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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Coconuts and Bishops

Ecumenical advances from the heart of India’s Bible Belt.

While coconuts are the mainstay of its local economy, there is a city in Kerala that is at the heart of what might be considered India’s Bible Belt.

“Kottayam is famous for coconuts and bishops,” says the Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop of Kottayam, Mar Kuriakose Kunnacherry (Mar is a Syriac word for Lord and is today used to denote a bishop).

Indian Christianity dates to the first century, when St. Thomas arrived on India’s southwestern shores and preached the Good News. The descendants of those who first embraced the faith are today known as Thomas Christians. But while sharing a common patrimony, Thomas Christians belong to a trio of traditions – Catholic, Orthodox and Reformed – and most have their own bishop.

This fractured Christian community reflects the subcontinent’s turbulent history and the influences of outsiders, particularly Middle Eastern and European.

Culturally and religiously diverse, Kerala has been spared the internecine violence affecting other states in India.

“All communities in Kerala are thrown together, so in daily life we don’t have problems with each other,” explains Varghese Baby, a lay member of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.

“Kerala is the most tolerant place in India, and here we live in peace and harmony. Compare this with the north, where sectarian violence is common.

“Here we are educated. In every nook and cranny people read the newspaper. We are aware of the whole world, even the common man. Kerala is a fertile place for any religion to flourish. Hospitality is a basic habit.”

Although there is an ecumenical movement among the Thomas Christian laity, Mar Kuriakose says, “the main obstacle to unity we face is the hierarchy.”

“But things are improving,” he adds. “We are understanding each other better.”

He also explains that while attempts to unify the Orthodox and Catholic churches have failed in the past, in the last 10 years there have been significant advances in dialogue among all groups.

“An ecumenical shrine dedicated to St. Thomas has been built at Nilackal, the site of one of the churches established by the apostle,” the Bishop continues. “The government of Kerala donated four acres of land and the Holy See, through CNEWA, donated $100,000 to help us complete it.

“An ecumenical trust, made up of nine bishops belonging to four churches, runs the shrine, which also includes space for meetings, conferences and retreats.”

The bishops, using a common liturgy for the occasion, jointly consecrated the shrine.

“Nowhere else is there such a place for dialogue, retreat and prayer,” comments Ramban Theophorus, a priest of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. He describes the history of the church in India as painful, but concedes that “now there is friendship among all groups, especially among the bishops.”

While acknowledging occasional clashes between members of the two rival Orthodox churches, especially in northern Kerala, the priest admits these clashes are rarely violent.

“The early Indian Church had its roots in Africa and various parts of the Middle East, not just Antioch,” he explains. “In 1912 a significant portion of the Orthodox Church severed its ties to the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, establishing an independent Catholicosate of the East.”

While the two Orthodox churches (numbering some two million members) share the same rites and traditions, they are divided practically in half.

Ascending, the steps of his home, a barefoot Mar Clemis, the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Bishop of Chingavanam, sounds much more conciliatory than Father Theophorus.

“In spite of our division we get on very smoothly with the Catholicos of the East,” the Bishop says. “We meet often. Whenever there is an emergency we demonstrate a united front. We do not feel we are different now; we feel one.”

Mar Clemis has recently celebrated his fiftieth anniversary as bishop of the Orthodox Southist community, a Semitic people who trace their roots to a group of Christians from northern Mesopotamia who settled in India in the fourth century.

“We shouldn’t criticize; there’s so much to do. Why this quarrel?” he asks.

“We should love one another. I give my love to you; you give your love to me. We can talk about Jesus Christ without wounding others. We can talk about prayers for the dead; the intercession of saints. There is unity in diversity.”

The Bishop explains that with Jubilee 2000 it became possible, for the first time, for one bishop to walk into another bishop’s home and to march together publicly in the streets. “We are really practicing ecumenism,” he concludes.

But India is a patchwork of cultures, faiths and languages, and the number of opinions is just as varied.

Father Joseph Kochuthazham is the parish priest at the Syro-Malabar Catholic parish of St. John in Chingavanam. He says while members of his community are not involved in the inter-Orthodox dispute, they are affected by it.

“The faithful are in utter confusion,” he says. “It’s all power politics. This dispute is several decades old. Both Orthodox factions have gone to the maximum by involving the Indian Supreme Court.”

Despite this dispute, he still believes that relationships among the people are very cordial.

“The different groups mix better than they did 25 to 40 years ago. There used to be rivalry, but now I see a lot of intermarriage and cooperation.”

Outside Kottayam lies St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary, a Syro-Malabar Catholic facility for some 330 students. The rector, Father Thomas Srampickal, laments what he sees as a decline in ecumenism:

“This seminary was interdenominational until 1998; then it was divided, finalizing a process that had been going on for three decades. Today each church has its own seminary. The mutual understanding we once had in the old days is now lost.”

On the other hand, he points out, there is more external interaction with conferences, theological discussions, invitations to each other’s talks and use of each other’s libraries.

There is cordiality between priests, but Father Srampickal stresses, “as for ecumenism in the deep sense, nobody is really for that now.

“What is the ‘true church?’ Everyone thinks his is best.”

Archbishop Geevarghese Mar Athanasius leads the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, a church of some 900,000 members in union with the Anglican Communion preserving its Orthodox spirituality, liturgy and ethos.

“The Mar Thoma Church has an ecumenical relations committee, and I am the chairman,” the Archbishop says. “If there is a crisis, the bishops meet to make a timely response. We occasionally hold pastoral conferences among the different Thomas Christian groups.

“We had to symbolize the unique relationship among all churches, so the ecumenical chapel at Nilackal was built,” he adds. He also says the Young Men’s Christian Association organizes a week of prayer each November where they pray for church unity, evangelization in mission and for peoples of other faiths.

Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios is the head of the 400,000-strong Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. He currently chairs the Catholic bishops’ conference of India and has worked hard to promote understanding among the various churches.

“Ecumenism can only exist among Christians, whereas relations between Christians and other religions we must call interfaith dialogue. Relations between different Catholic churches we call communion,” he explains.

“All Catholics are members of one church. The Holy Father remains the symbol of unity, divinely instituted. Christ gave this power to Peter to unite all and we believe the Bishop of Rome is the successor to Peter; therefore we are under his jurisdiction.

“The Pope,” the Archbishop states, “remains the source of Christian unity.”

Of particular concern to leaders of those Catholic churches of the East are the suspicions held against them by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox.

“The Orthodox accuse us of embracing Rome for material gains,” Mar Baselios claims. “The Malankara Syrian tradition cannot be isolated from the principal Catholic tradition. It is a question of bringing the church to its fullness. We did not ‘join’ the Roman Church as such, but regained full communion with it. We embraced reunion not at the expense of our identity, but with the fullness of our identity.”

Despite past quarrels, the churches of Kerala are achieving new levels of mutual respect and understanding.

“Unity in diversity” is an expression commonly used, not only to describe relations among Thomas Christians of all varieties, but relations with other religious groups living in the area, particularly the Hindu majority.

Densely populated and fertile, with a literacy rate of 91 percent (compared to 65 percent for India as a whole), Kerala is learning to throw differences aside. It is the most socially progressive state in India and church institutions are largely responsible for creating this modern civil society.

In the land of coconuts and bishops, a united church will help further this social experiment.

Sean Sprague is a long-term contributor to CNEWA WORLD.

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