Religion and Culture: Indian Catholics balance tradition and modernity

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A high-ranking bishop in the Syro-Malabar Church — which follows an East Syrian rite of Catholicism — Mar Bosco Puthur arrived in San Fernando this winter bringing prayers for the sick, the poor, the young men and the virgins. And Justin Bieber.

“He’s worth $10 billion, but what is its use?” asked Bishop Puthur to the crowd of 200 crammed into St. Alphonsa Syro-Malabar Church.

“He’s on the way to self-destruction. Let’s pray that that boy comes to the right track.”

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One parishioner joked afterward that Miley Cyrus was next up on the prayer roll. But in this church, borrowing subject matter from the gossip column isn’t a vain attempt at being vogue.

One of the major challenges facing this parish, which comprises mostly first-generation immigrants from Southern India, is holding onto both India’s culture and language amid the attractions of modern American life.

It’s a dilemma that immigrant communities face regardless of race or creed: How much should one assimilate? And what practices and customs should be upheld?

At St. Alphonsa’s, which formally became a mission in 2001, these questions of cultural preservation have one focus: the growing numbers of American-born youth.

In California, there are four Syro-Malabar parishes, whose membership totals more than 500 families, according to the Diocese of St. Thomas, which covers all Syro-Malabar churches in North America.

Choosing to belong to St. Alphonsa’s necessitates “an element of nostalgia," said Sony Arakkal, one of the two trustees elected to help run the parish.

Syro-Malabars follow an East Syrian rite of Catholicism. Parishioners may attend Roman Catholic masses offered in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example. But those services differ from those in their home churches or those offered in India, where the music is traditional, vestments are colorful and the priest barefoot.

“My kids need to lead the life I see back in India,” said Shanji Mattappally, a father of three and a parish elder. “There’s a tradition I want to pass onto my children.”

Republic Day visit

On the Sunday of Bishop Puthur’s visit — Republic Day in India — the altar of St Alphonsa's is decorated with the colors of the Indian flag: orange, white and green. Marigolds, a staple flower of Indian national celebrations, adorn the church’s sanctuary. And the procession welcoming Bishop Puthur includes the beating of traditional chenda drums and the waving of yellow and magenta umbrellas – customs common to Kerala, a state in southwest India from which most Syro-Malabars hail.

Aside from offering the homeland’s rituals, St. Alphonsa offers followers a way to connect with fellow speakers of Malayalam, Kerala’s dominant tongue. But many, especially kids, have difficulty understanding Malayalam.

"It is hard," concedes Father Kuriakose Vadana, who has worked as a pastor at the church for just over two years. "The seniors find truer feeling in mass in Malayalam. But the children may not feel the spirit. English is their mother tongue.”

To speak to older parishioners while keeping the youth engaged, Vadana alternates line readings between English and Malayalam. A bilingual missalette in the pews simultaneously translates. (The Syro-Malabar diocese for North America has also released an Android app with prayers, Bible readings and Church information in both Malayalam and English.)

The church could offer masses entirely in Malayalam or English. But St. Alphonsa's church has limited space, and Vadana has limited time: He also manages Syro-Malabar masses in Bakersfield and Las Vegas, traveling to those cities every other week.

Even so, Vadana is hopeful that the present state of affairs isn’t permanent. “We will build more space,” he says, clutching a check that a parishioner slipped him with a handshake after mass. “Somehow.”

To bridge the divide between generations — and foster an environment friendlier to families — the parish has added a basketball team, and Vadana awards trophies to students who score well in catechism classes.

The parish has even developed “family units,” cohorts that take on responsibilities such as cooking post-worship meals and holding a Halloween costume contest in which the costumes are inspired by Christian saints.

Bishop Puthur also has this advice for young parishioners: “I ask my dear boys and girls not to imitate Justin Bieber.”

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This spring, students will report and write on Southern California's Indian community and travel to Pune and Mumbai in March, where they will cover religion, economics and politics.

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