Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu
Authentic Christian Worship in India. A Search and a Struggle

Authentic Christian Worship in India. A Search and a Struggle

by J. N. M. Wijngaards

From THE OUTLOOK, VOL. 15, NO 5 (1977) pp. 134-138

Liturgy seems to be plagued by a demon of its own, a temptation, a ‘thorn in the flesh’. Almost of necessity, it would seem, liturgy breeds liturgical fanaticism. History confirms this. The Church historian, Ernst Wilhelm Benz, comments: “because of the authority inherent in the sacred, every liturgy has the tendency to become fixed in form, and any alteration of the liturgy can thus be regarded as a sacrilege”. Once upon a time the maniple was a handkerchief, used by the Romans, conveniently tied to the left arm. In the course of the centuries it acquired a new status as a liturgical vestment. It has now been abolished, but I know a priest who is still using it on the sly “because of its intrinsic value”.

From the beginning of its history, the Church in India has had its share of liturgical warfare. The Syrian, Malankara and Latin Rites of Kerala are still licking their wounds after eleven centuries of ceaseless ecclesiastical struggles. Roberto de Nobili, a pioneer missionary of Tamilnadu (1577—1656), met with fierce opposition when he proposed his adaptations to Brahmin customs. His Brahmin converts were not allowed to wear saffron robes, mark their brow with santal paste or perform ceremonial ablutions. Even the favourable decree of Pope Gregory XV in 1623 could not undo the death blows dealt to his reform by liturgical fanatics.

Conflict Ahead?

The Vatican Council and its follow-up produced in India a genuine liturgical revival. For some years, the renewal process ran a peaceful course. But, as the Vatican decrees were more and more put into effect, conflicts with the nihil innovetur school became inevitable. In September 1975, Rome publicly entered the fray when the Congregation for the Sacred Liturgy issued two specific prohibitions. The hundred-odd-strong Bishops’ Conference that met in Hyderabad in January 1976 was unable to resolve the clash between traditionalists and reformers within its own bosom.

The letter from Rome forbade two specific points: reading Indian sacred scriptures during Holy Mass and the use of one particular Eucharistic canon. One-sided publicity given to the event all over the globe has led to wild speculations. It is not uncommon to hear in public speech, or see in print, outrageous statements such as “Rome has stopped liturgical adaptation in India”; “The so-called Indian Mass has been forbidden”; “Liturgy in India at a stand-still”.

To help clarify the situation, I will first sketch how an ‘Indianised’ Mass such as has been approved by Rome, is conducted. I will try to elucidate some points of controversy. Finally, I will try to interpret the turn of events in the light of the Roman letter and other recent developments.

The Indianised Mass

The congregation sits on the floor facing a low altar table. In preparation for the Eucharistic celebration, people will be singing repetitive hymns, bhajjans, which resemble sung litanies. When the priest enters, he is welcomed with the traditional signs of greeting a guru. He is garlanded as a representative of Christ and receives arati, a traditional gesture which involves the circular waving of a tray covered with flowers. The priest, who is vested in a white alb and a saffron shawl, will take his seat at the other side of the altar table, facing the people.

The penitential part of the Mass involves ritual ablutions and sprinkling of water. To underscore confession and forgiveness, the congregation will be invited to make a panchanga pranam, a full prostration with forehead touching the ground before the knees, during which the priest gives the absolution.

The reading of God’s Word is begun by lighting the bronze Indian oil lamp that has been placed in the centre, right in front of the altar table. While the five wicks are being lit, the congregation will invoke Christ as the light of the world. In fact, the lamp represents Christ, and its light the word He conveys through the inspired Scriptures.

After the readings, the sermon and the Prayer of the Faithful, gifts will be brought up to the altar by members of the congregation. Apart from bread and wine, the traditional Indian presents, such as coconuts and trays with flowers, will be offered. At some moment the priest will take the tray of flowers and will decorate the chalice and paten with eight flowers, placing them in a circle round the sacred vessels in harmony with the eight directions of space.

Throughout the Eucharistic prayer, the congregation remains seated. However, special attention is given to the doxology at the end. The words of the doxology are accompanied by a special ritual of adoration. This consists of throwing incense on a brazier with glowing coals so that a cloud of smoke arises. Flower petals are strewn and arati is performed with a dish containing a small oil lamp. The whole congregation will make a profound bow or a full prostration.

The kiss of peace is given by folding the hands, bowing to one’s neighbour and gently touching his hand with the tips of one’s fingers. The celebrant distributes Holy Communion on a tray which contains both the ciborium with hosts, and the chalice. The communicants will take a host from the ciborium, dip it in the chalice and then receive Communion in this way. On the same tray, flowers have been arranged so that, if any member of the congregation does not wish to receive Communion, he can take a flower instead. This accords with the Indian sense of hospitality, according to which no guest may be sent away empty-handed.

After Communion, a devotional bhajjan may be sung. The Indian blessing is longer and incorporates more ornate language than we are used to in our Roman liturgy. At the end of the Mass, a coconut may be broken and shared among the participants. The priest will take leave after bidding the faithful to come back for another celebration. In India. no guest is sent home without a new invitation

Acceptance . .

The above description of an Indianised Mass corresponds to one particular form of celebrating it, such as I myself frequently used when presiding at the Eucharistic meal. Slightly different forms are in practice in other parts of India. It is not difficult to see that in such a celebration of Mass the essentials have remained untouched while the external expression of these essentials has been adapted to Indian culture. Postures, gestures, symbolic acts, vestments, sacred vessels and other externals are translated into forms meaningful to the Indian mind. Permission to effect such changes was officially requested by the Indian Bishops’ Conference six years ago and was granted by Rome. The introduction of Indianised forms of expression was left by the Bishops’ Conference to the individual Bishops.

Having travelled far and wide through the country and having taken part in many national meetings with liturgists and catechists, I can witness to the fact that the new Indianised Mass is well received and welcomed in a majority of dioceses. Those communities especially that are more aware of their Indian origins or in areas where evangelisation is going on, have gratefully made the new forms of expression their own. It is difficult to describe the thrill and deep devotion with which an Indian congregation can worship Christ through its own cultural language. I am convinced that for many it has already led to a more authentic Christian prayer, to spiritual growth and a deepening of awareness of Christ and His Gospel.

. . . and Controversy

However, the new forms of expression also met with opposition. Two groups have emerged as blocks of resistance to liturgical change. One group is formed by the Catholics in our major cities, who are either ‘westernised’ or who form such mixed communities that they can no longer identify with a particular culture of India. Another group is formed by the traditional Catholic communities in the South, where the force of established custom cannot easily be overcome. The westernised Catholic will fight Indianisation because, unconciously, he has identified himself with Europe. The traditionalist maintains that accepting the traditional forms is part and parcel of accepting Christianity.

Let us take one example. To the ordinary Indian, genuflection is as strange as standing on one’s toes or scratching behind one’s ears with both hands. It is a meaningless gesture and has no cultural connotation of worship. However, a profound bow with folded hands or a full prostration immediately conveys the message of worship or adoration. The posture that expresses sacrificial participation is not kneeling but sitting with crossed legs and folded hands. It seems logical, therefore, that genuflection and kneeling should be replaced in India by bowing, sitting with crossed legs and the full prostration. Now, there is no theological reason why we should insist on genuflection and kneeling. We know from Church history that in the early Church people bowed and did not kneel. Only in the eleventh century was genuflection introduced as an act of adoring the Blessed Sacrament, and only as late as the sixteenth century did it enter the Mass. But traditionalists fail to see or recognise such distinctions. I remember one Bishop, who has forbidden the Indianised forms of expression in his diocese to this very day, defending genuflection in a public meeting with biblical arguments, such as “The magi knelt down and worshipped him” (Mt. 2, 11 ). When it was pointed out to him that the text speaks of prostration and that Christ himself never genuflected, he refused to withdraw his argument. For him genuflection and kneeling are essential parts of Catholic worship.

A Day of Vengeance?

As far as I can judge, the Church in India is happily free of extremists. In spite of my many contacts over the past twelve years, I have hardly ever noticed any priest or religious going beyond the limits of experimentation laid down by competent authority. Reported cases of excesses (such as using Indian chapatis as hosts for consecration) proved on inspection to be either wholly untrue or so exaggerated that they amounted to falsehoods. Traditionalists in India who were spoiling for a fight were forced to support their position with newspaper reports of alleged liturgical abuses abroad. Until the question of the Canon and the Indian scriptures arose . . .

A Eucharistic prayer was drawn up by a theological commission, submitted to the Bishops’ Conference, approved by Rome for experimentation, and spread throughout India. The content of the Canon is hardly controversial. It follows the traditional scheme of the Roman Canon and only differs by the incorporation of Indian terminology. However, disagreement arose about the permission given to the Canon. Had it been supported by the necessary number of votes before being sent to Rome? Had the Liturgical Centre overstepped its competence by publishing a printed text after receiving the Roman approval? While these matters were being discussed by various authorities within the Bishops’ Conference, Rome intervened and decreed the suspension of the Canon for the time being.

The ancient religions of India have contributed much to human thought by spiritual scriptures such as the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. In the missionary context of India, it is logical that worthwhile passages from these scriptures are used as an evangelica praeparatio. In experimentation centres, such passages were read before the readings from the Old and New Testaments. In January 1975, a seminar was convoked in Bangalore where theologians and Indologists tried to work out the implications of a prudent use of Indian scriptures in Christian liturgy. Although to my knowledge—and I was a participant of the consultation— the matter was throughout handled in an extremely orthodox manner, without any exaggerated statements being either voiced or printed, the traditionalists pounced on the issue, claiming that ‘Indianisers’ were equating Indian scriptures with the Bible. The letter from Rome forbidding the reading of Indian scriptures at Mass even in experimentation centres, although probably meant to allay fears and restore unity, is being interpreted by traditionalists as confirming their stand.

The situation has not been helped by the emergence in 1975 of an ultra-traditionalist monthly called The Laity. Having apparently no financial limitations, it is sent free of cost to all priests throughout India. Contrary to its name, the articles written in it are mainly supplied by priests who reject Vatican II and what it stands for. Its journalism is generally of a deplorable kind, consisting mainly in making coarse accusations against leading personalities in the Indian Church. Recently, Cardinal Parecattil, Archbishop of Ernakulam, who supports the Indianised Mass, was called “disloyal to the Church” and “a man without brains”.

A Search and a Struggle

The quest for a true and authentic Christian worship in India will continue. I have no doubt about the eventual outcome of this search. As in all liturgical changes in the past, a period of agony and crucifixion seems unavoidable. But the Church in India will eventually shine more clearly to the world and to the Indian nation through becoming itself. Of course, much more theological research and prudent experimentation are needed. It is hoped that the authorities in the Church will have the courage and the vision not to quench the Spirit, but to encourage it and, while testing everything, to hold fast to what is good (I Thes. 5, 19— 21). The Church in India is badly in need of such encouragement.

John Wijngaards

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars' declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Join our Women Priests' Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:
An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.