Cardinal Vithayathil, major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, is one of the five cardinals who sent a letter in January inviting prelates worldwide to join them in petitioning Benedict XVI to declare a fifth Marian dogma they said would "proclaim the full Christian truth about Mary."
The text includes the petition that asks the Pope to proclaim Mary as "the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, the co-redemptrix with Jesus the redeemer, mediatrix of all graces with Jesus the one mediator, and advocate with Jesus Christ on behalf of the human race."
In this interview with ZENIT, Cardinal Vithayathil, who turns 81 on May 29, comments on the effect the proclamation of the dogma could have on interreligious and ecumenical dialogue, and the possible fruits he foresees could result.
The Syro-Malabar Church is made up of about 3.5 million of India's 16 million Catholics.
Q: Does the Syro-Malabar rite have a particularly generous devotion to Our Lady?
Cardinal Vithayathil: Yes, the Syro-Malabar Catholics have a great tradition of intense devotion to Our Lady. There is a belief among them that the apostle St. Thomas who first preached the Gospel to their ancestors had brought with him a replica of the picture of the Blessed Virgin supposedly painted by the Evangelist Luke. Centuries before the Portuguese missionaries arrived, there were many churches dedicated to Our Lady in Malabar.
It is true that some of the liturgical books brought down from Babylon by some of the Chaldean bishops contained certain Nestorian formulae, but these in no way lessened the Marian devotion of the Syro-Malabar Catholics who were never greatly concerned with the great theological and Christological disputes.
Pope John Paul II has asserted that the Syro-Malabar Catholics were never formally separated from the Sea of St. Peter during the 20 centuries of their existence.
During the three centuries that the Latin Carmelite bishops from Europe ruled the Syro-Malabar Church, there was a deepening of devotion to Our Lady among the Syro-Malabars. Practically every member of the community wore the brown Carmelite scapular and recited the family rosary everyday.
In the apostolic constitution "Romani Pontifices," which erected the Syro-Malabar hierarchy, Pope Pius XI gives as a reason for the flourishing of the community the singular devotion of the Syro-Malabar faithful toward the Blessed Virgin Mary ("Singularem erga Beatissimam Virginem Mariam pietatem").
I believe that this Marian devotion is the reason why today 70% of all missionaries in India are children of the Syro-Malabar Church, and this Church with a population of only 3.8 million faithful can ordain 250 priests every year.
Q: Why do you think that the time is opportune for the declaration of a fifth Marian dogma?
Cardinal Vithayathil: Mary has through private revelations like those at Lourdes, Fatima, etc., made known that in the sad situations of the world today God wishes as an antidote the glorification of his mother through the recitation of the holy rosary, devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, etc.
The fifth Marian dogma would certainly improve the world situation through the prayers of Mary to her divine Son. Many believe that the danger of Marxist Communism was averted by the apparitions of Mary at Lourdes, Fatima, etc., and the consequent increase in devotion to Mary.
The greatest threat that the Catholic Church faces today is consumerist relativism that has greatly affected the Western Church and even the Churches in Asia. I believe that it can be overcome by honoring Our Lady with the proposed dogma.
Q: The principal objection posed against the solemn definition of a fifth Marian dogma is the Church’s mission of ecumenism. Do you think this Marian declaration would hurt the ecumenical cause for the Church?
Cardinal Vithayathil: Not only will the solemn definition never hurt the ecumenical movement, but it will positively enhance it. I feel that it is God’s will that we should honor Our Lady in a special way at this juncture of world history. Only good can come out of doing God’s will. We should follow prudence born out of faith and not merely worldly prudence.
Almighty God is the Lord of history and he can always overcome the effects of disunity caused by human weakness. The Hindu communities in India are extremely open to the concept of "Mother," and they enthusiastically participate in the Marian devotions of the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Churches with whom we live together, already believe in this doctrine.
Q: As major archbishop of an Eastern Church, do you believe a new Marian dogma would hurt East-West relations, or distance our relationship with the Orthodox Church?
Cardinal Vithayathil: I can say that any honor given to Mary short of adoration given only to God will not cause any setback in Catholic-Orthodox relations because the contents of the proposed dogma is already part of the faith of the Orthodox Christians, though not dogmatically expressed. It may sour Catholic-Protestant relations, but Our Lady knows how to heal this.
The truth of the proposed definition is in a true sense derived from God’s choice of Mary as the mother of God and the mother of all human beings.
Q: What fruits do you foresee for the Church and the world coming from a solemn definition of Mary’s spiritual motherhood in her roles as co-redemptrix, mediatrix of all graces and advocate?
Cardinal Vithayathil: I foresee many fruits for the Church and the world as a result of the solemn definition of this dogma. It will bring more peace built on justice in the world. It will give a new spurt to evangelization. It will bring about greater devotion to Mary and confidence in her intercessory power.
It will make Catholics realize that just as Mary, through the merits of Jesus Christ, has become co-redemptrix, mediatrix of all graces and advocate for the whole human race, we too share in Mary’s threefold roles for the salvation of humankind.
Even though the content of the proposed definition is clearly taught by the Fathers and doctors of the Church, such as St. Alphonsus Liguori in his work “Glories of Mary,” an infallible definition by the Pope will help deepen the confidence of the people of God in Mary’s role as co-redemptrix, mediatrix of all graces and advocate.