Pope Francis on Tuesday said the variety of Catholic Churches and rites in India is a richness for the country that ought to be strengthened, and as a means of doing so, he expanded the reach of one of the country's indigenous Churches. The decision moves toward a greater allowance for several bishops from distinct Catholic Churches in India having a presence in the same territory.
“In a world where large numbers of Christians are forced to migrate, overlapping jurisdictions have become customary and are increasingly effective tools for ensuring the pastoral care of the faithful while also ensuring full respect for their ecclesial traditions,” Pope Francis wrote in an Oct. 10 letter addressed to India's bishops.
He said the diversity of ecclesial life in the country “shines with great splendor throughout lands and nations.” Two Catholic Churches based in India's Kerala state trace their origins to the preaching of the Apostle Thomas: the Syro-Malabar Church, which follows the East Syrian or Chaldean rite; and the Syro-Malankara Church, of the West Syrian or Antiochian rite. The Latin rite Catholic Church also has a large presence throughout India, having been introduced to the country by missionaries in the 16th century.
The various Catholic rites in India, Pope Francis said, constitute a historic Christian presence in India “that is both rich and beautiful, complex and unique.” “It is essential for the Catholic Church to reveal her face in all its beauty to the world, in the richness of her various traditions,” he said, and noted how the Second Vatican Council sought to “protect and preserve the treasure of the particular traditions of each Church,” an ongoing mission today.
His letter accompanied an announcement on the establishment of two new eparchies (the equivalent of a diocese in the Latin Church) for the Syro-Malabar Church. The establishment of the eparchies of Shamshabad (in Uttar Pradesh) and Hosur (in Tamil Nadu) was announced along with the name of their first respective bishops: Bishop Raphael Thattil, until now Auxiliary Bishop of the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Trichur, and Fr. Sebastian Pozholiparampil, a priest of the Syro-Malabar Diocee of Irinjalakuda.
The Shamshabad eparchy will include the entire country of India not already included in existing Syro-Malabar eparchies. Pope Francis also extended the boundaries of the eparchies of Ramanathapuram and Thuckalay, both of which are located in Tamil Nadu state. In addition to his role as bishop, Thattil also serves as apostolic visitor for Syro-Malabar faithful in India who live outside of their own territory, reporting his observations to Rome.
Pope Francis' decision to establish new eparchies for the Syro-Malabar Church and widen its jurisdiction to essentially all of India mirrors a similar decision he made in August with the Syro-Malankara Church, when he reinforced their own presence with the establishment of a new eparchy and an apostolic visitor to the Syro-Malankara Church in Europe and Oceania.
The establishment of the eparchies also takes place as the Congregation for the Oriental Churches celebrates its centenary with a variety of activities in Rome, culminating in Mass with Pope Francis at the Basilica of St. Mary Major Oct. 12.
In his letter, Pope Francis noted that “In India, even after many centuries, Christians are only a small proportion of the population and, consequently, there is a particular need to demonstrate unity and to avoid any semblance of division.” He stated that when the Syro-Malabar Church expanded with missionary eparchies to parts of northern and central India, “it was generally thought by the Latin Bishops that there should be just one jurisdiction, that is, one bishop in a particular territory. These eparchies, created from Latin dioceses, today have exclusive jurisdiction over those territories, both of the Latin and Syro-Malabar faithful.”
“However, both in the traditional territories of the Eastern Churches, as well as in the vast area of the so-called diaspora (where these faithful have long been established), a fruitful and harmonious cooperation between Catholic bishops of the different Churches within the same territory has taken place.” Overlapping jurisdictions in India “should not longer be problematic,” the Pope wrote, noting that they have already existed in Kerala for some time, and his own expansion of the Syro-Malankara Church in recent years.
“These developments show that, albeit not without problems, the presence of a number of bishops in the same area does not compromise the mission of the Church. On the contrary, these steps have given greater impetus to the local sui iuris Churches for their pastoral and missionary efforts.”
He voiced hope that his decision to broaden the reach of the Syro-Malabar Church would be “welcomed with a generous and peaceful spirit, although it may be a source of apprehension for some, since many Syro-Malabars, deprived of pastoral care in their own rite, are at present fully involved in the life of the Latin Church Francis stressed his conviction that “there is no need for concern: the Church’s life should not be disrupted by such a provision.”
“Indeed it must not be negatively interpreted as imposing upon the faithful a requirement to leave the communities which have welcomed them, sometimes for many generations, and to which they have contributed in various ways. It should rather be seen as an invitation as well as an opportunity for growth in faith and communion with their sui iuris Church, in order to preserve the precious heritage of their rite and to pass it on to future generations.”
“The path of the Catholic Church in India cannot be that of isolation and separation, but rather of respect and cooperation,” he said, adding that the presence of several bishops of various rites “will surely offer an eloquent witness to a vibrant and marvelous communion.”
Francis closed his letter urging the Catholic Churches in India “to be generous and courageous as they witness to the Gospel in the spirit of fraternity and mutual love.” “For the Syro-Malabar Church, this continues the valued work of their priests and religious in the Latin context, and sustains their availability for those Syro-Malabar faithful who, although choosing to attend Latin parishes, may request some assistance from their Church of origin. The Latin rite Church can continue to generously offer hospitality to members of the Syro-Malabar communities who do not have church buildings of their own.”
He said that “with the growth of spiritual friendship and mutual assistance, any tension or apprehension should be swiftly overcome. May this extension of the pastoral area of the Syro-Malabar Church in no way be perceived as a growth in power and domination, but as a call to deeper communion, which should never be perceived as uniformity.”