Let us pray, peace be with us:

"The Cross that has been the cause of our good and by which our mortal humanity was set free,
O Lord, be for us a strong fortress. And by this Cross, we shall overcome the wicked one and All his devices."

(Syro-Malabar Qurbana)


“The Truth will make you free”

Vol. 16, No. 1                                  New Delhi                                January, 2006

The Mystery of the Assembly                   

Dr. Varghese Pathikulangara, cmi

St Paul writes to the Corinthians, "when you assemble as a Church" (1 Cor 11: 18)… This ‘Church’ is not definitely a temple. It is the gathering of the first Christians for revealing and realising the nature and purpose of the Church. "Until the third century the word ‘Church’ (ecclesia) means invariably not the building for Christian worship but the solemn assembly for the liturgy, and by extension those who have a right to take part in this"( G. Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, London 1945, p. 19.).

The early Christians came together on several occasions. They were all simply called ‘meetings’ (syneleuseis). The ‘Church’ (Ecclesia), namely, the ‘general assembly’, was different from such ‘meetings’ because of its corporate all-inclusive nature according to which every Christian had a right and a duty to attend it. It was precisely the liturgical ministry of the bishops, presbyters and deacons that was characteristic to such Ecclesia. "It was at the ecclesia – in ‘the Church’ – alone that a Christian could fulfil his personal ‘liturgy’, that divinely-given personal part in the corporate act of the Church, the Eucharist which expressed before God the vital being of the Church and each of its members. The greatest emphasis was always laid upon the duty of being present at this, for which no group-meeting could be a substitute"( G. Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, p. 21).

According to the vision of the early Church, it is the Church as a whole and not each individual or any order in it that is to represent Christ on earth. "The primitive Church took this conception with its fullest force, and pressed it with a rigour which is quite foreign to our weakened notions. The whole Church prayed in the person of Christ; the whole Church was charged with the office of ‘proclaiming’ the revelation of Christ; the whole Church offered the Eucharist as the ‘re-calling’ before God and man of the offering of Christ"( G. Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, p. 29).

Thus we see that there was a close unity between the assembly and the Eucharist in the early Church. But in course of time this intimate bond was partially forgotten. People began to define Eucharist as one of the sacraments of the Church whereas in the early Church it was the Sacrament of the Church.
Theologians today proceed to explain or discuss the sacraments not from the living experience of the Church, but from their own a priori and abstract categories and definitions. The early Church knew well that the lex credendi (rule of faith) and lex orandi (rule of prayer) were inseparable and mutually substantiating. St. Irenaeus wrote: "Our teaching is in harmony with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our teaching"( Against Heresies, 4:18:5).

Today’s theology is not very much interested in the worship of the Church. It, from its own presuppositions, first of all makes a distinction between the "important" and "secondary" among the theological subjects and the worship of the Church is pushed to the "secondary". Moreover the theologians turn their attention only to the important "moments" that are artificially determined: in the case of the Eucharist, the "moment" of change of the holy gifts.

Such situation must change. For explaining or understanding the Eucharist or any other sacrament, one must begin from the fact of the experience of the Church, namely, the detailed celebration of the Church in its fullness. Every minute detail in the celebration is very important as it was in the early Church.

Any serious study of the Eucharist has to take into consideration all the details of the most solemn form of the Eucharistic celebration in the Church. The celebrant, ministers, people, their actions, prayers, singing, processions, and so on are all important in this consideration. Every celebration is, in fact, a "concelebration" and must be as solemn as possible. The attitude of considering concelebration according to the number of priests participating is clericalism and is foreign to the early Church. Similarly the compilation of liturgical books for laity, leaving out all the priestly prayers and rites, is foreign to the early Church and later on to all Eastern Churches. The early designation of the leader of the Eucharistic celebration, the "presider", is very meaningful and shows that "the assembly is the first liturgical act of the Eucharist, its foundation and beginning"( A. Schmemann, The Eucharist, New York 1988, p. 15).

In early Church the gathering of the ecclesia was always considered the first pre-requisite of the Eucharist. St John Chrysostom writes: "The church is a house common to us all, and you are awaiting us when we enter… That is why immediately afterward we greet you by giving the peace"( PG 57:384). Almost all priestly prayers in the Eucharistic Thaksa or Ordo are well conscious of the assembly and hence in plural form. The assembly is always expected to seal such prayers with an "Amen", one of the key words of Christian worship. The individual rites of the Eucharist, its various parts, all express to some degree not only the unity between the celebrant and the people but also their "synergy" – collaboration – concelebration in the literal sense of the term.

The very structure of the church building proclaims the importance of the assembly. The church is, in fact, the domus ecclesiae, the house of the assembly. It is experienced and perceived as the gathering together of heaven and earth and all creation in Christ – indeed, this constitutes the essence and purpose of the church. There is a beautiful correlation between the altar, the sanctuary and the nave. The nave is directed toward the altar, in which we find its end and purpose; but the "altar" necessarily entails the nave and exists only in relation to it. Thus the entire church building is perceived as a microcosm where heaven and earth and everything in them are brought together through signs and symbols.

From the very beginning, the Eucharist was a manifestation and realisation of the unity of the new people of God, gathered by Christ and in Christ. "Assembling as the church" is in reality the first liturgical act, the foundation of the entire liturgy; and unless one understands this, one cannot understand the rest of the celebration. Going to the church means going to "constitute the church", which one manifested on the day of his baptism by becoming a member of the Body of Christ. "You are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Cor 12: 27). Thus going to the church primarily is to manifest and realise one’s identity in the Church and the Eucharist there, is the unique sign of the Body of Christ, the Church. "…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18: 20). We are the Church, we make it up, and the Church does not exist outside us or above us. Christianity consists in calling and commanding Christians to be the Church – "a holy nation, a royal priesthood, a chosen race" (1 Pet 2: 9) – in manifesting and confessing the presence of Christ and His Kingdom in the world.

The holiness of the Church is not our holiness, but Christ’s, who loved the Church and gave Himself for her "that he might sanctify her … that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph 5: 25-27). Our holiness is the realisation and increase of the holiness that we have received on the day of our baptism as a gift of God. This is why all Christians were called ‘saints’ by St Paul.
The Eucharist is the manifestation and fulfilment of the Church in all her power, sanctity and fullness. Only by taking part in it can we grow in holiness. "No one could ever partake, no one could ever be of proper and ‘sufficient’ holiness for this, unless it were given and commanded in the church, in the assembly, in that mystical unity in which we, who constitute the Body of Christ, are able to blamelessly call God Father and be partakers and communicants of the divine life"( A. Schmemann, The Eucharist, p. 24).

 It is this intimate union between the Church and Eucharist that the late Pope John Paul II tries to express in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia of April 17, 2003. The title itself, ‘the Church from the Eucharist’, shows the earnest desire and expectation of the Pope, that the Church returns to its early Eucharistic understanding – the Eucharist becomes once again the life and light of the Church.


Bishop Mar Sebastian Valloppilly

In the Motu Proprio “Dei Providentis” of 1st May, 1917 erecting the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Pope Benedict XV of happy memory, after recollecting the glorious history of the Oriental Churches says “would that some of our beloved sons from the Orient take it up as a divine precept to try and restore this glorious Church to its pristine prosperity and glory.  We on our part, being mindful of our duty, will do our best to redress their grievances as far as possible.  Therefore, we have decided to erect a special Sacred Congregation for the Oriental churches of which we ourselves and our successors shall be the Prefect”.

None of the sons of our Church came forward to take up this work but one born and brought up in the Latin Church and that too a Frenchman took up this challenge, when he became Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental churches in 1936.  During the course of the two decades he was in charge of the Congregation, he paved the way for restoring our Church to its original glory.  It is none other than His Eminence Eugene Cardinal Tisserant of happy memory.  With St. Paul we may say that “we are what we are” today because of the far sighted policy of the Cardinal and the strong measures he took to lay the foundation for the growth and progress of our Church.

A pertinent question may be asked: how is it that Cardinal Tisserant took such an interest in the welfare of our Church ?  This could best be answered in his own words.  I visited His Eminence in a hospital at Castel Gandolfo with Very Rev Fr. Placid a few days before his death.  He could hardly speak.  He was panting for breath.  His face brightened up when he saw us and said, “I love your Church because I know her history”.  We returned with stricken hearts pondering over the great love he had for our Church. His Eminence died on 25th February, 1972 at the mature age of 88.

Born on 24th March 1884 he became a priest in 1907.  He was some time professor at the Appolinarius College, Rome but he spent a great part of his life as a priest, as the Curator and later the Pro-Prefect of the Oriental manuscripts at the Vatican Library.  In 1936 he was made Bishop and subsequently Cardinal and appointed Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches.  He was at the same time Bishop of the Diocese of Ostia and Porto Santa Rufina on the outskirts of Rome.  He was the Dean of the College of Cardinals till 1968.

His Eminence left the Congregation in 1959.  In reply to a letter I wrote to him on hearing about his leaving the Sacred Congregation, His eminence wrote to me “…..I did not want to leave the Congregation for which I had worked for more than two decades.  I have only one authority in this world and that is the Pope.  Pope John wanted me to take up some other work and I obeyed.  I am glad that I could do something for your Church.  The erection of the Tellicherry Diocese is one of my greatest successes….”

His Eminence loved our Church because he knew our history.  His book “Eastern Christianity in India” is a lasting memorial of the great interest he took in the welfare of our Church.  It was not an easy task as he himself says in the introduction of the Book “It is not possible to write a complete history of the Christians of South West India because the ancient documents of their Churches were destroyed by fire at the Synod of Diamper in 1599, but the main lines of that history are fairly well known….”  And he concludes thus “when I prepared for the Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique the article which Father Hambye is now presenting in English, I came to admire greatly the Syro-Malabar Christians who remained constantly faithful to their religion despite centuries of adversity.  My visit to them in November, December 1953 immeasurably increased this admiration.  I hope the present volume helps them keep alive the gratitude they owe their ancestors and makes them ever more zealous for the defense and propagation of our common catholic heritage.”

The cardinal wants us to be grateful to our ancestors who have preserved and handed over to us this great heritage in spite of centuries of adversity.  But unfortunately, what has been preserved and built up by our forefathers at the cost of their sweat and blood is being destroyed by her own sons under one pretext or another !

But for Cardinal Tisserant we would perhaps have still remained locked up in the narrow valley between the Bharathapuzha and the Pampa – captives in our Homeland !  The Rubicon was crossed on 31st December 1953 with the erection of the Diocese of Tellicherry.  A further step in the right direction was taken in April 1955 with the extension of our jurisdiction to the South and the North and a still further step by the erection of seven mission dioceses in the north.

I shall conclude this article by narrating an incident which the Cardinal himself told me in Rome in January 1956 after my consecration.  When His Eminence came to Calicut during his Kerala tour in November 1953 he received a Memorandum in the name of the settlers in Malabar.  In the memorandum it was stated that they were quite happy and contented under the Latin Bishop of Calicut and that there was no need of creating a new Diocese for the settlers.  This was at a time when there were 74,000 Catholics of the Syro-Malabar Rite under the Latin Bishop of Calicut who had only 17,000 Catholics of the Latin Rite under him.

Once the Rubicon was crossed things were easier.  This paved the way for the extension of the jurisdiction to the North and to the South.  His Eminence wanted to make arrangements for providing spiritual assistance for the thousands of Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics settled all over India. He had even requested some of the Latin Prelates to take statistics of the Oriental Catholics in their dioceses, but the reaction proved disastrous !  There was strong opposition from the part of the Latin Prelates.  We had to wait for another three decades to get something done in this matter.  Still what opposition as seen from the Memorandum presented to the Holy Father in 1983 by the Prelates of the Latin Church in India – twenty years after the Vatican Council has given clear directives in this matter!

The life of Cardinal Tisserant should enable us to open our eyes and our hearts.  Ignorance of history is the main cause of our slumber. Unless we study our own history how can we love and esteem our Church ?

The spirit of the Cardinal seems to say: Wake up! Arise ! grateful sons and daughters of St Thomas and march ahead in the footsteps of your illustrious ancestors” who remained constantly faithful to their religion despite centuries of adversity”