CNEWA Connection: Christianity’s Deep Roots in India

When we think of the ancient religions of the Indian subcontinent, most people think of Hinduism and Buddhism. Some people more familiar with India’s religious traditions might add Jainism.

Few, however, would think of Christianity.

But India’s Christian roots are deep. At this moment, when this vast country is battling a devastating pandemic and hundreds of thousands of lives are being lost, great resources are being expended to try and stem a humanitarian crisis. It is good to remember our brothers and sisters there, whose relationship to Christianity predates that of Western Europe reaching the very first years of the church.

Since its earliest years, CNEWA has worked in southern India, where Christians claim the Apostle Thomas brought Christianity. Although it is very difficult to prove historically that the Apostle Thomas was in India, it is not at all impossible. 

Kochi, a city in the modern Indian state of Kerala, had several variations of its name over the centuries, including Hebrew. Kochi was a center of Judaism from ancient times. Some traditions trace the Jewish presence there to right after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C., and others to the period after the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70. In any case, Judaism has ancient, deep roots in southern India. 

Since we know that the earliest Christian missionaries sought out Jewish communities to whom they could preach the Good News of the Messiah, the risen Christ, it is possible that Christian preachers would have come to Kochi in the opening decades of Christianity.

With time, a vibrant Christian community also grew. Christians in India, called “Thomas Christians” and “Mar Thoma Nasrani,” were in communion with the Assyrian Church of the East. The missionary endeavors of the Church of the East brought Christianity to Central Asia, Tibet and China before it had arrived in Britain, Scandinavia and Slavic lands. By at least the eighth century, the leader of the Thomas Christians was a metropolitan of the Church of the East, then centered in Mesopotamia.

On 20 May 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived in southwestern India and, within six years, the Portuguese State of India was established. The Portuguese remained in control of much of southwest India until they were driven out 19 December 1961, some 14 years after India’s independence from Britain.

Archbishop Aboun Geervarghese Ivanios, a founding bishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India, stands amid a group of seminarians at Graymoor, the headquarters of the Friars of the Atonement.
Archbishop Aboun Geervarghese Ivanios, the founding bishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India, stands amid a group of seminarians at Graymoor, the headquarters of the Friars of the Atonement, founded by Father Paul Wattson. Father Wattson was also one of the founders of CNEWA. (photo: Graymoor Archives)

Portuguese rule was not favorable to the Thomas Christians. With only slight exaggeration, the Portuguese were familiar with only two types of Christians: Latin-rite Catholics and heretics/schismatics. The Jesuit Francis Xavier on 15 May 1546 asked King John III of Portugal to establish the Inquisition in India. It was set up in Goa. It sought to eradicate Hinduism and to insure the “orthodoxy” of the indigenous Christians. That “orthodoxy” all too often meant uniformity with and subjugation to the Latin rite.

The Inquisition, with all its Iberian ferocity, was established in the Archdiocese of Goa. On 20 June 1599, Archbishop Alexio de Menezes of Goa convoked the Synod of Diamper (or Udayamperoor Synod). One of the main purposes of the synod was the complete subjugation of the Thomas Christians to the Latin rite of the Portuguese overlords.

It is important to note that by 1599 Christianity in the West had experienced the Great Schism in 1054, and the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, with Martin Luther’s “Ninety-nine Theses.” From the fourth century on, Christianity in the West was racked by one schism after another — some smaller, some greater. That was not the case with the Thomas Christians until the arrival of Roman Catholicism in the 16th century.           

The attempts of the Synod of Diamper ultimately triggered a counter reaction, dividing the Thomas Christians into the several churches that exist today. “The Catholic Encyclopedia” of 1913, 50 years before the Second Vatican Council, notes: “The misguided zeal of Alexius de Menezes, archbishop of Goa, and his Portuguese advisers at the Synod of Diamper (1599) … spoiled the old Malabar rite.” 

After 50 years of subjugation and persecution, Thomas Christians revolted and, on 24 January 1563, took the Coonan Cross Oath. At this point, some remained Catholic while others left the Catholic Church and came into full communion with the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch as the Malankara Orthodox Church.

Diamper set in motion two movements among the Thomas Christians. They were “Puthenkoor” (New Allegiance)which includes those groups of Thomas Christians who chose not to be in communion with the church of Rome, and “Pazhayakoor” (Old Allegiance)those Thomas Christians who remained Catholic.

In all, at least seven churches sprung from the undivided, pre-Synod of Diamper Thomas Christians: two are Catholic and five are not. In 1887, Pope Leo XIII granted Syro-Malabar Christians independence from the Latin rite by establishing two apostolic vicariates. Thus, the churches granted their rightful status as churches sui juris are the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the more recent Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which came into full communion with Rome in 1930.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is the larger of the two indigenous Catholic churches in India and is, in fact, the second-largest Eastern Catholic church. It has been described as “Hindu in culture, Christian in religion, and Oriental in worship.” Together, both Indian churches make an important and valuable contribution to the catholicity of the church.

A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.

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