ROME – Pope Francis believes that the “time is now” to cater to the pastoral needs of the Syro-Malabar Catholics in India who have been living outside of their territory, an effort started by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in 2011.
In a letter to the Indian bishops, the pope authorized the Congregation for Oriental Churches to erect two new eparchies and extend the scope of those already in place – Ramanathapuram and Thuckalay – which will be run by the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, Mar George Alencherry, and the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church.
The two new eparchies are Shamshabad and Hosur, which will be led respectively by Bishop Raphael Thattil and Bishop Sebastian Pozholiparampil.
The Catholic Church in India is composed of three independent ‘sui iuris’ Churches: The Latin rite and two eastern rites, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites, which trace their lineage to St. Thomas the Apostle, who is believed to have evangelized India.
In the letter dated Oct. 9, the pope underlined that the future of the Catholic Church in India cannot be “that of isolation and separation, but rather of respect and cooperation,” and that the collaboration between the various Catholic rites in the territories “will surely offer an eloquent witness to a vibrant and marvelous communion.”
The pope underlined that such a provision should not disrupt the Church’s life or be seen as a requirement for faithful to leave the communities where they have lived and cooperated peacefully for many years.
“It should rather be seen as an invitation as well as an opportunity for growth in faith and communion” with the Syro-Malabar Church – the pope said – “in order to preserve the precious heritage of their rite and to pass it on to future generations.”
Francis began his letter by recognizing the variety of ecclesial life that exists in India, which is made up of three distinct Catholic rites. “Although this situation has sometimes led to tensions in the course of history, today we can admire a Christian presence that is both rich and beautiful, complex and unique,” the pope wrote.
The Congregation of the Oriental Churches celebrates its centenary this year and it’s dedicated to protect, oversee and cater to the needs of the Eastern Catholic traditions, which – the pope said – “is essential for the Catholic Church to reveal her face in all its beauty to the world, in the richness of her various traditions.”
This vision was made clear by the Second Vatican Council and inspired Pope John Paul II when he wrote to the Indian Bishops encouraging the different rites to work and collaborate with one another. “In India, even after many centuries, Christians are only a small proportion of the population and, consequently, there is a particular need to demonstrate unity and to avoid any semblance of division,” Francis wrote.
The Syro-Malabar Church had expanded to the northern regions of India starting 50 years ago, creating tensions with the pre-existing Latin rite dioceses in those territories, which insisted that one bishop should have jurisdiction over the territories. Today those regions are eparchies under the jurisdiction of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Despite that, the pope pointed to the fact that in traditional territories of the Eastern Churches, such as Kerala, and in territories where Christians have migrated, the Catholic bishops have worked in “fruitful and harmonious collaboration” with the various rites.
“In a world where large numbers of Christians are forced to migrate, overlapping jurisdictions have become customary and are increasingly effective tools for ensuring the pastoral care of the faithful while also ensuring full respect for their ecclesial traditions,” Francis wrote.
“I hope that my decision will be welcomed with a generous and peaceful spirit, although it may be a source of apprehension for some, since many Syro-Malabars, deprived of pastoral care in their own rite, are at present fully involved in the life of the Latin Church,” Francis wrote.
The letter states that this collaboration should continue and extend to include retreats and the formation of priests, as well as Bible studies and the celebration of common feast days.
“With the growth of spiritual friendship and mutual assistance, any tension or apprehension should be swiftly overcome,” Francis concluded.
Overlapping jurisdictions between Latin and Eastern Churches is common outside of India, including in the United States, where several Eastern-rite jurisdictions exist alongside the majority Latin-rite Church.