In 1990, the Holy See promulgation of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches established the structure of a major archiepiscopal assembly and its role for each Eastern Catholic Church governed by a major archbishop. The code defines this assembly as a consultative body made up of elected members representing the entire church. With the major archbishop as president, the assembly assists him and the synod of bishops in dealing with questions of major importance, such as church discipline, liturgy and apostolic mission.
In this spirit, 60 representatives from various Syro-Malabar Catholic dioceses and religious congregations met on 6 March 1998 to discuss plans for the first assembly in centuries of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. A working paper for the assembly, The Syro-Malabar Church Towards the Third Millennium Mission and Witness, was prepared and distributed to the Syro-Malabar faithful with a pastoral letter from the church leader, Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, C.S.S.R., Apostolic Administrator. Mar Varkey exhorted the faithful to study the paper, pray over it and convey their comments to him for discussion. It is interesting to note that more than 2,000 responses were received and most expressed love and concern for the church. A refined working paper was then prepared and sent to those participants elected to attend the assembly.
All Syro-Malabar bishops, superiors general of institutes of consecrated life, rectors, deans of seminaries and faculties are ex-officio members of the assembly. The majority of participants in November assembly, however, were elected representatives from each diocese.
Priestly representatives were elected by diocesan priest councils according to the percentage of priests in each diocese. Similarly, the lay delegates, with a minimum of two and a maximum of 10 from each diocese, were elected from the pastoral council. Religious sisters and brothers also elected delegates. The nominated members of the assembly were drawn primarily from those Syro-Malabar communities of the diaspora, both in other regions of India and abroad. Of the 353 participants, there were 25 bishops, 26 vicars general, 51 superiors general of institutes of consecrated life, 15 rectors and deans of ecclesiastical faculties and seminaries, 6 experts, 58 priests, 58 delegate religious, 80 laymen and 34 laywomen.
Mar Varkey Vithayathil inaugurated the assembly on 9 November 1998 with a Eucharistic liturgy. In his inaugural address, the Apostolic Administrator acknowledged the challenges confronting the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church today, especially the climate of divisiveness within the church and anti-Christian attitudes from without. Mar Varkey called for church unity as the prime aim of the assembly:
In this assembly great importance [will be] given to group discussions. Persons from different dioceses with different views have come
. This is a platform for mutual understanding and discussions. We have to listen to each other with respect and reverence. Truth is not exclusive to any of us.
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