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The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

For one day, a modest man in the teaming city of Trivandrum, capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala, was the center of much attention.

On 14 May 2005, dignitaries from around the world, led by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Patriarch Ignace Moussa Cardinal Daoud, converged on St. Mary Cathedral. There they celebrated the elevation of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church to the dignity of a major archiepiscopal church, a status that accords it more autonomy within the Catholic communion of churches. But they focused their energies on its self-effacing leader, Major Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios.

The archbishop, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of his episcopacy last year by building houses for the poor, is just the third leader of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. A noted scholar, ecumenist and pastor, Mar (a Syriac honorific for “Lord”) Baselios follows in the footsteps of two giants of the 20th-century universal church: Benedict Mar Gregorios, a gregarious man who guided the Syro-Malankara community from 1953 until his death in 1995; and Mar Ivanios, a visionary whose quest to reunify Kerala’s Christians led, in 1930, to the establishment of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Though the youngest of the 21 Eastern Catholic churches, the roots of this community stretch through nearly two millennia of Indian history and culture.

Apostolic origins. Until Portuguese explorers, merchants and fortune hunters arrived in southern India in the late 15th century, Kerala’s Christians flourished as a unified church. These “Thomas” Christians traced their faith to the evangelizing efforts of St. Thomas the Apostle, who is thought to have arrived on the shores of Kerala in the year 52, subsequently establishing seven faith communities.

Isolated from the development of the church west of Jerusalem – as well as the schismsand controversies that destroyed its unity – the heirs of St. Thomas were in communion with the Assyrian Church of the East, sharing its distinct Eastern Syrian liturgy and traditions. First developed by Mesopotamia’s Jewish-Christian community, who had also received the Gospel from Thomas, these customs were enhanced by Syriac-language scholars working independently of the churches of Rome and Byzantium.

Ties between Assyrian and Thomas Christians were strengthened by trade, the periodic immigration of Assyrian Christians to southern India and regular visits of Assyrian bishops to the subcontinent to ordain priests and deacons. In the eighth century the Assyrian catholicos-patriarch appointed a hierarch with the title of “Metropolitan and Gate of All India” to shepherd the Thomas Christians, though authority resided with an “Archdeacon of All India,” an Indian priest appointed by the metropolitan. Though not without its own internal conflicts, the Thomas Christian community was thoroughly integrated into the fabric of southern Indian society but remained Eastern Syrian in its religious heritage.

Encountering Europe and polarization. Southern India’s Thomas Christians welcomed the Portuguese explorers as companions in the faith, reaffirming their fidelity to the successors of St. Peter, the bishops of Rome, while retaining full communion with the Assyrian Church of the East. Such dual loyalties, however, were not possible in an ascendant Europe eager to dominate the world’s stage. Europe’s age of exploration coincided with the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic response and its subsequent Inquisition, the rise of the European nation-state and the European quest for empire.

Thomas’s heirs were unaware of these movements. They did not understand that, in a rapidly shrinking new world, fidelity to Peter and his heirs – despite the exhortations of the popes to the contrary – meant absolute conformity. As the Portuguese subdued the indigenous secular authority, so too did they subdue the authority of the local church. They “regularized” the ecclesial life of the Thomas Christians, creating Roman (or Latin) dioceses, replacing the Assyrian eucharistic liturgy (or Qurbana) with the Roman rite when opportune, or purged elements from the Qurbana assessed as heretical.

In 1599, Portuguese Archbishop Alexis de Menezes of Goa called a synod that, while not outright suppressing the Qurbana, imposed European bishops of the Roman rite as well as Roman doctrine, law, rubrics and disciplines, such as clerical celibacy.

The decrees of this Synod of Diamper polarized the Thomas Christian community and culminated with the historic Coonan Cross Oath in January 1653, when most Thomas Christians severed their ties to the Church of Rome and re-established the pre-Portuguese order.

Syrian ties renewed and further division. Through the pastoral diplomacy of the Carmelite friars, the papacy re-established full communion with the vast majority of Thomas Christians (the nucleus of the modern Syro-Malabar Catholic Church). A significant number, however, remained firm in their resolve for independence. Attempts to contact the Assyrian Church of the East (which had its own internal crises) failed. By 1665 those Thomas Christians separated from the Church of Rome had pledged fidelity to the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, in theory accepting the Christology and liturgical traditions (defined as Western Syrian) of the Syrian Orthodox Church. It took more than 200 years, however, for this “Malankara” church to become truly Western Syrian, as its Assyrian roots were firmly entrenched in the ethos of the community.

This Malankara Syrian Orthodox community, which formed an autonomous part of the Syrian Orthodox Church, suffered internal strife and, eventually, additional schisms. There were at least four unsuccessful attempts to re-establish full communion with the Church of Rome, while overtures to the Church of England resulted in the creation of a separate reformed church in the Western Syriantradition, the Mar Thoma Church. Additional internal battles over authority and autonomy led to the creation of a rival “Catholicosate of the East” in 1912, further fracturing the Thomas Christians.

Into this chaotic climate a giant of the 20th-century church – Gheevarghese (George) Panicker, better known as Mar Ivanios – was born.

Modern ecumenical advances. A scion of a prominent Malankara Syrian Orthodox family, the future archbishop, born in 1882, was singled out early as his community’s hope. He entered the seminary in Kottayam, received a graduate degree in economics in 1906 and later occupied the chair of Syriac, church history and political economy at Serampore University College, a Protestant institution in Calcutta.

Like his contemporaries, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) – whose writings inspired the young priest – Father Gheevarghese was preoccupied with the renewal of his community. He envisioned a monastic community for men and women that would integrate the monasticism of his own Syriac tradition with the essence of Hindu spirituality, or sunyasi, the process of leading an interior life. Deeply spiritual, he reasoned that a community dedicated to contemplation, social action and evangelization would spark renewal.

Eventually, Father Gheevarghese resigned his teaching post and returned to Kerala, founding the Bethany ashram (Sanskrit for a religious sanctuary) modeled on the Gospel account of Bethany. In an interview with this magazine in February 1998, one of the last surviving original members of the ashram, 94-year-old Father Raphael, described a “revolutionary” spirit at the monastery, which combined the asceticism of the Hindu monk with the social teachings of the church and a commitment to imitate Christ.

“Having taken the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience,” he recalled, “we Christian sunyami [monks]… led a simple, spiritual life. All were vegetarian, slept on the floor, ate from simple earthen pots, had only two sets of clothes, observed virtual silence and were at prayer five times a day.” On Sundays, the monks went into the community, preaching, counseling and consoling.

Facilities operated by Bethany community include:

-65 nursery schools

-100 lower and upper primary schools

-28 secondary schools

-3 university college

-1 teachers college

-several vocational training centers

The Bethany ashram stirred interest among the Malankara Syrian Orthodox faithful, who, according to observers, continuously sought the community’s counsel. As Bethany grew, so too did interest among the Thomas Christians in a “reunion movement,” which picked up steam particularly after Father Gheevarghese was consecrated bishop in May 1925. Choosing the name Ivanios, the new bishop immediately challenged the catholicos, bishops, priests and people of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church to “bring all the Syrian Christians of Kerala, who formed one church formerly, into true union once again so that the biblical idea of ‘one fold and one pastor’ may become a reality.”

Charged by the synod of the church, Mar Ivanios contacted the Holy See in 1926 about re-establishing full communion between the two churches, provided the Holy See recognize the validity of Malankara Syrian Orthodox orders, preserve its eparchial (diocesan) structures in India and the use of the Western Syrian liturgy.

Modern developments. In September 1930, Mar Ivanios, his brother bishop of Tiruvalla, Mar Theophilos, two Bethany monks and a layman entered into full communion with the Church of Rome. Eventually, the entire community of Bethany sisters (founded in 1925) affirmed their communion, but all became homeless as the properties of Bethany were retained by the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church.

Two years later, Pope Pius XI appointed Mar Ivanios as Metropolitan Archbishop of Trivandrum, with Mar Theophilos as suffragan bishop of Tiruvalla, thus establishing the youngest of the Eastern Catholic churches – the Syro-Malankara. This prompted a significant movement of the faithful into the new church, which, at the death of
Mar Ivanios in 1953, numbered more than 66,000 people.

Under the leadership of Benedict Mar Gregorios, the church grew even more rapidly. A renaissance man, Mar Gregorios spoke Malayalam and Tamil, the vernacular languages of his church community, as well as English, French, Italian, Latin, Portuguese and Syriac, the liturgical language of his church. He corresponded with academic societies throughout the world, collecting the latest research on plant life, agricultural techniques and the breeding of livestock and chickens.

Why would an archbishop run a farming cooperative?

“First we must go among our people, feed the poor, heal the sick, wipe away the tears of despair,” the archbishop said the year before his death in 1995, “and then preach the Kingdom of God.”

Today, some 405,000 people, most of them living in five eparchies in South India, belong to the church. A considerable number have also emigrated to other Indian states as well as North America and Europe.

In Kerala, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church is particularly active in education and health care. In addition to Mar Ivanios College in Trivandrum, the church runs an additional six colleges and 270 schools as well as 13 hospitals. The Bethany community’s Health for One Million program – founded by Mar Gregorios’s auxiliary, Mar Ephraem – takes health care to the masses, regardless of caste or creed, providing primary health care services to the poorest of the poor.

The dream of Mar Ivanios, to unite the Thomas Christian family, has not been abandoned. The St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute in Kottayam draws Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant scholars from around the world to study the common heritage of the Thomas Christian community.

Nurtured by Major Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios (whose outreach touches Roman and Syro-Malabar Catholics as well as the large numbers of Thomas Christians belonging to other jurisdictions), the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church continues to follow Christ in an Indian way, addressing the community’s problems and seeking solutions while pointing out the necessity of unity.

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