The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

During the 18th century there were no less than four formal attempts to reconcile the Catholic and Malankara Orthodox Syrian Churches, all of which failed.

In 1926, a group of five Malankara Orthodox Syrian bishops who were opposed to the jurisdiction of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch in India commissioned one of their own number, Mar Ivanios, to open negotiations with Rome with a view to reconciliation. They asked only that their liturgy be preserved and that the bishops be allowed to retain their dioceses. After discussions, Rome required only that the bishops make a profession of faith and that their baptisms and ordinations be proven valid in each case.

In the event, only two of the five bishops accepted the new arrangement with Rome, including Mar Ivanios. These two bishops, a priest, a deacon and a layman were received into the Catholic Church together on September 20, 1930. Later in the 1930s two more bishops, from among those who had favored the jurisdiction of the Syrian Patriarch in India, were received into communion with Rome.

This triggered a significant movement of faithful into the new Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. By 1950 there were some 65,588 faithful, in 1960 112,478, and in 1970 183,490. There are now over 400,000 faithful in six dioceses, all of them in Kerala State, India.

St. Mary’s Malankara Major Seminary was founded at Trivandrum in 1983. The foundation stone of a new building was blessed by Pope John Paul II in 1986, and it was completed in 1989. The great majority of Syro-Malankara candidates for priesthood are trained here, although a few are sent to other seminaries in Kerala or abroad.

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church sponsors a large number of educational institutions in Kerala. Mar Ivanios College in Trivandrum was founded in 1949 by Mar Ivanios himself as an agricultural university. It now provides a wide range of academic programs and has about 2,000 students, mostly from the Syro-Malankara Catholic community.

This church has also promoted the ecumenical movement in India. The diocese of Tiruvalla sponsors the St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute in Kottayam, which brings together Catholic and Orthodox scholars of the Syriac tradition in India to study their common liturgical heritage and patrimony.

The oldest monastic community in the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church is known as the Bethany Ashram, or the Order of the Imitation of Christ. It was founded in 1919 by Mar Ivanios when he was still a Malankara Orthodox priest, and most of its members followed him into the Catholic Church. The founder’s aim was to combine Eastern Christian monasticism with Indian ascetic practices. The members are to lead an austere common life marked by prayer and solitude, wear the saffron habit, and eat only vegetarian food. After the community became Catholic in 1930, it became a focus of the unity movement, but has since diversified its activities. The order was raised to pontifical status in 1966, and in 2000 it divided into two provinces. By 2006 the order had 104 priests and ten brothers.

Another interesting example of religious life in this church is the Kurisumala Ashram. Founded by Frs Francis Mahieu and Bede Griffiths in 1958, the community worships according to the Syro-Malankara tradition, and combines a strict observance of the Cistercian Benedictine rule with Hindu ascetical practices. The ashram, which has about 20 monks, has become a spiritual center for Christians and Hindus alike. Since 1998 it has been a daughter house of the Cistercian community at Tarrawarra Abbey near Melbourne, Australia.

There are two Syro-Malankara female religious communities. The Bethany Sisters, also known as the Sisterhood of the Imitation of Christ, now have 842 members, and were founded in 1919 as the female counterpart to the Bethany Ashram. The Congregation of the Daughters of Mary was founded in 1938, and is primarily involved in mission work.

On February 10, 2005, Pope John Paul II raised the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church to the rank of Major Archepiscopal Church. A sixth Syro-Malankara diocese in India was created in 2007, and two more in 2010. The church is now served by about 600 priests, 230 male religious and 1,694 women religious.

Father Daniel Kulangara is special pastor and coordinator of the Syro Malankara Catholic Church in the United Kingdom (98 Manford Way, Hainult, Chigwell, IG7 4DF). Altogether there are 14 mission centers in the UK and Ireland.

In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI created an Apostolic Exarchate for Syro-Malankara Catholics in the United States and named Bishop Thomas Eusebius Naickamparambil as the first Exarch (1500 De Paul Street, Elmont, NY 11003). It has 14 parishes served by 16 priests. Mar Eusebius is also apostolic visitator to Canada and Europe.

Location: Kerala State, India
Head: Major Archbishop Baselios Cleemis Cardinal Thottunkal (born 1959, elected 2007, cardinal 2012)
Title: Major Archbishop of Trivandrum of the Syro-Malankars
Residence: Trivandrum, Kerala State, India
Membership: 445,000

Last Modified: 05 August 2015

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