Authority, Community & Identity article

Which Language, Whose Vernacular?: Vatican II and Liturgical Politics in Bangalore (Part 2)

Blame It on the Bishops?

In 1971, Archbishop Lourdusamy was appointed the Joint Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, and was whisked off to Rome. His successor, installed about a year later, was Packiam Arockiaswamy.

The first strike against him was that he was Tamil. He was literally brought in from Tamil Nadu, where he had served as Bishop of Ooty. The short biography introducing him to the Archdiocese, however, mentions him as hailing “from an ancient Kannadiga family which migrated from Mysore to the neighboring Kanarese [i.e., Kannada-speaking] area of present Tamil Nadu.” Also, in his letter accepting this new position, he noted, “Though I am coming from outside the Archdiocese, I am not a complete stranger to you,” since he underwent his clerical training in Bangalore. Curiously, hardly anyone remembers or even seems to be aware of this background; it seems that he left the impression only of having been a Tamilian.

The second problem was his wavering and indecisive behavior on the language issue. One retired priest I spoke to called him “a man with no vision”; another said he had “no spine.” Arockiaswamy was unable to command the authority of his predecessor. In the judgment of Fr. Anthony Simo, a historian who compiled a two-volume history of the Archdiocese — and this is one rare occasion in which he introduces his own voice, since the volumes contain mostly primary materials such as circulars — Arockiaswamy “proved to be the man that should have never been in Bangalore as Archbishop.”

Such criticisms notwithstanding, many admit that he was a pious man who was easily able to empathize with people. Perhaps this quality prevented him from making a firm decision on the language issue. As Simo notes, “the pressure on him [made] him tilt this way and that just to accommodate [these] demands…. And once this hesitation was realised as a part of the man, the pressure became the stronger.” Under pressure from Kannada priests, Arockiaswamy decreed that Kannada would be “progressively given more prominence.” But Tamil diocesan priests were unhappy with this and pushed back, effectively creating a stalemate.

The early 1980s saw the emergence of Kannada Catholic associations for priests and laity. These associations began to voice complaints about the neglect of the Kannada-speaking community, including a lack of Kannada-speaking catechists and priests as well as a lack of representation among bishops in the Archdiocese. As historian Janaki Nair notes, less than half of parishes at the time had Kannada masses available, while Tamil and English services were available daily in most parishes. Some even claimed that Kannada-speaking seminarians and aspiring religious were discriminated against in the selection process.

Feeling that they lacked sufficient voice, the group, headed mainly by a group of twelve priests, is said to have joined hands with the broader “Hindu fundamentalist” wing of the Kannada movement that was gaining ground in the state. The concerns of these Catholic Kannada priests were then amplified in local newspapers by Hindu Kannada activist writers, who criticized the Church for its imposition of Tamil. Meanwhile, a vocal Tamil faction of priests and laity emerged, which expressed outrage at these demands and insisted instead on more Tamil Masses for parishes with a Tamil-speaking majority.

Mounting tensions eventually gave way to violence. In 1981, members of the Kannada nationalist coalition — including priests, apparently — disrupted the Chrism Mass at the St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Bangalore, which was a Tamil-majority parish and the seat of the Archbishop, and even attacked Archbishop Arockiaswamy. They also attacked another church with a Tamil-majority congregation, demanding the liturgy be celebrated in Kannada.

The shaken archbishop appealed to Rome for help, and in the interim, issued a circular declaring that “Kannada being the regional language of the State, there shall be a Mass said in Kannada in every church.” Further, for occasions that might require Mass to be celebrated in more than one language, he proposed a three-language formula of Kannada, Tamil, and English, with Kannada given prominence in the first part of the Mass as well as the homily.  This hasty response would prove to be problematic, as would the response from Rome and the attempts to resolve the conflict by Arockiaswamy’s successor.

Failed Solutions

Rome’s response was to tackle the issue by way of an Episcopal Commission consisting of three bishops from north India. Their concluding report, published in December 1982, recognized that Kannada Catholics have felt themselves a suppressed minority in their own state. But it also emphasized that the criterion that should determine language-use was “the fuller and more active participation by all the people,” and this would require “a sense of realism and fair-play” “in such a cosmopolitan city like Bangalore.” This meant that “the Parish Priest in consultation with the Parish Council and Parishioners would be the best body to decide the language to be used” in the liturgy in the parish. However, in most churches, parish councils were not yet in place. So, the report concluded, somebody besides the Archbishop needed to make decisions about language-use in different liturgical celebrations. For this, his Vicar General, Msgr. Colaco, was appointed.

This seems to have failed to satisfy the nationalists too, since a few months later, in March 1983, Arockiaswamy seems to change his mind again, declaring in another circular, “The policy of the Archdiocese of Bangalore is to make Kannada the principal language of its liturgical worship within five years or even earlier,” even though it may not be the mother tongue of the majority. But several Tamil Catholics, dismayed by this, took the issue to court. A little over a year later, the Archbishop announced that “[i]n view of the situation prevailing in the Archdiocese and for the good of the Church,” he was going on indefinite leave. Msgr. Colaco became interim administrator, but he took seriously ill about a year later. In 1986, Alphonsus Mathias was appointed archbishop.

Archbishop Mathias, in his attempt to resolve the language problem, issued a circular declaring that in light of the history of the controversy and the failure of previous attempts, canon law gave him the prerogative to lay down “liturgical regulations which are binding to all.” Specifically, he noted that because of the diversity in the archdiocese, “uniformity in the matter of liturgical worship cannot be enforced in respect of language… without detriment to the peace, unity, and spiritual growth of the people of God.” It was in this light, he argued, that his predecessor’s 1983 circular “ha[d] to be read and interpreted.” Given the seeming promise in that circular that the archdiocese’s official liturgical language would be made Kannada, it is not surprising that the nationalists would be outraged.

Archbishop Mathias furthermore reaffirmed the “three-language formula” that Archbishop Arockiaswamy and the Liturgical Committee had proposed for all Masses celebrated by the Archbishop at the diocesan level. The exception, however, would be midnight Masses at Christmas and Easter, which would be entirely in Kannada; earlier Masses could be in other languages. Soon after this circular was issued, around 1,500 religious priests and nuns assembled in the compound of the archbishop’s house in demonstration of their support. A headline in The New Leader announced in July 1989 that the “Row over Liturgical Language comes to an end in Bangalore church.”

This announcement of a resolution turned out to be premature. The nationalists could not stand such wavering and compromise, which is what seems to have motivated the attack on the Archbishop’s house in April 1990, mentioned at the beginning of Part 1. The first two demands in their printed manifesto, copies of which were strewn about the house during their visit, were for the implementation of Arockiaswamy’s March 1983 circular, and for all Good Friday and Easter Masses to be only in Kannada.

The next two points in their manifesto, however, reveal that the conflict was about more than language.

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.

One thought on “Which Language, Whose Vernacular?: Vatican II and Liturgical Politics in Bangalore (Part 2)

  1. Sir

    It is not the language issue in bangalore, they are using language as the tool, some priests who are at aim to capture the Archbishop seat, it is only a power struggle. It is purely a power struggle between the konkani and telugu speaking priests. Bangalore Archdiocese Catholic Population amounts to 3,50,000 members but no tamil speaking archbishop

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