Churches of Asia: Your Beatitude, you are now at the head of a growing church, which is also a milestone in its relations with the Latin Church.
Mar Alencherry: This is an important time in effect. The Syro-Malabar Church has had a turbulent history since its founding at the beginning of the Christian era (1). My church, which was Latinized from the sixteenth century, has regained its Eastern Aramaic rite only recently, in the early twentieth century and its hierarchy, restored in 1923. But the most important step is undoubtedly when John Paul II in 1992 raised to the rank of major archiepiscopal Church (2) and authorized it in 2004 to elect its own bishops. It was a decision long awaited by our community and the result of a long period of several decades with the Holy See! After the death of my predecessor, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, died 1 April 2011, our leaders gathered in Synod have been able to choose the first one who would guide them to the head of the Church. I was elected Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar in Cochin on May 24 and confirmed two days later by Benedict XVI, 26 May 2011 (2).
Do you continue the policy of your predecessor to the extension of the jurisdiction of the Syro-Malabar Church communities of the faithful under the administration of the Latin Church?
Yes, definitely. The question of territoriality of jurisdiction is the main difficulty we face in our relations with Rome. We return regularly on this issue, as in the Ad Limina visit to Rome last April, where all the Syro-Malabar bishops have again asked the Pope Benedict XVI that the authority granted in our own territory, could be extended to any India, and countries where the faithful of our community are now many, like the Persian Gulf region, Europe or Australia (3).
This is a problem that dates back to Emperor Constantine that he bequeathed to the church this way of thinking the church more as a canonical power and territorial, and as a communion of faith, vision is more in the tradition of the Eastern Churches. We have also no problems regarding the ecclesiastical territories and evangelism among our various Eastern Churches.
But the situation is changing gradually. At first, when we found our Eastern Rite, we had jurisdiction only over a part of Kerala, region of origin of our community. Then, after years of claims to the Holy See, we got the whole of Kerala, and then some territories in neighboring states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. This is what we call "the land base," that to which we have jurisdiction, and which now covers 18 dioceses. In all, the Syro-Malabar Church has currently 28 dioceses (eparchies) across India, over a diocese in Chicago, USA.
Shortly after your election, you have decided to launch "the year of the mission." How you exercise the pastoral care and mission in the dioceses that are not within your jurisdiction?
This is just the heart of the problem. The overlapping territories of the various ecclesiastical rites complex makes the exercise of pastoral care but also of evangelization. Apart from the "own territory", the Syro-Malabar dioceses are under the jurisdiction of the Latin Catholic Church but remain under the authority of the spiritual and liturgical primacy [March Alencherry - Ed]. In big cities like Bangalore, Delhi and Chennai (Madras), there are many Christians who would follow tradition and the Syro-Malabar rite but can not because they are under the canonical jurisdiction of the Latin Church and they struggle to recognize their right to practice their rites.
The Latin rite bishops argue that coexistence of several Catholic rites in a country with a Hindu majority component and a component Muslim minority, is likely to cause confusion and it does not help the unity of the Church. We regularly work in communion with the bishops of the Latin rite to advance the issue. It must be given time to act: things have changed and will change again. In a few years, I think we will see the establishment of new dioceses in the Syro-Malabar Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.
We believe that we have the right to evangelize as the Latin Church and Catholic Church as a whole, by definition, is universal. When I was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Thuckalay in Tamil Nadu, that's how I considered things and I think we did a good job at what I was told. We have two dioceses in Tamil Nadu, one for migrants from Kerala and one that has been clearly specified as "missionary". There was no Christian missionaries and the Syro-Malabar were invited to evangelize. This was also the case for the diocese based in Chicago: it is the American bishops who very generously asked us to come and work there: it is a single diocese, but covering the whole of America!
It seems that the Latin Church, especially in India, considers the Syro-Malabar Church as a local specificity, attached to the cultural and geographical sphere of Kerala. This is not the case at all! We belong to the universal Church, we are not an ethnic church. While the vast majority of the Syro-Malabar community in the world is home Kerala, the liturgy is celebrated today in different languages of Malayalam to Hindi through English or Tamil.
When discussing the mission, you also talk to the first unit. What you see as the main obstacles to this unity now?
To unity is paramount. And we must achieve this unity above all else, be it with other religions, with Christian churches or in the Syro-Malabar Church itself. As for other religions, the main problem facing the Catholic Church in India as a whole, is the fantasy of forced conversions. Hindus as Muslims fueling this fear of conversions and that's what triggered the wave of anti-Christian violence in 2008 which slightly affected Kerala but left marks (4). I think we must continually reiterate until it is heard and understood, that in Christianity, the conversion is a free choice of the person. I said: this is not the preacher who practices the act of conversion, the person who chooses to convert a personal act. And as a Christian, we introduce an additional dimension: it is God who converts the free gift of grace. Christian faith can not be understood by the persuasion of a person. How to collect a human intelligence that God is One in three people? It is a truth revealed by God who intervenes with his grace. That's what I always explain when we have interreligious meetings. We try to have one to two times per year.
Furthermore, the freedom to preach his religion is enshrined in the Constitution of India. A Hindu sage said to me recently when one of these meetings: "Considering that we have no right to propagate the faith here, why do I have the right to go to Europe to preach Hinduism? ". But for this to be understood in other religions, evangelism must be done without any pressure. This is where we have a real problem with some evangelical churches that strongly affect the evangelization by providing unintentionally a cons-witness. By giving a bad image of the Christian religion, they also discredit us because, for other religions, we are all Christians. They do not see the difference. For me, how to preach some of fundamentalism is and can be very badly received by the Hindus or Muslims. But although we are obliged to serve sometimes we do not agree with their speech or their actions, so that we do not confuse us with them, we do not want to stigmatize them as much, and we behave toward them as they could do ... It would not be very Christian, is not it?
And in the Syro-Malabar Church, what are the divisions that you mention?
For over three centuries, we were in the bosom of the Latin Church, under its jurisdiction and with a liturgy Latinized. This Latinization of our Church has left deep scars. At a time when there is much talk of the need for inculturation in the Church, it appears that with the arrival of Catholic missionaries of the Latin rite, our church was very close to Indian culture and even Hindu. But the missionaries of the time thought that all that Latin was not heretical or at least was not in the sense of the true faith.
The return to the Eastern rite and the recognition by the Latin Church of our specificity was very late. This is the Second Vatican Council, which initiated the movement and since then, things are changing slowly. But one consequence of the long time spent in court today Latin is a small part of the Syro-Malabar Church (laity, priests and even some religious) do not want to change the liturgy to which they were used to return to the Eastern rites. The pope himself has understood, that my predecessor said: "I know the problem exists within your church and I know he is due to centuries under the jurisdiction of Latin ... ".
I'll give you an example that illustrates this "quarrel rites" and it is the administration of the three sacraments of baptism, communion and confirmation. A small part of my church believes to be in the Latin Church, the first infant baptism and communion, and finally confirmation. For me it is not in the tradition of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that baptism and confirmation are received together, and we follow this tradition in the Eastern Churches is called the "sacrament of initiation." Baptism, confirmation and communion are all received, regardless of age. It's this whole "sacrament of initiation" that a Christian, which will later make a proclamation of his faith. Why do we administer baptism to children and not the other sacraments? A small part of my church does not understand this but I think that explanation, it will soon be possible to restore the unity of the Syro-Malabar community.
Catechesis has always occupied an important place in your ministry. Do you think it is a major issue for the Church in India?
This is a major issue for the whole Church and not just for India. I am convinced that the Eucharist, catechesis as the experience of faith. I told the Pope that we had not done in the Universal Church in our duty of catechesis and I regret that there is no Congregation for catechesis as there is one for the Propagation of faith (Evangelization of Peoples). The editors of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was a good thing. But we must go further.
This has always been one of the central points of my priesthood when I returned from France, I got involved heavily in catechesis, which I led in Kerala for the three Catholic rites and have published several books in order to serve the needs of catechesis Syro-Malabar Church (5). I think to develop catechesis, the system of "Sunday School" is the most effective and realistic. In highly secularized countries like yours, it is difficult to fit in the catechesis of the school or leisure. With Sunday school, catechism follows the Mass and accompanies it. But we must, for sure, parental involvement is not always gained! There are departures on weekends and feel that catechesis is not the parents. It is a mistake ...
What are the main guidelines that you want to give your mandate?
I took as episcopal motto "Serving the dialogue of truth and love." God is the dialogue of truth and love and the Church must continue this exchange: just as Jesus is the logos, it must be dialogos.
It is in truth and love that Christ gave His life for mankind and was resurrected. At all levels of the Church, the bishops to lay people, all must be in the process of dialogue, a dialogue which must also be made with the Christians who are not of our community and those who seek God in other religions .
With this vision of faith, we will never be desperate face of hardship and we have the courage and hope needed to tackle any situation, knowing that at all, Christ has gone before us and that we drew a path of victory over evil.
We are at a crossroads, a time of crisis in which the Church must give the direction that God himself has shown the love of neighbor and the offering of self. We must courageously renew from within the company, prepare to sacrifice our comfort and our certainties and ask for the grace of conversion of hearts to our neighbors.
As Christians, it is by example that we can get our message of love, incomprehensible to all those who live in the minds of the world. Like Christ who sacrificed himself to liberate humanity, Christians must give everything for others. A life given and sacrificed will be matched by others, although there will also always persecution. Every Christian should be expected because we preach something that goes against the natural desire of man.
I think we are at the crucial moment when the Church must reflect on itself and address the problems of humanity and those that exist in its midst. The Church must be aware of what is happening in the world in social, political, economic and ethical. Today is the tyranny of secularization, the spread of the deterioration of morals, the endangerment of family life and the trivialization of sexuality with spirituality has been lost. We must not be spectators of the decadence of society, we must instead restore these values based on love and truth, that God has placed in us. The Church must reflect the values of humanity and become an expression of love. If it is not hidden under a bushel, it will shine and the world we recognize. This is the real challenge that the Church faces today.
(1) According to tradition, the Eastern Rite Catholic Church Syro-Malabar was founded in the first century by the Apostle Thomas landed in India's southwest coast, Malabar. As the Syro-Malankara (Antiochene rite), the Syro-Malabar Church (Syro-oriental) follows a tradition long before the missionaries brought by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century Latinized. In 1599, she came under the jurisdiction of the Latin archbishop of Goa. It was not until 1919 that the Church Syro-Malabar rite finds his Eastern Aramaic and its hierarchy, restored by Rome in 1923. Today it has about 4 million of the faithful the vast majority are in Kerala, its historic home. After the Latin community, it represents the number of the faithful, the second Catholic Church in India. There are currently five archdioceses Syro-Malabar (India) and 24 dioceses established mainly in Kerala and also in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, and one of them to United States. The latter, the Eparchy of St. Thomas of Chicago, one diocese established outside India, was built in 2001. It brings together a large community and extends throughout the U.S. and Canada.
(2) The election of March Alencherry represents an event of great historical significance. Breaking with centuries of Rome appointed bishops by the Synod meeting the leaders of the Syro-Malabar Church elected its primacy is headquartered in the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. On the election of March Alencherry, see the dispatch of June 7, 2011 EDA:
(3) See dispatch EDA: http://eglasie.mepasie.org/asie-du-sud/inde/lors-de-son-dernier-synode-leglise-syro-malabare-a
(4) See 492 and 499 EDA
(5) The interest of George in March Alencherry for catechesis is old. After being director of education to the faith of the Archdiocese of Changanacherry and Secretary of the Commission for Catechesis of the Council of Bishops of Kerala (KCBC), he perfected his studies at the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique Paris, where he earned a doctorate in theology from the Bible. On his return to India in 1986 he was appointed director of the center of eastern pastoral Palarivattom, then taught at the seminary in Vadavathoor, an activity he continued after being called to become the first bishop of Thuckalay. Secretary of the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Bishops and director of the commission for the major archiepiscopal catechism Alencherry March is also the head of the commission for the secularism of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI). He has published numerous books and articles on morality and catechesis. For other biographical information on March Alencherry see EDA dispatch of June 7, 2011 and the website http: / / www.ernakulamarchdiocese.org / archbishop.php