With five million members, about 5,000 educational institutions and 2,600 medical institutions, the Syro-Catholic church — one of the three Catholic factions in Kerala — is a corporation in itself with huge wealth and unquestioned sway over its properties and members. The other two factions are the Latin Catholic and Syro-Malankara, divided on the basis of liturgy and allegiance to Eastern and Western orders.
For more than a year now, the church has been faced with a rebellion against its head — appointed by the Vatican — Cardinal Mar Alencherry (earlier Archbishop George Alencherry). Alencherry is accused of having pulled off some dubious land deals in Ernakulam district where the church owns immense land packages. The biggest Catholic church in Asia, inaugurated about 10 years ago, is on prime land in the centre of Kochi next to Lulu mall and is a proud showpiece of glamour, power and wealth of the church.
The accusations hinted at Alencherry himself squirrelling away some money. An internal report has absolved him and the Vatican gave him a clean chit recently. Last week, about 250 mostly young priests of Ernakulam and Angamally diocese (regions under separate bishops) came out openly in revolt, saying the report is fixed and demanded that Ancherry be removed. There are about 500 priests in this region alone.
This comes exactly in the week when the Vatican came out with the big announcement that Kerala would get its fourth saint, Sister Mariam Theresa Chiramel Mankidiyan, who was beatified in 2000 by John Paul II. Sainthood or canonization, a long process, comes only after one or two miracles believed to have been performed by the Sister have been verified by committees and certified as true.
The other saints canonized in the last two decades are St. Alphonse, St Euphrasia and St Kuriakose Elias. With four saints from such a small region of central Kerala where spirituality mingles easily with other matters of the state, Kerala has now become the Vatican’s crown jewel after Italy.
No other state brings in the numbers, the money and the strategies of a corporation to the global table of power and faith that the Vatican presides over. This is also the reason why the Vatican is giving saints to Kerala in a hurry, obviously hoping their miraculous powers will push the numbers and the cash further to heavenly heights.
This comes even as Europe is fading as a Catholic power and does not have enough new saints or miracles to help Vatican address an impatient congregation, which is getting used to day-to-day modern miracles that the computer brings them. But Kerala, India’s most educated state, shuffles religion and reason effortlessly, without sacrificing either, and is thus the right-targeted audience for the Vatican.
Even as this mighty church effortlessly moves between matters of corporation and church, never before has the powerful church in Kerala faced such an open rebellion and that too from priests. The members are also divided, with half of them supporting the anti-archbishop faction. A 25-member committee of priests and members has been formed to lead the protest, force a resignation and appoint a new bishop to administer the properties.
Fr Sebastian Thaliyan, convener of the steering committee, said: “The reinstatement of Cardinal Mar Alencherry, who was removed from the post of the Archdiocese head a year ago, has caused concern among the faithful. He was removed for his alleged role in the dubious land deals and flouting the canonical law and civil laws. The Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church should intervene to alleviate the concern.”
Such an open rebellion has not happened before despite various allegations. This comes at a time when the church and its archbishop are also under tremendous pressure following the arrest of Jalandhar bishop Francis Mullackal for rape. Nuns belonging to various congregations are also up in arms against what has been seen as attempts to get the rape-accused bishop freed. The church has been trying to force the accuser nun to vacate the house in which she has been staying with a group of nuns.
All these do not look like problems that a church would have to confront but more like what a corporation under a cloud would. In fact, the most powerful church in India has been run by powerful archbishops, who guiltlessly moved between spiritual and mundane matters and thus ruthlessly built up an empire whose dimensions and wealth are not known. While many questionable deals have been executed over the years, it is only now that priests and laity have summoned the courage to question all the deals.
Normally, rebellion in spiritual congregations does not last long and subsides due to the conservative nature of the church itself. After all, faith and prayer finally resolve everything. But this time, the numbers are a bit worrying for the church and the Vatican will have to pull off a miracle to quell the revolt. It is a difficult task to retire or remove an Archbishop who is also a Cardinal and thus votes in the Papal collegium.
Pope Francis, the most modernist among recent Popes who is trying to push the arch conservatives in the Vatican to the fringes, will be facing a tough time with his Kerala parishioners. The best option seems to be to take away Alencherry to the Vatican itself where his abilities as a corporation chief and deal-maker will come in more handy than his ability to cure sins.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal)