Father Sunny Mathew delivers a homily in Most Holy Trinity Church in Yonkers, New York. (photo: George Kurian)
In Yabroud, Syria, extremist rebels defaced the icons of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady. (photo: Courtesy Jesuit Refugee Service )
Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena teach displaced children in Erbil, Iraq. (photo: Raed Rafei)
A Syriac monk holds the traditional Syriac communion bread, which is divided into 12 sections representing the apostles. (photo: Karen Lagerquist)
The Holy Family Chaldean Catholic Mission celebrates the Divine Liturgy in a Roman Catholic church in Phoenix, Arizona. (photo: Nancy Wiechec)
For the Rev. Sunny Mathew, leading a Syro-Malankara Catholic parish in the suburbs of New York City involves more than administration — a lot more.
His duties do not end at managing a staff, maintaining a building or even scheduling the liturgies for his small flock of about 300 people. To the soft-spoken priest from southern India, the role of pastor also demands a fundamental focus on continuity — on helping to write another chapter in the history of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
“The Malankara Catholic liturgy is basically the Antiochene liturgy,” he says, explaining that the Antiochene liturgy is among the oldest liturgies of the church, dating to the time of the apostle, St. James the Less, for whom the liturgy is named. “And we still keep the purity and originality of that liturgy.”
This heritage has buoyed his small parish for decades, as the faithful met in various schools around the metropolitan area while trying to find a permanent home.
In the spring of 2016, the search ended when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York turned over to the Syro-Malankara Church a parish in Yonkers that had been closed. Father Mathew’s flock now has a real church to call home, reinforcing what the priest calls the Syro-Malankara sense of family.
“It is a small church,” the 43-year-old priest says of the worldwide Syro-Malankara community. “We still live like one family. We are almost 500,000 members now. And we all feel like we belong to one family, one church. Our major archbishop knows each priest by name. He knows almost everyone in every parish, where each priest works. This is the kind of family atmosphere we have in our church,” he says.
He pauses to measure his words. “‘Small’ has its own beauty,” he explains. “That is the blessedness we enjoy.”
Along with its small size, Father Mathew says his church enjoys a pervasive sense of the sacred. It touches every aspect of life.
“Our day-to-day life and the liturgical life and our faith, these are all very much linked together,” he says. “Every aspect of the life of an individual is connected to the liturgy of our church. When a child is born, the priest has to witness the child and the mother. When the child is first brought to the church, the first time, there is a special blessing, a special prayer. When someone starts constructing a house, the first stone, the first work, must be inaugurated by the priest with a prayer.”
In this way, the traditions and practices of the faith are carried on.
“The whole life is regulated by sacraments,” he emphasizes. “The presence of the church is important. That means the particular way that we live our faith, it can be seen all through the life of the individual.”
Certainly, Father Mathew has seen this for himself — and it has had a profound effect on his own life.
The youngest of seven children born and reared in a devout Anglican family in Tamil Nadu, India, Father Mathew had long felt the stirrings of a religious vocation. His life took a different turn when he attended a high school run by Carmelite sisters.
“The Carmelites influenced me a lot,” he recalls. “That led me to the Malankara Catholic Church. When I joined the seminary, I knew nothing about the difference between the communities. But I felt drawn to the priesthood.
“All the priests I met were very hard workers. Night and day, they used to work for the parish. They felt one with the community. That was what attracted me. It was not an ‘office’ type of priesthood. It was a priesthood that demanded they spend their whole lives for the people, and they did. That attracted me.”
After ordination, he traveled to Rome to study canon law. In 2010, after receiving his doctorate, one of his professors asked if he would be interested in relocating to the United States, where a jurisdiction for the Syro-Malankara Church had been established. Father Mathew eagerly agreed, and arrived in New York in 2011. Despite the great distance, he remains today deeply connected to the church in his homeland and the difficulties Christians there are facing.
“Hindu nationalism is a big challenge,” he says. “The vast majority of Hindus are peaceful people. They respect our religion. In India, almost 80 percent are Hindus, with Christians only 2 or 3 percent. Our bishops try to initiate dialogue with Hindus. Our intention is to make India a better place for everybody.”
Another concern, he says, is being able to spread the Gospel to other parts of India. The Syro-Malankara Church has jurisdiction to preach all over India, rather than just in the south. And “that is a blessing,” Father Mathew says. “It is an opportunity. We can do a lot of work in other parts of India.”
Yet, it is work pursued by a relative few — both in India and around the world.
“Our parishes are very small,” he emphasizes. “This means our parishes are not financially independent or stable. Some cannot even support a priest.” In fact, to support himself, in addition to running his parish in Yonkers, Father Mathew works as a canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of New York.
Despite some of the daunting challenges, he remains optimistic about the future of his flock.
“We focus on families,” he says. “Our parents have a good hold on our youngsters and we try to reach out to the youngsters through the parents. Secondly, we have started numerous programs to educate our youth about the uniqueness of our liturgy, our traditions, our calling.
“Some of our youngsters feel drawn to big churches with many people, with more facilities we are not able to provide for them,” he says. “Our challenge now is to educate them. They have a unique vocation in the Catholic Church: to live to witness to our liturgy and to be witnesses of what it means to be Malankara Catholic in a different context, outside of India.”
Father Mathew knows that the next generation will continue the work of those who came before. What germinated some 2,000 years ago in the ancient soil of Antioch has spread to India and is continuing today in places as distinctive as Yonkers, New York.
In this way, the Syro-Malankara Church works to write its next chapter — and that of the historical Church of Antioch to which it belongs.
“We witness to the most ancient liturgical and apostolic tradition in the church,” he says. “This is our vocation in the Catholic Church.”
Greg Kandra is CNEWA’s multimedia editor and serves as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.