Authority, Community & Identity article

Which Language, Whose Vernacular?: Vatican II and Liturgical Politics in Bangalore (Part 1)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, or Vatican II. Given the significant global presence of Catholicism, it is widely accepted that this event and the transformations it has entailed constitute an epochal era in the history of the modern world.  While a great deal of scholarly attention has been paid to the Council, the focus of much of this research has been on matters such as the politics of the event itself and the theological significance of its documents. A rather different question that has been neglected for the most part is what the impact of this event was “on the ground,” so to speak, in the diverse local cultural contexts in which the Church is situated.

Vatican II is generally understood as a modernization of Catholicism. It signaled an “updating” of the Church that was informed by, rather than hostile to, secular modernity. But in many ways, when implemented around the world, the measures envisioned by the Council have generated unintended consequences that complicate any facile narrative of progress and improvement.

One of the most important of such changes, at least in terms of the impact it would have on most Catholics around the world, was the revision of the liturgy. With the aim of improving lay participation, the Church began to encourage the celebration of the Mass in the vernacular instead of in Latin. It is clear that in many places around the world, this was a welcome move that simply made the Mass more accessible to laypeople, who, for the most part, were certainly not fluent in Latin. In some places, however, the question of what constitutes the vernacular was itself a matter of much dispute — even violence — and one that has yet to be resolved even decades later.

Casualties in a Language Tangle

On April 6, 1990, a group of eight to ten people marched into the house of the Archbishop of Bangalore. The Vicar General then, Fr. D’Silva, said that he was in his office at that time when the watchman informed him that a group of people had come to see him from Adigondanahalli, a village about an hour south of Bangalore city. “We want Mathias,” they demanded in Kannada, the official language of Karnataka, the Indian state whose capital is Bangalore.

They meant Archbishop Mathias, but D’Silva thought they must have been referring to an elderly priest with that name — he said it didn’t occur to him that they wanted the Archbishop, since nobody else normally addressed him by his last name in this manner, “without respect.” So he directed them towards the priest’s room. Evidently unimpressed, some members of the group went straight for the Archbishop’s office. He was away at the time, but his secretary, Fr. Jeganather, was in. According to the Vicar General’s report, the group then bolted the door from the inside, threw red chili powder into the secretary’s eyes, and then returned to Fr. D’Silva’s office and picked up a chair and smashed it onto his table. His driver, who tried to intervene, was threatened with a knife and so he backed off. The group apparently then disconnected the phones and left the building, throwing stones through the windows and leaving a broken glass table-top as  further reminders of their visit.

In the police complaint filed by the Archbishop, the prime antagonist accused for this violence was the parish priest of Adigondanahalli, who was one among a group of 12 diocesan priests in the Archdiocese who had become increasingly vocal and violent in its demands over the past decade or so. The group’s main demand was rather straightforward, disproportionate though the means employed in its pursuit may have been — the implementation of Kannada, the official state language, as the main language of the liturgy in the archdiocese. And the April 1990 incident was not the first act of violence to stem from these demands.

But how did the issue of liturgical language of all things grow to become a cause for such violence?

Liturgical Language in the Archdiocese of Bangalore

While Bangalore is a relatively young city by Indian standards, having been founded in 1537, Catholicism has had a fairly long-standing presence in the city that dates back to Jesuit missionary activity in the 1600s. The archdiocese currently is the third-largest in the country in terms of Catholic population. From its beginnings, the diocese housed Catholics of multiple ethnicities and languages — Kannadigas, Tamilians, Mangaloreans, Goans, Malayalees, Anglo-Indians, and more — most of whom maintain their linguistic and ethnic identities in Bangalore to this day.

Bangalore is the capital of the state of Karnataka, where the official language has been Kannada since shortly after the country’s independence. The majority of the Christian population of the city, however, among Catholics and Protestants alike, is from the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu and speak Tamil. Many of them were brought in as laborers during British rule over the previous century, but even historical records from 17th-century Jesuit missions indicate a prominence of Tamil Catholics in Karnataka missions. While they had assimilated sufficiently to speak and write in the local language, they still maintain their mother tongue. At the time of the Second Vatican Council, it is estimated that at least 65 percent of Catholics in Bangalore were Tamil speakers.

In 1964, the then-Archbishop Lourdusamy, a Tamilian, decreed that to faithfully implement the Council, the language of the liturgy should reflect that of the people. This was interpreted to refer to the mother-tongue of the people rather than the official language of the state. Tamil, being the mother-tongue of most Catholics in the Archdiocese, and particularly in the city of Bangalore, therefore suddenly gained more prominence.

Now in Bangalore in the 1960s, tensions between Kannada and Tamil had already been boiling. For instance, Tamil films had become more prominent in the city than Kannada ones. There were accusations that these movies depicted the Kannada people unfavorably, and demands arose that cinemas showing Tamil movies be shut down. In the following decades, tensions would worsen with the outbreak of other disputes, such as the sharing of the waters of the Kaveri River between the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

But in the Church, while the issue was bubbling under the surface, it did not really come to the fore while Lourdusamy was archbishop. Many older priests and laypeople I spoke to who recall those days share the opinion that despite seeming to favor Tamils, Lourdusamy commanded considerable authority and trust.

The real problems erupted only with the advent of his successor.

Brandon Vaidyanathan
Brandon Vaidyanathan Chair of the Department of Sociology at the Catholic University of America. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Notre Dame in 2014. He has researched and worked on the cultural dimensions of institutions in South Asia with his work being published in journals such as Business and Society and the Journal of American Academy and Religion.

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