I met an American Catholic priest a few weeks ago who had grown up Presbyterian. When he decided to enter the Catholic Church, he joined the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. He is the first diocesan priest of the missionary Syro-Malabar diocese of Rajkot in Indias Gujarat state.
Perhaps you might be thinking, Shouldnt a Presbyterian who wants to become a Catholic join the Roman Catholic Church? How can he join the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church?
You may even have a more subtle question in mind, Why does the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church have a missionary diocese? Isnt missionary work the job of the Roman Catholic Church?
Even though missionary work has a fairly modern ring to it, it refers to the perennial outreach of the church to spread the Good News throughout the world, to all places, peoples and times.
From the days when the apostles traveled from Iberia to India, Christians have sought to share the good they possess with those who do not know of it. Sometimes this has a political dimension as well. When Christian countries promoted the spread of Christianity, it often included colonial expansion.
Ancient Persian resistance to Byzantium was, in part, resistance to Christianity, the imperial state religion. When Spain and Portugal settled the New World, conquest and conversion went hand in hand.
European colonialism also brought Christianity to many parts of Africa, but it is only in the present day that African Christianity is beginning to lose its European associations.
Indians still think of Christianity as a Western religion because of the British Raj and the Portuguese before them even though St. Thomas brought the Gospel to India in the first century.
There is still a little bit of that European colonial mentality clouding thinking about the mission of the church and about its work of evangelization.
That modern colonial expansion was begun by Western European countries, traditionally Roman Catholic, does not mean missionary outreach is an exclusive prerogative of the Roman Catholic Church.
Every part of the one church of Christ has an obligation to spread the faith. The Catholic family of churches includes the Western and 21 Eastern churches. Just as there are many churches, there are many missionary works. We each try to share what we have and know best.
The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome supports the work of the church in mission countries but, with the possible exceptions of Ethiopia, Eritrea and India, the support is usually perceived as support for the outreach of the Roman Catholic Church.
So, it is understandable to be surprised to hear about an American Presbyterian who decided to become a Syro-Malabar Catholic missionary priest. His choice and his life challenge our thinking.
The Gospel is not constrained by any one country or branch of the church.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA