A Syro-Malankara priest educated by CNEWA seminarian sponsors. (photo: CNEWA files)
Some homes throughout the Malabar region are primitive. (photo: CNEWA files)
Education is a priority in the lives of Syro-Malankara Christians. (photo: Richard Walker)
When two Syro-Malankara bishops signed their profession of adhesion to the Catholic Church on September 20, 1930 they restored an ancient solidarity that had been severed 330 years before. The admittance of Jacobite bishops Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilus into communion with Rome reunited one of the oldest branches of Christianity with the Catholic Church.
The origins of the Syro-Malankara Church of India go back to the first century. According to tradition, St. Thomas brought the gospel to India in A.D. 52. He arrived at the town of Malankara and established a church there. Malankara is in an area along the southwestern Indian coast known as Malabar, or the Indian state of Kerala.
Between the fourth and ninth centuries immigrants from Mesopotamia (presentday Iraq) settled in Kerala. This church received its bishops from Bagdad and its liturgical language from Syria. When the Portuguese arrived in India at the end of the 15th century they discovered a thriving, united community of 100,000 Christians.
People lived in timber and thatched huts clustered close to lakes, rivers and the sea which provided them with transportation and sustenance.
Except for their religious faith, the Christians in Malabar lived much like their neighbors. They fished, grew rice and gathered coconuts from the palm trees. Men dressed in dhoti, a shirt-like cloth, while women were clad ankle to neck in white.
In many traditional Christian ceremonies the influence of local culture can still be seen in Malankara practice. Dowries are given at weddings and horoscopes are cast at the time of birth. But unlike Hindu children, the first words whispered in a babys ear are Moron Yesu Masiha (Jesus Christ is Lord).
At the time of the Portuguese arrival Malabar was a region of many crosscurrents. A number of people were traders with the Arab world. There were long-established colonies of Zoroastrians, Hindus, Muslims and Jews in the town.
In this welter of conflicting beliefs, the Syrian Christians (called so because of their liturgical use of Syriac rather than an ethnic identification with Syria) held fast to their faith for more than a thousand years with only the scantiest of Christian contacts. Even the ease and heavy pull of assimilation to Hinduism failed to encroach significantly on the believers.
Unfortunately, there were divisive times ahead. The Portuguese were fiercely loyal to Rome and believed that the Indian Christians ought to be forced to accept submission to the Papal See. Such submission was instituted unilaterally in 1599.
This forceful act was repudiated in 1653 when several thousand Syrian Christians declared themselves outside the authority of the Catholic Church. Eventually many of these people returned to communion with Rome but about a third organized themselves as an independent Malankara church. Faithful to the old Eastern traditions and hostile to those of Rome, these Christians were known as the Jacobites because they requested and received a bishop from the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch. The Jacobites were founded by James (Jacob) Baradai, a bishop of Antioch in the 6th century. He taught that Christ had only a divine nature.
Reunion attempts were futile throughout the ensuing 330 years. At a synod of Jacobite bishops in 1925 Mar Ivanios was instructed to open correspondence with the Church of Rome with a view to explore the avenues for ending schisms so far as Malabar was concerned.
There were a number of divisions within the Jacobites and Mar Ivanios believed the only hope lay in reunion with the Catholic Church. Rome was slow in responding and members of the Jacobite congregation had second thoughts about reunion. Mar Ivanios faced such opposition that he was forced to live in exile. Area bishops were impressed with his single-mindedness and they took up his cause with Rome. A few days after his exile he learned that Rome would receive him into Catholic communion. A brief ceremony was performed and one of the greatest reunion movements of the 20th century took place. Mar Ivanios was then named the first metropolitan of the church.
After centuries of resistance, a great deal of translation work was done to produce liturgies which included both Syriac and the local language, Malayalam.
Distinct emphasis in Keralan Christianity includes the predominant use of crosses; priests carry carved hand crosses and the sign of the cross is used repeatedly in everyday settings.
From its beginning, when 13 priests and families followed Mar Ivanios back into Catholic unity, the Syro-Malankara Church continued to grow.
At the time of Ivanios death in 1953 the community boasted 90,000 faithful and more than 170 priests. Today there are more than 300 clergy (all nationals) and nearly as many congregations. The total community is in excess of 200,000.
Kerala has one of the highest literacy rates in India and many Syro-Malankara Catholics are in positions of educational and governmental responsibility.
The Syro-Malankara church, whose clerical hierarchy was established by Rome a scant 50 years ago, has been an active witness of Christ at work in His people producing influence which can be felt beyond the walls of His church.
Daniel Gabriel, a freelance author, currently lives in Wales, Great Britain.