An ecclesiastical Cinderella story just came to its happy ending on 29 January. On that day, the good news was published that the Holy Father had raised the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church to the rank of a major archiepiscopal church.
To a what? you may be thinking, Whats so significant about that?
According to the new Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, an Eastern Catholic church is headed by either a patriarch or a major archbishop. However when the code went into effect on 1 Oct. 1991, of all the apostolic Eastern churches, only the Syro-Malabar Church did not have a head.
Of course, the situation was not always like that, and therein hangs the tale:
In 52 A.D. the apostle Thomas came to Kodungallur on the Malabar (Kerala) coast. After 20 years of preaching the gospel in southern India, he was martyred at Mailapur, near Madras.
The families converted by Thomas in Kerala formed seven churches or villages. For centuries their descendants were in full communion with the Eastern Syrian patriarch, who named a Metropolitan of All India for their pastoral care.
This metropolitan and other bishops visited Kerala from time to time, but the permanent administrative head of the church in Kerala, proxy for the metropolitan, was an archdeacon.
When the Portuguese came in 1498, they found this ancient Christian community, isolated from Rome for centuries but never out of communion with it.
Misunderstanding its legitimacy, the Portuguese bishops began to Latinize this venerable church, changing its liturgy, vesture, customs and laws.
By 1587, when the last Eastern Syrian metropolitan died, the Malabar church was totally ruled by Portuguese bishops.
The growing frustration and discontent of priests and people with the bishops culminated in the rejection of their authority in 1653. The pope sent Carmelite friars to seek a reconciliation.
Most of the Malabar Christians returned to full communion with Rome under Latin-rite Carmelite bishops. Others broke away and later became affiliated with the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.
Not until 1887 were special ecclesiastical jurisdictions created for the Syro-Malabar faithful, as they were now called, under their own Syro-Malabar bishops.
In 1923 Pope Pius XI instituted a Syro-Malabar hierarchy with an archdiocese and three suffragan dioceses. The church continued to grow, and in 1956 a second archdiocese was created.
Now this ancient and apostolic Indian church is finally recognized for what it is and restored to its full dignity. Its new head is Antony Cardinal Padiyara, Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
Temporarily, the Holy Father has reserved its pastoral governance to himself, appointing a special Pontifical Delegate, Archbishop Abraham Kattumana, to exercise his authority.
I invite you to join us in giving thanks to Almighty God for his great mercies for this Church, writes Cardinal Padiyara. Amen!
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA