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

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

Dr Antony Nariculam 

Fr 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 realities: the 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

Principles of Liturgical Theology and the Indian Context

Principles of Liturgical Theology and the Indian Context

Antony Nariculam


Today there is no difference of opinion regarding pluralism in theology and theological methodology. But, pluralism that claims that all points of view are of equal value ends up in relativism. All opinions, as a matter of fact, have a common reference point. When they are cut off from this common reality, it amounts to relativism. Such relativism destroys the very meaning of pluralism.

Pluralism is not a threat to unity rather it enhances unity. According to Vatican II decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches the variety of the Individual Churches in the universal Church ‘so far from diminishing its unity, rather serves to emphasize it’ (0E 2). The obstacle to unity is the attitude of exclusivity. However, for the sake of unity in diversity, the Church cannot be indifferent to doctrinal responsibility. Therefore, theological pluralism should be faithful to the Revelation, the sensus fidelium and the Magisterium. Legitimate pluralism in theology is essential for the Church to be meaningful to all peoples of all cultures. This is all the more needed in the theology of the liturgy since worship is an expression of faith in signs and symbols marked by cultures.

The theology of the liturgy is relatively a new subject in the study of liturgiology. Consequently, from ‘how’ to do liturgy (rites, rubrics etc.) liturgiology turned to ‘what’ is done in worship. In other words, from the category of a ‘practical’ subject, it came under the theological discipline.

The early scholars of the Liturgical Movement (Dom Gueranger, Dom Lambert Beauduin, Romano Guardini and later Odo Casel, Dom Cyprian Vagaggini, Josef Jungmann etc.) dedicated more of their efforts to the history of the liturgy though they did not fail to reflect on the theology of the liturgy too (especially Odo Casel and Cyprian Vagaggini). In the recent past, there has been greater interest among the scholars to understand more deeply what liturgy is from a theological perspective. So much so, the 17th Congress of Societas Liturgica, an International Society for Liturgical Study and Renewal, held in 1999, took up the theme “Liturgical Theology” for its deliberations.

This paper has two parts. This article is an attempt to spell out some general principles in liturgical theology which are fundamental to contextualizing or inculturating the liturgy and to applying them to the inter-ritual ecclesial situation in India. When we look at theology from an ‘Eastern’ perspective, the rupture between theological study and liturgical experience is an unhealthy symptom. The tenets of Indian religious ethos go more in line with the Eastern approach towards theologizing and hence a deeper understanding of Eastern and Western theology and liturgy can be of immense help to enrich the three Individual Churches in India.


  1. Theology and Theological Teaching


The Easterners generally make a distinction between “theology” and “theological teaching”. Theology is an existential experience of God whereas the theological teaching is scientific exposition of the experiential knowledge of God. For them the eternal bliss in heaven is not the ‘vision’ of God, but ‘deification’ (divinization), the union with the Trinity. Theology in the East, therefore, is more an outcome of a lived experience of God than an academic exercise.

In theology, the East prefers the apophatic way. Since God is a transcendental reality, human beings are incapable of fully comprehending Him. He is experienced in a personal relationship. The ultimate consequence of this relationship is the ‘mystical union’ (deification) with Him.

The Eastern theology makes a distinction between the “essence” and the “energy” in God. Human beings do not know the essence of God. The energy is the “acts” or the “grace” of God. In the mystical union with God we come into communion with God in His “energy” (grace) and not in His “essence”. But, this can be realized only through a

‘ sacramental fellowship’ with our brothers and sisters. Thus theology is not dogmatic assertions imposed on the people of God, rather it is truth gradually revealed in the Church through a personal encounter with the members of the Church. Therefore, a theologian is the one who has a genuine experience of God and who helps the people of God to live their faith without falling into errors. In the Eastern understanding a theologian is a ‘person of the Church’ (an ecclesial person) who shares the faith of the Church and the people of God. Faith is to be lived not only IN the Church, but also WITH the Church. The liturgy is the place where one can have this sacramental fellowship since every celebration is a communitarian experience in God, through Christ and in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

  1. Theology of Liturgy and Liturgical Theology


Among the liturgiologists there are some who make a distinction between the “Theology of the Liturgy” and “Liturgical Theology” (A.Schmemann, A.Kavanagh). For them the liturgical theology is theologia prima and the theology of the liturgy is theologia secunda. The liturgical theology is what happens in the celebration – in the divine-human act. The adage lex orandi lex credendi articulates well what is understood by liturgical theology.

The theology of the liturgy is liturgiology under various theological dimensions whereas the liturgical theology derives from the liturgical celebration which is a lived experience of faith. The theological disciplines (Trinity, Christology, ecclesiology, catechetics etc.), according to  this understanding, are explanations of a ‘foundational reality’, namely the celebration of the mysteries of God. A remark of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II is of relevance in this context. After reminding us that the study of the sacred liturgy is to be ranked among the compulsory and major courses in the seminaries, the document notes: ‘Those who teach other subjects, especially dogmatic theology, Sacred Scripture, spiritual and pastoral theology, should expound the mystery of Christ and the history of salvation in a manner that will clearly set forth the connection between their subjects and the liturgy’ (SC 16).

In the liturgical theology there are two foundational principles. First of all, the liturgical community has a fundamental role in ‘shaping’ the liturgy. As a result, the ecclesial dimension (The Church as a worshipping community) is of vital importance. Secondly, the liturgical theology is based on historical liturgical rites.[1] Therefore, the liturgy has to be understood as something “given” to us. As St. Paul notes regarding the institution of the Eucharist, “I have received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor 11:23). In fact, the liturgy is not “made” by us, rather it “takes place”. The liturgy is not simply ‘produced’ by the talented celebrants. It is not something like ‘do-it-yourself’ performance. Instead it should manifest the holiness and action of God and it should be understood and experienced as a moment of salvation. Hence the ‘sacred’ liturgy must not be sacrificed for a ‘secular’ liturgy wherein the ‘sense of the sacred’ is obfuscated.

Some speak about ‘pre-Vatican’ and ‘post-Vatican’ liturgy. For them ‘pre-Vatican’ means rigidity and rubricism. The ‘post-Vatican’ liturgy, on the other hand, is described as the liturgy ‘fashioned by the concrete assembly’ in a particular place and time. For them the Missal is only a ‘guide book’. Consequently, a ‘successful’ and ‘participated’ celebration is understood in terms of ‘creativity’ and ‘spontaneity’ of the celebrants and the assembly.

Odo Casel is considered to be the one who contributed to a great extent in the 20th century to deepen the theological dimension of the liturgy. His main point is that of Mysteriengegenwart, that is, the presence in the mystery (in the sacrament) of the saving acts themselves. He found this theology beautifully expressed in the Prayer over the Gifts on the ninth Sunday after Pentecost. It runs as follows: ‘Lord, make us worthy to celebrate these mysteries. Each time we offer this memorial sacrifice the work of our redemption is accomplished’. The liturgical constitution refers to this liturgical dimension when it says that in the liturgy, especially in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, ‘the work of our redemption is accomplished’ (SC 2).

The Syro-Malabar Qurbana too has similar prayers. Before the Institution Narrative the celebrant prays: ‘Christ left for us the memorial of our salvation, this redemptive mystery which we now offer before you’.[2] On another occasion the celebrant prays: ‘Lord our God, your beloved Son has given us these sacred mysteries for the redemption of human race’.[3] In the epicletic prayer we have the following: ‘May this Qurbana grant remission of our debts, forgiveness of our sins, great hope in the resurrection of the dead and new life in your heavenly kingdom with all those who have found favour in your presence’.[4]


3.   Rite and Celebration


The era of equating liturgy with rubrics is gone. However, since the liturgy continues to be celebrated using ‘texts’ and ‘rites’ the rubrics are not to be ignored in the celebrations. Here we need to make a distinction between the liturgy prescribed by the texts and the liturgy celebrated by the community. This distinction is made clear by the Roman Congregation for the Oriental Churches in a document given to the Syro-Malabar Church: ‘The clear, irreducible distinction between the “Rite” and the “Celebration” is to be maintained and rightly understood. By “Rite” is meant that “form of celebration” which is drawn up by the Church as such and which is to be found solely in the official liturgical books… By “Celebration” is meant that “form of celebration” which is carried out by the concrete assembly.[5] This does not mean that the celebrating community can alter the texts as it likes since any liturgical assembly is ‘hierarchical’ by definition. Rite and celebration are in fact mutually inclusive like a musical score and its performance. Therefore, it is essential that we distinguish between the theology of the liturgy and the “art” of celebration. The study of the history of the liturgy, comparative liturgy, biblical and patristic sources etc. will bring out some of the finest examples of euchological and anaphoral traditions which form part of the restored texts. But the aim of these texts should be to help people  celebrate liturgy meaningfully, experientially and fruitfully. The question of inclusive language, the uses of ‘vengeful’ psalms in the Divine Office etc are issues to be discussed against this background. To be meaningful and experiential, the texts need to be adapted. As Anscar Chupungco says, the refusal to adapt – a reluctance to adapt the message of the text to the intended audience with its existing culture – “amounts to a denial of the universality of salvation”.[6]Even St.Benedict, who loved the recitation of the psalms in the Divine Office said that if anyone found the distribution of the psalms unsatisfactory, they should arrange whatever they judged better.[7]

In this context, an observation made by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger about the restoration of the Liturgical texts is pertinent. He objects to ‘romantic archaeologism of certain professors of liturgy 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 a stage reached in the city of Rome prior to the onset of the Middle Ages’.[8] In the words of Pope John Paul II, 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”.[9] In order to keep this ‘living memory’ and ‘eternal youthfulness’ the art of celebration has to play an important role. This is an area neglected to a certain extent in the post-Vatican liturgical renewal. In fact, Vatican II had given some norms to realize this goal when it referred to adapting the liturgy to the temperament and traditions of peoples.[10] In this ‘celebratory art’ emphasis is given to the assembly because they are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and a redeemed people’ (I Pt 2:9) called to come together to break the Word and the Bread and to thank and praise the Lord.

4.    The Ecclesial Dimension of the Liturgy


The ecclesial dimension – the relationship between the Church and the liturgy – is of particular consideration since the Church is best expressed in her liturgy. “Liturgical prayer certainly conforms and perfectly expresses the authentic deposit of faith… The Church, therefore, understands herself in depth precisely starting from her nature as a celebrating assembly. In this sense, if the Church makes the Eucharist, the Eucharist makes the Church…”.[11] Vatican II documents have underscored the profound relationship between the Church and the Eucharist.[12] The Ignatian saying ‘Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist’ clearly expresses this relationship. The Encyclical Letter “Ecclesia de Eucharistia” of Pope John Paul II (2003) amply testifies to this understanding of the Church and the Eucharist (nos.21 – 25).

The purpose of liturgy, especially the Eucharist, is to express the Church as the unity of that Body whose head is Christ. The Eucharist is not merely ‘one among several’ sacraments. It is the ‘summit and source’ (SC 10). Therefore, any liturgical theology not having the Eucharist as the foundation of its whole structure is basically defective.[13]

The Eastern Churches have maintained in a special way the primacy of the liturgy as the ‘summit and source’ of their ecclesial life. They consider liturgy as the place where catechesis is imparted, the Scripture is proclaimed and explained and the diakonia finds its rightful place. In other words, the whole life of the Church is summarized in the liturgy.[14] This fact is evident in many Eastern Churches that were oppressed by hostile regimes. In many cases, they survived and even strengthened themselves through liturgical celebrations that sustained their faith.

The liturgy is commemorating and celebrating the salvific acts of God accomplished in the history of salvation. These acts are ‘experienced’ by us in the liturgy. This takes place in the Church, the sacrament of Christ. The liturgy (lex orandi) is the expression of what the Church believes (lex credendi). As SC notes, since the time of the apostles the Church has never failed to come together to celebrate the paschal mystery, celebrating the Eucharist and giving thanks to God in Jesus Christ through the power of the holy Spirit (SC 6). Hence, liturgy is the summit and source toward which the activity of the Church is directed and it is also the fount from which all her power flows (SC 10). Precisely for this reason Vatican II insists on the communitarian dimension of the liturgy (SC 26 – 32, 41 – 42). In fact, the loss of sense of fellowship in prayer constitutes a major reason for the lack of meaningful liturgy. The ‘Churchless’ Christian faith is a tragic consequence of the inadequate understanding of the Church as a community. According to A.Schmemann, without liturgy our understanding of the Church’s faith and doctrine is bound to be incomplete.[15]

5.   Liturgy and Active Participation


One of the major contributions of the liturgical constitution of Vatican II is the expression participatio actuosa, the active participation of the people in the liturgy. Unfortunately, the phrase ‘active participation’ is understood by many merely as external activities in the liturgy, such as responses of the people, singing by the choir, reading by the lectors etc. On the whole, attention is given to the people. But when we search for the original meaning of actio in the liturgy, it means ‘Eucharistic Prayer’ or ‘Anaphora’.[16] The real action in the liturgy is of God Himself. This is the ‘newness’ and the ‘distinctiveness’ of Christian liturgy. The bread and wine are ‘transubstantiated’ into the Body and Blood of Christ by actio divina. Then what is the role of the minister and the people in this actio? They ‘participate’ in the action of God. This has been made possible for us through the Incarnation of Christ. The ultimate aim of this participation is ‘deification’ – communion with God. In order to achieve this aim one has to ‘get transformed’ through the daily activities of life (lex vivendi).

The distinction between ‘participation in the liturgy’ and ‘liturgical participation’ will make this point clearer. The ‘presence’ of the people in the liturgy by means of prayers, hymns, offertory procession, dance etc. may be called, in a sense, ‘participation in the liturgy’. The ‘liturgical participation’ does not simply mean ‘being present’ in the celebration. It is getting transformed by being ‘united to the Lord’ (I Cor 6:17) and also to our brothers and sisters in order to transform the world into Christ – to be ‘one body and one Spirit’ in Him.[17]

Pope John Paul II has made a practical application of the meaning of active participation in the Eucharistic celebration in his Apostolic Exhortation “Mane Nobiscum Domine”. After referring to I Cor 11:17-22, 27-34 where St. Paul vigorously reaffirms the impropriety of a Eucharistic celebration lacking charity expressed by practical sharing with the poor, the Pope writes: ‘Can we not make this Year of the Eucharist an occasion for diocesan and parish communities to commit themselves in a particular way to responding with fraternal solicitude to one of the many forms of poverty present in our world? I think, for example, of the tragedy of hunger which plagues hundreds of millions of human beings, the diseases that afflict the developing countries, the loneliness of the elderly, the hardships faced by the unemployed, the struggles of immigrants… By our mutual love and, in particular, by our concern for those in need we will be recognized as true followers of Christ. This will be the criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebration is judged’ (No.28. Emphasis added).

  1. 6.      Music in the Liturgy and the Liturgical Music


Vatican II describes the musical tradition of the Church as a treasure of inestimable value. The reason for this preeminence is that it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy (SC 112). Therefore the chants and sacred music in the liturgical worship should be conducive to the lofty end for which they are intended. It must exclude all profanity not only in itself, but also in the manner in which it is executed.

It is not enough that there be ‘music in the liturgy’. What we need is ‘liturgical music’ in which the sacred music and the liturgy are inseparably bound together. Today, in many cases, the liturgical music is not lex orandi. Rather, it tries to become an ‘artistic piece’ or an ‘ornamentation’ to the sacred worship. It turns out to be an end in itself without leading the community to the ultimate aim of the liturgical celebration. Therefore, we need to rediscover what St. Augustine meant when he said, ‘those who sing, pray twice’.

In any discussion on the liturgical music, the Old Testament psalms could be a starting point. They display the whole range of human experiences which became songs of praise  before God. They were unfolding a dialogue with God expressing the hope, sorrow, joy, fear, gratitude etc. of the people of God. The early Church made these songs her own using them in the Christian liturgy.

The recent biblical and liturgical studies have brought to the forefront the “Christ of the Psalms”. Along with the christologically interpreted psalms, the early Christians took up also the manner of singing of the synagogue. The Benedictus and Magnificat were thus two christologically focused Christian hymns. For Christians Christ is the true David of the psalms. With this new key, the Christians entered into the prayer of Israel. The Holy Spirit who inspired David to sing and to pray, enables us too to pray in the psalms through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father.[18] In this perspective, the Church music is a gift of the Holy Spirit and it should be dealt with accordingly.

In the course of history two elements began to influence the sacred music. One is a preoccupation to allow greater freedom to the artistic aspect of music. Some artists hold that the artistic inspiration is free and it is wrong to impose on it laws and standard extraneous to art, whether they are religious or moral, since such rules hurt the dignity of art and the inspiration of the artist. Arguments of this kind, notes Pope Pius XII, violates the supreme and final goal of the sacred music, namely the devotion and better disposition of the faithful for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries of salvation.[19] The other influence is the secular music making inroads into the sacred music. The freedom of the artist and the influence of the sacred music are not negative elements in themselves. But, an undue preoccupation with the artistic freedom and an indiscriminate use of secular music are counterproductive. Consequently, at times the sacred music turns out to be parodies of secular music. In this context it is worth mentioning that some Eastern Churches continue to keep up the vocal music in the liturgy without the instruments in order to safeguard the sanctity of the sacred music.

As far as the Individual Churches in India are concerned, besides the general principles of the sacred music, they need to pay attention to SC 119 that speaks about the ‘native genius’ of musical tradition. This is valid for both vocal music and the musical instruments. Here again what is more important is that the music and the instruments be in accordance with the ‘dignity of the house of God’ and that they contribute to the ‘edification of the faithful’ (SC 120).

  1. 7.      The Liturgical Prayer and the Prayers of Petition


Today most of the prayers, in the liturgy or otherwise, are ‘requests’ made to God for forgiveness, mercy, material or spiritual needs etc and hence the response to the ‘Prayer of the Faithful’ is invariably “Lord, hear our prayer” or something similar. This type of prayers of petition are generally centred around human needs rather than on God who is praised and thanked for His saving presence in our midst. It is true that in the Bible and in the Christian tradition there are many examples of prayers of petition. But a close examination of the biblical petitions will reveal that they are expressions of faith and trust in the Lord. A clear example is Mk 11:24: ‘So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours’.

In the Syro-Malabar holy Mass the ‘Prayer of the Faithful’ is called Karozutha, a Syriac word which means ‘proclamation’. Accordingly, the prayers are to proclaim the magnificent presence and deeds of God. The response of these prayers is always “Lord, have mercy on us”. Here below are a couple of examples:

Deacon: Our saviour and guardian, and the provider of all things, we pray to you.

People:   Lord, have mercy on us.

Deacon: For peace, unity and stability of the whole world and all the Churches, we pray to you.

 People:  Lord, have mercy on us.

Deacon: For our country, for all other countries, and for the faithful everywhere, we pray to you.

People:  Lord, have mercy on us.[20]

Asking someone for something normally implies two suppositions: informing someone about something that, that person does not know and asking the person to act on the basis of the information. It also implies that if that person does not act after being informed, it is because he/she does not wish to do it. Applied to God these two suppositions are out of place. At the same time, we know that the anthropological dimension of requesting God in words and gestures is a natural human need. But our concern here is to look at it from a theological perspective.

St.Mathew says that words are not very important in prayers since ‘your Father knows what you need before  you ask him’ (Mt 6:7-8). But the Christian tradition of prayer is often one of words. St. Augustine said that the words are necessary in prayer, but not as a means through which we hope to inform or convince God. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, we should pray not to inform God of our needs or desires, but to make ourselves aware that in everything we need to have recourse to divine help. Prayer is offered to God in order to arouse trust in us. Therefore, the primary aim in prayer is not to make God ‘turn towards us’, but to make us ‘turn towards God’.[21]

From an Eastern perspective, the human desire in prayer should be aimed at ‘deification’. Prayer is basically a praise and thanksgiving to God. Praising God means ‘to know’ him, in the biblical sense, that is, to be in communion with him. But this is not simply a psychological or emotional feeling of the devotee or an eschatological hope one looks for. Rather, it is a desire on his/her part to be transformed to commit himself/herself for fellow brothers and sisters here and now.


  1. 8.       The Liturgical Inculturation and the Inter-Ritual Situation in India


The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches defines a Rite as ‘the liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony, culture and circumstances of history of a distinct people, by which its own manner of living the faith is manifested in each Church sui iuris’ (CCEO 28. Emphasis added). As the canon clearly states, the culture and the circumstances of a given people are determining factors in the evolution of a Rite.

None of the three Individual Churches in India has an ‘indigenous’ liturgy since all of them originated outside the Indian soil. The existing liturgies are Western (Latin), East Syrian and Antiochian in the Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Rites respectively.

Ary R.Crollius defines inculturation as ‘the integration of the Christian experience of the local Church into the culture of its people, in such a way that this experience not only expresses itself in the elements of this culture, but becomes a force that animates and innovates this culture so as to create a new unity and communion, not only in the culture in question but also as an enrichment of the Church universal’.[22]

The element of inter-culturation mentioned in the above definition is an important aspect to be taken note of in the process of inculturation in the liturgy, at least in the case of the Oriental Churches in India. One of the reasons why there are many Eastern Catholic Churches in the universal Communion is the cultural contacts they had with the soil in which they were implanted. Since the East Syrian and Antiochian traditions belong to the ‘oriental region’, it is natural that they have common grounds with the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara traditions. Besides, there are specific local elements which were absorbed by the St.Thomas Christians of Malabar before the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries. The following are some of the indigenous elements found in their traditions.[23] Most of them are external to the sacraments, though there are some which became part of the sacraments and the sacramentals. Their church architecture was in the model of Hindu temples. The paintings and sculptures of the churches depicted the peacock, the lotus flower and the tiger that were common symbols among the non-Christians. Various local customs were adapted in connection with the birth of a child. Jatakaranam, Namakaranam, wearing of poonul (sacred thread), the ceremony of Ariyiliruthu are some among them.  Ritual bath, funeral rites, indigenous form of church administration etc. were other inculturated elements. Some superstitious practices like the horoscope, black magic etc. too had crept into their custom which were later corrected by the synod of Diamper in 1599. The anointing of the sick was administered by the lay people with the soil brought from the tomb of St.Thomas at Mylapore. The rite of marriage had taken the local elements of Thali and Manthrakody. According to the testimony of a Franciscan missionary, the Franciscans corrected the ‘abominable error’ of consecrating the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ in cakes of rice and wine of palms! There was the custom of bringing the Eucharistic bread to the altar covered in lotus leaves. The ‘experiment with inculturation’ at Kurisumala Ashram is a good example of liturgical inculturation in the Syro-Malankara Rite.

The Latin Church in India, on the other hand, came to the field of inculturation in a big way only after Vatican II though there had been sporadic attempts in various parts of India by Western missionaries. One of the pioneers in this field was definitely Roberto de Nobili (1577-1656). The history of this process however tells us that it has not progressed as was expected in the “Church in India Seminar” held in 1969.

It is very clear that the history of the Oriental Churches in general bear ample proof to the practice of inculturation. “In the liturgy of the Eastern Churches”, notes the Instruction of 1996, “the experience of the incarnation of the faith is realized in the culture of the peoples, so that such culture is both the inspiration and fruit of faith, and especially of the liturgy”.[24]

In his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen (1995) Pope John Paul II writes: ‘From the beginning the Christian East has proved to contain a wealth of forms capable of assuming the characteristic features of each individual culture, with supreme respect for each  particular community… One of the great values embodied  particularly in the Christian East is the attention given to peoples and their cultures… At a time when it is increasingly recognized that the right of every people to express themselves according to their own heritage of culture and thought is fundamental, the experience of the Individual Churches of the East is offered to us as an authoritative example of successful inculturation’ (Nos. 5,7). The process of inculturation in the East, remarked the Congregation for the Catholic Education, sometimes reached such a point that their cultural life was ‘identified with the manner of Christian living’.[25]

The three Individual Churches in India should strive to go forward with the process of inculturation of their liturgies initiated by the St. Thomas Christians long before the arrival of the Western missionaries and intensified by the spirit of Vatican II.

  1. 9.        The Liturgical Theology as Doxological, Typological and Symbolic


The Indian liturgical theology should be more of apophatic nature than of cataphatic. By its very nature the apophatic method requires a language of doxology, typology and symbolism. The Indian religious ethos naturally tends to this method. As against the rationalistic method of definitions, the Eastern theology prefers to employ the method of symbols. The problem with definitions is that it puts ‘boundaries’ to the defined reality. It puts limits to the unlimited. In order to avoid this risk the Eastern theology, especially the Syriac East avoids rigid systematization and uses typology and symbolism. In this approach the attempt is to bring out the ‘concealed’ mystery to the level of experience. As a matter of fact, images and symbols are basic to human experience and they are prior to philosophical categorization.

St.Ephrem’s typological exegesis is becoming more and more attractive to the scholars since it appeals to the heart rather than to the head. His use of poetry is similar to the Indian manthras, that is, repetitive recitation. For the Eastern theologians, who consider the liturgy as a basic source of theology, the doxological nature of theology is of vital importance. Liturgical theology is also mystical since it aims at union with God, and pastoral since it is addressed to the believers rather that to the scholars or intellectuals. Therefore, the doxological, typological, symbolic, mystical and pastoral nature of the liturgy is very important in developing a liturgical theology in the Indian context.

  1. 10.    The Liturgical Theology and the East-West Complementarity


The East and the West have many things to borrow from each other. In fact, some of the borrowings have enriched the liturgies of the East and the West. For example, the Eastern emphasis on pneumatology with its liturgical epiclesis has been organically absorbed by the revised Eucharistic Prayers of the Latin Missal and it has now become a constitutive element of the anaphoras. Hence the role of the minister acting in persona Christi is being seen in a new light. The pneumatological emphasis has helped rediscover the liturgical celebration as a ‘new Pentecost’ as the Eastern Christians generally like to qualify it.

Two other examples, dear to the East, are the formulae used in Baptism (“you are baptized”) and Penance (“your sins are absolved”) instead of “I baptize you” and “I absolve you” respectively. The following commentary of St.John Chrysostom on this subject is very enlightening: ‘When the priest says over the candidate “so and so is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, he plunges that person’s head into the water three times and draws it up again, allowing that one through this mysterious rite is to receive the visit of the Holy Spirit. For it is not the priest alone who touches the head, but also the right hand of Christ. This stands out even in the words of the celebrant. He does not say “I baptize so and so”, but “so and so is baptized”, indicating that he is only lending his hand, because he was ordained for this purpose by the Spirit. The One who accomplishes all is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, the indivisible Trinity”. This commentary allows a better distinction between the liturgical mysteries and the author of grace and accords to each their due role.

The central position given to the proclamation of the Word of God in the Latin Church after Vatican II and the well-prepared lectionaries have influenced the Eastern Churches in articulating the theological and liturgical value of homilies.

The understanding of participatio actuosa in the liturgy is another example. While the West sought to foster active involvement of the people giving greater emphasis to the verbal and musical participation, the East tended more towards a plethora of signs, symbols and gestures. This again is an area where the Eastern and Western traditions can enrich each other by adapting suitable elements.

The Churches in India can adopt into their liturgical life many elements from the Indian religious culture that is a common heritage of all the three Individual Rites. Some of them are silence, the sense of the sacred, apophatism, music and symbolism.


  1. 11.    Liturgy and ‘Eschatology’ in the Indian Context


“Liturgy is for man and not man for liturgy”, said Pope Paul VI. The Christians are called upon to establish God’s kingdom in this world. The liturgy should not be, therefore, merely a ‘celestial’ celebration in the sanctuary. It is not simply a celebration of God’s mysteries, but it is also a celebration of our lives. Hence the liturgy should not be reduced to a ritualism of an imaginary heaven.

The Church has the image of a pilgrim journeying to the kingdom of God. But, the kingdom of God ‘to come’ must not be disconnected from the kingdom of God in this world. Our participation in the liturgy should help us to respond to injustice, oppression, inequality etc. and to establish God’s kingdom here and now. In this way, social justice becomes a constitutive element of the liturgy. Only then does the lex orandi become lex vivendi.


Slavery disappeared from the so-called ‘Christian’ countries only after eighteen centuries of Christian presence! The influence of the Good News should provoke Christians to bring about justice in the socio-economic life of the people. Karl Barth said that a theologian should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The breaking of the Word and the Bread should be an occasion to break us for others, especially the weak and the needy. We in India have a lot to do to realize this goal.



The liturgists and liturgiologists should nurture and safeguard the liturgy just as a gardener takes care of the plants of the garden. They should not take the place of a mechanic or technician who creates, dismantles and recreates. An objectively correct perspective in the liturgy and its methodology would be, striking a balance between a certain ‘historical interest’ and ‘pastoral pragmatism’. An excess of either of them will be detrimental to the liturgical celebration and its theology. The first generation of the liturgiologists were mostly historians with an archaeological enthusiasm. They should not be allowed to say the last word in the reform of the liturgy. It is the duty of the pastors to take decisions in the liturgy on the basis of sound principles and the historical data. ‘Pastoral’, however, does not simply mean ‘anthropocentric’. It also means historical, solemn, beautiful, rational and sacred. Liturgy is always ‘God-centred’, though celebrated by human beings. Worship is not a time of mere human activity, but a time when God acts on our lives. Our participation in the mysteries of God make us effective partners in continuing the evangelizing mission of the Church establishing God’s kingdom in this world.

[1] D.W.Fagerberg, What is Liturgical Theology: A Study in Methodology, Minnesota 1992, p.9-13

[2] Fourth G’hanta prayer of the First Anaphora.

[3] First Oration for Sundays and Ordinary Feast Days.

[4] Epiclesis of the First Anaphora.

[5] Final Judgement of the S.Congregation for the Oriental Churches Concerning the Order of the Syro-Malabar Qurbana (1985) No.16.

[6] Handbook for Liturgical Studies, Vol.1, Introduction to the Liturgy, Collegeville 1997, p.382.

[7] Cf. Delores Dufner, With What Language will We Pray? , Worship, March 2006, p.158.

[8] The Ratzinger Report, San Francisco 1985, p.131.

[9] Apostolic Letter, Orientale Lumen (1995), No.8

[10] SC 37-40. Cf.also SC 119 on the indigenous music, SC 34 on the need of making the rites within the people’s power of comprehension etc.

[11] Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, Rome 1966, No.32.

[12] Cf. UR 15, LG 26, CD 11, SC 10.

[13] A.Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, New York 1986,p.24

[14] Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Instruction , No.15

[15] Introduction to Liturgical Theology, p.19.

[16] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, San Francisco 2000, p.172.

[17] Third Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Missal

[18] J.Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p.140

[19] Encyclical Musicae Sacrae (1955), Nos.22-23

[20] The Order of the Syro-Malabar Qurbana, Kochi 2005, p.35

[21] Andres Torres Queiruga, Beyond Prayer of Petitions, Concilium, 2006/1, p.70

[22] Edward .J.Kilmartin, Christian Liturgy: Theology and Practice, Kansas City 1988, p.42

[23] Antony Nariculam, Evangelization and Inculturation: Eastern Churches’ Perspective, Ishvani Documentation and Mission Digest, January-April 2000, p.96-103 for some aspects of liturgical inculturation among the St.Thomas Christians of India.

[24] Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Instruction, No.15

[25] Circular Letter concerning the Studies of the Oriental Churches, L’Osservatore Romano, 6 April 1987, p.12.




Dr Antony Nariculam

 Antony Nariculam


The universality of the Church makes it imperative that the Church and her liturgy are inculturated. God became man to save humankind. This saving mystery in Christ must be presented to the whole world in a manner that is understood by the people of a given place.

There was a period in history when some Christian theologians considered the ‘Christian culture’ as a universal monoculture. For them this Christian culture was ‘normative’. But in course of time, the empirical approach in philosophy and sociology began to affirm pluralism in culture. Slowly these theologians had to admit a multicultural world which led to the realization that universality does not necessarily mean uniformity.

One of the greatest achievements of Vatican II and the subsequent magisterial teachings is the openness the Church has towards the wider world with its religions and cultures. This ‘cultural opening’ was initially received with great enthusiasm. But later, due to a variety of reasons, it came to be looked upon with suspicion and diffidence.

Vatican II, which allowed vernacularisation in the liturgy, was aware of the variety of cultures. Hence it suggested that provision be made in the revision of the liturgical books “for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in the mission countries”.[1] This view is theologically supported by another statement of the same document: “The liturgy is made up of unchangeable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These latter not only may 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).

Pope John Paul II, establishing the Pontifical Council for Culture on 20 May 1982, said that the synthesis between culture and faith is not just a demand of culture, but is also of faith. A faith which does not become culture is a faith which has not been fully received, not thoroughly thought through, not fully lived out.[2] In fact, there is never a cultureless Christianity and never yet a fully Christian culture.

On 19 November 1969, during the course of a General Audience, Pope Paul VI said: ‘The rite and the relative rubric are not in themselves dogmatic definitions. Their theological qualification may vary in differing degrees according to the liturgical context to which they refer. They are gestures and terms relating to a religious action – experienced and living – of an indescribable mystery of divine presence, not always expressed in a univocal way’.[3] This vision he already had as Cardinal John Baptist Montini when he stated on the floor of Vatican II that ‘Liturgy is for man and not man for liturgy’.[4]

This article is an attempt to point out how important is culture to express the Christian faith through liturgical celebrations.

  1. What is Liturgy?


The rule of prayer is the rule of faith. Liturgy is the celebration of our faith. It is a response of man (the ‘ascending’ man) to the ‘descending’ God who comes to save humankind. Being a response of man, it has to be a fully ‘human’ act. No human act can be dissociated from his/her culture and life situations. Here we should remember that the liturgical celebrations are not only celebrations of our faith in God and our relationship with Him. It is also a celebration of our lives and the relation among human beings, not excluding the realities of the created world. Thus the ‘verticality’ with God cannot be separated from the ‘horizontality’ with our fellow-beings.

One of the most important acts by which the Holy Spirit reminds the Church about the message of Christ is the liturgical celebration because it is the memorial (anamnesis) of the Lord. It is an expression of faith. So much so, history tells us that there was no recitation of the Creed during the celebration of the liturgy since the whole liturgy is an expression of faith. The Creed was reserved to baptism as an immediate preparation for it.

Liturgy, though an expression of faith, is not simply an act of worship. The New Testament worship, as we understand from the Letter to the Hebrews, is not merely a ritual act. In fact, Christ abolished all rituals and replaced them with symbols (Heb 10:5-10). The rituals are very often conventional, and they can be performed even ‘impersonally’, whereas the symbols are used between living persons as a means of communication. The language of the new worship inaugurated by Christ is a symbolic one in which the body is very much involved.[5] Human beings normally require bodily expressions to actively participate in the celebration of the mysteries of Christ through worship. The signs and symbols are the ordinary means to have this participatory experience.

Speaking about active participation in the liturgy, Vatican II states that it should be “conscious, active and fruitful’ (SC 14). In order to achieve this goal, choice of appropriate symbols that emerge from the cultural context of the people is a must. The transformation of the sacramental celebrations, as a “means of grace” rather than as an act of faith by means of signs and symbols, has led to a distortion of the understanding of the liturgy itself. Therefore, we need to rediscover their meaning and value for the man of today.

  1. What is Inculturation?


From a Christian point of view, inculturation means a dialogue between the gospel message and a culture. This message is not fully independent of a culture. In fact, the gospel message is not simply an idea or a dogma. It is the message about a person – the person of Jesus Christ himself. It is Christ who is coming into dialogue with cultures. Thus inculturation is a response to the call of Christ. It is a gradual transformation that has to take place in the community through individuals. No individual can impose it upon the community. The individuals can only act as agents of this transformation.

Thomas Groome describes inculturation as “a dialectical encounter between Christian faith and a particular culture in which the culture is affirmed, challenged, and transformed towards God’s reign, and in which Christian faith is likewise affirmed, challenged, and enriched by this unique instance of its realization”.[6] This description is based on the thesis that the Christian inculturation is a dialectical encounter between an already cultured version of Christian faith and another culture that is either new to Christianity or has aspects not yet explicitly permeated by it.

He further observes that for a meaningful application of the principles of inculturation one should be convinced of the following facts:

(i)                 There is never a cultureless Christianity or a faithless culture. That is, wherever the Christian faith is implanted, it has always taken elements from the local culture to grow, and that God’s saving presence is already planted in every culture.

(ii)               The ‘story’ and ‘vision’ of Christian faith continues to unfold throughout history. The Christian faith is a living tradition, and its vitality demands that it incarnates in every cultural and historical context.

(iii)             Each cultural expression of Christian faith should be profoundly unique, while remaining bonded in essential unity with all other expressions. ‘Unity in diversity’ should be the motto of the process of inculturation. No cultural expression should be detrimental to the essential unity of faith.

(iv)             The values of God’s reign should be reflected in the very process of inculturation. Inculturation should not be at the expense of the values of God’s kingdom in this world – that of love, peace , justice, freedom, integrity of God’s creation etc.[7]1

One of the greatest insights of Vatican II on inculturation is found in Ad Gentes 22: ‘In imitation of the plan of Incarnation, the young Churches, rooted in Christ and built upon the foundation of the apostles, take to themselves, in a wonderful exchange, all the riches of the nations which were given to Christ as an inheritance’. In the past the Christians in general thought that they had a ‘finished product’ by way of ecclesiastical structures, including the liturgy. But, Ad Gentes 21 notes that the lay people must give expression to the ‘meaning of life’ given to them in baptism ‘in the social and cultural framework of their own homeland according to their own national traditions… They must develop it in accordance with modern conditions, and finally perfect in Christ’. Therefore, openness towards cultures, traditions, customs etc. is a sine qua non if we really wish to make the Church and her worship relevant for the modern era. That is why the Vatican II decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches, while insisting on the need of returning to the sources and ancient practices, wishes that they are adapted to the needs of different times and places (OE 2).

Incarnation is one of the most important theological bases of inculturation. It is a redemptive incarnation. Christ became similar to us in all things but sin. Through his death and resurrection he redeemed the humankind. This leads to the conclusion that inculturation “recognizes the presence of evil in the world, the reality of sin and its imprints, forces and consequences in all realities of the world and human life”.[8] Any element taken from the cultures should be made to pass through the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, the yardstick to judge the appropriateness of inculturation is the mystery of Christ. Consequently, inculturation has a double task: of liberating the cultures from sin, evil and error, and of giving them a true Christian meaning, orientation and fulfilment. Thus inculturation calls for a prophetical critique and a Christian interpretation. It calls for “dying and rising” on the part of the Church for new flowers and new fruits.

In this process of inculturation, it is not sufficient that we make the Christian formulae intelligible to the peoples of various cultures. Rather, it implies a genuine experience of Christ in every culture through authentic signs and symbols taken from the culture concerned.

  1. What is Liturgical Inculturation?


To speak about the need of inculturation in liturgy is to repeat the obvious. Nobody seems to have any objection to its relevance and the need though there are apprehensions with regard to how to go about it and how far we can go with it. The renewal and updating of liturgy practically means inculturation in the same.

The Pan-Asian Consultation on Inculturation and Liturgy made the following statement after their meeting in 1995. “All Asian countries struggle with the issue of inculturation. Our sharing revealed that liturgical developments in Asia have consisted mainly

in the translation of the typical editions of the Roman liturgical books in the wake of Vatican II. This has, by and large, marked the first phase of inculturation. The translation of liturgical texts composed in another time and culture is an extremely difficult task. The transplantation of signs and symbols is even more difficult. Even supposedly universal signs and symbols, when transplanted into another culture, often hide or even distort the very mysteries they are meant to convey. No universal model can speak with equal clarity and force throughout the world. Moreover, no Christian community can become creative in language and symbol system that is basically alien to it. Unless the Word of God becomes flesh in our cultures, the soul of Asia will remain untouched”.[9]

What is liturgical inculturation? A. Shorter defines inculturation as “the on-going dialogue between faith and culture or cultures. More fully, it is the creative and dynamic relationship between the Christian message and a culture or cultures”.[10] And then he makes three observations about inculturation. First, it is an on-going process, and hence even the so-called ‘Christian’ nations need to undergo inculturation. In other words, it should not be confined to the newly evangelized missions. Second, the Christian faith transcends all cultures. At the same time, it cannot exist except in a cultural form. Third, there is need of a reciprocal and critical interaction between the Christian faith and culture.[11]These observations are of prime importance when we deal with the whole question of liturgical inculturation.

The issue of liturgical inculturartion is primarily an ecclesiological one. It cannot be understood and practised separate from the life of the Church in all its aspects. One reason for the relative failure of liturgical inculturation is the inadequate understanding of the liturgy as a vertical celebration in a numinous sphere unrelated to the real life situations of the celebrating community. There is a close relationship between a ritual and the community that enacts it. Ritual, in fact, is a symbolic expression of the structure of the society.

What are the areas of inculturation in the Church? There is no area of the Church that does not need inculturation. The liturgical inculturation should not be reduced to the exclusive sphere of worship. But, of course, one needs to fix priorities.

To worship God is a fundamental need of a religious minded person. It affects the core of his/her religiosity. It is a personal, deep experience of the human soul. Being persons with senses, they require visible signs and symbols to express this experience. This visible expression becomes meaningful and communicative only when it is understood by the generality of the people. Hence it is imperative that it is expressed through the symbols of the people of the place.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy underlines this dimension of the culture in relation to the liturgy in the following words: “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 she does respect and foster the qualities and talents of the various races and nations… She sometimes even admits such things into the liturgy itself, provided they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit” (SC 37). The Council is also in favour of allowing ‘legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions and peoples, especially in mission countries’ (SC 38). Conscious of its absolute need, the Council also notes that ‘in some places and circumstances however an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed’ though it entails ‘greater difficulties’ (SC 39).

Liturgy is the expression of the experience of the risen Lord manifested in various cultural forms. One and the same experience is expressed by different peoples in different historical and geographical contexts. In this manifestation there are universal and unchangeable, as well as particular and changeable, elements. The universal elements are celebrated by a particular community in a particular place. The unchangeable truths are celebrated with changeable elements. And, the Divine is celebrated by human beings.  This is something marvellous in the universal Church. A successful liturgical inculturation depends upon striking a balance between these elements.

Jesus did not hand over to us a ‘prototype’ of liturgy, but an experience. Since this experience is linked with cultural manifestations, its expressions vary. This variety, however, is not to be determined by laws and regulations, but from the cultural experiences of a living community of a given place. Therefore, liturgical inculturation is defined as “a process of inserting texts and rites of the liturgy into the framework of the local culture”.[12]

In order to attain this goal, it is not enough that we merely adapt some cultural elements into the institutionalized form of Christianity. Rather, “we need to undergo a process of symbiosis by which our faith becomes an experience in the context and expresses itself in a symbol system that is capable of communicating this experience to others”.[13] Hence the liturgical inculturation is not simply a matter of discovering adequate cultural symbols to express the content of faith and worship, but is a question of ecclesiology and a pastoral methodology.

Regarding a practical methodology of liturgical inculturation  A.Chupungco suggests a three-step process. It consists of Dynamic Equivalence, Creative Assimilation and Organic Progression.[14]

Dynamic Equivalence is practically an adaptation of the editio typica. Though some creativity is involved in this process, it is dependent on the typical editions of the liturgical books. Creative Assimilation is a methodology used in the Patristic era. The giving of a cup of milk and honey in the baptismal Mass, renouncing Satan looking towards the West and making the profession of faith turning towards the East, the celebration of Epiphany on 6th January and Christmas on 25th December are examples. In Organic Progression comes the question of ‘new forms’ in worship which are unknown till then. Though they are ‘new’, they have to respect the principle of “organic growth”.[15]

Vatican II has identified certain areas of the liturgy where this process needs to be undertaken. Besides SC 37-40, which we have referred to above, the document mentions also the Christian initiation rites (SC 65), the rite of Marriage (SC 77), the liturgical music (SC119) and the liturgical art (SC 123).

In this process, the sacramentals, especially the blessings, have a special place as most of them are closely related to the day to day life of the people. Though there are sacramentals that have some sort of a universal character, mostly they are attached to the culture and the customs of the people. Therefore SC 39 names them among the liturgical books wherein the Conferences of Bishops have a free hand to make adaptations.

  1. Local Church: The Venue of Inculturation


The Church being the sacrament of Christ is the visible manifestation of Christ. The institutional Church which is localized must have a visible expression congenial to the community of the people. The Church becomes authentically local in so far as she bears the imprint of the place and the people where she lives. “The Church becomes Church when it is incarnated in a place and this localization is called the local Church”.[16]

We know from history that liturgy developed in the local Churches resulting in liturgical diversities. Only later they began to be unified, a phenomenon more prevalent in the Western liturgy. In the East, maintaining the unity of faith, liturgies continued to flourish in diversity. As the decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches notes, the universal Church is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit by the same faith, the same sacraments and the same government. But they combine into different groups which are held together by their hierarchy and so form individual Churches keeping their own particular liturgy, spirituality and discipline (OE 2-3). From this it is clear that the liturgical celebration is not a ‘universal act’. It is always an action of the community of faithful ‘here and now’. That is why the Eastern Churches are very particular about insisting on the universal Church as a ‘Communion of Individual Churches’. As Pope Paul VI notes, the universal Church is in practice incarnate in the individual Churches that are heirs of a cultural patrimony, of a vision of the Word of God, of an historical part of a particular historical substratum.[17] It responds to the deep aspiration of peoples and human communities to find their own identity ever more clearly.[18] One of the important characteristics of an individual Church is the manner in which it expresses its faith in worship form.

A local Christian community is not a ‘fraction’ of the universal Church. Every worshipping community manifests the full mystery of the Church. This manifestation is based on its social, cultural and religious milieu, and hence appropriate signs and symbols congenial to the people are to be employed. History of the Churches – both in the West and in the East – gives evidence to this fact. The existence of the liturgies according to the Roman Rite, the Ambrosian Rite, the Spanish Rite, and later the Indian Rite, the Philippino Rite, the Congolese Rite etc. are examples. The five liturgical families – Alexandrian, Antiochian, Byzantine, East Syrian and Armenian – with 22 individual Churches bear ample witness to it in the East. Even within an individual Church there can be diverse liturgical expressions according to the culture, place and the context of the people as we see in the Western and Eastern ecclesiastical traditions.

  1. Liturgical Inculturation: An Historical Review


Inculturation is essentially an historical phenomenon, and the history of the Church is practically a history of inculturation.

When we examine the history of the Roman liturgy, we find that the so-called “classical period” (5th – 8th centuries) was a time of ‘classical’ inculturation too. It was a period of liturgical creativity with original composition of liturgical texts for the people of the time. The Popes like Gelasius, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great have contributed their insights for its growth. In the 8th century, as the Church spread to Franco-Germanic world, it underwent another type of liturgical inculturation.  Liturgy was transformed from its Roman simplicity and sobriety to a charming, dramatic and colourful one to suit the temperament of the Franco-Germanic people.

The first half of the first millennium was a period of intense inculturation in liturgy. Some examples will clarify this point.[19]

  • Though Christianity was in close relationship with the Jewish religious tradition, when it required the liturgical vestments the West adopted the festive attire of the Greco-Roman world and the East that of the Byzantine Empire.
  • From the Jews she inherited the Bema – a platform for reading from the Torah – for the proclamation from the Bible.
  • The morning and evening holocaust of the Jews appears in the form of morning and evening prayers in the Christian tradition.
  • The language used in the liturgy was the language of the people.
  • The apophatic (negative –  Neti, neti of the Indian tradition) approach towards God’s name (YHWH: I am who am) without a positive affirmation is adopted from the Jewish understanding of God as IN-visible, IN-comprehensible, IN-expressible, UN-fathomable etc.
  • The Christian litanic prayers are an imitation of the Roman manner of prayers.
  • The liturgical gestures like kissing the altar, the prostrations, the use of incense and the candles, etc are taken from the non-Christian practice.
  • The prayer turning to the East has its roots in the Sun-cult of the pagans.
  • The Christian tradition of fasting on Wednesday and Friday was influenced by the Tuesday and Thursday fasts of the Jews.
  • The pre-Christian mystery cults have influenced the Christian practice of exorcism, the imposition of hands and the anointing.
  • The architecture of the ancient churches followed that of the Roman basilicas’.
  • The “May they rest in peace” (R.I.P) in the funeral rites has its origin in the pre-Christian Roman funeral acclamation.
  • The feast of Transfiguration on 6th August is related to the Jewish commemoration of Moses’ transfiguration on Mount Sinai.
  • The feast of Epiphany on 6th January recalls another ‘epiphany’ (manifestation) of a ruler to a province of his kingdom.
  • The feast of Christmas on 25th December is inspired by the birth of the Invincible Sun-god.
  • The feast of the “Cathedra” of St. Peter is in imitation of the anniversary of the Roman emperor’s assumption of office.
  • The feast of martyrs, saints, etc originated from the pre-Christian practice of venerating the tombs of the dead.

In the later period of the Church too we have luminous examples of inculturation. The history of the St. Thomas Christians of India before the 16th century is a classical example of how the Christians could find themselves completely at home in the Indian culture. In their social and religious practices, and worshipping customs they were very much like their non-Christian neighbours.[20]

The Chinese experimentation of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) with the cult of the familial dead that was administered with prostrations, the burning of incense and the offering of food at their tombs was condemned as superstitious practices. Roberto Nobili’s (1577-1656) attempts with Indian culture were frowned upon by his confreres, and later they had to be abandoned. Even during this period, we come across some silver lining by way of official sanction in favour of liturgical inculturation. Thus in 1615 Pope Paul V allowed the Chinese to use the Chinese language in the liturgy though this permission was withdrawn in 1661 due to the objections of the missionaries themselves. In 1659 Propaganda Fide wrote a letter asking the missionaries not to make attempts to persuade the people of the mission lands to change their rites, customs and ways, provided they are not very manifestly contrary to religion and morals.[21]

  1. Challenges of Inculturation


One of the notable limitations of liturgical inculturation is the non-permanent nature of culture. Given culture’s susceptibility to change, the product of any attempt at inculturation is bound to be an unstable mixture. Therefore at no time can we have a complete and perfectly inculturated liturgy. It is a continuous search and a constant struggle. Only a genuine local Church can cope with the ever new demands of the changing culture.

All religions carry with them some cultural expression. Christianity, for example, has many semitic elements. For some people these cultural expressions are part and parcel of their religion, and any change in them is considered a threat to their religious experience. In other words, the cultural expressions are equated with religion itself. This is nothing short of religious fundamentalism.

In the process of liturgical inculturation a crucial factor should be borne in mind. Faith transcends all cultures. Faith in Christ can even purify and transform cultures. Therefore some hold that the duty of the Christian faith is to purify the cultures and make them ‘Christian’. As a matter of fact, culture is not good or bad, holy or sinful. Human choices make them bad or sinful. In this perspective, the Christian inculturation can also mean a purification of the sinful culture through the intervention of the Christian faith. At the same time, we should also remember that the mysteries we celebrate in the liturgy transcend all cultures though the expressions of the mysteries and the people’s response to it in the liturgy are culturally conditioned. Here the role of culture in relation to worship needs to be properly understood. “Christian worship should not end up being a mere ingredient of the local culture, nor should culture be reduced to an ancillary role. The process of interaction and mutual assimilation brings progress to both; it does not cause mutual extinction”.[22]


Pope Paul VI once warned that evangelization would lose much of its force and effectiveness “if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life”.[23] Among them the signs and symbols employed in the liturgy are of great relevance because “the religious symbols have the power to render the real more real. They induce faith, conviction, commitment because they act upon the creative power of the human intellect and galvanize the will towards action… No religion can exercise this power if its symbols are not inseparable from those of culture”.[24]

However, we need to make a distinction between inculturation and ‘culturalism’. A religion, when it assumes various external forms by way of inculturation, should not lose its essential identity. If it loses its identity, it is no more inculturation, but ‘culturalism’, that is, absolutization of culture. Besides, the Christian religion cannot take cultural symbols of a place if they are inseparably associated with the religious faith of another religion.

There is the need to evolve a liturgy which speaks for itself, and which requires not much commentary. Therefore, clerically inspired and clerically managed inculturation is likely to fail. Inculturation is a way of life. It is an on-going search. Failures are possible. But they should not deter us from continuing our search. As Pope Benedict XVI rightly remarks, the abuses that have occurred in the process of inculturation  should not “detract from this clear principle , which must be upheld in accordance with the real needs of the Church as she lives and celebrates the one mystery of Christ in a variety of cultural situations”.[25]

[1] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, SC 38

[2] L’Osservatore Romano, 28 June 1982, p.1-8

[3] Jacob Manathodath, Culture, Dialogue and the Church, Intercultural Publication, New Delhi 1990, p.141.

[4] J.Manathodath, Culture, Dialogue and the Church, p.139

[5] Paul Puthanangady, Challenges of Cultures and Religions in Asia to Christian Liturgy, in Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference – Office of Education and Student Chaplaincy, Asian Worship in Spirit and Truth, Madras 1995, p.11

[6] “Inculturation: How to Proceed in a Pastoral Context”, Concilium 2(1994) 120-133. Here p.122

[7] “Inculturation: How to Proceed in a Pastoral Context”, p.122-129

[8] D.S.Amalorpavadass, Inculturation is not Hinduisation but Christianization, NBCLC Bangalore 1981, p.7

[9] FABC-OESC, Asian Worship in Spirit and Truth, p.201-202

[10] Aylward Shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation, Geoffrey Chapman  London 1988, p.11

[11] Toward a Theology of Inculturation, p.11-13

[12] Abscar Chupungco, Liturgical Inculturation: Sacramentals, Religiosity and Catechesis, The Liturgical Press Collegeville:MN 1992, p.30

[13] P.Puthanangady, Challenges of Cultures and Religions in Asia to Christian Liturgy, p.4

[14] A.Chupungco, Liturgical Inculturaion: Sacramentality, Religiosity and Catechesis, p.37-51

[15] SC 23, OE 2. Antony Nariculam, The Holy See, The Syro-Malabar Bishops’ Conference and the Syro-Malabar Bishops’ Synod on the Inculturation of the Syro-Malabar Liturgy: A Study, in Bosco Puthur (ed.), Inculturation and the Syro-Malabar Church, LRC Publications Kochi 2005, p.66-68

[16] D.S. Amalorpavadass, Gospel and Culture, NBCLC Bangalore 1978, p.22

[17] Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) 62

[18] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 63

[19] Julian Saldanha, Inculturation, St.Paul Publication Bombay 1985, p.25-28

[20] For details see Antony Nariculam, “Evagelization and Inculturation Eastern Church’s Perspective”, Ishvani Documentation and Mission Digest, January-April 2000, p.95-108

[21] Referred to in Cyprian Illickamuri, Inculturation and Liturgy, in Antony Nariculam (ed.), Inculturation and Liturgy, Star Publications  Alwaye 1992, p.85

[22] A.Chupungco, Liturgical Inculturation: Sacramentals, Religiosity and Catechesis, p.29

[23] Evangelii Nuntiandi, 63

[24] A.Shorter, Toward a Theology of Inculturation, p.41

[25] Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007) 54

Reception of Inter-religious Dialogue in India

Reception of Inter-religious Dialogue in India

Dr Vincent Kundukulam

Vincent Kundukulam



To assess the reception of the Second Vatican Council by the Indian Church with regard to inter-religious dialogue is a complex exercise for many reasons. First of all, the initiatives for dialogue vary from place to place on account of different local factors. Besides, the fact of reception is not uniform in theological and practical realms. To take stock of the dialogical scenario in India is also difficult due to the lack of serious research already done on this topic. Nevertheless, this task is indispensable if we want to carry on the achievements of the Council to the present day. This paper is a humble attempt to inquire into the perspectives and practices that are emerged in Indian Church in the sphere of dialogue after the Council.

We will commence by clarifying the key terms of this article – reception and dialogue.  Secondly, we will resume the basic intuitions as regards Church’s attitude towards Non-Christians in the documents of Lumen gentium, Gaudium et spes, Ad gentes and Nostra aetate. Next section will be an illustration and evaluation of the theology and practice of dialogue in India. This will follow the problems and challenges that the mission of dialogue confronts in our country. In conclusion we will make some proposals to keep at the orientations of Council about dialogue in India.

1) Clarification of terms

Reception: The concept of ‘reception’ raises before us a certain number of questions: Is reception purely a human endeavor? Do humans need divine assistance to follow the teachings of Church? Does reception point to merely a democratic process that looks for majority’s consensus? Can we reduce reception to the passive acceptance of a hierarchical position by a local Church? Who is ultimately responsible for reception – theologians, faithful or hierarchy? When is the process of reception completed:  by mere acceptance of a document or by implementing its suggestions?

To discuss the above mentioned questions is beyond the scope of this article. Therefore,  I remain here with the stance taken by Evelyn Monteiro, who after studying this point summarizes the following: ‘A document can be said to have been received at the outset if it is faithful to Christian experience and is in continuity with the tradition of the Church. Secondly, reception is not merely a juridical determination, either of authority or on the part of the faithful; as Lumen gentium no: 12 remind us, ‘the whole Church is involved in grasping the Christian truth’. Thirdly the reception will occur only when the document is sensitive to the demands of current Christian situation. Finally, reception does not confer validity to a universal document; rather acknowledges its worth for the local Church and thus imparts certain credibility to the statement[1].  We will therefore understand reception in this article in an integral sense i.e. loyalty to the magisterium which is to be derived through the process of dialogue where the entire people of God in a local Church expresses their sensus fidelium in a responsible way under the help of the Holy Spirit.

Dialogue: Dialogue has become inevitable for peaceful co-existence in the contemporary world. For Church, dialogue is not a strategy of co-existence but a constituent of her identity. She is originated from God’s initiative to dialogue with the humanity. Jose Kuttianimattathil, in his book, ‘The practice and theology of inter-religious dialogue’ has proposed a description of inter-religious dialogue, which I think, is fitting for our understanding of dialogue in this discussion. ‘It may be described as all positive and constructive inter-religious relations, be it through living and working together, study and discussions, witness and sharing in depth, prayer and contemplation, etc. by religiously committed individuals and communities of one religious tradition with those of other faiths, which are directed at mutual enrichment and commitment to joint-action for the integral liberation of people, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom’[2].

2) Insights of the Council regarding Dialogue

In the Second Vatican Council, Lumen gentium, Gaudum et spes, Ad gentes and Nostra aetate are the main documents which enclose orientations for inter-religious dialogue.

The prime concept that promotes dialogue in these documents is unity of the human race: ‘All men stem from one stock and share in a common destiny, God. God’s providence, goodness and saving designs extend to all humans’ (NA 1). Consequently even those who have not received the gospel are related to the People of God. The plan of salvation includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems… Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men life and breadth and all things (Acts 17, 25-28). Those who seek God with a sincere heart, and try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel. (LG 16) The humble and preserving investigator of the secrets of nature is also led by the hand of God. In any case believers, no matter what their religion, have always recognized the voice and the revelation of God in the languages of creatures. (GS 36)

Another point in the Council that boosted the dialogue initiatives is the rediscovery of the role of the Holy Spirit in the world. Without doubt, the Holy Spirit was at work in the world before Christ was glorified (AG 4). The activity of the Holy Spirit is not restricted to the Catholic Church; He directs the course of time and renews the face of the earth (GS 26). Consequently, Church understood herself as a worldwide reality than merely a Europe-centered religion. As Spirit is active in the religious traditions of the world, it is proper that Church enters into dialogue with them in order to recognize the riches of God present in them and realize God’s plan on earth.

Council fathers stressed also God’s universal salvific plan. All men, including those who do not possess an explicit knowledge of God, are exposed to the presence of the saving grace of Christ because the whole humankind is called by the grace of God to salvation (LG 13,16). God wills all men be saved (I Tim 2,4). ‘Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery (GS 22). The Spirit reaches the depth of everything and that the Spirit blows where it pleases (Jn 3, 8).

In the light of the above-said theological stands, Council observed that other religions are not mere human enterprises. Whatever truth and grace are found among them is a sort of secret presence of God. Therefore the Fathers advised the faithful ‘to reject nothing of what is true and holy in these religions’. They affirmed that Church keeps a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrine which, although differing in many ways from her teaching, nevertheless, often reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men (NA 2). They encouraged the faithful to collaborate with other believers. ‘The Church, therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions.  Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture’ (NA 2). The Sacred Council begs Christian faithful to conduct themselves well among the Gentiles and if possible, depends on them, to be at peace with them and thus be true sons of the Father who is in heaven (NA 5). In brief, Council refused the old exclusive adage – Outside Church no salvation -and recognized positive values in other religions.

3) Areas of reception

Dialogue with other religious cultures is not truly a post Vatican reality in India. Since the very beginning, Christians, in particular the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala, kept friendly relation with the surrounding religions. But Council’s position is decisive in the sense that the universal Church officially encouraged dialogue with other faith traditions.

3.1 Theological reception

The positive attitude of the Council towards other faiths enhanced Indian theologians and pioneers of dialogue to elaborate a theology of dialogue proper to their contexts.  In 1989, the CBCI Commission for Dialogue and Ecumenism brought out the ‘Guidelines for Inter-religious Dialogue’, a unique text that explains the raison d’etre and dynamism of dialogue-ministry.

According to this document, ‘dialogue is both an attitude and an activity of committed followers of various religions who agree to meet and accept one another and work together for common ideals in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust. They do not meet in superficial manner leaving aside their religious convictions. Rather they reach out for each other from the very core of their respective faiths, for they are confident that not only what they have in common but also those things in which they differ can provide a motive for coming together’. The Commission elaborates also the attitudes for genuine dialogue. They are prayer, commitment to faith, willingness to change, truthfulness, honesty, humility, spirit of forgiveness, knowledge of the other and sense of justice. The dangers to be avoided in the mission of dialogue are unwillingness to accept other as different, attitude of suspicion, desire to score a point over the other, syncretism and indifferentism[3].

The theology of dialogue developed in India can be traced also from the statements of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Annual Meetings of the Indian Theological Association. These meetings define dialogue ‘as a mode of being and a way of life. It is a sharing and a process of mutual enrichment. Like all realities dialogue also contains a paradox: commitment to one’s own ideals and acceptance of others. Genuine dialogue implies that the partners respect one another and learn from one another. Hence there can be no dialogue without accepting the equality of partners’[4].  In order to conduct dialogue meaningfully, says the Indian theologians, ‘we should be aware of the limitations of our own faith-experience. While holding to the specificity of faith we have to transcend the limits of the same in order to experience the ineffable mystery of God. We thus recognize ourselves as pilgrims in Christ to that fullness of truth which is beyond all claims of expression and possession. No religion can exist in isolation; nay more, a religion that is not open to the other becomes irreligious. In a pluralistic society to be religious is to be inter-religious’[5].

The advocates of dialogue in India elaborated also frameworks that would facilitate reading of non-Christian Scriptures and participation in their worship. Under the leadership of D.S. Amalorpavadass, a Research Seminar on Non-Biblical Scriptures was organized at Nagpur in 1975 and the proposals of this Conference became the torchlight for the Catholics in using other Scriptures. The prominent reason they emphasized was Holy Spirit’s active presence outside the confines of Church. Thanks to the works of the Spirit other Scriptures reflect genuine religious experiences of those people. Reading the Non-Christian scriptures the Christians will be better equipped for a more profound sharing with the members of other religions. It will help them discover the universal will of God expressed in other faith traditions. [6]

3.2 Reception via Praxis

Envisaging mission as being a leaven in the world, the supporters of dialogue began ashrams and centers in various parts of the country to promote interaction among the believers of religions. The main activities of such centers are the following.

Monthly meetings: Most of the dialogue centers conducted ordinary meetings in which believers from all religions participated. These meetings begin by a prayer. It comprises lighting the Indian lamp, chanting devotional songs, readings from the Sacred Scriptures, lectures on special themes, discussion of the participants, sharing a small meal, etc.

Seminars: Once in a while, the dialogue groups host seminars where the scholars from different religions are invited to make systematic presentation on a chosen theme and that is followed by discussion in the group.

Experience Sharing: Some hardly arrange dialogue meetings. They feel that sharing of experiences are more fruitful than the arranged dialogues. Fr. Bede Griffiths writes: ‘It is one thing to know about a particular religion by reading and discussion but it is another thing to know a person. After all there is no such thing as Hinduism; there are only Hindus each living and experiencing his religion in a different way. There is no such thing as Christianity; there are only Christian men and women, living out their faith from day to day. Dialogue teaches one not to encounter an abstract doctrine but to discover the living reality of religion[7]. X. Irudayaraj who has been pioneering the dialogue sessions in St. Paul’s Seminary Tiruchy expresses the same view:  ‘As secretary to the meetings I used to worry choosing themes for dialogue. But now I see that the ‘themes present themselves’ as we focus on sharing and praying together and I have come to realize that dialogue consists more in silent togetherness than in verbal exchange[8].


Celebration of festivals: The festal gatherings not only build up inter-religious friendship but also help people to get acquainted with the spiritual meaning of the rituals and customs of other religions and strengthen their own personal spiritual lives.

Common Pilgrimage: The interfaith groups go to places of pilgrimage once in a year. This includes also visiting religious institutions of the participants. Such visits help the members remove the doubts and misunderstandings regarding other believers and get in touch with the worship of their co-religionists.

Co-operation in the social field: Common activities by members of different religions are a form of inter-religious dialogue. Certain dialogue units undertake public services in view of nation-building. Some others take up a wide range of issues pertaining to human rights and freedom of the backward people in the country. The activists of dialogue engage also in exorcizing the demons of casteism, regionalism and communalism. Through these sorts of action-oriented programs people come to know about the liberative drive of religions and stick on to religions to solve the issues of life.

Inculturation: The process of inculturation got momentum immediately after the Council. The liturgy began to be celebrated in the vernacular languages. In many places churches and chapels were constructed in Indian style. Indian music, bhajans and dance were introduced into liturgy.  Oil lamps replaced candles and arati took the place of the thurible in worship. Priests, religious and seminarians became interested in studying Indian spirituality and yoga. Christian ashrams sprang up in different corners of the country.  But these days, a sort of frozenness is installed in indigenization, partly due to the disciplinary guidelines from different ecclesial corners.


Live-together Sessions: The live-in programmes are those in which members of different religions come together for some days of staying together. They are arranged in quiet and beautiful places. During these days the participants meditate, sing, eat and conduct sat-sang as one community. Dialogue goes to the deepest level when the members live together in proximity for days through prayer, contemplation, cooking and eating, discussion and cultural activities.

Through these various types of practical dialogue participants get the conviction that all religions are willed by God in his mysterious economy of salvation. They are meant by God to throw light on one another, enrich one another and stimulate one another in seeking Him and serving the humanity.

4) Evaluation of the reception

Though it is difficult to determine exactly the status of inter-religious dialogue in India in the existing paradigms of theology of religions – ecclesio-centrism, christo-centrism, theo-centrism, and soterio-centrism[9] – we will make a random classification in order to have a bird’s-eye view on the situation of dialogue ministry in Indian Church. The following comments are not based on any scientific study but in the light of my experiences with those who are involved in dialogue under different capacities in India.

Starting from above, majority of the bishops in India attest the positive and open attitude of the Council towards other religions. Since pluralism has become an irreversible fact of today’s culture they come out to recognize in public other religions as ways of salvation to their respective believers. This position is closer to the theology of salvific grace, a position held by Karl Rahner. But when the ecclesial authorities speak within the board of Christians they may be content with the theology of accomplishment i.e. all religions are natural religions and Christianity is the supernatural religion.

There may be only a least minority in the hierarchy who, in both private and public circles, attribute to other religions an authentic salvific value. While holding firm on the unique mediatorship of Christ they may consider gods of other religions as co-mediations of salvation for the world.   Such bishops don’t express satisfaction vis-à-vis the ‘going-back attitude’ of the recent official documents regarding dialogue. They are deeply sad about the ghetto culture that is getting momentum among the Catholics today. The following comment made by Bishop Patrick D’Souza, Bishop of Varanasi, on Dominus Iesus is an instance. While holding on to what the Church teaches in this document he asks, ‘if there is not a different way telling that Jesus is the only Saviour?’ Can we affirm quantity about God? Is there a way that is not offensive in defending the particularity of Jesus to the Indians? Any true dialogue to be possible the partners must be open to learn from each other. We must not claim to have fully the whole truth. Such a claim will not only be a sign of foolish arrogance, but also a denial of the pilgrim character of the Church. A Christian can respect other faiths without surrendering his/her commitment to the central declaration of the Scripture. The oldest as well as the briefest confession of faith in the NT is Jesus is the Lord; He is the way, the Truth and the Life. It is different from saying that Jesus is the only Saviour.[10].

Among the theologians and activists who thrive after inter-religious dialogue a major section will hold on some of the intuitions related to either theo-centric and soterio-centric attitudes while being at the same time faithful to inclusive Christo-centrism. They are not happy while Magisterium imposes in a unilateral way its documents on the local Churches. Paul Puthenangady remarks: ‘We all believe that the local Church is not a branch of the universal Church. Every local Church is fully Church on its own right, in communion with the Universal Church. If this is true universal magisterium need not be a one-way traffic. The local Churches have the duty and right to contribute effectively in the formulation the universal magisterium. Magisterium is more a communication leading to communion than an instruction following the style of a teacher-pupil relationship’[11].

Coming to the laity, they are not very much worried about the dogmatic formulations regarding dialogue. What matters them is the praxis of dialogue. The relation of the Christians towards other believers in India depends on various factors. Among them we will mention only two here. a) The antiquity, numerical strength, and economic status of Christians in a region: For example, where Christians are numerically weak they go for healthy relationship with others while in areas where Christians have considerable strength they are reluctant for cultural integration. Since they can stand on their own legs, they will not be ready to make any sacrifice for the sake of dialogue. b) Christian involvement in dialogue may vary also according to the forms of dialogue. Laity feels at ease with the ‘dialogue of life’ and the ‘dialogue of action’ if the Hindus in the region are not averse to such initiatives. But they are not very much disposed to the dialogue of prayer. Joining other believers in worship seems to be disastrous for their faith because reverence shown to Hindu deities is equal to idolatry for them.

5) Problems and Challenges

a) Though the official documents of the Council encouraged the ministry of dialogue the Catholics in the mainstream have not fully accepted it. Even now, the mission is confined to the traditional forms of apostolate such as education, social service, medical care, etc. It is difficult for them to shift from the institutional services to the people oriented ministry. They consider dialogue a waste of time. Some ask: What have you achieved in all these years? To the traditional Catholics mission must lead to tangible results such as baptism and consolidation of the visible structure of the Church.

b) Another block in the way of dialogue is the fear of the Catholics. They fear that appreciation for other faiths and joining their celebrations may dilute or betray the Christian faith. They see in this ministry a danger of syncretism. A handful of Christians consider the Hindu spiritual exercise like Yoga, as diabolic’. Felix Machado, who had been in charge of the dialogue mission at Mumbai and now bishop, writes: ‘The suspicion comes from the people of my own religious community as well as from other religions. The people of my religious tradition either want me to dialogue with the intention of propagating religion or they think that dialogue is compromising the revelation of God. It is obvious that I cannot enter into dialogue with the hidden agenda of propagating my religious tradition on others. That would simply not be dialogue[12].

c) Another challenge that comes up in the path of dialogue is the manner in which we Christians articulate the uniqueness of Jesus. Dialogue presupposes that no one claims to have the fullness of truth and that the partners accept each other as equals. Any hint of superiority will disturb the process of dialogue. As regards the doctrine of the uniqueness of Christ I have heard Hindus saying: Why can’t you accept Christ also as one saviour? Swami Siddhinathananda referring to Vivekananda’s speech in the Parliament of Religions which was held in Chicago 1893 says: ‘All are God’s children and all have equal right to the Father’s love and legacy. God is neither Hindu, nor Christian nor Muslim. There is no wall or fence in heaven. God is not sectarian or doctrinaire. He will respond to any call from any one in any place and in any language, if it is sincere and earnest. This has been the approach of the religions of Indian origin[13].

d) Ministry of dialogue faces challenge also from the staunched Hindus who look at the dialogue initiatives as a new tactic for conversion. Sr. Vandana Mathaji who have done the dialogue pilgrimage from 1971 onwards in different places like Christa Prem Seva Ashram in Pune, in Rishikesh, in the Himalayas and in the West refers to a question that is often raised by Hindus: Why should Christians who for all these years have been happy to follow Christ suddenly bend over backwards to take on Indian names, bhajans, kirtans, japa, Bharat Natyam and Hindu gestures? Is this so-called inculturation a new stunt for conversion? – the old wolf in a new sheepskin?.[14]

6) Concluding remarks

Problems are many in the path of dialogue. But we cannot abandon this mission for it is one of the essential constituents of evangelization today. In this concluding part, I would like to make two suggestions, which may strengthen the mission of dialogue.

a) The basic requirement for the success of inter-religious initiatives of the Church is to have Catholics with genuine spirituality. Spirituality is the only uniting factor in the world. Anything without God creates division. Wealth, power and fame are making people more self-centered and competitive. The mission of dialogue will flourish only that day when the number of the faithful interested in spiritual quest augments. People with spiritual outlook will never question about the usefulness of dialogue. Gispert Sauch writes: ‘What profit do I obtain from the experience of dialogue? The main fruit is that we are enabled to love more deeply believers of other faiths. We know them precisely in that by which they are different from us. The mystery of dialogue is that in accepting and affirming difference we come closer to people. Our experiences of dialogue lead us to the very mystery of God. We become aware of the incomprehensible mystery that surrounds us and in which all exist. Even when we confess that fullness of God dwells in Christ still He remains a mystery. In the experience of our inability to speak adequately about God and in the realization that others too experience the same inadequacy we are drawn deeper into that silence which is deepest form of adoration we can offer to God’[15].

b) Another necessary element for the betterment of dialogue ministry is that Christians recognize the identity other faiths. If Christians perceive themselves as superior to other ways of salvation it will endanger the spirit of inter-religious fellowship. Accepting in others only that which is Christian and rejecting the rest is equal to denying their alterity. The participants have to constantly purify the motives behind dialogue initiatives. Christians must recognize in other revelations some irreducible elements which is unknown to Christianity. This does not mean that those who engage in dialogue cannot take up a definite stand regarding their own faith. Commitment to one’s own faith is not an obstacle to dialogue if the person is ready to award the same right to others.  What endangers dialogue is the triumphant attitude saying: ours is the only true religion and others are false.

Any religion without dialogue has the potential danger of alienation. And alienation breeds non-communication and non-communication leads to communalism. In dialogue, partners are called to be at the service of God who transcends all religions. Pope John Paul II said, ‘Dialogue is a sign of the hope that religions of the world are becoming more aware of their shared responsibility for the well-being of the human family[16]’. As Bernard Ugeux says, ‘to turn towards the believer of another religion with respect to learn how to understand him and to discover the values that make him live is to reproduce concretely the attitude that Jesus-Christ always sought to promote in his encounter with people’[17].

[1] E. Monteiro, The theological and ecclesiological concept of reception in the tradition of the Church, Paper presented in Bishops – Theologians Colloquium, held from 26th  to 28th November 2003, at NBCLC Bangalore.

[2] Jose Kuttianimattathil, Practice and Theology of Inter-religious Dialogue, Bangalore: Kristu Jyothi Publications, 1998, p. 592.

[3] CBCI Commission for Dialogue and Ecumenism, Guidelines for Inter-religious Dialogue, New Delhi: CBCI Centre, 1989, nos: 31, 40-55.

[4] Statement of Indian Theological Association, Twelfth Annual Meeting, December 28-31, 1988, Towards Theology of Religions: An Indian Christian Perspective, Religious Pluralism, K. Pathil (ed.), Delhi: ISPCK, 1991, p. 331.

[5] Statement of the Indian Theological Association, Thirteenth Annual Meeting, December 28-31, 1989, Towards an Indian Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism, , Religious Pluralism, K. Pathil (ed.), , Delhi: ISPCK, 1991, pp. 343 – 348.

[6] Sharing Worship, Final Statement of the Interdisciplinary Research Seminar 20-25 January 1988, Bangalore: NBCLC, 1988, pp. 21-22

[7] B. Griffiths, My Reflections, Inter-faith Dialogue in Tiruchirapalli, Madras: Aikkiya Alayam, 1978, p. 139.

[8] X. Irudayaraj, My Experience, Inter-faith Dialogue in Tiruchirapalli,  Madras: Aikkiya Alayam, 1978, p. 146-147.

[9] Eclessio-centrists think that outside Church there is no salvation; the Christo-centrists see Jesus as the only source of salvation; for the Theo-centrists God is the centre of salvation and for the Soterio-centrists no matter who saves; what matters is whether people are saved from oppression.

[10] P. D’Souza, A Brief Reflection, Paper presented in the Bishops – Theologians Colloquium, held from 26th  to 28th November 2003, at NBCLC Bangalore.

[11] P. Puthanangady, Reception of universal magisterium in the local Church from the perspective of inculturation, Paper presented in the Bishops – Theologians Colloquium, held from 26th  to 28th November 2003, at NBCLC Bangalore.

[12] Felix Machado, My Dialogue Pilgrimage, Pilgrims of Dialogue, A. Pushparajan (ed.), Munnar: Sangam Dialogue Centre, 199, p. 181.

[13] S. Siddhinathananda, Dialogue, Pilgrims of Dialogue, op. cit., p. 81.

[14] Vandana Mathaji, Ongoing learning to dialogue: Some Experiences and Reflections, Pilgrims of Dialogue, op. cit., pp. 87-88.

[15] Gispert Sauch, Dialogue and Life, Pilgrims of Dialogue, op. cit., p. 118.

[16] Dialogue with the World Religions, Origins, 29/24, Nov. 25, 1999, p. 398.

[17] Bernard Ugeux, Reflections on the Inter-religious dialogue 40 years after Nostra aetate, ‘Vatican II A Gift and a Task: International Colloquium to mark the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’ 18-20 November 2005, Jnana-Deepa Vidhyapeeth, Pune,

The Mission of the Syro-Malabar Church:Theological Considerations

The Mission of the Syro-Malabar Church

Theological Considerations

Dr George Karakunnel
Dr George Karakunnel


             After the Second Vatican Council communion has emerged   in the Church as the leading ecclesiological idea. Communion is understood not merely as the form of being for the Church but also as the essence of the Church at the micro and macro levels of her existence. The mission of the Church is linked to this key concept. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church shows this in the very opening article: “Since the Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament — a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men – she here purposes, for the benefit of the faithful and of the whole world, to set forth, as clearly as possible, and in the tradition laid down by earlier Councils, her own nature and universal mission[1]. The very being of the Church as communion demands mission. Ecclesiology is already missiology. This paper would search for an understanding of the mission of the Syro-Malabar Church remaining within the general frame of the theology of the Church as communion while at the same time looking at the identity and role of Individual Churches within the context of oriental ecclesiology.


I. The Reality of Individual Churches

The Catholic Church comprises of various Individual Churches of which the Latin Church with over 1000 million people is the largest body. There are twenty-three Eastern Churches altogether having around 22  million faithful.[2] The composition of the Catholic Church in India is from three individual Churches, namely, the Syro-Malabar Church, the Latin Church,  and the Syro-Malankara Church. The presence of diversity of Churches within the one Church needs not only to be theologically accounted but also to be practically accepted and lived within the horizon of a broad ecclesiology. The Catholic Church, which has been long dominated by a one-sided vision of the Church determined by Latin Canon Law, came to a new awareness of the ecclesial reality with the Second Vatican Council. The earlier narrow outlook got slowly changed and is replaced by a new ecclesiological vision.[3]

The Second Vatican Council which remains as the springboard of contemporary ecclesiology has employed a variety of concepts and terms in interpreting the reality of the Church. The following usages are especially important: particular Church, individual Church, local Church, and universal Church. Particular Church is often identified with a diocese[4]. It is also used to refer to Church of a region, village, town, state or nation[5]. Sometimes it is used to refer to individual Churches[6]. A diocese is often described as local Church over which a bishop is given charge[7]. The terms “local Church” and “particular Church” also are used for patriarchal Churches[8].

           The term “Individual Church” is used in the context of an all-inclusive ecclesiology. It means a Church that has emerged with specific form of life having its own liturgy, theology, spirituality and discipline. This can be well described in the words of Lumen Gentium:


By divine providence it has come about that various Churches established in diverse places by the Apostles and their successors have in the course of time coalesced into several groups, organically united, which, preserving the unity of faith and unique constitution of the universal Church, enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, and their own theological and spiritual heritage. Some of these Churches, notably the ancient patriarchal Churches, as parent-stocks of the faith, so to speak, have begotten others as daughter Churches. With these they are connected down to our own time by a close bond of charity in their sacramental life and in their mutual respect for rights and duties.[9]

The difference in the identity of Individual Churches is the reason for their separate existence and government.[10]  Every Individual Church is linked with a rite and sometimes the term “ritual Church” is used to denote Individual Churches.[11] It is not just by having a liturgical rite alone that an Individual Church is constituted. The identity of a Church is not constituted by one factor alone. It is related to the entire life and history of a Church.[12] Since liturgical rite is one of the concrete and explicit differentiating factors of a Church, the term “rite-Church” or “ritual Church” is used to denote Individual Churches that belong to the Oriental tradition. But in fact these                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             usages are misleading and do create a false understanding of the Individual Churches. In fact many Individual Churches’ names also have apparently a false connotation. The term, “Syro-Malabar” may be suggestive of a geographically situated Church. For that reason theologians have found difficulty with its name.[13] But this is so because of historical reasons of its origin. In fact there are people who are not familiar with Oriental Churches think that the Syro-Malabar Church and other Individual Churches are limited to a locality and cannot exist as a world-wide ecclesial body.

The Decree on Oriental Churches has stated clearly that Individual Churches both Eastern and Western are of equal rank, so that none of them is superior to others because of its rite.[14] They, as Individual Churches, are autonomous self-expressions of the full reality of the Church. The Code of Canon Law calls these Churches “sui iuris” to show their autonomous character.[15]  Autonomy is rooted in the history and tradition of these Churches. It is not created or given. It presupposes certain distinctive features. Theological understanding of autonomy may be described in the following words: “Autonomy is not something that one obtains from someone or somewhere but it is a constitutive element in the very being of a person or a Church. It is an essential condition for both, a free and genuine self-expression and self-determination. It is the result of the action of the Spirit in a given community, and not a mere juridical concession made over by hierarchy. God sends his Word and Spirit into the community in order that he may bring it into being and make it operative. Autonomous means to be operative according to a norm that is self-contained – not self-produced — which is in fact the law of the Spirit.”[16] The Syro-Malabar Church with its history of two millennia has a missionary heritage which it strives to preserve and promote through its life and witness. The Marga (Way) as Christian faith was known in the tradition of St Thomas Christians became genuinely inculturated in the milieu it encountered.[17] In the interaction between Gospel and culture in India the Church of St Thomas Christians offers a paradigm in itself.

2.  Autonomy, Diversity and Communion


The Universal Church is understood as a communion of Individual Churches. It is constituted by them and cannot exist apart from them. Vatican II has seen Individual Churches within the ecclesiology of communion, which is rooted in the Bible and the teachings of the Fathers. The use of the plural term “Churches” in the New Testament contains the idea of diversity as determining the concrete shape of the one Church, which is constituted by different Churches. The Individual Churches though different are bound together by common elements, namely, confession of the same apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, common Christian life-style i.e. life in the service of the Kingdom of God and mutual recognition of pastoral leadership.

There is often a wrong ecclesiology that tends to image the Universal Church as the sum total of various small units, that are equated with dioceses which are understood as  “parts” of the “whole”. Such an understanding does not respect autonomy. As a consequence there will be centralization and domination of one Church over others. An authentic ecclesiology sees the Church as a communion realized in a legitimate diversity. The Catholic Church in this way would be described as the communion of many Individual Churches, which are in communion with each other, and with the Bishop of Rome who is seen as the visible sign and focal point of this communion. Vatican II articulated its ecclesiology accepting the individuality of Churches most clearly in its decree on Eastern Churches. The decree says:

That Church, Holy and Catholic which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit through the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same government and who, combining into various groups held together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. Between these, flourishes such an admirable brotherhood that this variety, within the Church in no way harms her unity, but rather manifests it. For it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite retains its traditions whole and entire, while adjusting its way of life to the various needs of time and place.[18]

Church is a communion within each Individual Church and at the same time is a communion of different Churches. Vatican II has spoken of communion under both these aspects, and there is no conflict between them. Moreover, they contribute to the reality of the one Church at the local and universal levels. The ecclesiological understanding among the theologians in India is stated clearly: “The existence of various Individual Churches in the Church is the best expression of the Church of Christ which keeps alive the tradition of authentic catholicity and communion”.[19] However to give practical expression to authentic catholicity and communion there is the need of recognizing the equality of Churches and their rights. The acceptance of an authentic communion ecclesiology can prepare the theological ground for better relations among Individual Churches, especially between the Latin Church and the Individual Churches of Oriental tradition. But that alone will be no solution. There is the need to develop a broadminded approach based on mutual charity in order to overcome self-interest and practice communion.

Communion means participation in a shared reality, something so prominent in the New Testament. St. John has expressed this clearly: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ” (1Jn 1:3). A vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension are characteristics of communion. The participation in the life of God makes Christians one with each other. The idea of communion is also intimately related to the Eucharist, in which the above-mentioned dimensions are concretely expressed. The Eucharist builds up the Body of Christ, the Church, which grows in a two-fold relationship i.e. with Christ and one another.[20] The New Testament shows the practical implications of communion:  (i). Those who are in communion participate in another’s joys and sorrows. (Heb.10:33; 2Cor.1:6-7)  (ii). There is mutual giving and receiving of spiritual and material goods, not only between individuals but also between communities on the basis of fellowship in Christ. (Rom. 15:26-27; 2Cor 8:1-15)

The New Testament does not have different norms for communion within a Church and communion between Churches. The diversity of Churches is like plurality of persons that constitute a society. Christian understanding attaches great importance to persons.  Different persons join together and build up Church. Every Church built in this way is a communion. The different Individual Churches form one communion, that is, one Church of Churches. The missiological perspective that emerges here is rooted in the individuality of Churches.

3.   Divine Tri-unity and Individual Identities

The paradigm of unity in diversity is most uniquely realized in the Holy Trinity, which for the Church is the original source and best exemplar for communion. In the Trinity there are three persons who make one unity. The individual identities of persons are not abolished for the sake of unity. In the Trinity it is relationships that make differences of persons and their unity. The Father is the unoriginated source from where the Son and the Spirit take their origin. Being from the Father they both have relation to the Father as well as to one another. Three persons sharing the same divinity are co-equals. In the Church, all Individual Churches have their origin from the one Church Christ himself founded. Having the same origin various Individual Churches must have brotherly/sisterly relations among them. By reason of their origin and existence they too are co-equals, just like the divine persons of the Holy Trinity are.

Differences of persons in God do not make divisions. Because they are held together by relationships there is unity and harmony in God. Equality and rights of persons are here recognized without causing friction or rivalry, domination or elimination. The Fathers of Church have used the Greek term perichoresis which indicates the co-existence of the divine persons in mutual love. Perichoresis found Latin translations as circumsessio (mutual indwelling) and circuminsessio (having the same meaning but understood as more dynamic). What is significant in the Triunity of persons in God is that the freedom and individuality of each divine person is not sacrificed for the sake of unity. Suppression of persons and their rights for the sake of unity results in tyranny.[21] Many totalitarian systems try to achieve unity in this way. The unity of Churches, we seek is communion in freedom, mutually recognizing sisterly/brotherly relationship. The identity of Individual Churches is not to be abandoned for the sake of communion. As every person of the Trinity fully possesses divinity, which is the essence of the Trinity, every Individual Church possesses the fullness of ecclesiality. The Individual Churches are not simply parts of the Universal Church. It is in and through them that the real Universal Church exists.[22] As the inner dynamism of the Trinity is love, both Individual Churches and Universal Church should be animated by love and should resist all temptations against it.

The Holy Trinity is no mere model, but the very source of the life of the Church. The value of ecclesial pluralism is rooted and founded in the Holy Trinity. A conscious recognition of the unity in the plurality of persons in God can help to promote authentic identity and rights of the Individual Churches, making it possible to live and witness to the one Gospel without mutual clash or conflict. In fact the growth of the Universal Church is possible only through the growth of the Individual Churches.[23] What the Churches need is positive and open inter-ecclesial relations after the manner of the inner dynamism of the Trinity. This Trinitarian love is not closed. It flows outwards to the world of humans, building communion of persons. Communion of Churches can be realized only through commitment to love, which has to be expressed in mutual support and cooperation. The mission of the Church is fulfilled to the extent it realizes communion to which all people are invited not merely by word but by life and example.

4. Ecclesial Pluralism and Mission

If mission belongs to the very essence of the Church, each Individual Church has this task. In the context of the diversity of Churches, which form one communion, every Church bears its missionary responsibility and has the right for evangelization. There are two aspects in the mission of a Church. The first is mission ad intra and the second is mission ad extra. As the New Testament shows these two aspects are intimately linked. Living the Gospel in one’s ecclesial context is primary to missionary witness. Every help provided to realize this is part of missio ad intra. It cannot be simply regarded as mere pastoral service.  This becomes in fact the basis for the missio ad extra of the Church, bringing the Gospel to those who do not yet know Christ. The fulfillment of the missionary task requires attention to both these aspects. In the context of ecclesial pluralism the question as to how this is to be done is a matter not practically settled.

           In the context of ecclesial pluralism within the Catholic Church in India there is much difficulty for missionary activity. The difference also lies in theological approaches of the Latin Church and the Oriental Churches. When the question is about mission policy and practice there is disagreement even as to the theological understanding of the nature of the Church. In the CBCI the Latin and Oriental views have been very often uncompromising. The Oriental Bishops of India have presented the following theological views, with their consequent bearings on pastoral and missionary issues.[24]

–          The Catholic Church is a communion of Individual Churches.

–          Individual Churches are equal in dignity.

–          Particular liturgy, discipline, spirituality and hierarchy are constituent elements of an individual Church.

–          Jurisdiction is a constituent element of ecclesial individuality.

–          Pastoral care and evangelization are ecclesial acts.

–          Unity in diversity is the richness of Catholic Church.

These theological views have resulted in some concrete moves. Following the plea made by Syro-Malabar Bishops there was the appointment of the Apostolic Visitator for the migrants and report was submitted to Rome. The statistical data about Syro-Malabar migrants outside Kerala showed the need of evangelizing the diaspora communities.[25] The need to establish parishes or even hierarchies wherever necessary is far from fulfilment. Multi-ritual practices ensuring cooperation among pastors belonging to different rites are called for in situations where mixed communities are present. But inter-ecclesial relations have not grown to the level of mutual recognition and cooperation.

The ecclesiology of the Latin Church also implies the concept of communion. But in practice it sees the Church as communion of particular Churches, not of Individual Churches as understood in oriental ecclesiology. One can find a number of well-written books on the theology of the Church which though speaking of communion as a key notion does not have  the idea of communion of Churches differentiated by liturgy, discipline, theology and spirituality.[26] According to the Latin tradition the emphasis goes to diocese which is a particular Church considered as a single territorial unit. The practical consequences of this ecclesiological approach for pastoral care and mission do not seem to agree with the Oriental perception. Without distinction of rite, language or caste, pastoral care, as the Latin Church argues, belongs to the obligation of the local ordinary.

In the opinion of the Latin Church, the right to do evangelization has been tied down to the concept of jurisdiction. Evangelization and pastoral care are to be carried out without multiplication of jurisdiction. The insistence of the Latin hierarchy in India on the principle of “one territory, one bishop, one jurisdiction” has been in direct opposition to equal rights of the Orientals to minister to their faithful and to evangelize. The rights of the Oriental Churches have been recognized by the Second Vatican Council. The decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches says: “They enjoy the same equal rights and are under the same obligations even with respect to preaching of the Gospel to the whole world under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff”.[27] Commentators on the documents of Second Vatican Council have pointed out that the Council has said this in reference to the situations of the Oriental Churches in India. According to J.M. Hoeck:

The real reason why the right to preach the Gospel, that is, the right to engage in the missionary activity, is especially mentioned among the rights and obligations of all the Individual Churches is to be traced to the situation in India, where the Malabar Church, which has a large surplus of priests, was until recently only permitted to convert people to the Latin rite.[28]


The demand for freedom in evangelization and pastoral care is not derived from a sort of ecclesial imperialism which certainly is a theologically repugnant idea. In fact imperialist attitudes surface in the policy of clinging to the concept of one Church, “one Bishop, one Jurisdiction”. In fact the idea of jurisdiction in the Latin Church is a residue of the Roman Empire which was divided into prefectures and provinces for the sake of political administration. Every part of the empire had its own authority, which was accountable to the supreme authority, namely the emperor. A long past secular paradigm is no more acceptable to a realist view of the Church which is not a politically centralized system. If Church is a communion of Churches, the respect that is due to the rights of every Individual Church demands the recognition of each other’s freedom. Pluralism, which is a reality in the society today, should be reflected also in the Church. A multi-jurisdiction is the consequence of admitting the rights of Individual Churches. As theologians in India have seen, it is the only alternative in a pluralistic and ecumenical situation like ours.[29]  The presence of two bishops in one place is possible in the circumstances envisaged under the provision of the Latin Code of Canon Law. G. R. Evans rightly points out that this provision is intended to allow respect for the ecclesial integrity of Churches of the Eastern Rite.[30] The pastoral and missionary duties that belong to the essence of being a Church necessitate the creation of structures, which may be parishes or dioceses or a hierarchy in places where there is a need.

5. Concerns and Hopes

            The pastoral ministry exists in the Church to carry out its threefold function, namely, teaching, sanctifying and leading the faithful. But the Syro-Malabar Church today is not in a position to exercise this ministry to its own  faithful who have migrated and settled in cities outiside Kerala. Surveys and statistical findings show that the Syro-Malabar Church has got thousands of faithful belonging to it, spread out in different cities in India and abroad.[31]  Because the Syro-Malabar Church has no jurisdiction beyond its present territorial demarcations, it is not able to offer pastoral care in its fullness to the people.  The members of the Syro-Malabar Church have either to depend on the Latin Church or remain satisfied with “chapliancy services” offered to them.  This is far from being the real pastoral care to which the faithful are entitled.  The right to spiritual goods is not simply to be assured in the Church in general, but in one’s own sui juris Church.   Canon Law makes it clear: “The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescriptions of their own sui juris Church and to follow their own form of spiritual life consonant with the doctrine of the Church”[32] The right of the faithful to worship in one’s own liturgical tradition and to live as a Christian in accordance with one’s ecclesial heritage is rooted in baptism by which a person is incorporated as a member in a specific sui iuris Church[33]  Canon Law prohibits any one to induce someone to change membership to another sui juris Church.[34]  No one is allowed to opt for another sui juris church validly.[35] The faithful have an obligation to know, retain and promote their own rite[36]

            Thousands of Syro-Malabar faithful today, due to circumstances are compelled to follow Latin rite and gradually become alienated from their own Church and its tradition.  These Syro-Malabar faithful, having lost their roots, have to be satisfied with certain nominal faith-practices. The obligation of the bishops to provide the necessary help to their faithful for worship and Christian life in the tradition of the sui juris Churches was stressed by Pope John Paul II in his Letter to the Catholic Bishops of India on 28th May 1987. The pastoral care of the people, as the work of evangelization, requires necessary structures.  Establishing separate parishes for the faithful, appointing separate episcopal vicars to take care of the faithful, creating dioceses etc are important for effective and stable pastoral care of the faithful.  Vatican II already envisaged this when it spoke of setting up of parishes and their own hierarchies wherever the spiritual good of the faithful requires it.[37]   According to Canon Law, it is the right and duty of the patriarch or major archbishop to collect information regarding those faithful of his Church living outside his territory, even through a visitor.  Once the report is discussed the Synod can propose to the Apostolic See measures which include the erection of a parish, an exarchy, or an eparchy.[38]

             The Major-Archiepiscopal Assembly of the Syro-Malabar Church has expressed one of its most important concerns: “Erection of parishes, dioceses outside Kerala and India are required for the Syro-Malabar Church so that effective pastoral care can be given to its faithful.  Moreover, the Syro-Malabar Church should have ‘All India Jurisdiction’ in order to do missionary work freely throughout the country.”[39] As every sui juris Church the Syro-Malabar Church has a heritage of its own.  If structures that are necessary for the protection and promotion of this heritage are absent, the life of the Church will be stiffled.  Pope John Paul II, in his allocution to the plenary session of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, said: “I would be grateful if you would pay attention to the pastoral care of the Eastern faithful in the diaspora.  In this regard, it is necessary for every one, both Latin and Oriental, to grasp the sensitive implications of the situation, which is a real challenge for the survival of the Christian East and for a general reconsideration of its pastoral programmes.  Indeed, the pastors of the Latin Church are first of all invited to deepen their knowledge of the existence and heritage of the Eastern Catholic Churches and to encourage the faithful entrusted to their care to do the same.   Secondly they are called to promote and defend the right of the Eastern faithful to live and pray according to the tradition received from the fathers of their own Church”.[40]           Despite all these there is a continuing contradiction between theology and practice, between law and implementation. The highest body like the General Council of the Church, Vatican II has clear articulation on the matter. The authority of the supreme pastor has also called for a resolution of the problem. Yet the present situation is one of limitations but not without hope.[41] There is much writing of theologians and voice of leaders of the Syro-Malabar Church asking for the recognition of the legitimate rights. They speak of this “unjust, artificial and abnormal situation which must be rectified at earliest. The Church leaders who cry for justice in the society, should first of remove injustice from within the Church itself.”[42] But despite everything, the inter-ecclesial problems remain unresolved.[43] Recently in the Synod of Bishops Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil gave strong expression to this:

 Even though the right of every individual Church to preach the Gospel everywhere in the world under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff and the right of all the faithful of the Oriental Churches to have pastoral care by their own bishops and priests throughout the world are recognised by Vatican Council II and the two Codes of Canon Law, the Syro‑Malabar Church is neither given new mission territories in India, Africa, etc., nor the freedom to exercise her right to give pastoral care by her own bishops and priests to the hundreds of thousands of migrants in India, in the Gulf Countries, Europe and elsewhere, even 43 years after the conclusion of Vatican Council II. … The Church has not only to preach the Word of justice to the faithful, but they should be pastorally helped to live by it. It is more so when it concerns practising justice within the Church. Peace is disturbed when justice is not done, because peace is the fruit of justice. Justice will also build up communion. In the case of the Syro‑Malabar Church, this justice has been denied for many centuries. It is high time that this Synod reflected over this unjust situation within the Church and proposed lasting remedies[44]

6.   Making Ecclesial Pluralism Functional

The Indian Catholic Church is aware of the problems that are encountered in the context of ecclesial pluralism. Errol D’ Lima has observed: “In spite of Roman dictates followed by exhortations, and protestations, of unity by episcopal leaders it is difficult to discern genuine harmony in the function of the three Ritual Churches”.[45] The crucial issue in India, as has been already pointed out, is jurisdiction. The Latin Church’s insistence on “one territory, one bishop, one jurisdiction” is not acceptable to Oriental Churches which see in it a political concept of unity deriving from the Roman empire where power was centralized and all diversity remained suspect. Moreover it is a plain fact that in the context of present-day society both in India and the world in general, a rigid uniform ecclesiality is impractical. Societies everywhere is already pluralistic in religion, language and culture. The relevant thinking for fostering unity should recognize diversity as an indispensable factor.

Harmony and fellowship should be created not by eliminating diversity, but allowing diversity to exist and function. Bishops as the heads of the Churches should witness to the unity not by monarchical jurisdiction but through pastoral charity. Christian brotherhood should animate and guide the communities and their heads even though they belong to different individual Churches. “The universality of the Church,” says John Paul II, “involves in the one hand a most solid unity and on the other, a plurality and diversification which do not obstruct unity, but rather confer upon it the character of communion”.[46]

The ecclesiological thinking in the post-Vatican era shows that “a richly diverse unity-in-diversity in no way calls for a formal, institutional and administrative unity, nor a super-Church”.[47] The otherness of the other has been experienced in the past as “a threat”. So nations and states tried to eliminate “the other” whether they are mere ethnic groups or religious communities, and tried to impose homogeneity. Enmity and hatred of the other have created ethnic cleansing, war and genocide. Pluralism in religion was eliminated by aggressive strategies of the protagonists of respective religion. Religious wars were fought not only between adherents of different religions but also between different groups within the same religion. Plurality in that way has often become exclusive, trying to inflict a fatal blow on “the other”. But plurality need not necessarily be so. In the opinion of G.R. Evans, “Although there is a historical plurality on a system of exclusion, there is also a multiplicity which need not arouse opposition and can be experienced within communion and mutual recognition”.[48]

In the Church what make the scandal are not differences or pluriformity; it is aggressiveness and infighting that create scandal. Schillebeeckx says, “The scandal is not that there are differences but that these differences are used as an obstacle to communion”.[49] There is often the tendency to domination, which occurs in the Church as in political or social spheres. Though all individual Churches are equal, there is a sad situation when one of them puts on superiority and considers others as subordinates. It has happened in history that the Latin Church once claimed superiority on account of its rituals. The Clementine Instruction of 1595 on inter-ritual marriages said that a Latin husband or wife should not follow the rite of a Greek spouse, but a Greek wife should follow that of her Latin husband, children follow their father’s rite, unless the mother is a Latin.[50] In 1742 Pope Benedict XIV in the Bull Etsi Pastoralis established the principle that the Latin rite was in fact to be deemed superior.[51]

           Suppression or subordination of non-Latin traditions, even of local variations of the Latin tradition, has been a fact of history. Missionaries who came for evangelization succeeded in establishing the supremacy in imposing their form of Christianity over the Church of St. Thomas Christians in South India. Indian Church history bears the scars of this oppression of one Individual Church by another. The struggle for regaining independence and recapturing a lost heritage has featured the history of the Syro-Malabar Church, the Catholic part of St. Thomas Christians in India. To undo the wrongs of the past and to have the fraternal communion today, the Individual Churches have to recognize each other not as rival groups but as different and autonomous. Churches can achieve unity only by the recognition of the “otherness” of the “other”. If fears, anxieties, distrust and resentment characterize the inter-ecclesial scene, we have to ask the question, why so? Things that must be done in mutual understanding and charity are done with much argumentation and without good will. This seems to be the reason for the absence of harmony and peace among individual Churches. A lot of problems belong to practical and administrative matters rather than to theological understanding. However if theology succeeds in creating a genuine understanding of the Church, many of the inter-ecclesial problems will vanish.

The Second Vatican Council, as noted above, was directly concerned about the inter-ecclesial problems in India. The teachings of the Council with its emphasis on the dignity, rights and obligation of Individual Churches have not been put into implementation, as desired, even after forty-three years. One can see in India a very cautious move and slow progress in giving concrete shape to the vision of Vatican II concerning the Church. The right of the Oriental Churches in India to do evangelization in areas reserved to the Latin Church was affirmed by allotting to the Syro-Malabar Church mission territories, the first of which was the creation of the exarchate of Chanda in 1962. By 1977 seven mission dioceses were erected in North India and entrusted to the Syro-Malabar Church. However, the demand for the pastoral care of the immigrants belonging to the Syro-Malabar Church in different parts of India, especially in big cites, did not meet with proper response because the Latin Church had argued that extension of multiple jurisdiction is detrimental to the unity of the Church. When discussions among hierarchies in India seemed to be reaching no solution, Pope John Paul II set up a committee of Cardinals. In 1987 Pope John Paul II wrote a historic letter to all the Bishops of India. The rights of the Oriental Churches to do missionary work and the need to give pastoral care to the immigrants were the contents of the letter. The erection of the new Syro-Malabar eparchy of Kalyan was announced by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

However, the inter-ecclesial problems persist. Until the freedom and rights of all Individual Churches are properly recognized, these problems will continue to bother us. The vocation of the Church is to promote communion, which is possible only by accepting diversity. Hence, diversity or pluriformity should not be opposed in the name of unity. A policy of rigid uniformity and monopolization of rights will also do serious harm to the promotion of ecumenical relations.[52] The Statement of the Indian Theological Association says:

A Spirit-filled community is capable of breaking down barriers to communication and communion. The Latin and Oriental Churches in India, with all their diversities, should be seen as sources of enrichment rather than as causes of division. By the common sharing of riches, the members of different Churches will become a genuine community of love, capable of living and working together and thus fulfilling their common mission.[53]

In the Indian context where pluralism is the normal fabric of the society, the Church’s witness to unity in diversity through living communion is of great value. Protests and agitations in different parts of the nation are the result of the ignoring of some sections and groups, which also make up the nation. The Church’s way of unity while allowing diversity can certainly serve as the best model for nation building.


6. Mission in the Context


             After stating the mission of the Church to humanity the Second Vatican Council spoke of the need of scrutinizing and interpreting the signs of the times.[54] Looking into the social, political and religious situation in our world today the Church has to respond to the challenges of religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, consumerism and materialism, at the same time attend to the problems of injustice, inequality, exploitation and oppression. Over and above these challenges, mission theology today emphasizes the task of dialogue with religions and cultures, and the need of working for the promotion peace and harmony which is considered as belonging to the very core of the ecclesial mission.

            The identity of the Syro-Malabar Church carries a heritage which is the result of living the Gospel in the context. The history of this Church is a missiological source for the present.  The Oriental Churches in general are esteemed for their concern for the context. Their identity is shaped by contextual concerns. Pope John Paul II has said: “one of the great values embodied particularly in the Christian East is the attention given to peoples and their cultures, so that the Word and his praise may resound in every language”[55] The Syro-Malabar way of living the Gospel in the Indian context reveals a lived theology of dialogue with religions and culture it encountered. Living in the midst of a pluralistic religious milieu it developed a way of mission approach which is specifically its own and which differs from that of West.[56] There was never any aggressive missionary strategy or a crusade of conversion in its history. Harmony with people of all religions and positive approach to local culture incorporating customs and practices into ecclesial life feature the Syro-Malabar Church’s long period of existence in India. If mission aims at not merely the realization of ecclesial fellowship but unity of all members of the human family[57] it has to be realized by building relationships through dialogue with  adherents of all religions and ideologies.

          Today there are questions that go beyond the Individual Churches and their given identities. No serious theological reflection on the Church can bypass them. In fact, they must be addressed by all Churches. The Kingdom of God offers the basic perspective for the ecclesial mission. The good news of the kingdom is at the center of Jesus’ proclamation and this has to be the overriding concern of all Churches. Seen in the perspective of the Kingdom of God, the Church is a provisional reality, and this underlines the idea of the Church as means and not an end. The historical and eschatological nature of the Church also points to the same understanding. It is not possible to stop at any given form of the Church in history because the Church is always in via. This shows that the given identities of the Church are ephemeral and can never be idolized. Christians worship God in Jesus Christ, but not Church, however admirable may be its form and shape. The individual identity of the Church cannot remain closed, obliterating the goal to which all historical ecclesial forms are only means. The Church certainly stands with its roots in the past. But it has to live in the present and move towards future. Therefore no given ecclesial identities should be considered ultimate. At the same time no Church can do away with its identity because loss of Church’s identity would mean the loss of the Church itself.

            The task of the Church placed in the perspective of God’s Kingdom calls for critical evaluation of the socio-economic and cultural changes taking place in the world today. This process is largely the result of the phenomenon of globalization, which affects not just individuals or groups but peoples and cultures in a massive way. The most powerful factor behind today’s globalization is market which is supported by media. The impact of all these is that our culture and the values it stood for are eroded by powerful currents which are beyond control. At the top of the listing of megatrends in our world comes the following: i. Megamergers and concentration of wealth. ii. Global economy under megaplayers.  iii. Economic ideology of money-theism. The consequences of these are individualism, consumerism and increasing marginalization of the poor.

              The process of globalisation is linked to science and technology. John Naisbitt says:“Intoxicated by technology’s seductive pleasures and promise, we turn our backs to technology’s consequences…Technology marches to the beat of our economy, while we left to plug in, get on line, motor on, take off, and ultimately pick up the pieces. We feel that something is not quite right but we can’t put our fingers on it. The Intoxicated Zone is spiritually empty, dissatisfying and dangerous and impossible to climb out of unless we recognize we are in it”[58] The Post-Synodal document on the Church in Asia speaks rather deploringly about our contemporary situation: “In the process of development, materialism and secularism are also gaining ground, especially in urban areas. These ideologies, which undermine traditional, social and religious values, threaten Asia’s cultures with incalculable damage. These changes have both positive and negative aspects. There is also accompanying phenomenon of urbanization often associated with the rise of organized crime, terrorism, prostitution and the exploitation of the weaker sectors of the society”.[59] Speaking about challenges to Churches in Asia, Anthony Rogers says: “In the context of the emerging mega trends in the beginning of the twenty-first century the church is being challenged to respond in new and creative ways to make the Gospel of Jesus relevant to people of today”.[60]


            What then should be the understanding of identity with which the Churches’ existence is interwoven? The identity of a Church has to be understood not in a static way, but in a dynamic way. Viewed in this way, any ecclesial identity is in a continuous process of change and growth which has an organic character in the sense that it is in constant link with the past when it interacts with the present. The question of tradition comes in here. Tradition should remain open to change and growth. It can never mean preservation or perpetuation of the past. As the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, says, “Tradition is not 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”.[61] The Church lives in history and responds to every epoch in accordance with the promptings of the Spirit.


            The continuous process through which ecclesial identity passes should be characterized by dialogue and inculturation. The context in which the Gospel is lived has a definite say in shaping the Church in every historical moment. The Churches living in the context of India and Asia have the duty to enter into a deep relationship with the poor and the suffering. Solidarity is a key-word that should mark the mode of being the Church. Arising from an ecclesiology of wider communion, commitment to the liberation of all enslaved ones of the society would feature the daily life of the Church. The work of evangelization has to be concerned about poverty, deprivation and dehumanization caused by injustice and domination, exploitation and oppression. The good news of the Kingdom cannot find tangible expression except through the removal of all dehumanizing forces. Solidarity with the poor is the way for Churches in India and other Asian countries to live and announce the Gospel of Jesus.

           To work for the poor and the marginalized needs the collaboration of all peoples. Dialogue with all religions and ideologies is another aspect of Church’s commitment to the Gospel. Dialogue involves more than intellectual concern or academic discussions. All religions and ideologies profess and aim at human well-being and the creation of a better world. The mission of the Church cannot exclude cooperation with them. Today inculturation is a leading idea in mission studies. Inculturation includes both solidarity and dialogue. It tells something that is related to the very being of the Church, which has been inserted into and shaped by every cultural context. Inculturation should not be considered a programme to adopt the elitist culture of the society. Society is multi-layered and complex. In the Indian society the Dalits and the Tribals are sections of people to whom no proper attention has been given. The subaltern groups and their cultures should figure in the being and becoming of the Church. The concern for contextually relevant ecclesial identities in India or abroad should be the result of an incarnational involvement in the lives of peoples. This would demand also an understanding of ecclesial identity which is open and dynamic.

          The Syro-Malabar Church is today a world-wide reality. Therefore it has not got just one context, but several contexts. The Syro-Malabar Church today functions at local, national and global levels. There is ecclesial life to be lived by St Thomas Christians not only in their original homeland, but also in different Indian cities and states or countries abroad belonging to different geographical zones. This makes it necessary that attention is given to a wide variety of contexts.  Pope John Paul II underlined the relevance of the heritage of Oriental Churches: “At a time when it is increasingly recognized that the right of every people to express themselves according to their own heritage of culture and thought is fundamental, the experience of the Individual Churches of the East is offered to us as an authoritative example of successful inculturation. From this model we learn that if we wish to avoid the recurrence of particularism as well as of exaggerated nationalism, we must realize that the proclamation of the Gospel should be deeply rooted in what is distinctive to each culture and open to convergence in a universality, which involves an exchange for the sake of mutual enrichment.”[62] The paradigm for ecclesial mission provided by Oriental Churches in general is an invitation to look into the heritage of each Individual Church. The study of the heritage the Syro-Malabar Church can bring out a methodology, a way of being for the Church, if not ready solutions for the fulfillment of the ecclesial mission today.

                                                                                                Fr George Karakunnel,

                                                                                                           St Joseph Pontifical Seminary,



[1] LG 1.

[2] Cf Bp Gregory Karotemprel, The Syro-Malabar Church Today (Rajkot Deepthi Publications 2008),p.8. Cf.  also Ronald G. Roberson  CSP,  The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, Revised third edition, (Roma: Pontificium Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1990).

[3] The  post-synodal document, Ecclesia in Asia ( nos 22, 27) shows its esteem for the diversity of Churches.

[4] LG 27, AG 22, CD 11, 23, 28, 36.

[5] A G 22

[6]OE 2, 3, 4, 10, 16, 19.

[7] AG 19, 27; LG 27

[8] UR 14

[9], LG, 23. Cf also Decree on Oriental Churches, OE 1,2

[10] Abp Joseph Powathil, “The Missionary Role of the Syro-Malabar Church”, Mission in India Today, the Task of   St Thomas Christians ed. K. Pathil, (Bangalore, Dharmaram Publications 1988), p.5.

[11] Cf.OE, 3

[12] Prof. Borys Guziak, “ Sulla Questione dell’ Identita delle Chiese Orientali Cattoloche: Identita Cme Categoria Teologica e sua Definizione” L’Identita delle Chiese Orientali Cattoliche, published by Congregazione per le Chiese Orientali (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1997), p.71ff

[13] Cf. Bosco Puthur, “Ecclesial Vision and Mission of the Syro-Malabar Church”,  Syro-Malabar Theology in the Context, ed. by Mathew Manakatt and Jose Puthenveettil (Vadavathoor, Kottayam Paurastya Vidyapitham 2007), p.236ff. Bp Gregory Karotemprel, The Syro-Malabar Church Today , p.773

[14] Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 3

[15] CIC 111, 1; 112, 1-2.

[16] “The Issue of  ‘Rites’  in the Indian Church”, Theologizing in Context, Statements of the Indian Theological association, ed. by Jacob Parappally MSFS, (Bangalore Dharmaram Publications 2002), p. 203.

[17] Abp Andrews Thazhath, St Thomas Missionary Heritage of the Syro-Malabar Church”, The Mission Theology of the Syro-MalabarChurch, ed. by Pauly Kannookadan, (Mount St Thomas, Kochi LRC Publications 2008), p. 17f.

[18]  Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 2

[19]  Indian Theological Association, “Statement of the Annual Meeting on the Issue of ‘Rites’ in the Indian Church”, (Bangalore, 1993), no. 12.

[20] R. Schnackenburg, Church in the New Testament (London: Burns & Oates, 1974), 165ff.

[21] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, (New York: Cross Road Publishing Company, 1991), p.291.

[22] Jacob Parappally MSFS, “Communion  among the Individual Churches” Vidyajyothi 59 (1995),


[23] The Mission Policy of the Syro-Malabar Major ArchiepiscopalChurch  (Mount St Thomas, Kakkanad, Kochi 2006), no. 5.6

[24] S.Arulsamy and S. Singaroyan, Guide to the CBCI- CCBI Documents (New Delhi: CBCI Secretariat, 2000), p. 215.

[25] Bp Gregory Karotemprel has described the present situation of  Syro-Malabar migrants in his study, “The Pastoral Care of Syro-Malabar Migrants” in The Mission Theology of the Syro-Malabar Church, ed. by Pauly Kannookadan (Mount St Thomas, Kochi 2008), pp. 212ff.

[26] One may refer for example to the following works: J.M.R. Tillard, The Church of Churches: the Ecclesiology of Communion (Minnesota, The Liturgical Press 1992); M.M. Ganjo-Guembe, Communion of Saints: Foundation, Nature and Structure of the Church (Minnesota, The Liturgical Press 1994).

[27] Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 3

[28] Johannes M. Hoeck, “Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches” Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol. I, ed. by H. Vorgrimler (London: Burns and Oates, 1966), p. 315.

[29] Kuncheria  Pathil, Indian Church at the Cossroads, (Rome: Centre for Indian and Interreligious Studies & Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 1994), 94.

[30] G.R Evans, The Church and the Churches (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 80.

[31]  Bp Gregory Karotemprel gives the data of  Syro-Malabar migrants in India and abroad. See “Pastoral Care of the Syro-Malabar Migrants”, The Mission Theology of the Syro-Malabar Church, pp. 213-215.

[32] CCEO, 17; CIC, 214.

[33] CCEO, 29,CIC, 111

[34] CCEO, 31; cf also 1465.

[35] CCEO, 32, CIC, 112

[36] CCEO, 39-41.

[37] CD,23; OE, 4

[38]CCEO, 148.

[39] Statement of the Major Archiepiscopal Assembly on 12 November 1998.

[40] L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Eng. Ed. N.42, 21 October 1998, p.7.

[41] Abp Joseph Powathil, “Missionary Activities of the Syro Malabar Church in the Present Context”, The Mission Theology of the Syro-Malabar Church,  pp.176, 177.

[42] Kuncheria Pathil, Indian Churches at Crossroads (Rome, Centre for Indian and Interreligious Studies & Bangalore, Dharmaram Publications 1994), p. 89.

[43] Cf. The Mission Policy of the Syro-Malabar Major ArchiepiscopalChurch, ( Mount St Thomas, Kakkanad, Kochi 2006), No 5.4

[44] “Summary of Synod of Bishops” Vatican Information Service, 0810(520), 15-16 October 2008.

[45] Errol D’ Lima, “Ritual Reality in the Indian Church”, The Church in India in Search of a New Identity, ed. by  K. Kunnumpuram et al. (Bangalore: NBCLC, 1997), p.193.

[46] John Paul II, “Address”, General Audience 27 Sept 1989, Insegnamenti di Gioanni Paulo II (Rome: 1989), p.679.

[47]        E. Schillebeeckx, Church: the Human Story of God (London: SCM Press, 1989), p.197.

[48] G. R. Evans, The Church and Churches, p.176.

[49] E. Schillebeeckx, Church: the Human Story of God, p.176.

[50]   Pope Clement VIII,  “Instructio super ritibus Italo-Graecorum”, Bullarium Diplomatum et Privilegiorum Sanctorum Romanorum Pontificium, Tomus X, cxii (Augustae Taurinorum, MDCCCLXV), p.211.

[51]   Hubert Jedin,  History of the Church, vol. VI, (London: Burns & Oates, 1981), p. 227.

[52] Cyril Mar Baselios, “Evangelization and Pastoral Care: Some Concerns of the Malankara Catholic Church”, Christian Orient 3 (1982), pp.30-31.

[53]   Indian Theological Association, “Statement of the Annual Meeting 1996”, no. 34, The Church in India in Search of a New Identity, p.397.

[54] The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 3, 4.

[55] Orientale Lumen, 7

[56] George Karakunnel, “The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ in Indian Theological Reflection”, Cristologia e Missione Oggi, ed. by  G. Colzani et alii (Roma, Urbaniana University Press 2001), p.112ff.

[57] Cf. Lumen Gentium, 1.

[58] John Naisabitt, High Touch High Tech (New York Broad way Books 2000).

[59] Ecclesia in Asia, 7.

[60]  Anthony Rogers FSC, “The Challenges in Asia”, Christian Conference of Asia  FABC No 102, p.38

[61]  Orientale Lumen, 8.

[62]  Orientale Lumen, 7.

Theological Anthropology

Theological Anthropology

The Contribution of Vatican II

Dr George Karakunnel
Dr George Karakunnel


George Karakunnel

(Professor, Institute  of  Theology, Aluva & Member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology, Rome)



The human person and society are central themes which always challenge our thinking and vision. Contemporary theology features an anthropological approach which has had an authoritative articulation with the Second Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. Anthropology or the doctrine of man presented by Vatican II makes this conciliar text unparalleled when compared to previous official documents by a Council. “It is man himself”, says the Council, “who must be saved: it is mankind that must be renewed. It is man, therefore, who is the key to this discussion, man considered whole and entire, with body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will.”[1] Again, the Council says: “Believers and unbelievers agree almost unanimously that all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their centre and summit”[2] The anthropological concerns of Vatican II are not just speculative or theoretical, but practical and concrete. The present essay will try to show the importance and influence of this vision in the ongoing thinking and vision of the Church.

The Actual Human Situation


The situation of man in the world today is the starting-point of the Council’s theology. A picture of man as individual person and as member of the society, living in the world and history is what Vatican II tries to draw by analyzing the human condition.  The present context of the world is the frame of the Council’s thinking. The scrutinization of the signs of the times is part of the task here. “At all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel, if it is to carry out its task.  In language intelligible to every generation, she should be able to answer the ever recurring questions which people ask …”[3]  This approach of the Council in the Pastoral Constitution shows the attempt to do theology in the context of the stark realities of the world. The Constitution’s theme itself being an entirely a new one required a new methodology. Reading the signs of the times and interpreting them forms an important aspect of this new methodology. One of the great signs of the times as seen by the Council is rapid change which has given rise to a new age of history bringing critical and swift upheavals.[4]

Change has its impact on man as individual and as society. Man is both subject and object of change. “Triggered by the intelligence and creative energies of man, these changes recoil upon him, upon his decisions and desires, both individual and collective, upon his manner of thinking and acting with respect to things and people.”[5] The perception of the Pastoral Constitution is important here. The human situation as shown by Vatican II is paradoxical. In the very progress of which humanity can be proud, there is a breakdown. Human welfare promoted by governments and social bodies often does not materialize. True, there is greatness. But at the same time there is misery. Victory and defeat characterize the modern phase of human history. Gaudium et Spes has shown the polarities that constitute the human situation: “Since all these things are so, the modern world shows itself at once powerful and weak, capable of the noblest deeds or the foulest. Before it lies the path to freedom or to slavery, to progress or retreat, to brotherhood or hatred. Moreover, man is becoming aware that it is his responsibility to guide aright the forces which he has unleashed and which can enslave him or minister to him.”[6]

According to the Pastoral Constitution human situation is a locus theologicus, a theological resource. Both the human achievements and setbacks with their accompanying uncertainty, ambiguity and confusion in the individual and social living call for a theological discernment. Theology which is based on the Scriptures not only can account for the fact of human experience, but also can point to the way of well-being and happiness. But this work of theology has to take seriously the human situation. The novelty of the approach of Gaudium et Spes is precisely this. A theological anthropology rooted in human experience as well as guided by the scriptural vision is what emerges in the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution.

Man, the Image of God

What is man? This is a fundamental question. The analysis of the human situation raises this fundamental question. Gaudium et Spes after analyzing the human situation brings the question like this: “But what is man? About himself he has expressed and continues to express many divergent and even contradictory opinions.”[7]  The human person and society are engaged in a relentless search for better living. But unless the identity of the human person is correctly visualized there would be no clear idea about what one wants to achieve for the individual and community. The Bible interprets human being as the image of God.

Then God said, ‘let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”[8]

The Second Vatican Council has used the biblical notion of image of God as the key to understanding what man is and developing its anthropological vision. The Council tries to show the implications of the divine image showing its different dimensions. First of all it means that every human being stands in direct relationship with God. It des not mean that man is equal to God. The divine image in man implies human being’s relational capacity for God. Classical theology as in St Augustine has shown man’s capacity for God as that which enables him to know and love God.[9] This basic teaching of Christian anthropology affirms that human beings cannot seek fulfillment apart from God. The intellectual and spiritual quality in man makes him different from other living beings, whom God has created. However man must make his way to God by a conscious and free choice.

The relational character of human being is also seen in his social orientation. The creation story in the Bible brings man’s relationship to others. Basing on scriptural sources, Gaudium et Spes says:

But God did not create man as solitary. For from the beginning male and female he created them (Gen.!:27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others, he can neither live nor develop his potential.[10]

According to the vision of Vatican II man is a being who exists in relationships. If he stands vertically related to God, the designer and creator of all, on a horizontal level he stands related to his fellow-human beings. Biblical anthropology, from which Vatican II draws, has interpersonality as its basic character. Family is the primary form of interpersonal communion which is open to building up of larger human communities and ultimately contributing to one human race and one human family. It is significant to observe that the document says “man is a social being and unless he relates himself to others, he can neither live nor develop his potential.” But the relationship with God stands as the centre of all interpersonal relations among human beings. Communion among human beings is ordained to God himself. The foundation and the goal of human existence cannot be separated from God. As Ratzinger has said commenting on the conciliar text, “the circle of human solidarity is open to a third, who is wholly other, God. And that, for the Council is the content of the doctrine that man is made to the image of God, he does not merely have to do with God indirectly through his work and his relations with his fellowmen. He can know and love God himself.”[11]

The Disfigured Image


The image of God in man has undergone a breakdown, though the basic reality of the divine image still remains. The biblical term that speaks about this is “sin”. Every aspect of human life is affected by the fact of sin. In man’s personal life and social life the consequences of sin become manifest. It has created estrangement from God and disharmony at all levels. If image of God in man is the theological reason for man’s greatness, disfiguration of the image by sin is the reason for man’s misery. Both the bright and dark aspects of human existence are brought under the light of revelation in Gaudium et Spes.” The call to grandeur and the depths of misery are both a part of human experience. They find their ultimate and simultaneous explanation in the light of God’s revelation.”[12]

Sin which causes the disfiguration of the image comes from the abuse of freedom. The manner of man’s abuse of freedom is described as “setting himself agaist God and desiring to find his goal apart from God”.[13] This way of going agaist God in fact is a simultaneous contraposition against fellow human beings as well as the entire creation. Biblical story telling on sin in the book of Genesis drives home the alienation and enmity developing in the human community. Ever since the first disruption by the sin of Adam there has been further increase of evil. The whole book of Genesis shows this. The enmity among brothers, Cain and Abel flares up into murder.[14] Lemech not only commits crimes against human fellowship but also boasts of his savage deeds.[15] The men at Babel who do not understand one another present a classical example of the repercussions that sin causes in the social sphere.[16]

The whole human history, due to sin, shows itself as torn by hatred and war.

In a world that is caught by the destructive power of sin, man’s work, becomes futile, even after spectacular achievements. The history of great civilizations and cultures demonstrate this. This does not say that there is nothing good in history. It once again makes it clear that the actual human situation one of ambiguity and uncertainty often bringing unexpected turn of events bringing much disappointment and suffering. All this give rise to a “dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness”.[17] The important question in Christian anthropology is not how bad the human situation is but how it is possible to find liberation from the breakdown and chaos experienced by man. Christian anthropology believes that in following God’s will and design a better world can be created. The re-creation of the divine image in man is basic to this project. This re-creation of the divine image in man and renewal of humanity has already taken place in Jesus Christ. Christ himself is the image of God. He is the new man and the promise of renewed humanity.

Christ, the Normative Man

The perfection of the human person and fulfillment of the entire humanity come from Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the liberator of man. He is the new man and the normative man. The Pastoral Constitution, Gaudium et Spes acknowledges the need of a liberator and points to Jesus Christ: “Indeed, man finds that by himself he is incapable of battling the assaults of evil successfully, so that every one feels as though he bound in chains. But the Lord Himself came to free and strengthen man, renewing him inwardly and casting out the prince of this world (Jn 12:31) who held him in bondage to sin (Jn8:34)”.[18] Here the anthropology of Vatican II meets with Christology. In the Christian view it is not possible to speak meaningfully about man without introducing Jesus Christ. Anthropology is completed and perfected only in Christology. This was acknowledged in the Second Vatican Council when the document, Gaudium et Spes was introduced with the following words: “To speak about man is also to call upon Christ, the origin and source of human perfection and at the same time the supreme exemplar.”[19]

In the Bible Adam, the first man symbolizes the old humanity which stands in need of liberation. Jesus Christ is the second Adam who was prefigured by Adam, the first man. Gaudium et Spes says, “For Adam, the first man was a figure of him who was to come. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to man himself and brings to light his most high calling”.[20] The image of God could not find fulfillment in the original creation because sin entered into the human family and the disruption caused by sin continued in its history. In Christ the image of God shines in all its perfection. Christ as the image of God is part of New Testament Christology.[21] Christ being the perfect image of God is capable of recreating the image of God in man. “To the sons of Adam He restores the divine likeness which had been disfigured from the first sin onward.”[22] Jesus Christ does this because he is “the normative image” for humanity.

Christ, the perfect image of God is also the perfect man. Jesus Christ is not far removed from the human world. He is of our human flesh and blood. He has in him the fundamental structures of every man. The divinity of Christ does not set aside his humanity. Jesus has full human existence. He has all the genuine features and qualities of being human. Because he has in him all that being human means, he is the exemplary man.[23] The document makes this affirmation: “Born of the Virgin Mary He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin.”[24] As Scripture says, he “learned obedience through what he suffered”.[25] He had our dilemmas and underwent our trials. Yet he is different. He is united to God the Father in the unbreakable bond of his sonship, obedient and trusting. In the Christian vision the vocation of man is to be conformed to the image of Christ. The fulfillment and perfection of man is in Jesus Christ. Christ is the perfect human person and the normative man for all humanity.

Towards a New Humanity


Every one in the world hopes to see a better tomorrow. The coming of a glorious era for humanity belongs to a collective dream. The Kerala poet Kumaran Asan has written the following lines:

Breathing truth, observing equality

Enjoying the elixir of love and feeling elated

Let men march forward in the path of Dharma

Let this earth be heaven[26]

The noble aspirations of humanity are given expressions in Asan’s poem. Christian anthropology drawing from human wisdom and divine revelation envisages the building up of a better world. All human values cherished by people everywhere find their realization in Christ. The word and work of Jesus Christ show the beginning of a new humanity.

The greatest teaching of Jesus is love. The building up of the human society is possible only when interpersonal relations are characterized by unselfish love. “Love one another” is the command that Jesus gave (Jn15:16). The great economic theories and political systems though allegedly stand for social welfare are not primarily based on love. In fact it is in contemporary discussion, as with the great economist Amartya Sen, that the importance of ethical concerns has surfaced in economic welfare. Christian anthropology based on the teaching and example of Jesus gives emphasis to love as the basis of interpersonal relations and building up of society.  Drawing from the teaching of the New Testament Gaudium et Spes says:

Love of God and one’s neighbour, then, is the first and greatest commandment. Scripture teaches that love of God cannot be separated from love of one’s neighbour: Any other commandment is summed up in this sentence: You shall love your neighbour as yourself…therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:9-10; cf1Jn 4: 20). It goes without saying that this is a matter the utmost importance to men who are coming to rely more and more on each other and to a world which becoming more unified every day[27]

Christian anthropology is based on the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of human existence. The first is concerned about the relation between the human person and God. The second dimension is about interpersonal relations. Both these are interrelated. The first is in fact based on the second. More than ever today there is an increase of reciprocal ties and mutual dependencies among human beings. But despite this the Pastoral Constitution observes that “people are often diverted from doing good and spurred towards evil.”[28] “Social order and its development” says the Constitution, “must unceasingly work to the benefit of the human person.”[29] To all the basic things necessary for leading a truly human life, such as food, clothing and shelter, should be made available. Moreover the right to choose a state of life freely and to found a family, the right to education, to employment, to good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity according to the norm of one’s  conscience etc are to be protected.[30]

The Council has shown the example of Jesus who showed his solidarity and fellowship with all especially for the poor and deprived.[31] “Being for oneself” and “being for others” are expressions that speak two attitudes in life. Jesus’ attitude may be characterized by the latter.  The anthropology of the Council is concrete. Basing on the fundamental principle of love it shows that reverence for the human person, whoever he may be: an old person abandoned by all, a foreign worker unjustly looked down upon, a refugee, a child born of unlawful union, or a hungry person.[32] The Christian vision is related to the practice of love and the demands of the principle of justice.


A New Heaven and A New Earth

Christianity is eschatological. It is in that way future-oriented.  Based on the biblical vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” it looks forward with hope to a better tomorrow for the entire human race. The Christian eschatological hope is not unrelated to the world and history. It has thorough-going demands for the present. These are demands of love and justice. The Constitution wants to show that “every one must consider his neighbour without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary to living it with dignity.”[33] The practice of justice demands an end to discrimination. “Every type of discrimination” says Gaudium et Spes, whether based on sex, race, colour, social condition, language or religion, is to be curbed and eradicated as incombatible with God’s design.”[34] The need to work for fairer and more humane conditions, removal of excessive economic and social disparity are required to bring about a united and peaceful world.[35]


The anthropological vision of the Council has an integral character.  It includes not only the human person and society but also the earth which is the natural habitat of man. The image of God that man is carries a responsibility for the entire creation. The human beings are entrusted with the duty of stewardship. Building up the human community is impossible without the care for the entire creation. Environment has suffered at the hands of man. The biblical concept of “rule over the earth” has been misinterpreted especially by Western theology to suit the colonial greed of peoples and nations. Ecological concern is today recognized as concern for man.

Theologically the entire creation is the subject matter of redemption. “The new heavens and new earth” to which Christian faith looks forward has continuity with the present. The works of love, justice and peace will endure and go into the perfection of the new age. “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on; for it is here that the body of a new human family grows foreshadowing the age which is to come”[36]



Theological anthropology is not marginal to Christian doctrine. Man created in the image of God is at the centre of Christian faith and practice. If presentday theology is not only oriented to man but also centred on man it is right to be so. Karl Rahner said: “If we come down to fundamentals a theocentric theology is not opposed to what is called anthropocentric theology.”[37] The contribution of Vatican II in the Pastoral Constitution shows this. The Church’s relation to world has its basis in man. “The living man”, said Irenaeus “is the glory of God.”[38] That is the vision of Gaudium et Spes which showed the way to fulfillment for the human person and community.

[1] GS, 3
[2] GS, 12
[3] GS, 4
[4] GS, 4
[5] GS, 4
[6] GS, 9
[7] GS,12
[8] Gen. 1:26-27; cf Wis. 2:23; Ps. 8:
[9] St Augustine, De Trinitate XIV, 8, 11.
[10] GS,12
[11] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Dignity of the Human Person,”   Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (London 1969), pp.122-123.
[12] GS, 13
[13]  GS,13
[14] Gen. 4: 8-16.
[15] Gen.4: 23-24.
[16] Gen.11: 1-9.
[17] GS, 13
[18] GS, 13
[19] The Acts of the Second Vatican Council, IV, I,  p. 555
[20] GS, 22
[21] Col.. 1: 15.
[22] GS 22.
[23] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction  to Christianity (New York 1969), p.179
[24] GS,22
[25] Heb. 5: 8
[26] Kumaran Asan, “The Song of Freedom”, The Selected Poems of Kumaran Asan (Trivandrum 1975), stanza 7, p.76.
[27] GS, 24
[28] GS, 25
[29] GS,25
[30] GS,26
[31] GS,32
[32] GS,26
[33] Acts of the Council IV, VI,  p.455.
[34] GS, 29
[35] GS,29
[36] GS,39.
[37] Karl Rahner, The Theological Investigations Vol XVII (London 1976), p.55
[38] Adversus Haereses !V, 20: PG7,255.