform Mass Row: Why is One Diocese Against It?

According to the unified system, the priest is expected to face the congregation during the first half of the mass and then away from them, and towards the altar, during the second half of the mass.

Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese has, however, demanded that the priest should be allowed to face the congregation during the entire duration of the mass. This has been the practice for about 50 years now, the archdiocese has argued.

Shaiju Antony, who is a member of Almaya Munnettam, has been protesting the uniform mass order saying that it is against the theology that has been followed up until now.

"Why must the priest turn his back towards the congregation? Why must we hold on to the Syrian identity and culture, we must have our own culture," he says.

However, there are many from the diocese's laity or community who have been wanting to follow the unified system, for the sake of unity and for the sake of 'obedience' to the church's orders. Many among them have also been staging protests and hunger strikes for the same.

Strike lasted for 55 days outside Major Archbishop's house.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

But Pope Francis got involved and supported the uniform mass. Following the Pope's letter, Archbishop Alancherry conducted uniform mass at St Mary's Cathedral. A section of the cathedral's congregation, however, opposed the move. Others were in support.

The parish priest at the cathedral refused to follow the mass in the unified system, resulting in protests. The church was closed from 18 April to 22 April as a sign of protest.

A section has, however, offered their support to the Pope and the Archbishop.

"We have also received a letter from the Pope regarding the uniform mass. Since the bishop conducted the mass in the unified system, the rest of us must follow it. The St Mary's Cathedral, being the cathedral church here should have followed it, but they did not," says George Joel, who has been attending masses in the Ernakulam-Angamaly diocese.

Church closed to protest against the parish priest of St Mary's Cathedral.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Letter from the Bishop.

(Image: Accessed by The Quint)

Meanwhile, Fr Paul Karedan, former PRO of the Syro Malabar church is of the opinion that "beauty lies in diversity. Destroying the vibrancy will damage the beauty of India. We can't sacrifice unity for the sake of uniformity. We want to, however, be more flexible and acceptable to the people."

Now the protest is 'on hold' for another week and those for and against the order are awaiting directives from authorities to know the way forward.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Kerala   Easter   Christian 

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