ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Spiritual Homecoming

The history of the small but dynamic Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in India.

On an unusually cool summer day in the Bronx, a group of Indian bishops and priests, clothed in cassocks of light peach and white, processed through the tranquil grounds of the College of Mount St. Vincent. Young women, wrapped in white, red and gold saris, bore offerings of flowers and fruit. Incense burned in brass lamps and brightly colored parasols were held aloft. Somewhere in the colorful procession, a crucifer carried a large ornate cross of polished silver and pewter.

“Only the elephants are missing,” observed Mrs. Kamini Desai Sanghvi as we watched the procession wind its way up a hill. “Other than that, this is a traditional Kerala procession.”

Mrs. Desai Sanghvi, our Program Administrator for India, Msgr. Robert L. Stern and I were attending the 10th anniversary celebration marking the establishment of the Syro-Malankara Catholic mission in North America.

The event celebrated the faith and ingenuity of an immigrant lay community committed to their Eastern Christian heritage in a land often hostile to tradition.

“Without people of faith,” one speaker noted later, “there is no need for priests and bishops.”

The immigration of Keralites to the United States may only be a 20-year-old phenomenon. But many American Catholics knew of the concerns of the Malankara Catholics long before they arrived on these shores.

The Lamp – a monthly publication founded in 1903 by the Rev. Paul Wattson, S.A. – kept thousands of its readers up to date on the missions, especially in India and Asia. And through his “Union That Nothing Be Lost,” a fund advertised in the publication, readers could send their support. Thousands of benefactors (including my great-grandmother) sent donations, large and small, to the missions via Father Paul, himself a convert from the Anglican faith.

It was The Lamp that in 1924 first introduced American Catholics to the plight of children in the Near East and the American Catholic agency founded to meet their needs, “the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.” Father Paul continued to use The Lamp as a fund-raising vehicle while serving as vice president of the new Association, which was canonically established by Pope Pius XI in 1926.

Meanwhile letters to Father Paul from India’s Catholic bishops described a pro-Rome movement in the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church (also called Jacobite). Many of these letters were published in The Lamp and prayers and gifts of support were sent to the leader of the movement, Mar Ivanios, Metropolitan Archbishop of Bethany.

While a Divinity professor in Calcutta, Mar Ivanios, then a deacon, began to lead a monastic life. With the help of a few English friends, he purchased property in Kerala and invited individuals who desired to live the monastic life to join him.

“The monks led a very regular life,” wrote Mar Augustine Kandathil, Archbishop of Ernakulam in Kerala, to Father Paul in the winter of 1930.

“They completely abstained from meat and fish and lived only on vegetables. They dressed in Hindu Sanyasi (Kavi) robes [the saffron garb of the Hindu holy man]. They were self-sacrificing, pious and learned, and devoted themselves to infusing some spiritual life in the Jacobite Church, which for centuries has been torn by all sorts of dissension and litigations.

“They were greatly esteemed by the people,” the Archbishop continued. “Mar Ivanios was telling me the other day that when he was a simple priest he sometimes spent the whole night hearing confessions.

“To raise the standard of female education, Mar Ivanios took some Jacobite girls to Barisol, Calcutta, and put them up with the High Church Protestant Sisters. In due course they returned to Malabar [Kerala] and started the Order of Bethany Sisters.

“Some of these are highly educated and hold university degrees. They conduct schools, maintain orphanages and have a press of their own, the Bethany Printing House at Tiruvalla. Mar Ivanios has been their chaplain all through.”

It was while in Calcutta that Mar Ivanios had his first contact with Catholics. The continual conflict that afflicted the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church paved the way for Mar Ivanios and several of his brother bishops to open negotiations for communion with Rome, provided that the Holy See recognize the validity of their orders and the right to preserve the Western Syrian liturgy and their dioceses.

On 20 September 1930, Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilos, Bishop of Tiruvalla, were received into the Catholic Church. Most of the Bethany monks and all of the Bethany sisters followed their lead. However the properties that the Bethany communities founded were lost and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church began penniless.

But Mar Ivanios’s reunion with Rome was a spiritual homecoming. To understand this situation, we must go back even further.

Christianity in India has existed since the first century, when St. Thomas the Apostle brought the Gospel to the Malabar coast. Until the 15th century, the Thomas Christians were isolated from the churches of Constantinople and Rome. They maintained contact with the Assyrian Church of the East, sharing the Qurbana, the Eastern Syriac liturgy that was developed by the Jewish-Christian community in Mesopotamia, the homeland of the Assyrians.

The arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century ended the isolation of these Thomas Christians, who welcomed the Portuguese as brothers in the faith. However the Portuguese established a Latin (Roman) hierarchy, which in 1599 suppressed the ancient Syriac liturgy and imposed Latin traditions and rites.

A number of Thomas Christians rejected these revisions and sought the protection of the Syrian Orthodox Church, severing their ties with Rome, and inadvertently with the Assyrians. (It is an interesting historical irony that the Syrians were the fifth-century Christological adversaries of the Assyrians.)

Mar Ivanios, the founder of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, was a descendant of those Thomas Christians who rejected the revisions imposed by the Portuguese.

Today’s Syro-Malankara Catholics are led by the dynamic Benedict Mar Gregorios, Metropolitan Archbishop of Trivandrum. This septuagenarian Archbishop, also a member of the Bethany community, guides a church that has grown from several thousand members when Mar Gregorios was appointed in 1955 to more than 300,000 people today.

Mar Gregorios has placed agricultural, developmental and social projects among his priorities, creating model farms, researching high-yielding crops and building schools and clinics. The Archbishop is particularly concerned about the well-being of young women, many of whom migrate to other areas of India, or go abroad, in search of employment. Mar Gregorios has established job-training centers and job-placement programs to encourage these women to remain in their native land. Our Association, following the example of its founders, has consistently supported many of these humanitarian programs.

The Archbishop’s pastoral endeavors include the building of St. Mary’s Malankara Seminary in 1983. For more than 50 years, Syro-Malankara seminarians were trained in Latin and Syro-Malabar Catholic seminaries. Although this has improved the often tense relations between India’s various Catholic churches, the lack of a Syro-Malankara seminary had inhibited the seminarians’ growth in the spiritual and liturgical traditions of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Since 1987, our Association has contributed significant sums to construct the seminary. But major donors are needed to fund the construction of a chapel, library and staff residence. We have also enrolled the seminarians in our Seminarian Sponsorship Program. As of this writing, 124 Syro-Malankara seminarians are sponsored by generous benefactors, yet more than 30 remain unsponsored.

Debates about the nature and value of Western European colonialism may seem pointless in North America – most North Americans are descendants of European immigrants. But in India, where an advanced Hindu civilization existed for thousands of years before the birth of Christ, anything that is remotely connected to the West is considered by many as an expression of Western imperialism.

Critics cite the presence of Christianity in India as an expression of this Western imperialism. However Christianity arrived from the Middle East 1,500 years before the arrival of the European colonial powers. All Thomas Christians are living witnesses to this ancient Indian Christianity.

“The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church is unique,” Mrs. Desai Sanghvi said during that beautiful autumn-like day in August. “The Syro-Malankara are authentically Indian; their rites and rituals, although Syrian in origin, have been influenced by Hindu religious and cultural practices for generations. The Syro-Malankara are authentically Orthodox; they practice the faith as did their predecessors and actively participate in rejuvenating their traditions. And they are authentically Catholic; the Syro-Malankara embrace their communion with Rome and their Catholic past.”

Michael J.L. La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East. Special thanks to the Archives of the Friars of the Atonement, Graymoor, N.Y.

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