Restoration, Revision, Adaptation and Organic Growth of the Liturgy and the Syro-Malabar Church

Dr Antony Nariculam


The Syro-Malabar Church has been in a process of soul-searching from some years to find out ways and means of restoring and revising her liturgy in the light of Vatican II and the later documents. One of the stumbling blocks in this process has been the (mis)understanding about the principles of restoration, revision, adaptation and organic growth. This article is an attempt to study this subject in the light of magisterial documents and the interpretation of some renowned and reliable theologians. It is, in fact, a compilation of the relevant portions from the various documents and the writings of the authors concerned. We thought of presenting them without much comment as they are self-explanatory. This article seeks to facilitate the process of restoration and revision of the Syro-Malabar liturgy already being undertaken by the Syro-Malabar Synod of Bishops. The last part of this article presents some concrete suggestions of Prof. Robert Taft who was closely associated with the Syro-Malabar liturgical renewal and consequent ‘controversies’ in his official capacity as a member of the Pontifical Commission appointed to look into the matter.


In the introduction to the book Tradition and Traditions, Y.Congar writes: “The reader must not expect to find here a series of consecutive essays, presenting a methodological and exhaustive study of the notion of tradition according to all the various authors – something beyond the capabilities of anyone man’s life-time and work”.[1] The same is true about this article. This is not an exhaustive presentation of the theme. As we try to elucidate the meaning of tradition, history, restoration, revision, adaptation, organic growth, inculturation etc. we fail to give a clear-cut definition as to what “Tradition” really means. We can make only some approximations. As Congar remarks: “ ‘Tradition’ designates a reality which is too large, a concept too dense, to be formulated in a concise definition”.[2] Even the definition of Bousset – ‘the ever manifest succession of doctrine left to and carried by the Church’ – conveys, according to Congar, only one aspect of the whole.[3]

According to another definition, tradition serves to indicate some one or other of the following realitiesthe apostolic practices and teachings not contained in the Scripture; the unwritten source of the whole Christian life; the rule of faith; the transmission of revealed truth; the teachings of the Church’s magisterium etc.[4]

In fact, as Pope John Paul II has remarked, the Churches of the East are “living interpreters of the treasure of tradition they preserve”.[5] However, a liturgical historian of today should be able to critique historical data in the light of the principles of Vatican II. These principles include the following: the central position of the paschal mystery (SC 5-7), the role of the Word of God in the liturgy (SC 24), active participation of the people (SC 14), congregational singing (114,121), community dimension of the liturgical celebration (SC 26,27), inculturation (SC 37– 40), pastoral needs (SC 21,34) etc.

1. Vatican II and the Understanding of Liturgical Renewal


The sacred liturgy, being the summit and the source of Christian life, Vatican II thought it fitting to revise it to impart “an ever-increasing vigour to the Christian life of the Faithful by adapting more closely to the needs of modern age those things that are subject to change” (SC 1). Therefore the Council decided “to revise the rites carefully in the light of sound tradition, and to give them new vigour to meet present-day circumstances and needs” (SC 4). According to the Council, in order to retain sound tradition a certain investigation – theological, historical and pastoral – should always be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. At the same time, the way should remain open to legitimate progress (SC 23).

The identity of an Individual Church depends to a great extent on her liturgy. Therefore, the Council exhorts the members of the Eastern Churches “to preserve their own liturgical rites and ways of life” (OE 6). They are “ to aim always at a more perfect knowledge and practice of their rites, and if they have fallen away due to circumstances of times or persons, they are to strive to return to their ancestral ways” (OE 6) because the Church wishes “the tradition of each particular Church or rite to remain whole and entire, and it likewise wishes to adapt its own way of life to the needs of different times and places” (OE 2).

One of the primary aims of restoration and renewal of the sacred liturgy is the full and active participation of all the people since liturgy is an indispensable source from which the faithful derive the true Christian spirit (SC 14). In order to realize this aim, the Church “desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These latter not only may be changed but ought to be changed with the passage of time, if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become less suitable. In this restoration both texts and rites should be drawn up so as to express more clearly the holy things which they signify. The Christian people, as far as possible, should be able to understand them with ease and take part in them fully, actively, and as a community” (SC 21). From this statement, it may be assumed that restoration is not separate from revision and adaptation.

2. What is Tradition?

In the words of Pope John Paul II, Tradition “is the heritage of Christ’s Church. This is the living memory of the Risen One and witnessed to by the Apostles who passed on his living memory to their successors in an uninterrupted line, guaranteed by the apostolic succession through the laying on of hands, down to the Bishops of today. This is articulated in the historical and cultural patrimony of each Church”. Tradition is not, continues the Pope, “an unchanging repetition of formulas, but a heritage which preserves its original, living kerygmatic core. It is Tradition that preserves the Church from the danger of gathering only changing opinions, and guarantees her certitude and continuity”.

“When uses and customs belonging to each Church are considered as absolutely unchangeable, there is a sure risk of tradition losing that feature of a living reality which grows and develops and which the Spirit guarantees precisely because it has something to say to the people of every age. As Scripture is increasingly understood by those who read it; every other element of the Church’s living heritage is increasingly understood by believers and is enriched by new contributions, in fidelity and in continuity. Only a religious assimilation, in obedience of faith, of what the Church calls ‘Tradition’ will enable Tradition to be embodied in different cultural and historical situations and conditions. Tradition is never pure nostalgia for things or forms past, nor regret for lost privileges, but the living memory of the Bride, kept eternally youthful by the Love that dwells within her”.[6]

Appreciating the traditions of the Oriental Churches, the Pope writes: “The venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church” and hence “the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it”.[7] Precisely for this reason, the Prefect of the Oriental Congregation, Cardinal Simon Lourdusamy, asked the Syro-Malabar Bishops to make studies of the Syrian liturgical heritage and the patristic sources of tradition in order to fully understand the ecclesial meaning of Tradition in view also of meeting the challenges of present-day pastoral exigencies.[8]

Tradition involves three elements: a deposit of faith, a living teaching authority and a transmission of succession.[9] In a way, faith of the Church is in the faith of the Churches. Therefore, from an Eastern perspective, theology is grounded not only on  Scripture, but also on tradition, liturgy, fathers, monasticism, mysticism, spiritual writers, martyrology, practices of fasting, penance, abstinence, prayer etc.[10] To these we may add also the Ecumenical Councils, Creeds, magisterium and disciplinary norms.

When the early Christian writers speak of tradition, notes Congar, they mean primarily a Christological explanation of the Old Testament and the ecclesial understanding of the central mystery of Christ and the Church as witnessed to by the Scriptures. When they speak of apostolic traditions transmitted orally they have in mind liturgical and disciplinary practices held universally and with an origin which, even if it is not attested by Scripture, seems to be bound up with that of the Church.[11]

St.Paul says that he himself “received” from the Lord what he “transmits” (1 Cor 11:23). In St.Paul the content of “tradition” is composed of two groups of objects. Firstly, the basic message of the faith (deposit of faith) which must be received as a word from God. It is essentially centred on the death and resurrection of Christ. And secondly, this central message is handed over to the communities following their internal discipline or Christian behaviour. In other words, tradition is also “the explanation which is made of this deposit of faith, as a result of its being lived and defended, generation after generation, by the people of God”.[12] In this context, we need to make a distinction between “actively transmitted” tradition and a tradition having an “objective existence” (e.g. the Word of God) independently of the living subject which transmits them.[13] It is necessary to guard against unconsciously identifying the distinction between a ‘statement of faith’ and ‘rules of conduct’.[14] However, when dealing with St. Paul, one should not separate too sharply the tradition of the paschal faith from the tradition of apostolic rules of conduct since both build up the community. What is noteworthy here is that the two categories of tradition are not entirely of equal standing.[15]

St.Paul requests fidelity to the deposit of faith: “Follow the pattern of the sound words which you have heard from me,…. Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim 1:13-14). Here the “pattern”, writes Congar, signifies “outline, sketch, a summary presentation, a general definition; their model, example”.[16] In other words, it is ‘a brief note or a figure intended, not to be reproduced as a model, but to serve as an outline, as a suggested basis which must be completed and filled out by a detailed treatment’.[17]

The past, as Robert Taft notes, is only instructive and not normative. History does not teach us “what we should do today, and we study the past not to imitate it, but simply to understand. What the Church adheres to is not history but tradition, and tradition is not the past but the Church’s self-consciousness now of the present living reality that has been handed on to it out of its past. In judging what is tradition the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, looks not to the past but within, to itself”.[18] “History is not the past. Rather it is the contemporary understanding of life in terms of its origin and evolution as seen through the prism of our present concern”.[19]

Preserving the tradition does not exclude progress and new development. According to the Instruction of the Oriental Congregation, “No Church, Eastern or Western has ever been able to survive without adapting itself continuously to the changing conditions of life. Rather, the Church guards against every undue and inopportune precipitation, requiring that any eventual modification be not only well prepared but also inspired and conforming to the genuine tradition”.[20]

Tradition is not a second source. It is, along with Scripture, “another and complementary way of handing on (these) truths. Furthermore, it acts as a vehicle for traditions, by which we mean customs, practices and rites, and which derive ultimately from the apostles. But this is no more than saying that their liturgical and disciplinary character has doctrinal implications and significance, especially if it concerns the sacraments in the strict sense”.[21]

3. Reception of Tradition

Writing about the ‘transmission of faith’, Congar notes that the tradition is not only transmitted, it is also to be actively received. ‘Actively’, that is, there exists a subject who is ‘active’ in receiving it. Thus “tradition will not be merely a transmission followed by a passive, mechanical reception; it entails the making present in a human consciousness of a saving faith”.[22] Therefore, there needs to be a “living fidelity of a mind reflecting upon the meaning of what is heard, drawing conclusions, trying to determine the boundaries between what is true and what is not”.[23]

The reception is possible only when the ecclesial dimension of tradition is properly understood. For this the sensus Ecclesiae is of utmost importance. Whom does the sensus Ecclesiae belong to? Should it belong to all members of the Church or only to some of them? Congar excludes the second hypothesis because all members of the Body of Christ are alive and living, active and responsible. At the same time, though all are responsible, some may have greater responsibility in virtue of a commission or an office in the Church. Such was the apostles’ situation at the Church’s origin, and then the situation of those ministers commissioned by them to preside over and tend the Christian communities; and lastly, it is the position of the hierarchical ministers in the Church today.[24]

“Tradition is more than just continuity; it is a dynamic, living continuity. It is not reducible to its external aspects…It is not attainable except from within, by living in the communion of the Church”.[25] Hence it is imperative that the faithful are educated to imbibe the meaning of sensus Ecclesiae. In fact, the heritage of faith “is received through tradition which guarantees its continuity and authenticity throughout time, ever since antiquity and especially since the testimony of the Apostles. It is received with open heart, maintained, transmitted, taught, confirmed, and clarified by the Holy Spirit”.[26]


4. Tradition in Relation to Liturgy


Tradition has a special application to liturgical restoration, revision and adaptation. According to Congar, there are three main ‘monuments’ in which Tradition’s character is particularly evident: Liturgy, Fathers and Ordinary expressions of Christian life. Among them liturgy has a place without parallel as an instrument of tradition because of its content.[27] Liturgy is, so to say, “a privileged custodian and dispenser of Tradition”.[28] It is the principal instrument of Church’s Tradition.[29] For the Church, “liturgy is not a dead monument, a kind of Pantheon to be visited as one visits a museum, but a home which is always lived in, the conditioning envelope or atmosphere of its whole life”.[30]

According to one of the pioneers of liturgical renewal, Dom P.Gueranger, “it is in the liturgy that the Spirit who inspired the Scriptures still speaks to us; the liturgy is tradition itself, as its highest degree of power and solemnity”.[31] In the words of Pope Pius XII, liturgy is “the faithful mirror of teaching handed on by our forefathers”.[32]

A large part of Church’s belief has become known to us through prayer which helps to enter into communion with God. Thus liturgy is a privileged locus of Tradition, not only from the point of view of conservation and preservation, but also from that of progress and development. The part it plays in the progressive development of our dogmatic understanding of revelation is considerable (Lex orandi lex credendi). Moreover, it is clear that such growth and development must be controlled by a magisterium which makes constant reference to the objective standards of the apostolic kerygma and especially, for verification, to the scriptural witness.[33] Therefore the first requirement of every Eastern liturgical renewal, as is also the case for the liturgical reform in the West, notes Roman Instruction, “is that re-discovering full fidelity to their own liturgical traditions, benefiting from their riches and eliminating that which has altered their authenticity. Such heedfulness is not subordinate to but precedes so-called updating. Although delicate task that must be executed with care so as not to disturb souls, it must be coherently and constantly pursued if the Eastern Catholic Churches want to remain faithful to the mandate received”. However, our attempts to preserve traditions “do not take away from the rightful exigency to express, as much as possible, the Gospel in a plain and clear way for the contemporary man and woman. Every formula necessitates, therefore, unceasing vigilance to remain alive under the breath of the Spirit”.[34]

In addition, every Individual Church should be faithful to her own traditions regarding the sacred buildings and the arrangements of the interior space and sacred images. For this the clergy should have an in-depth knowledge of their own tradition and a constant, well established and systematic formation of the faithful so that they may be able to fully perceive the richness of the signs entrusted to them. In order to achieve this aim, it is imperative that our Church comes to an acceptable understanding about the liturgical traditions of our Church. However, “fidelity does not imply anachronistic fixation, as the evolution of sacred art – even in the East – demonstrates, but rather, development that is fully coherent within the profound and, immutable meaning of how it is celebrated in the liturgy”.[35]

The ‘rites’ play an important role in the liturgy. Cardinal Ratzinger defines ‘rite’ as “the expression that has become form, of ecclesiality and of Church’s identity as a historically transcendent communion of liturgical prayer and action”.[36] According to him, the rite contains “an essential exposition of the biblical legacy that goes beyond the limits of the individual rites, and thus it shares in the authority of the Church’s faith in its fundamental form”.[37] For this reason, the rituals are to a great extent conservative. Besides, liturgy being a complex act in which many people participate in many different ways, it is by nature ‘conservative and restive to change’.[38] Very often the rituals are transmitted to generations in a fixed manner. Of course, in this transmission, there is the risk of empty formalism, a tradition in the sense of mechanical or routine gesture. On the other hand, we should also admit that the rituals preserve certain truths while everything else undergoes changes. In the eventful celebrations of Christmas, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter etc. the rituals have preserved for us a heritage offering us a powerful communion in the same reality between peoples separated by centuries.[39]


5. Restoration as Reformation

What is restoration? According to Ratzinger “if by ‘restoration’ is meant a turning back, no restoration of such kind is possible. The Church moves forward toward the consummation of history, she looks ahead to the Lord who is coming. No, there is no ‘restoration’ whatsoever in this sense. But, if by restoration we understand the search for a new balance after all the exaggerations of an indiscriminate opening to the world, after the overly positive interpretations of an agnostic and atheistic world, well then a restoration understood in this sense (a newly found balance of orientations and values within the Catholic totality) is altogether desirable and, for that matter, is already in operation in the Church”.[40] In the light of negative press comments on Cardinal’s opinion about restoration, he made a written statement on it. He wrote: “Above all I should simply like to recall what I really said: there is no return to the past. A restoration understood thus is not only impossible but also not even desirable. The Church moves forward to the consummation of history, she looks ahead to the Lord who is coming. If, however, the term ‘restoration’ is understood according to its semantic content, that is to say, as a recovery of lost values, within a new totality, then I would like to say that this precisely is the task that imposes itself today in the second phase  post-conciliar period. Yet the word ‘restoration’ is linguistically laden in such a way for us moderns that it is difficult to attribute this meaning to it. In reality it literally means the same as the word ‘reform’, a term that has a wholly different sound to us today”.[41]

Ratzinger objects to the ‘romantic archaeologism’ of certain liturgists ‘who would throw out everything done after Gregory the Great as being an excrescence  and a sign of decadence. For them, the criterion of liturgical renewal was not ‘What ought to be done today?’ but ‘What was it like then’? They forget that the Church is living and that her liturgy cannot be frozen at the stage reached in the city of Rome prior to the onset of the Middle Ages”.[42] In his words, ‘pure archaism is fruitless, as is pure modernism’.[43] However, he observes also that the medieval Church developed a liturgical depth which must be carefully examined before it is abandoned.

The Fathers, and the Councils themselves, thought of Councils as continuing, in new forms and in response to the demands of their time, the disclosure of God’s mystery made by the prophets, the Lord and the apostles. Thus in tradition a growth occurs, in the sense that what was involved in the deposit inherited from the apostles is developed and unfolded.[44] Thus tradition is not only ‘transmission’ but also ‘development’. While history is a science of humankind’s past, tradition is ‘God’s continuous inspiration of the Church’.[45]

According to Ratzinger, there are two fundamentally different views on the structure of liturgical celebrations: one view sees liturgy as creativity, freedom, celebration and community. The other view, consequently, considers things like rite, obligation, interiority and Church order as negative factors which belong to the “old” liturgy which is to be superseded. For those who hold this view, liturgy is not something officially prescribed ritual but a concrete celebration, fashioned as an authentic expression of the celebrating community, with the minimum of external control. For them the Missal is only a guidebook.[46] Obviously, this negative attitude will be detrimental to liturgical restoration and reformation.

6. Liturgy and Organic Development


According to the Decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, changes in the liturgy are to be introduced only to forward its “organic growth” (OE 6). The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says that in the process of liturgical renewal new forms adopted should in some way grow “organically” from forms already existing (SC 23).

The Congregation for the Eastern Churches explains the “organic growth” in the following words: “The organic progress in every Church sui iuris, implies taking into account first of all the roots from which the heritage of these Churches was initially developed, mainly in Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Armenia, and in the ancient empire of Persia; and secondly, the manner in which such traditions were transmitted, adapting to the various circumstances and places but maintained in a coherent organic continuity”.[47] Then the Instruction quotes a discourse of Pope Paul VI delivered to the members of the Commission for the Revision of the Oriental Code which reads: “In presenting new things it is necessary to pay attention to take sufficiently into account the system of the transmitted message. Any renewal, in fact, should be coherent and agree with sound tradition, in such a way that the new norms do not appear as an extraneous body forced into an ecclesiastical composite, but blossoming as though spontaneously from already existing norms”.[48] Further, while modifying ancient liturgical practice, “it must be determined if the element to be introduced is coherent with contextual meaning in which it is placed. Such a context should be understood beginning with eventual references to Sacred Scripture, interpretations of the Holy Fathers, liturgical reforms previously made and mystagogical catechesis. Here it must be verified that the new change is homogenous with the symbolic language, with the images and the style specific to the liturgy of the particular Church”. [49]

Cardinal Ratzinger says that the liturgy cannot be compared to a piece of technical instrument or something manufactured, but to a plant, something organic that grows and whose laws of growth determine the possibilities of further development.[50]

Addressing the Syro-Malabar Bishops during their ad limina visit in 1980, Pope John Paul II said that the Syro-Malabar liturgical renewal must be based on ‘fidelity to genuine ecclesial traditions and open to the needs of the faithful, to the culture and to possible changes by way of organic progress’.[51]

Cardinal Rubin, Prefect of the Oriental congregation, made the following remarks on the Syro-Malabar liturgical renewal while addressing the Syro-Malabar Bishops in 1980: “In every living organism there must co-exist a power of assimilating new elements and a power of conservation, that is, of remaining oneself, of maintaining the identity. This fidelity must be presupposed; otherwise, one simply undergoes, and then is dilution and not vital assimilation. This ‘appropriate and organic development’, therefore, implies the avoidance of immobilism, on the one hand, but also of instability, on the other”. He continued: “I believe that in reconciling these two exigencies lies the key to the solution of the problem of revision, renewal and adaptation of the liturgy”.[52]

The “Fundamental Orientations concerning the Syro-Malabar Liturgy” given by Rome in 1998 has this to say about organic growth: “The just and praiseworthy concern to adapt liturgical celebrations to present-day living conditions and local culture, whether in the eparchies in the Church’s own territory or in mission eparchies, must not lead us to forget the basic principle of the secular life of liturgical worship, that of organic progress”.[53] Therefore, these adaptations have to respect “those principles fundamental to all Christian  liturgies and in particular, the Syro-Oriental liturgy”.[54]

In this context, it is worthy of note an observation made by Robert Taft: “It has been my constant observation”, writes he, “that liturgies do not grow evenly, like living organisms. Rather, their individual structures possess a life of their own. More like cancer than native cells, they can appear like aggressors, showing riotous growth at a time when all else lies dormant”.[55]

7. Liturgy and Inculturation


According to Vatican II, “even in the liturgy the Church does not wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather does she respect and foster the qualities and talents of the various races and nations”. Among these qualities what is not bound up with superstition and error, the Church is prepared to admit into the liturgy, provided “they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit” (SC 37).

In 1980 the Oriental Congregation wrote to the Syro-Malabar Bishops about the need of “cultural integration”. The Syro-Malabar Church needs “an integration of the Eastern Rite with authentically Eastern spirituality and theology… This cannot be achieved without serious study and without acceptance in depth of the liturgical and patristic heritage, of which the Eastern rite is a privileged expression”.[56] Besides, it needs “the integration with the culture and the tradition (better: into the cultures and the traditions) of India. This is in view of the necessary ‘inculturation’, by which is meant the assumption of the more solid and sounder realities which these traditions contain, and which so unmistakeably characterize the authentic physiognomy of the Indian people”.[57] And “the ‘assumption’ of the realities that characterize Indian culture implies necessarily study and understanding of Hinduism, especially through a mature contact with its manifold sources”.[58]

Other directives from the Oriental Congregation too have references to the topic of inculturation. Thus, the Final Judgement of 1985 makes a reference to the ‘Indian patrimony’ of the Syro-Malabar Church. It reads: “It is therefore devoutly to be hoped that the church of the St.Thomas Christians may once again find its roots, at once evangelical and truly original, Oriental and Indian…”.[59] It also said that Rome in no way opposes recommendation for legitimate Indianization.[60] Regarding music in the liturgy, the document notes that the texts of refrains and chants more suitable to Indian culture could be proposed.[61]

The Directives of 1988 expressed the readiness of Rome to consider “adaptations to local culture and sensibilities” and to open the way ‘to renewal and adaptations to historico-cultural context’.[62]

The whole issue of inculturation is a complex one. Having this reality in mind Cardinal Rubin told the Syro-Malabar Bishops in 1980: “… it seems to me that the problem of inculturation  facing the Church, say, in Africa – where a true philosophy does not exist – is different from that of inculturation in India, where the Church is confronted by the various forms of Hinduism, philosophical thought so weighty that it has influenced our Western Idealists (from Schopenauer to Hegel) and – in ancient times – perhaps Plato himself”.[63]

According to Vatican II, the liturgy is “made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted and of elements subject to change. These latter not only may be changed but ought to be changed with the passage of time, if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become less suitable” (SC 21). To a question on the changeable and unchangeable elements in the liturgy and the issue of inculturation in the mission lands, Cardinal Ratzinger replied as follows: “It must be said that both the Constitution on the Liturgy and the Decree on the Church’s Missionary activity explicitly allow for the possibility of far-reaching adaptations to the customs and cultic traditions of peoples. To that extent the new Missal is only providing a framework for mission lands. It is a feature of the new Missal that its very many ad libitum provisions give a great deal of scope for local variations”.[64] At the same time, Ratzinger has a word of caution too. These things should not be taken too naively and simplistically, he says. Therefore he writes that it would be “very dangerous to suggest that missionary liturgies could be created overnight, so to speak, by decision of Bishops’ conferences, which would themselves be dependent on memoranda drawn up by academics. Liturgy does not come about through regulation”.[65] Further he observes that the liturgical ‘rites’ are not simply products of inculturation, though they have incorporated many elements from the local culture. In his opinion, “the Christian faith can never be separated from the soil of sacred events”.[66]

8. Active Participation and Pastoral Implications


One of the contributions of Vatican II was the impetus it gave to the active participation of the faithful. “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebration which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy”. So much so, “the full and active participation of all the people” should be the aim to be considered before all else in the restoration and renewal of the liturgy (SC 14).In order to promote active participation, both internal and external, the pastors need to take into account the ‘age, condition, way of life and standard of religious culture of the people’ (SC 19).

But, the word ‘participation’ is sometimes misunderstood to mean “something external, entailing a need for general activity, as if as many people, as often as possible, should be visibly engaged in action”.[67] There is an impression that the active participation is speaking, singing, preaching, reading etc. But, Vatican II also included silence as part of active participation. For “silence facilitates a really deep, personal participation, allowing us to listen inwardly to the Lord’s Word. Many liturgies now lack of all trace of this silence”.[68] The real ‘actio’ in the liturgy, in which we are supposed to participate, notes Cardinal Ratzinger, “is the action of God himself. This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential”.[69]

The term ‘pastoral’ also needs to be understood in a correct perspective. In the name of ‘pastoral’, liturgy “cannot be an expression of what is current and transitory, for it expresses the mystery of the Holy. Many people have felt and said that liturgy must be ‘made’ by the whole community if it is really to belong to them. Such an attitude has led to the ‘success’ of the liturgy being measured by its effect at the level of spectacle and entertainment. It is to lose sight of what is distinctive to the liturgy, which does not come from what we do but from the fact that something is taking place here that all of us together cannot ‘make’”.[70]

From a pastoral point of view, simplification of liturgy is good and useful. But, “however much the liturgy is simplified and rendered comprehensible, the mystery of God’s action operating through the Church’s acts must remain untouched. This applies also to the heart of the liturgy: as far as both priest and people are concerned, it is something given, that cannot be manipulated. It partakes of the reality of the whole Church”.[71] Therefore, Ratzinger urges to oppose ‘rationalistic relativism and pastoral infantilism’ because they ‘degrade the liturgy’.[72] We also need to be led ‘from form to the content’. In other words, “we need an education which will help us to grow into an inner appropriation of the Church’s common liturgy”.[73]

However, in the pastoral context, the local customs play an important role in the celebration of the liturgy. Therefore, referring to CCEO 1507 – 1509, the Roman Instruction considers custom as the fruit of the continuous and uncontested practice of the local community and precious because it is rooted in the life of the people. However, concerning this subject “a wise discernment will be necessary to preserve that which is most valid and stimulating for a true Christian flourishing and to intervene in that which is superfluous or less suitable to the particular genuine traditions”.[74] Further, the concluding paragraph of the Instruction refers to the nature of the Instruction in the following words: “The indications contained here can be completed by the reflection and contribution of the individual Churches sui iuris, dedicating the necessary attention to them by studying how they should be applied in the various individual traditions and conditions”.[75] The reasoning behind this position seems to be what the “Directives” of 1988 referred to: ‘The good of the faithful is the pastoral norm governing all liturgical legislation’.[76] According to Robert Taft, the pastoral choices are “not ineluctable conclusions from history or theology”.[77]

9. Lessons from Latin Liturgical Renewal


In the first century (ca. AD 64) when the Church of Rome was established  the prevalent language in Rome was a popular type of Greek. The Latinization of the Western liturgy began in North Africa from the third century, thanks to Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine and others. It was Pope Victor I (+203), an African by birth, who made the first attempt to introduce Latin into the liturgy of the Roman Church. The shift from Greek to Latin and the transitional period of bilingualism speak highly of the Roman Church’s pastoral sensitivity. Despite the Roman proverbial veneration for the traditions, they decided in favour of Latin language which people understood. It teaches us that “fidelity to tradition means adapting to the needs of the people in every age and of every cultural tradition”.[78] The transition from Greek to Latin was not merely a change of liturgical language. It was accompanied also by creativity composing new prayers in Latin itself.


The normal historical process of liturgical renewal had traditionally been the work of generations. The liturgical movement in the West began in 19th century France. Step One was restoration, a process whereby rites were slowly purged of less suitable later accretions and returned to a purer and more authentic state. This restoration phase, a slow, step-by-step renewal, was based on and accompanied by a lengthy process of study, lively debates and the propagation of ideas through journals and Liturgical Weeks; the founding of new liturgical periodicals, centres and societies… – all leading over a period of several generations, to the reforms of Vatican II. And underlying this official restoration, providing its firm foundation, was a massive effort of scholarship in the gathering, collating, editing, and studying of manuscripts and other liturgical and theological sources. In short, a whole century of intensive scholarship and maturation ultimately paved the way for the liturgical reforms of the Roman Rite in Vatican II.[79]

The Roman Instruction, referring to SC 23 which speaks about the need of making investigation into the theological, historical and pastoral aspects in the process of restoration, revision and adaptation, notes: “Indeed, the liturgical reform desired by the Second Vatican Council was able to be carried out precisely because it was preceded, and successfully followed , by lengthy experimentation, intense historical studies, critical textual analyses, theological studies, biblical studies and pastoral studies, culminating in the work of individual and committee research, both at the local and international level. Without all this, the references, frameworks, and precise contents necessary for a valid endeavour would not have been obtained”.[80]

  1. 10.  Liturgical Language


The liturgical texts are meant to nourish the faith of the people and to lift their hearts and minds to God. This is possible only when the texts are effective to communicate the message intended by the texts. Hence a good translation is necessary. The non-verbal parts of the liturgy (symbols, gestures etc.) communicate through visual senses whereas the verbal parts (prayers, hymns etc.) are communicated through aural contact. While some gestures, symbols, words etc. are transculturally understood (Amen, Halleluia, Cross etc.), some others are culturally bound as far as an assembly is concerned. This problem can be solved in two ways: either by translating texts into local idioms or by composing new prayers.

The “Fifth Instruction” on the use of vernacular in the liturgy given to the Latin Church by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments[81] has, among others, the following principles to be followed in the translation of the liturgical texts:

  • The words used in the liturgy (as well as in the Bible) are not intended primarily to express the interior disposition of the faithful; rather, they express truths which transcend time and space (No.19).
  • While it is permissible to use the style of the vernacular, the translation must be integral without tarnishing the content, and without paraphrasing (No.20).
  • Translation should be ‘beautiful’, ‘dignified’ and with ‘doctrinal precision’ (No.25).
  • It is the task of the homily or catechesis to explain certain texts which may not be easily understood (No.29).

Anyway, the liturgical language is different from colloquial language or even literary language of the people. It has a genre of its own. It has to be created by use by every Church. The liturgical language is inspired by Bible, devotion, spirituality etc. It is essentially a symbolic language and is ordered to express the divine.[82]

CCEO 657/2 specifies that the right to approve the translation of the liturgical books is up to the competent authority for the approval of the liturgical books themselves, after having sent a report to the Apostolic see in the case of patriarchal, major archiepiscopal and metropolitan Churches sui iuris.


  1. 11.   A Practical Model for Syro-Malabar Approach towards Restoration and Revision


“In the Syro-malabar tradition the process of renewal had barely begun”, notes Robert Taft, “when Malayalm was introduced into the liturgy with the publication at Alwaye of the bilingual Missal of July 3, 1962. That changed everything. At once the Syro-Malabar liturgy was no longer the arcane preserve of small coterie of clerical professionals who knew Syriac, but the property of the whole people of God”.[83] History tells us that the Syro-Malabar Church tried to do in a generation what the Roman Church, with infinitely greater resources, took a century to accomplish.[84] Therefore the study of the Syro-Malabar liturgical reform is a very complex issue which needs to be dealt with a proper historical understanding of the liturgical renewal and the experience of the last 50 years or so. A remark of Taft is relevant in this context: “All argumentation the polemicists have engaged in to prove from history or theology that the Creed should or should not be in the Eucharistic Liturgy, that there should not be an Offertory Procession of the people, that proleptic language must be jettisoned, that Eucharist should be celebrated facing the people or facing East, ultimately proves nothing. All that the study of the past can show us is what has been customary, what has changed, and the reasons why”.[85]  What history shows us is not one ideal form, but variety even within the various stages of one and the same tradition.[86] The only ‘bad liturgy’, says Taft, is that which does not contribute to the sanctification of God’s people.[87]

Speaking about the principles to guide liturgical renewal, Taft writes: “God expects those in pastoral charge of their flocks to see to it that the liturgy carries out its salvific purpose as perfectly as possible. Sometimes, this will mean liturgical reform and change. How should that be done? Vatican II and the Roman Pontiffs have already provided the fundamental principles and guidelines. A dose of realism and common sense provides the rest”.[88]

Then Taft points out 9 principles that may be followed in this process. Though these principles were proposed in the Syro-Malabar Synod held in the Vatican in 1996, they were not taken up for discussion by the Syro-Malabar bishops at any stage. It may be useful to ponder over them in the present context. The principles are:

  1. Recovery of the authentic tradition where it has eroded


The process of recovering tradition is a dialectic of “traditio et progressio” mandated by Vatican II. Authentic tradition cannot be considered in a vacuum outside of history. One problem with every liturgy is the question of “hybridisms”. “Like it or not”, observes Taft, “the truth of the matter is that liturgies have ALWAYS influenced one another and shall continue to do so”.[89] The Coptic and West Syrian Rites influenced the Ethiopian Rite; the West Syrian and Chaldean Rites influenced Maronite Rite; the Rite of Jerusalem influenced the Byzantines, the West Syrians and the Armenians; and the Byzantines influenced just about everybody. Even the Armenian Orthodox Church (besides the Armenian Catholic Church) borrowed elements from Mesopotamia, Cappodocia, Jesrusalem, and even Latin usages including the bishop’s mitre and ring, ordination rites etc.[90] Therefore Taft says: “In my view, then, to consider the Syro-Malabar tradition as simply the East Syrian Rite without taking any account of its evolution during more than a millennium of its existence in Southwest India, flies in the face of history. That would be like ignoring 50% of the vocabulary of English because it entered the English language from Norman French after the Battle of Hastings in 1066”.[91]

Again, “No tradition can realistically pretend to ignore 497 years of its history. That is not to say that what happened in those years was always positive, nor is to say that some of it should not be cast into the rubbish. It does mean that it cannot be ignored, for it is a huge part of (your) history, and must be dealt with realistically”.[92]

Taft also notes that fidelity to tradition needs to be a certain extent selective. Otherwise, the Syro-Malabar Church will have to stop daily Eucharistic celebration; may have to consider removing the Institution Narrative from the Anaphora of Mar Addai and Mar Mari. Catholicos Mar Aba introduced some Greek anaphoras in 6th century. In 7th century Catholicos Iso Yahb III reduced the number of anaphoras to three. Many similar changes occurred in the Liturgy of the Hours. So what is the “authentic” East Syrian/Chaldean tradition?, asks Taft. He concludes: “A living Rite is not some abstract ‘authentic tradition’, but a concrete and ever-changing historical reality that has existed in several forms, some of them good, some of them less so. The ‘authentic tradition’ for today is not some self-evident absolute, but a matter of selective choice within the framework of the tradition, and within the legitimate limits set by the Church”.[93]

  1. Renewal where needed


While keeping fidelity to tradition, liturgical adaptation and renewal, via organic development, in accord with the nature and genius of the tradition, too is needed. This means that even tradition with small “t” must be respected within its own limits. At the same time, the renewed liturgy must be adapted to the needs and cultures of God’s people today.[94]

  1. Fidelity to the substantial unity of the Rite


The rule of “substantial unity” does not outlaw varying legitimate local customs. Nor can it take away from the local Ordinary his right and duty to resolve concrete pastoral issues in the light of the overriding law of the good of the faithful. Such issues are resolved by the common norms of Canon Law, which makes provision for customs, even customs “contra legem”.[95]

4. Seriousness of purpose and preparation


The rule of substantial unity demands that change in the liturgy be carried out only with the utmost care and seriousness, after much study and preparation.[96]

5. Ecumenism

Every Catholic tradition must be attentive, in any change, not to distance itself unnecessarily from other traditions, especially from the tradition of Sister Churches.[97]

6. Inculturation and 7. Implementation and ongoing Formation

Inculturation and implementation should[98] be accompanied by liturgical formation.

8. Pastoral realism


When there are divided opinions on matters not affecting any doctrine, then common sense dictates a compromise solution, and where that is not attainable, then freedom in non-essentials must be left to the local hierarchs. Of course compromise solutions are never the ideal. But to ignore the will of an overwhelming majority in an issue of pastoral practice not touching faith or morals would fly in the face of the Catholic practice and teaching.[99]

9. Concentration on the essentials

Liturgy is not some abstraction. It exists to contribute to the glory of God. Our glorification of God is his gift to us, not our gift to him. And this is our sanctification, which results from that “communio sanctorum” that is the Church. Therefore, concentrate on the essentials.[100]

To these we may add also an observation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. “There must be no innovation unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them”. And, “as far as possible, notable differences between the rites used in adjacent regions should be avoided” (SC 23). (Here ‘rites’ means ritual actions within the same Individual Church).



Tradition is not simply history. Instead, it is the memory of the past kept alive for the people of the present. Restoration is always accompanied by revision. They are the two sides of the same reality. Any revision, especially in the realm of liturgy, cannot ignore the need for inculturation. Since culture is dynamic and not static, adaptation and inculturation of the liturgy is a continuous process which every generation needs to address.

The Syro-Malabar Church which carries a long history of 2000 years and influences of the East Syrian and Western traditions coupled with Indian elements, should face the present challenge of restoration and revision adhering to the basic principles of liturgy and the pastoral demands of the present circumstances. Sacrosanctum Concilium and Orientalium Ecclesiarum of Vatican II, the specific magisterial documents given to the Syro-Malabar Church during the last thirty years or so, and the decisions of the Syro-Malabar Bishops’ Synod are sufficient guidelines to set off the process of restoration, revision and adaptation of the Syro-Malabar liturgy.


[1]Y.Congar, Tradition and Traditions. An Historical and Theological Essay, London 1966, p.xix
[2] Congar , Tradition, p.234
[3] Congar, Tradition, p.234
[4] Congar, Tradition, p.234
[5] Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (1995), No.5
[6] Orientale Lumen, No.8
[7] Orientale Lumen, No.1
[8] Roman Documents on the Syro-Malabar Liturgy, Kottayam 1999, p.141-142
[9] Congar, Tradition, p.24.
[10] J.Kallrangatt, Dimensions and Perspectives of Oriental Theology, in X.Koodapuzha (Ed.), Eastern Theological Reflections in India, Kottayam 1999, p.88-89
[11] Congar, Tradition, p.63
[12] Congar, Tradition,p.267
[13] Congar, Tradition, p.297
[14] Congar, p.10. Rules concerning the wearing of the veil or the silence of women in 1 Cor 11:5 ff; 14:34 are examples of ‘Rules of conduct’.
[15] Congar, Tradition, p.10-11
[16] Congar, Tradition, p.22
[17] Congar, Tradition, p.22
[18]  J.Porunnedom (ed.),Acts of the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church held in the Vatican from 8 to 16 January 1996, Kochi 1996, p.129
[19] Robert Taft, The Liturgical Year: Studies, Prospects, Reflections, in Worship 55(1981) 2-3
[20] Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the eastern Churches, Rome 1996, No.11
[21] Congar, Tradition, p.64
[22] Congar, Tradition, p.253
[23] Congar, Tradition,  p.254
[24] Congar, Tradition, p.321
[25] Congar, Tradition,  p.105
[26] Instruction 1996, No.17
[27] Congar, Tradition,  p.427
[28] Congar, Tradition,  p.354
[29] Congar, Tradition,  p.434
[30] Congar, Tradition,  p.428
[31] Quoted  in Congar, Tradition,  p.434
[32] Encyclical Ad Coeli Reginam (1954), AAS 46 (1954) 631
[33] Congar, Tradition, p.429-430
[34] Instruction 1996, No.18
[35] Instruction 1996, No. 109
[36] The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000,  p.166
[37] The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.167
[38] A.Kavanagh, Elements of Rite, Monnesota 1990, Reprint, Bangalore 1996, p.35
[39] Congar, Tradition, p.428-429
[40] J.Ratzinger – V.Messori, The Ratzinger Report, San Francisco 1985, p.37-38
[41] The Ratzinger Report,p.38, Footnote No.5
[42] The Ratzinger Report, p.132
[43] The Ratzinger Report, p.132
[44] Congar, Tradition, p.267
[45] Congar, Tradition, p.452
[46] J.Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, San Francisco 1986, p.61
[47] Instruction 1996, No.12
[48] Instruction 1996, No.12
[49] Instruction 1996, No.20
[50] The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.165
[51] Roman Documents on the Syro-Malabar Liturgy, Kottayam 1999, p.65
[52] Roman Documents, p.71
[53] Roman Documents, p.287
[54] Roman Documents, p.287
[55] How Liturgies Grow: The Evolution of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, OCP 43 (1977) 360. (These growths, according to Taft, occurred mainly in three places: Enarxis, Transfer of Gifts and Communion and Dismissal Service)
[56] Roman Documents, p.48
[57] Roman Documents, p.48
[58] Roman Documents, p.48
[59] Roman Documents, p.114
[60] Roman Documents, p.132
[61] Roman Documents, p.132
[62] Roman Documents, p.141
[63] Roman Documents, p.57
[64] Feast of Faith, p.80
[65] Feast of Faith, p.81
[66] The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.164
[67]  The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.171
[68] The Ratzinger Report, p. 127
[69] The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.173
[70] The Ratzinger Report, p.126
[71] The Ratzinger Report, p.120
[72] The Ratzinger report, p.121
[73] Feast of Faith,p.71
[74] Instruction 1996, No.28
[75] Instruction 1996, No.112
[76] Roman documents, p.143
[77] Acts of the Synod, p.130
[78] A. Chupungco, History of the Liturgy Until the Fourth Century, in Handbook for Liturgical Studies I,Collegeville 1997, p.106
[79] Acts of the Synod, p.125
[80] Instruction 1996, No.19
[81] Liturgiam Authenticam (2001)
[82] Anscar Chupungco, The Translation of Liturgical Texts, in Handbook for Liturgical Studies I, p.395 – 396
[83] Acts of the Synod, p.126
[84] Acts of  the Synod, p.127
[85] Acts of the Synod, p.129
[86] Acts of the Synod, p.130
[87] Acts of the Synod, p.130
[88] Acts of the Synod, p.130
[89] Acts of the Synod, p.131
[90] Acts of the Synod, p.131
[91] Acts of the Synod, p.132
[92] Acts of the Synod, p.132
[93] Acts of the Synod, p.132
[94] Acts of the Synod , p.133
[95] Acts of the Synod, p.133
[96] Acts of the Synod, p.133
[97] Acts of the Synod, p.134
[98] Acts of the Synod, p.135
[99] Acts of the Synod, p.136
[100] Acts of the Synod, p.136

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