Saturday 16 March 2024

Syro Malabar Major Archepiscopal assembly 2024: An appraisal

Guidelines for discussion in the Syro Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Assembly 2024

Dr Martin Thomas Antony

Syro Malabar Major Archi-episcopal assembly.

Syro Malabar Church is an oriental sui iuris Church in the East Syriac tradition. The fifth Major Archi episcopal assembly is going to be held in August 2024. The Major Archi episcopal assembly cannot be even considered as a shadow of the glorious Palliyogam of Syro Malabar Church(Syriac church of Malabar of Saint Thomas the Apostle). The palliyogam was the traditional governing body of the Church which had the authority in all temporal matters of the Church and community as a whole even judicial powers. The Bishops were spiritual leaders who were traditionally monks from ancient remote monasteries. The palliyogam consisted of the Desathupattakkar and laymen in different levels- Edvaka palliyogam,(parish level) desathu palliyogam (regional level)-at least 4 parishes and mahapalliyogam, the national level.

Today, the Syro Malabar Church lost its identity in the colonial or imperial system of Roman Catholic submission and the lay involvement is only as an advisory body.  Now, in this period of Synodality in the Catholic Church, the palliyogam with its ancient glory and powers is very relevant in the Syro Malabar Church.

Guidelines and evolution of working document (Linea menta and Instrumentum laboris

For facilitating discussion in the Major Archi episcopal assembly, a guideline or linea menta has been formulated by the Church for wider discussion to formulate a working document (Instrumentum laboris) for the Major Archi episcopal assembly.

Three themes are given in the guidelines for discussion in various levels to develop the working document for the assembly

They are.

1 Renewal of faith formation in Syro Malabar Church.

2 Strengthening the lay faithful for the effective proclamation of the Gospel

3 Empowering the Syro Malabar community.

As a whole, the mindset of this guideline does not show the face of Syro Malabar Church as an oriental sui iuris Church. It gives the perception that it is an offshoot of the Roman Catholic church which happened to have a different liturgy due to historical reasons. In reality, the Roman Church and Roman Pontiffs or the Catholic Church want the Syro Malabar Church to flourish in her own genuine traditions and liturgical and theological patrimony, its own discipline and culture as an invaluable treasure, upkeeping the precious fidelity to the sources of the mystery of salvation and as an intangible divine deposit which guarantees the continuity and authenticity throughout the time from the Apostolic period.

This vision is lacking in the guidelines. Any discussion about faith formation or catechesis, evangelisation or empowering the community without giving due importance to the genuine traditions and liturgical and theological patrimony is futile. 

It is very sad to see that this guideline uses several Latin terms while no Syriac terms except the word Qurbana which is a common loan word in Malayalam. Among the Church fathers quoted, none of them are of East Syriac tradition. In the Malayalam translation, the usage of  Yesu instead of Isho which is the common and most popular name of Jesus in Malayalam for even Catholics of Latin tradition. This linea menta is not a document from Roman Curia but from the Syro Malabar Major Archiepiscopal curia for discussion among its members only and not for discussion in Roman Curia. Therefore, such Latin terminology could have been avoided and English terms like guideline and working document could be used instead of  Linea menta and Instrumentum Laboris.

This shows the reality of Syro Malabar Church as a strongly Latinised church from top to bottom- from the Bishops’ synod, clergy and down to the common faithful. Fr E R Hambye, former Professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute at Rome wrote in 1987 giving a realistic picture of the Syro Malabar Church:

More than any other Eastern Churches in communion with Rome, the Syro Malabar Church had almost entirely lost its basic character as an Oriental reality. That loss affected not only the Liturgy but also the spirituality, theology and law. Its own people hardly knew that they were oriental. After having been told during so many centuries, that everything oriental was wrong, backward, unworthy of Catholics, one wonders how some clergy and laity could still hope for a restoration’ 

The clergy of Syro Malabar Church are trained in a strongly Latinised environment. When the Syro Malabar hierarchy was re-established, the more Latinised clergy were only promoted as Bishops thus created a strongly latinised ecclesiastical and hierarchical milieu. Therefore, no wonder many of the former Prelates considered Syro Malabar Church as an offshoot of Roman Catholic Church with a variant liturgy and some of them even tried to create a unified Catholic Church in India with a concept of Indianisation. They formulated prayers and songs common for the whole Catholic Church in India and tried to wipe out age old common Syriac terms in ecclesial life like Qurbana, Mammodeesa, Oppu rushma luthiniya etc and replaced them with new ecclesial terms like Divya Bali,  Jnanasnam, sthyrya lepanam, ladinj etc. Even in the translation of the Holy Bible, age old terms like Isho, M’shiha, sleeha etc are replaced with Yesu, Christhu, Apostholen etc. Famous theologian William Macomber wrote in 1977,

the Syro Malabar Hierarchy seems to be aiming at a modernised liturgy that will be open to Indianisation and ultimate unification with the local Latin liturgy once that too will have become Indianised. Their reforms therefore, taking the Malabarian  Mass on a course that emphatically diverges from tradition…. 

Now,  the Universal Catholic Church has recognised the importance of Eastern Churches and changed the policy from latinising them to preserving their genuine traditions. When the Syro Malabar Bishops requested Rome to approve the Syriac translation of the Latin Pontifical for the use of syro Malabar Church, Pope Pius XI in 1934 instructed to restore the ancient Chaldean Pontifical for the use of Syro Malabar Church and constituted a commission for restoration of Syro Malabar Liturgy to its genuine purity commenting, Latinisations are not to be encouraged among the Oriental Churches, The Holy See does not want to latinise them but to Catholicise them .

The Syro Malabar Church has to come out of this cocoon of latinised hybrid milieu in all her expressions namely liturgical, spiritual, ecclesial and even civil.

A. Faith formation.

1.Mystagogical catechesis.

Faith formation is an important duty of a Church. People of God need to be formed. The recent Apostolic letter from Pope Francis ‘Desiderio Desideravi underlines the importance of liturgical formation to have a deeper encounter with Christ. Pope Francis highlights mystagogical catechesis or formation for the liturgy and the resultant formation of the people of God through the Liturgy . Catechesis cannot be separated from liturgy as the former takes inspiration from the latter where the mystery of Christ is celebrated in actu . This is a need of the time in Syro Malabar Church especially with the so called liturgical dispute. 

Once the people of God received this catechesis, faith transmission would be easier. Liturgical formation of the people of God ensures formation of children in families especially with the family prayers, honouring the elders by giving them the kiss of peace and receiving the blessings in the families would prepare the mindset of children for the formal catechism lessons provided by the Church.

2.Current catechism text books and syllabus

The current Catechism text books do not reflect catechesis of an oriental sui iuris church. The syllabus needs serious revision to include lessons about the Syriac spirituality, Syriac church fathers, history of the Church etc. At present, even many of the trained clergy of Syro Malabar Church are illiterate about Mar Aphrahat, Mar Aprem Mar Narsai and other Syriac Fathers, they are very fluent to talk about Saint Augustine, Aquinas and Saint Francis of Assissi. This must change. We need to introduce the Church Fathers and saints of the Syriac tradition. Our current concept of Church Fathers and Saints are orientated to the Western Church. 

The illustrations in the catechism textbooks also do not reflect a church of Syriac tradition. Eastern icons should be introduced through the text books which would give  real visual impression and formation to children. Liturgical signs and symbols, architecture, liturgical objects, vestments etc should be part of catechesis. Recently Pope Francis explained about the altar veil that these are architectural or ritual elements that speak not of distance from God  but rather heighten the mystery of the condescention of the synkatabasis by which the Word came and continues to come to the world.  Such architectural and ritual elements are authentic representation of the genuine fidelity to the uniqueness of such traditions which are part of the fullness of revelation and part of expressions of faith in Catholic Church. 

3.Catechism of Syro Malabar Church in line with Catechism of Ukrainian Catholic Church.

Most of us use Catechism of the Catholic Church to refer to faith matters. This may risk misinterpreting what is given for Roman rite, the most numerous among Catholic Churches. Many Eastern Catholic Churches have their own Catechism of their particular Church based on Catechism of Catholic Church with appropriate modifications particular to their own Church sui iuris. Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church is an example .  The Church should create a commission to formulate Catechism of Syro Malabar Church based on Catechism of Catholic Church adapted to Syro Malabar Church.

B. Strengthening the lay faithful for the effective proclamation of the Gospel

Proclamation of Gospel or evangelisation is the most important duty of the Church and faithful. That is the mission entrusted to all faithful by our Lord- Go into the whole World and proclaim the gospel to all creation. (Mark 16:15). Evangelisation is showing our Lord to other people. This can be by proclamation, preaching and by one’s words and deeds. Public proclamation and preaching are not easy, but such acts should not hurt others. We should not  character assassinate our fellow beings based on their faith. Lay faithful are called to live in their families and communities. They can show the M’shiha where ever they are through their words and deeds and behaviour. The Church should promote the lay faithful to live a life that is modelled in the M’shiha and excel in their community. Thus, they are showing the God to others, showing the love and mercy to others. Every faithful should become an alter christus. 

Preaching ministry should be based in the parishes. Our Lord founded the Church on the Apostles. Their descendants became Bishops in those congregations. Even in the Biblical period itself, deacons were consecrated. M’shiha did not intend the Church be a person orientated or an organisation orientated. His disciples and their disciples modelled the Church as intended by our Lord as they were the primary witnesses of our Lord. Tradition is very important here. The primitive church was based around a Bishop, priests as his vicars, Deacons and deaconesses. Communion of these churches or congregations constituted the Catholic Church. Evangelisation is based around these Churches. 

Celebrity preachers and their affiliation groups which run parallel to the Apostolic Churches was not the intention of our Lord. They often teach based on their whims and fancies and it is sad to see that the Apostolic Church leaders like Bishops who were selected by Him go around these groups. 

Such groups and organisations mentioned in the linea menta are generally not orientated as belonging to Syro Malabar Church as an oriental sui iuris Church. They often proclaim themselves as Catholic and follow the Roman rite and rituals, that too in a liberal sense. They generally promote a single rite and do not accept the reality of Catholic church as a communion of 24 sui iuris Churches. They consider the different Churches sui iuris are to be avoided to have a single Catholic Church. They do not understand that these 24 churches including Roman rite are equal in status, not any one superior to others and these are 24 expressions of faith. All these expressions together constitute the fullness of revelations and the Catholic Church.

The Syro Malabar Church need to take serious and immediate steps to control and transform these person or organisation oriented groups to be the main fold of the Church, her Eparchies and parishes. People of God should not be distracted from and separated from their Churches sui iuris. Instructions for applying  the Liturgical Prescriptions for the code of canons of the Eastern Churches, a legally binding  important document issued by the Holy See in 1996 is very clear in condemning  any attempts to distance the Eastern faithful from their Churches, whether in an explicit manner with its juridical consequences inducing them from one church sui iuris to another,  or in a less explicit manner, favouring them to acquire forms of thought, spirituality and devotions that are not coherent with their own ecclesial heritage .

It is very clear that the organisations and groups mentioned in the linea menta involved with lay movements for evangelisation are obviously inducing people of God in Syro Malabar Church to acquire the spirituality and piety and devotions of Roman Rite of Catholic Church and thus violating instructions No:10 and thus acting against the official teaching of catholic church. These organisations and movements need strict formation and control by the Catholic Church in Kerala.

C. Empowering the Syro Malabar Community.


a. Empowering the community by full restoration and liturgical maturation.

It is the right of all eastern faithful to have their liturgy and sacraments in their own rite and according to the prescriptions . Even though Syro Malabar Church has a status of sui iris Church in the Catholic communion, it is still a strongly latinised hybrid church. Empowerment of the Church and community needs rigorous formation of the faithful and the clergy to understand the identity and individuality and the importance of the unique liturgical traditions to enable liturgical maturation  and thereby the Church and the community restored to the genuine liturgical, theological and cultural traditions. 

Restoration of all rubrics and rites in liturgical and para liturgical and sacramental heritage is necessary for the spiritual empowerment of the laity. This involves restoration of liturgical architecture like bema, altar veil, incense, maksaneethsa, sacraments of initiation, communion of infants, leavened bread or Malka for liturgy and so on.

Permanent deaconate and other minor orders  should be restored to facilitate proper celebration of liturgy . Deaconesses should also be restored to empower  women religious in our Church.



a. Palliyogam and governance- synodality.

The governance of the Church should be according to the ancient tradition and practice by the paliyogam or synod. The primitive church of the Apostles and disciples were governed by the synods. Pope Francis’s synod on synodality is also an example of Catholic church moving away from the imperial or colonial system to a synodal system. Serious efforts to be made to restore the palliyogam with its executive and ecclesial powers. Our palliyogam had judicial powers also when the society was governed by the kings. Now, in this democratic society, judicial powers should be left with the society in general and its Government. But the temporal matters of the Church should be governed by the palliyogam. Spiritual matters should be left with the Bishops’ synod. There should be a role for the palliyogam in selection of Bishops and clergy also according to the ancient practice. The Priests were ordained only with the consent of the desathu palliyogam. Accordig to the tradition, whenever there was a need for a Bishop, the mahapalliyogam or the national palliyogam sends a delegation of clergy and laity to the remote monasteries to select an appropriate monk to become the Bishop. In principle, this traditional practice should be restored with a say for the laity as well in selection of Bishops. This is the practice among our Orthodox brethren in Kerala. There should be strict guidelines for selection of Bishop who is the moderator and director of all liturgical activities. As the sources and roots of Syro Malabar Church are in Syriac language, basic knowledge in Syriac language, knowledge and experience in celebrating the Holy Raza etc should me mandatory for a Bishopric candidate  apart from acceptability among the clergy and laity. According to the principles of Synodality in Catholic Church, the Church should listen to everyone to understand and discern the voice of Ruha D Khudsha.

b. Socio cultural

The Syro Malabar community had a very important place in the society which is lost now. This is due to lack of people in civil services, politics etc. Some of these issues are due to our own failure by not making use of our educational institutions where party politics was banned creating a generation of youngsters with political apathy and with no civic sense made our community alienated from the wider society. This is seen in every strata of the society now.   Most of our people lost their identity as a Syrian catholic community and with financial disability and lack of jobs started migrating. This issue should be addressed properly. Bishops synod or clergy alone cannot do this. Proper synodality and restored palliyogam with its ancient glory is essential for achieving this.

c. Counter witness by clergy and resultant apathy

In the recent past, scandalous activities among the clergy resulted in  counter witness in the society. Groupism and related accusations, stubbornness among the clergy, indiscipline and anarchy etc and sectarian rivalry among a section of clergy and resultant character assassination of even the hierarchy resulted in a lot of apathy among the faithful. Strong efforts should be taken to resolve the widening gap between clergy and laity and to ensure proper formation and strict discipline among the clergy and enhancing transparency. Once the community achieve a sense of identity by formation, controlling the groupism and anarchy among clergy, financial stability, restoration of socio cultural status, people start loving the Church and that would result in a boost of community sense. 

d. Issues peculiar to diaspora communities.

Syro Malabar diaspora are economic migrants who would want to assimilate in the society they are in. They are all well educated people who have become integrated in all the strata of society. Faith formation and faith transmission are very important as a Syro Malabar community but we should make all efforts to express our presence in the Society. We need to encourage our faithful to excel in their jobs and the roles in the society. We need to upbring our generation in all strata of life in the migrant country. Our Church and community should be seen prominently in the society by proper collaborative leadership and involvement in politics, social concerns, media etc. Efforts to encourage social services and charity activities should be taken seriously. 


In this period of Synodality in Catholic Church, it is important to have a synodal listening in our Church which is an inherently  Synodal Church. Sense of identity and individuality, a vision for restoring the liturgical traditions to its genuine authenticity, an ecclesial sense of unity and transparency are needed for any discussions and listening exercises. Let us pray that the Ruha d Khudsha help us to talk, listen and discern to achieve salvation of our’s and others through our special call by our Lord to be in the Syro Malabar Church.