By AXJ Bosco SJ

Dalit Christians love Jesus and the liberative message of the Gospel that God, our Father and Mother loves everyone; he shines the sun on the good and the bad and showers his rain on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45); in his kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first (Mt 20:16) and he does not show any partiality (Acts 10:34); and Jesus welcomed and, ate and drank with publicans, prostitutes, Samaritans and sinners (Mk 2:15). This table fellowship of Jesus responds to the aspirations and dreams of the Dalit Christians.

On the other hand, they cannot accommodate themselves in the structures of the Indian Church with the culture of casteism and nepotism; caste mentality prevalent among the caste clergy who is a majority in the Church and who follow the shameful practices of caste discrimination covertly and overtly and conspired consciously and unconsciously to follow the caste culture of segregation, division, disrespect and humiliation towards the so-called low caste Dalit Christians who are a majority in the Catholic Church is totally against the principles of Jesus. Only 6% of Bishops are from the Dalit Christian Community; for the last 17 years, no Dalit has been appointed to Bishopric in Tamil Nadu where the majority are Dalit Christians; it is consoling to have a Cardinal among the Tribals, but there is no single Dalit Cardinal so far in the history; after one year of dialoguing with the Church Hierarchy with meetings, memorandums, demonstrations etc. to the shock and the dismay of the Dalit Christian Community, a non-Dalit Bishop was appointed in Salem and there is more to it, that he is the first cousin of Bishop Peter Abir is the present administrator of the Pondicherry diocese from where both of them hail. And again, another non-Dalit bishop has been appointed in Trichy!

At this juncture when the Dalit Christian community has been pushed to desperation and this condition is not going to change for the next century, and as the Dalit Christians have lost trust in the Hierarchy, an important way of empowering the Dalit Christians and restoring their faith in the Holy Catholic Church as well as reclaiming their dignity of the children of God is to have an autonomous rite (sui iuris) that accepts and honours the supremacy the Pope as head of the Church and also guarantees self-governance of the Dalit Christian community with its own Hierarchy.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is one and the same; yet we have four gospels, written by four evangelists with their own perspectives and all inspired by the Holy Spirit. In a similar way, the different rites are essentially the same but with differences born out of cultures, traditions and historical circumstances. While united with one Catholic Church, they are different in this, that they are evolved from different cultural milieus and add to the richness of our faith.

The Catholic Church comprises six different liturgical rites, and within those rites, there are twenty-four particular Churches. These twenty-four sui iuris (autonomous or self-governing) Churches are all in communion with one another, are all within the Catholic Church and all recognize the primacy of the pope. In India, we have two sui iuris rites Churches with Syrian Rite: Syro-Malabar from East Syrian (Chaldean) Rite and Syro-Malankara from West Syrian (Antiochian) Rite. It is in the tradition of the Church to recognise and appreciate diversity and plurality that give strength to unity and oneness.

The apostles went to different countries and proclaimed the good news and brought thousands to follow Jesus. Churches in each region developed their own way of worshiping God and different practices to live their lives as committed Christians and thus different rites were born. Rome became the center of Latin rite; Alexandria traditionally founded by St. Mark became the center of Alexandrian rite (3 Churches); Antioch in Syria, the first see of St. Peter became the center around which Syrian rite developed (3 Churches); Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire was the center of Byzantine rite (14 Churches). There are also Chaldean (2 Churches) and Armenian (1 Church) rites. Different regional groups which were following the same rite developed into autonomous Churches. And as we mentioned earlier, there are six rites and 24 Churches including the recently born Zairean Church which follows Latin Rite. 

The code of the Canon Law of the Eastern Churches defines ‘Rite’ as follows: Rite is a liturgical, theological, spiritual, disciplinary heritage, distinguished according to people’s culture and historical circumstances that find expression in each Autonomous Church’s way of living the faith.

The Second Vatican Council, specifically in Orientalium Ecclesiarum, promulgated by Pope St. Paul VI in 1964 states, “The Catholic Church holds in high esteem the institutions, liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and the established standards of the Christian life of the Eastern Churches.

“The Holy Catholic Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, 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 and who, combining together into various groups which are held together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. Between these, there exists an admirable bond of union, such that the variety within the Church in no way harms its unity; rather it manifests it, for it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite should retain its traditions whole and entire, and likewise that it should adapt its way of life to the different needs of time and place.

“These individual Churches, whether of the East or the West, although they differ somewhat among themselves in… liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline, and spiritual heritage, are, nevertheless, each as much as the others, entrusted to the pastoral government of the Roman Pontiff, the divinely appointed successor of St. Peter in primacy over the universal Church.”

We can see that each of these Churches comes from distinct cultural backgrounds, and from all corners of the earth, yet each of these twenty-four Churches professes the same Catholic Faith. The Dalit Rite which we dream of is possible and necessary as Dalits have a rich and unique cultural heritage.

From the time of the missionaries in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, the evangelization work done among dominant castes and among the Dalits was very different. The Pandarams (missionaries and catechists evangelizing the Dalits) attuned with the cultural ethos of Dalits tried to evolve para-liturgical services, car processions, passion plays (Pascha), dramas of saints such as St. Sebastian, St. Xavier, St. Antony. The Christian community in India has never been a homogenous community- socially, religiously, politically and economically in professing Catholic Faith. Caste-Christians had a different way of life (culture) than the Dalit Christians.

Worshipping patterns in villages of Dalit Christians are very different than that of the Caste-Christians. Socially, culturally and religiously, Dalit Christian community is distinct and different from the Caste-Christians. Dalits followed their own cultural traditions.

Inculturation is an inevitable process of our mission; the gospel must be incarnated in the local culture so the people’s lives are transformed and in turn, the people are enabled to express their new faith through their own culture. It is a conscious appropriation and articulation of Christian faith through indigenous Dalit cultural resources, towards worship and practices, giving dignity and freedom to the individual person and the Dalit community is part of the mystical body of Christ, God’s kingdom here on earth.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) solemnly promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963, No. 4. opens up space for new rites. After asserting that all the different rites have equal dignity and right, it says that new vigour must be given to meet the circumstances and needs of modern times. Further, on behalf of the Conciliar Commission on the Liturgy, Bishop Joseph Martin explained, “In order that it may be clear that not only rites now in use may be honoured [respected] but also those which may perhaps be recognized in future. The proposal by the commission was adopted by the conciliar fathers.

Pope Francis celebrated Mass according to the Zairean Rite used by Dioceses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on December 1, 2019, in the Basilica of St Peter. In the preface of the book, ‘A Promising Rite for Other Cultures’, Pope Francis writes, that the Zairean Rite is “until now the only inculturated rite of the Latin Church-approved after the Second Vatican Council” and “this process of liturgical inculturation in Congo is an invitation to enhance the different gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are a richness for all humanity”. 

“The Zairean Rite suggests a promising way also for the possible elaboration of an Amazonian Rite,” said Pope Francis, suggesting that the people of Amazon must creatively think of having their own rite. If so, why not the Dalits create a Dalit Rite?

On the part of the Church, there is openness to New Rites in the Church; Pope Francis, a man with an understanding and loving heart, encourages new rites and new expressions of faith that bring freshness and vitality to the Church. The Catholic theologians in India are working on the formulation of the Dalit Rite. With the rich culture of the Dalit community all over India, an autonomous Dalit Christian Rite will soon become a reality.


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