Home Commentary Let’s face it

Let’s face it

Those on death row face the wall, before being shot in the back. Police also frisk criminals while making them face a wall. Never a pleasant experience.

Even in Jerusalem, the Jews face the Western or Wailing Wall, to mourn what remains of Solomon’s magnificent Temple, the abode of the Ark of the Covenant. The Al Aqsa Masjid now stands there. But no Jew will enter those precincts for fear of inadvertently stepping on the Holy of Holies (Sanctum Sanctorum, Garb Grah).

The face-off (pun intended) in the Ernakulam Syro-Malabar archdiocese in Kerala reminded me about Jerusalem, where I was blessed to visit in 1980. Those who have been following the unsavoury and embarrassing turn of events would know that the controversy is about the form (not content) of celebrating the Holy Eucharist (Qurbana – a Semitic word common to Jews and Muslims, that means “sacrifice”).

The face-off is because the Syro-Malabar Church Synod has decreed that during the consecration/Eucharistic prayer the celebrant must turn his back on the congregation and face the altar instead. The clergy and laity objected to what they perceived to be a retrograde, anti-people step, and wanted to continue with the Post Vatican II celebration while facing the people.

Pope Francis’ delegate, Jesuit Archbishop Cyril Vasil, couldn’t break the deadlock and threatened the “dissidents” with ex-communication that seems to have boomeranged on him.

Without getting into the pros and cons of the opposing camps let us look at the origin of the Eucharist itself, as at the Last Supper in Jerusalem. The fifteenth century Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci portrayed Jesus sitting at a table with the apostles on either side of him (a good setting for a painting or a group photograph today). This is what is called “popular calendar art” that is usually far from reality.

The Semitic culture, common to Jews and Arabs of the time, was to recline on cushions with a low table in front of them where food was eaten by dipping in to the same dish. This is often depicted in Roman and Mughal feasts. The two take takeaways are: 1. Jesus was not standing. 2. The participants sat around the table, facing each other, which is why they could pass the bread and wine around. There was no need of waiters (altar servers).

- Newsletter -

Another significant event unfolded in Jerusalem the very next day. When Jesus died on the cross the veil/curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. This is recorded by all three Synoptic writers (cf Mat 27:51. Mk 15:38, Lk 23:45), emphasising its significance that is usually lost on us. It is vividly described in the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 9, which in turn is based on the Mosaic Law (cf Ex 36:35).

When Moses first encountered God, he covered himself with a veil out of fear (cf Ex 3:6). The Israelites considered themselves unworthy of entering into God’s presence. They believed that no man could see God and live (cf Ex 33:20), or hear his voice (cf Deut 5:26). This was a hidden God (cf Is 45:15).

The priests emphasised the “unworthiness” of a sinful people. When the Holy of Holies was erected, only the High Priest could go beyond the inner curtain, that too once a year; to perform an expiatory sacrifice, using animal blood (cf Heb 9:6-7). However, now Jesus’ sacrifice has entered the Holy of Holies, beyond the curtain, “so that we can worship the living God” (Heb 9:16).

So, are our present-day prelates and liturgists greater than Jesus? Are they trying to take us back to that “guilt ridden era” where we were deemed “unworthy?” This is clerical subterfuge, to make “asses of the masses” by keeping them ignorant about the real significance of the holy Mass (Eucharist/ Qurbana). This is a manifestation of that “clericalism” that Pope Francis repeatedly describes as the biggest scourge in the Church.

Why blame the Eastern Rite churches alone? The Lain Rite was equally guilty of the separation of the sacred (priests and sacraments) from the profane (the guilt ridden, unworthy, sexually active married people). I spent 8 years in a boarding school. Since I was unfit for the choir I was relegated to being an altar boy.

The liturgical rubrics of the time are deeply etched in my consciousness. The Mass was in Latin with the venerable Capuchin chaplain turning around once in a while to intone a solemn “Dominus vobiscum”; to which we would parrot-like respond “Et cum spiritus tuo.” It was mumbo-jumbo, with no connect with the congregation.

Along came Vatican II (1962-1965). By the time I did my Senior Cambridge in 1965 exciting things had begun to happen. We were introduced to the “Dialogue Mass,” that included portions in the local language; English at the time.

In my home parish the ornate Italian marble altar was dismantled. It was rebuilt with a flat table top altar so that the celebrant could face the congregation. Even the communion rails, another barrier between the sacred and profane, were removed. Vatican II was bringing the Church back to its scriptural roots, as a holy people of God.

When I visited St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in 2017, I found that the main altar was in the centre, amid the people. Surely this was the original, even if institutionalised, form of the sacred liturgy.

I now quote from Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (SC) that nobody is talking about. Liturgical rites should “be given new vigour to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times” (SC 4). “In the liturgy the sanctification of man is manifested by signs perceptible to the senses” (SC 7). “When the liturgy is celebrated, more is required than the mere observance of the laws governing valid and licit celebrations” (SC 11).

The liturgy has “elements subject to change” that “Ought to be changed with the passing of time” (SC 21). Liturgical rites “should be within the people’s powers of comprehension” (SC 34). Now comes the body blow. “The Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters that do not involve the faith” (SC 37).

Even the “Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches” (OE) has words of sanity. Such churches should “adapt to modern conditions” (OE 9). That is why the Catholic Church “now adopts a milder policy” (OE 26) towards them.

These are not my words or personal opinion, but the official teaching of the Church. In the light of the above, as also the precedence and example of Jesus himself, the actions and utterances of the papal delegate Archbishop Vasil fall flat on the face (oops that word again)!

The rigid, uncompromising stance of the head of the Ernakulam archdiocese, who is currently also the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, is untenable. Remember that what is sought to be imposed has nothing to do with faith and doctrine. They are merely traditions that are out of sync with both modern times and Vatican II ecclesiology.

I here recall Jesuit Father Tony D’Mello’s story of the Guru’s Cat. A cat would come and disturb the Guru’s satsang. It could not be chased away. So, the disciples just tied it at the entrance where it became a fixed feature. At the Guru’s death a new one came who was unaware of the genesis of the cat. Not seeing the old Guru the cat ran away, but the disciples caught and brought it back. When the cat died, they brought another cat, as it was now considered an “essential feature” of the “Guru’s liturgy”!

We can laugh at the idioticity of those disciples. Are not those who blindly follow traditions in the same boat? Prior to Vatican II Syriac was the language of the Syro Malabar liturgy. Like other Semitic languages it was written from right to left, unlike Greco-Roman scripts that are written from left to right. Today hardly anyone in Kerala would know Syriac, so it has been dumped. The Syro Malabar churches also had a screen, a Byzantine tradition, separating the sacred altar and the profane.

My parish priest Father Antony K.K., of the Syro-Malabar origin, tells me that even today some churches have retained the screen. It makes me scream in anguish. Small wonder that several Syro Malabar Catholics prefer the Latin rite liturgy, albeit in Malayalam, the language of the people.

In 1990 the Syro Malabar Catholics in Bombay, led by Advocate George Kurian, opposed the erection of the Kalyan Eparchy. In Delhi the Syro Malabar Catholics brought out a book “Is Christ Divided?” to oppose the erection of Faridabad Eparchy. We cannot ride roughshod over people’s sentiments.

In a recent article Father Felix Wilfred, former president of the Indian Theological Association, states that what is happening in Ernakulam requires the attention, not just of the CBCI and the three ritual bodies, but even that of “ordinary Catholics.”

As an ordinary member of the Indian Catholic Church, I am humbly presenting not my personal opinion, but what seems to be the mind of Jesus and the post Vatican II Church. Let’s face the living truth, not a dead wall.

The writer is the Convenor of the Indian Catholic Forum. This article was first published by Matters India.

© Copyright LiCAS.news. All rights reserved. Republication of this article without express permission from LiCAS.news is strictly prohibited. For republication rights, please contact us at: [email protected]

Support Our Mission

We work tirelessly each day to tell the stories of those living on the fringe of society in Asia and how the Church in all its forms - be it lay, religious or priests - carries out its mission to support those in need, the neglected and the voiceless.
We need your help to continue our work each day. Make a difference and donate today.