MANGALORE, India: Sunday Masses boycotted in Liturgical language dispute

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Aug 25 14:08:32 UTC 2006

August 24,2006
Sunday Masses boycotted in Liturgical language dispute

MANGALORE, India (UCAN) -- Catholic families have boycotted Sunday Masses
since early July in a southern Indian parish to protest a language policy
concerning liturgy. Mother of God Parish in Jakkalli, Karnataka state, has
more than 1,500 Catholics, but these days only 25 people attend Sunday
Mass on average, the parish priest, Father Joseph Alexander, told UCA
News. The parish is part of Mysore diocese, based in Mysore city, 2,200
kilometers south of New Delhi.

Some 350 of the parish's 370 families are ethnic Tamils who speak their
language. The rest speak Kannada, Karnataka's official language. Tamil is
the official language of neighboring Tamil Nadu state. Selvappan, a Tamil
Catholic leader, says a circular from Bishop Thomas Vazhappilly of Mysore
alienated the Tamils by decreeing that Mass in the parish would be
celebrated only in Kannada from July 9 onward. "All of us are upset. Our
homes are silent and our children do not attend catechism classes,"
Selvappan told UCA News.

On Aug. 20, about 800 people gathered near the parish church for prayers
while Mass was going on inside the church, Selvappan reported. The parish
priest did not come for the prayers, but kept "calling us to the church,"
he said, adding that no Tamil Catholic attended the Mass that day. Tracing
the controversy's origin, Selvappan narrated that both communities lived
together harmoniously until they built a new parish building three years
ago. The Tamil Catholics worked hard and donated most of the funds, but
felt "sadly let down" when the parish priest celebrated the opening Mass
in Kannada, he said. Tamil Catholics, including women and children, stayed
away from the ceremony. Father Alexander, an ethnic Tamil, said Mysore
diocese had been spared from a language dispute that had troubled
neighboring Bangalore archdiocese for nearly three decades. The problem
has subsided there but is "gaining momentum in Mysore," he lamented.
Bangalore is the Karnataka capital.

As in Bangalore archdiocese, more than 80 percent of Mysore diocese's
96,000 Catholics are ethnic Tamils. Kannada-speaking Catholics, led by
some priests, insist the Church in Karnataka should use Kannada as the
main liturgical language. According to Monsignor John Bernard Xavier, the
diocese's vicar general, the problem in Jakkalli worsened this year when
some Tamils opposed an Easter decoration that had "Glory to the Risen
Christ" written in Kannada.  The Kannada priest termed it "quite
illogical" to demand a ban on Kannada script in Karnataka churches "just
because Tamils are the majority." He said "a little sensitivity and
respect for the local culture" could solve the problem.

Selvappan explained that Tamils objected only to display of the Kannada
words during the Tamil Mass. Philipose Kumar, another Tamil parishioner,
blamed some Kannada priests for instigating the problem. He claimed the
Tamil Catholics maintained "good relations" with their Kannada
counterparts and said there have been interethnic marriages. However,
police and government officials had to intervene occasionally when the
controversy turned ugly, he admitted. Kumar asserted that the parish
council had agreed to conduct Mass in Kannada and Tamil on alternate
Sundays, but the bishop's July 6 circular forced a different approach.
Monsignor Xavier clarified, however, that the diocese had not accepted the
Jakkalli parish council's suggestion for alternating Masses.

Bishop Vazhappilly, a native of Kerala, which neighbors Karnataka and
Tamil Nadu, was unavailable for comment as he was away. After Tamil
parishioners boycotted the July 9 Sunday Mass in Jakkalli, the bishop
called a meeting of all neighboring parishes. That July 13 meeting decided
that Mass should be conducted in Kannada with the first reading and two
hymns in Tamil, a practice the diocese had followed for 20 years.
Monsignor Xavier commented that Jakkalli parish had no problem under
previous parish priests, who were not Tamils. Father Alexander, a Tamil,
took over six months ago. The vicar general suggested that the new priest
has either failed to manage the situation or aided the Tamil group. "Or
the people must have taken advantage of his Tamil background," he added.

Father Alexander's view, however, is that Kannada proponents have
"blackmailed and pressured" the bishop. Kumar, who agrees with this
assessment, said some people tried to attack the bishop's house two months
ago to press for Mass to be held in Kannada. Other Catholics of the parish
say they want to attend Mass on Sundays. Selvamma, Selvappan's wife, told
UCA News Aug. 17 that she is "scared to go to the church." The 38-year-old
Tamil woman clarified that she is not afraid of the Kannada Catholics, but
of "outsiders who are not even Christians."

As she sees it, the controversy is more "political" than liturgical.
Selvamma, who says she knows Kannada from having been raised in Karnataka,
explained, "We are not against attending the Kannada Mass, but are afraid
of threats from the pro-Kannada groups." According to her, Catholics in
her parish are "highly religious" and will not desert their faith even if
they are denied Tamil Mass. "Now we gather in some houses and pray instead
of going to the church. We will attend the Sunday Mass once the tension is
over," she said.


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