The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Kerala has been in the eye of a storm in the past weeks, on two issues. The first is the internal issue of liturgical differences in the modes of Eucharistic celebration across the eparchies within the Church. The second is the perceived threat from Jihadi outfits who are suspected of using underhand methods like Love Jihad and Narcotics Jihad to trap unsuspecting and susceptible women from non-muslim denominations into their fold.
The controversies surrounding the first issue were sparked off by the priests of Ernakulam -Angamaly with their refusal to read Cardinal Allenchery’s pastoral letter which recommends the adoption of a unified liturgical code as mandated by Pope Francis. Things came to a head in a church at Alwaye, when the priest
commenced the reading of the pastoral letter. The sacred altar was the scene of dispute and violent action which concluded with the public burning of the pastoral letter.
The second issue concerning forced conversions by Muslim extremists came to a head when the Bishop of Palai clearly voiced his apprehensions during Holy Mass on the Feast of Our Lady on September 8th,. Under the guise of love-relationships, facebook friendship and even narcotic abuse, members of these groups ensnare young girls belonging to other religious groups and force conversions at will.
TV channel debates and social media are presently inundated with news and views on both issues, and the Syro-Malabar community is trying its best to stand up straight and steady against the external onslaught from political parties and religious groups, whose accusations stem mostly from their individual political or religious affiliations. Along with this, it has to cope with the divisive forces within the fold, who are presently fighting tooth and nail over the issue of liturgical preferences in the Eucharistic celebration. The fact that the congregation is already reeling under the effects of the pandemic only serves to make their position weaker.
The Syro-Malabar community in Kerala has enjoyed a position of superiority inspite of its localized geographical position. Claiming direct descent from the early Catholic converts of St Thomas, they have been acknowledged as a prosperous, educated and forward-thinking community. Moreover, with the decline of religious practice worldwide, and the number of clergy and religious rapidly decreasing, the Syro-Malabar community has spread its wings both nationally and internationally, and are considered as a force to reckon with, in global terms.
Till now they have set themselves at a position of advantage vis-à-vis other Christian groups within India. They have successfully fielded a number of threats from other Christian denominations in the past, whose main agenda was to wean away Syro-Malabar Catholics, in an attempt to reduce the power and influence of this mammoth organization. Now they are faced with problems on a larger scale. On the one hand, the present Indian government does not even pay lip service to the principles of secularism as laid down in the Indian constitution. Minority religious groups in India have been exposed to much injustice and lawlessness. On the other hand, the community also faces offensive attacks from extremists of other minority groups, as discussed earlier.
The Bible has always been the perennial source of guidance on how to deal with these difficult situations. Throughout the Old Testament we see how God fights for His people and helps them overcome enemies much more powerful than them. This was the reward to those who were faithful to Him and followed His commandments. In the case of external threats like the ones we face presently, the Lord’s Word instructs us on how to achieve a delicate balance of bringing a wrongdoing to light, even while we continue to love and support members of all communities—"But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Mathew 5:44-45. This is a necessary condition for God’s grace and blessing. We can never hope to win our war without putting His words into action.
The problem of internal dissensions is a little more complex. While external aggression usually has the effect of uniting a group, cracks in the internal network, especially at higher levels of the organization can weaken it considerably, if left untended. The fact that the conflict gave rise to incidents that led to the desecration of the sacred altar, and a public display of contempt for the Cardinal’s letter, is regrettable. This is hardly something the Syro Malabar community can afford at this point of time. Prowlers from other factions, christian and non-christian, with unholy intentions and private agendas, consider situations like this as golden opportunities to go in for the kill. Dissenting members of the congregation unwittingly fall prey to these false sympathizers.
Ofcourse, the Bible has the only possible solution laid out in crystal clarity. Priests who raise the chalice of bread and wine and witness its conversion into the body and blood of Christ everyday during the Eucharistic celebration, can never afford to forget the words of Jesus as He washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper— “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example so that you should do as I have done for you.-John 13:14-15. The path forward is unambiguously shown to Christ’s chosen disciples, the shepherds of His flock.
Any departure from these biblical guidelines could very easily open the doors to the schemes of the devil. The temptation to retaliate, to distance our neighbours in the name of religion and community, or to allow our pride to dictate our actions, can have disastrous consequences leaving us to wander through a barren desertland of selfish ambitions and consuming hatred. The Syro-Malabar community stands tall and strong among the major Eastern Catholic communities. May we not choose paths of self destruction that have devastated Catholic strongholds in Europe and the USA. May we always remain within calling distance of the Lord and within the protection of His guiding light.