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Eastern Catholicism in a Western community

They’re here: sisters and brothers from around the world, in Trinidad & Tobago to work and live, and are now part of the evolving face of the Archdiocese. Writer, Simone Delochan writes on the Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic community.

The Catholic Church is more than what we see here; it is as diverse as the countries in which it is practiced. We accept that certain native cultural practices will become embedded in the overarching liturgical rite. But did you know that right here in Trinidad, we have a group whose liturgical rite is completely different to what we know in the Latin Church? They are a small community which meets in expression of their faith: the Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic Church.

St Thomas Christians

The apostle, St Thomas came to the Malabar Coast of Kerala, India in 52AD and converted a group of Hindus to Christianity. In all, St Thomas established seven Christian communities in Kerala, and they became known as the St Thomas Christians, or the Nazranis, those who follow the path of Jesus of Nazareth.
Missionaries from Syria (hence ‘Syro’), and some merchants from Persia later provided both scripture and liturgy to the group, which is why the Church became the ‘Syro-Malabar’ Church.
In the 16th century, aggressive Latinisation of this Eastern Church by the Portuguese and their bishops led to rebellion and the Coonan Cross Oath in 1653 in which members of the St Thomas Christian community in Kerala avowed their way of faith against attempted Portuguese domination.
In 1661, relations were improved with the Latin church through Pope Alexander VII who sent a mission of Carmelite friars, led by Jose de Sancta Maria Sebastiani. A new eastern Syrian Rite church hierarchy in communion with Rome was organised.
The hierarchy was restored in 1923 under Pope Pius XI, and in 1992, John Paul II elevated the Church to Major Archepiscopal status. He also gave, in 1998, the Syro-Malabar bishops full authority in liturgical matters.
At present, the Church has about 4.1 million members throughout India, the United States and Canada and boasts a high rate of vocation to priesthood and religious life.
The Syro-Malabar Church, the second-largest Eastern Catholic Church, is one of the 21-23 sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches. The Catholic Church is a communion of one Western and 21 Eastern Churches.

Part of the archdiocesan landscape

The Catholic News (CN) spoke to Fr Alex Viruthakulangara CSsR, one of four Syro-Malabar priests, who brought the community together in Trinidad. There are, at present, about 100 Syro-Malabar Christians, living and working here. A few members of the congregation told CN that they were largely involved in nursing at local health institutions. One family has been here for six years already. Trinidad is the only island in the Caribbean to have Eastern Rite Masses on a regular basis.

Fr Alex distributes Holy Communion at Syro-Malabar Mass at Our Lady of Fatima, Curepe (2017)

Archbishop Joseph Harris understood the need for prayer in native tongue, and endorsed the provision of worship for the community in their own language and with their traditions.

When he attended the Onam celebration, hosted by the Malayali Association of Trinidad and Tobago, he said that he hoped “very soon the Syro-Malabar Rite will be part of the landscape of religious life here in this Archdiocese of Port of Spain.” (CN September 20, 2015)

To date, the community meets every second Sunday of the month at Our Lady of Fatima RC Church, Curepe at 4 p.m. to celebrate their Mass in the Malayalam language.

The liturgy is structured very differently to the Latin Mass: Introduction of the Mass; Our Father; a Psalm as preparation for the Scripture; Homily; preparation of gifts; Eucharist Prayers; Epiclesis and great Amen; Penitential Rite as a preparation for Communion, Communion and final blessing. The immediate difference that was noted, was the seating arrangements: the men, and the women and children sat separately, which is more of a cultural practice. And for the Sign of Peace, with clasped prayer hands, faithful bowed respectfully to each other. The men also led the call and response.

Strong in family and faith

During the course of the chat with Fr Alex certain keywords stood out: family, tradition and structure. The family-oriented approach was evident in the socialising which occurred both before and after Mass.
The community is a close-knit one. One member of the congregation stated that the group comes together on special occasions outside of Masses. Once a month, those living in San Fernando, Port of Spain and St Augustine meet as a group for a family prayer meeting and fellowship.

Marriage, Fr Alex stated, was not simply the coming together of two individuals, but the merging of families. “Families are very important; and elders in the family have the final word. We, most of us, believe in arranged marriages. Of course, they can choose. We also do background checking…about character, health, religious faith and financial situations.” He continued, “Our culture is not a boyfriend/girlfriend culture… the basic idea then is love begins with the marriage. We don’t have a high divorce rate. For us, marriage is not the union between boy and girl: it’s a coming together of the families. If they have emotional issues, financial issues, the whole family comes together. If there are any relationship issues, the family comes together to help them out. So, it is not a boy and girl, it is a family. We make sure that our children have enough to survive and build up their family…the family is strong.”

The Church, he says, is very structured. “They are very strict about our way of life. You will never find a family where there are other faiths, a Hindu or Muslim, living in the same house, no. We are strong about our family, strong about our beliefs and strong about our Catholic practices.”

A few members of the faith told the Catholic News that they returned to India to have their babies baptised in the Syro-Malabar Rite. In this baptism, three Sacraments are administered.

“For us in the Syro-Malabar faith,” said Fr Alex, “all the three sacraments of initiation are given at the same time…the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist together at the time of baptism. Of course, they do not receive the Sacraments of Eucharist and Confirmation until they reach the age of reason. Actually, that was the practice in the Latin Church as well, before.” Faith formation for the children on every Sunday is more important than their academic programme, according to Fr Alex.

Clergy and parish administration

The approach of clergy is different as well with regard to parish administration. “The wealth or the finances of the parish are taken care of by the parish. We do not play a major role. When there is a need in the parish, the people build up the parish, buy the property…The emphasis of the Eastern Church for the priests is mainly to take care of the spiritual needs of the people, and the priests are well taken care of by the parish. Nothing is lacking for them.”

In many of the Eastern Churches, celibacy is not a “must”, but now, however, in the Syro-Malabar Church as per the guidelines of Rome, all the ordained priests are celibate. When the Orthodox Churches were reconciled and joined the Catholic Church, married priests were accepted as well. But they do not follow that practice anymore and all their priests are also celibate. Some non-Catholic Orthodox Church priests say that the Catholic system of priesthood is much better.

There is much emphasis placed on Mary by the Eastern Church in India, for non-Catholics as well, and Fr Alex reiterated that much of Mariology originated from the East. “Most of the doctrines are from the Eastern Church. In Orthodox Churches, their main patron is Our Lady.” In the Syro-Malabar Church, in addition to Mary, there is high importance placed on St Thomas. His feast day, July 3 is a big occasion.

In many feasts during their Liturgical year, fasting and abstinence are requisite. The liturgical year is “ordered according to the flow of salvation history”. It focuses on the historical life of Jesus, and consists of nine seasons: Annunciation (Nativity), Epiphany, Great Fast (Lent and Passion of the Lord), Resurrection, Apostles, Summer-fruits of the apostolic works, Elijah-Cross, Moses, and Dedication of the Church.

‘There have been tensions between the Latin and Eastern Churches outside of India, and Fr Alex noted that there has been some dilution of the liturgical practices, as there is a burgeoning movement toward Latin practice.

The experience of the Eastern Mass by the Catholic News was a beautiful one, in its difference and, more specifically, in the utter devotion of the congregation, their quiet, welcoming warmth and the overarching old-world feeling.

The Archdiocese of Port of Spain is truly blessed to have members of the Syro-Malabar Eastern Catholic Church within its community.

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