One of my most vivid and haunting memories of Kerala is being awakened in Mananthavady just before dawn by the mixed sounds of prayer echoing across the dark, tropical hills the tinkling bells of the Hindu temple, the muezzins call to the faithful of Islam and the Christian morning Angelus.
Somehow the chants and music were neither clashing nor competitive, but formed a beautiful harmony of praise of the one Lord of all.
This harmony amid diversity is characteristic of Indias ancient culture at its best, and it is the heritage of the Church of India as well.
Indias Christianity is a blend of the ways of the West first brought by the Portuguese in 1498 and later by the British with the ancient traditions of the churches of eastern and western Syria, all grafted onto the planting of St. Thomas the Apostle.
The part of the Indian Christian community in full union with the universal Church since apostolic times is the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Its unique and special identity long suppressed, it has begun to flourish, with its restored autonomy, only during the last century.
Now it offers a marvelous diversity of theological ideas, pastoral actions, liturgical practices and developmental initiatives. Its hierarchy is composed of a wonderful collection of talented and spiritual bishops, each with his own special gifts and charisms.
A few months ago the Holy Father created two more Syro-Malabar archdioceses. The now four archbishops typify the diverse gifts of that church:
Mar George Valiamattam of Tellicherry, 57, the youngest and bishop for only seven years, quietly and competently leads Keralas northernmost diocese.
Mar Joseph Kundukulam, 88, Trichurs bishop for 25 years, is famed for his loving concern for the poorest and neediest.
Mar Joseph Powathil of Changanacherry, 65, spearheads the liturgical renewal of the Syro-Malabar Church with a mixture of scholarly expertise and pastoral zeal.
Antony Cardinal Padiyara, 74, Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, gently guides his metropolitan diocese and the entire Syro-Malabar Church.
Some bishops head missionary dioceses in Indias heartland and northern states. With ingenuity and creativity they find ways of translating the Gospel message to the languages and cultures of people who have never heard of Jesus.
Others tackle the challenge of pastoral care of migrant Syro-Malabar Christians who live far from home and are sometimes lost in great urban centers like Bombay.
Their church offers a dazzling diversity of ways of evangelizing, educating, training leaders, praying, organizing communities and acting in society.
Some misconstrue this almost competition of enthusiasms and pastoral creativities as conflict. Really, like the soft sounds of Mananthavadys dawn, it is at its best a beautiful harmony amid diversity in praise of the one Lord of all.
Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA