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The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church

In India’s deep south, an Eastern Christian community has flourished since ancient times. Originally a distinctive people united in faith, customs and caste, they are named for the Apostle Thomas, who according to tradition brought the Christian faith to the Malabar Coast of southwestern India after the ascension of Jesus. Today these Christians, all of whom belong to the East Syriac Christian tradition, are fragmented into seven churches. The largest, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, each year exports priests and religious to Europe and North America, where vocations to the priesthood and religious life languish even as the number of Catholics grows.

Apostolic roots. Though Indian Christianity has often been described as rooted in Western colonization, its presence dates almost 2,000 years.

According to the “Ramban Song,” an ancient Indian poem, St. Thomas arrived on the shores of the Malabar Coast (present-day Kerala) in A.D. 52. He preached the Gospel, received 32 Hindu Brahmin families into the Christian faith, founded seven churches and in A.D. 72 died a martyr’s death in Mylapore, Madras, where his tomb is venerated today. In another account, the “Acts of Thomas” describe St. Thomas’s work among India’s Jewish community, traders who lived in the lively ports of South India.

Christians and Hindus kept alive the memory of the “holy man,” chronicling the apostle’s deeds and the sites associated with his life and work. While losing their prominence in the highly stratified Hindu society of the south, Brahmin converts to Christianity received privileges and honors from local Hindu rulers. Descendants of these Thomas Christians, as well as those in Kerala who continue to enter the church, are today called “Northists.”

Scholars have long debated whether or not Thomas the Apostle founded the Church of India. Enough historical evidence — including archaeological finds validating the existence of first-century Jewish communities on the Malabar Coast — as well as the existence of contemporary accounts passed from generation to generation by Christians and Hindus indicate the likeliness of Thomas’s travels and deeds.

Persian reinforcements. According to tradition, the arrival of 72 Jewish Christian families from Mesopotamia to the port of Cranganore in A.D. 345 buttressed the faith of the apostle’s spiritual sons and daughters. Led by Thomas Knaniya — a merchant who belonged to the Church of the East, the church of Persian Mesopotamia founded by St. Thomas as he traveled East — these Jewish Christian families brought with them a bishop, Mar (a Syriac honorific for “Lord”) Joseph of Uraha, four priests and several deacons.

While Thomas Knaniya’s community prohibited intermarriage, forming a closed southern Indian community (today their descendants are known as “Knanaya” or “Southists”), their priests strengthened relations between the Church of the East and India’s Northist Christians. The catholicos- patriarch of the Church of the East — a community that adhered to the most ancient rites of the early church, known as East Syriac — regularly dispatched bishops to India to ordain priests and deacons and regulate ecclesial life.

In the fifth century, the Church of the East, which lay outside Christendom, cut itself off from the rest of the universal church. Synods of the Church of the East asserted the independence of their catholicos- patriarch and confirmed his primacy as “Catholicos of all the Orient” and equal to the sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch. In addition, the Church of the East gravitated to a Christology, coined “Nestorian” after the patriarch of Constantinople who championed it, condemned as heretical by the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431.

Today, most scholars and theologians cite political, linguistic and cultural reasons for this schism. For the church of southern India, however, this link to the “Nestorian” Church of the East would have grave consequences.

In the eighth century, the head of the Church of the East, Mar Timotheos I, Catholicos-Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, appointed a Mesopotamian cleric as “Metropolitan and Gate of All India.” Though this archbishop exercised considerable autonomy within the Church of the East, he usually did not speak the language of the people. Until the arrival of the Portuguese in Kerala at the end of the 15th century, real social and political power lay with the “Archdeacon of All India,” a dynastic office for native Indian clergy.

For more than 1,500 years, the Thomas Christians were fully integrated into South Indian society. While their traditions and liturgical practices reflected their Eastern Syriac roots, other elements of their spirituality and culture, such as the method of praying for the dead, revealed their Hindu cultural heritage.

Initial contacts with the West. The arrival of the Portuguese in May 1498 dramatically changed the lives of all on the subcontinent. When Vasco da Gama staked his claim for the king, he found not only silk and spices, gold and jewels, but a community who welcomed the Portuguese as companions in the Christian faith. But they worshiped in a manner unfamiliar to the explorers of Roman Catholic Iberia and claimed not the bishop of Rome as their head, but the catholicos-patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

To support his commercial interests and consolidate his real estate gains, the Portuguese king utilized the missionary zeal of several religious communities of the Latin (Roman) Church, including the Dominicans, Franciscans and Jesuits. The erection of the Latin Catholic Diocese of Goa in 1533 — which exercised jurisdiction over all of India’s Christians, thus denying the authentic authority, rights and privileges accorded to the leaders of the Thomas Christians — ushered in an age of turmoil.

Motivated by the spirit of the Inquisition and the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545–1563), the Portuguese clergy focused their attention on the Thomas Christians who, while affirming their Catholic faith, retained their ties to the Church of the East. The Portuguese identified fealty with uniformity, however, and demanded that the Thomas Christians abandon their East Syriac traditions for those of the Church of Rome.

The Synod of Diamper. In 1597, Mar Abraham, the last metropolitan archbishop appointed by the catholicos-patriarch, died. This void in leadership in India cleared the way for the Portuguese to impose their own customs, hierarchy, law, liturgy and rites.

In 1599, under the leadership of Alejo de Meneses, Latin Archbishop of Goa, these Latin usages were formally adopted by a diocesan synod held in Diamper. The Thomas Christians reluctantly signed the synod’s directives, though most church historians question the legality of the synod.

The impositions of Diamper radically changed the nature of the Church of India. Thomas Christians retained a few elements of the sacred Qurbana, the Divine Liturgy of Mar Addai and Mar Mari, but authority, customs and law rested with the Portuguese hierarchy.

Diamper polarized the Thomas Christian community, culminating with the historic Coonan Cross Oath in January 1653. There, near the Portuguese-occupied Fort Kochi, significant portions of the Thomas Christian community formally severed their ties to Rome. Vowing to reestablish the pre-Portuguese order, 12 priests laid hands on the archdeacon of all India and “ordained” him bishop. Eventually, this ordination was regularized, and those Thomas Christians now independent of the Portuguese-dominated church pledged fidelity to the Syrian Orthodox patriarch of Antioch.

Pope Alexander VII sent Carmelite friars to India to restore calm and church unity. By 1662, the majority of those who severed ties with the Church of Rome returned to full communion, forming the core of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. But the damage was done, the die cast. Descendants of those who remained firm in their resolve for ecclesial independence today make up the Malankara Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Mar Thoma churches.

Restoration and revival. For more than 200 years, Latin Carmelite bishops from Europe guided South India’s Syro-Malabar Catholics, some of whom nevertheless tried to maintain contact with their Church of the East kin in Mesopotamia. But individual Syro-Malabar Catholic attempts to preserve the church’s East Syriac traditions were thwarted as the bishops imposed additional Latin usages.

Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), who encouraged the Eastern Catholic churches to renew their own traditions, took the important first step in restoring the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. In 1887, he created two apostolic vicariates for Syro-Malabar Catholics in Kottayam and Trichur, but he appointed Latin Europeans to guide them. Nine years later, the pope reorganized them, erecting three — Changanacherry, Ernakulam and Trichur — and naming native Syro-Malabar bishops to lead them.

Successive popes continued the work of Leo XIII. In 1911, Pope St. Pius X established a fourth vicariate apostolic in Kottayam, exclusively for the Southists; Pope Pius XI instituted further reforms, erecting a Syro-Malabar hierarchy with an archeparchy and three suffragan sees in 1923; while his successor, Pius XII, erected a second metropolitan archeparchy in 1956.

In the late 1960’s, as significant numbers of Syro-Malabar Catholics began to leave Kerala for work in India’s cities farther north (Kerala possesses the highest literacy rate in the country, but also suffers from high unemployment), Kerala’s Syro-Malabar Catholic bishops established missions to care for the spiritual fate of their people.

These missions antagonized the bishops of India’s Latin Catholic Church, who protested the potential establishment of Syro-Malabar Catholic eparchies in their territories. They cited the work of the zealous 17th-century archbishop of Goa, Alejo de Meneses, who confined the East Syriac rites of the Thomas Christians to Kerala alone.

Only in 1977 did the Holy See begin to establish Syro-Malabar Catholic eparchies outside Kerala. Today, there are 11 such jurisdictions, including the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Chicago, with some 262,500 people. Though these eparchies fully participate in the synods and other planning activities of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, each eparchy is dependent directly on the Holy See.

Liturgical reforms. Liturgical reform began during the pontificate of Pius XI, who in 1934 sought to remove the Latinizations imposed on the Qurbana, the ancient eucharistic liturgy of the East Syriac tradition, of which the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church belongs. Drawing on original sources, but modifying the Anaphora of Mar Addai and Mar Mari (which makes no explicit words of institution, once considered necessary for the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ), a “restored” Qurbana was approved by Pius XII in 1957. This restored liturgy was introduced during the papacy of Blessed John XXIII in 1962.

Ironically, the reception of the restored Qurbana by the Syro-Malabar Catholic hierarchy, clergy and laity has been mixed: In many eparchies, it has been outright opposed — church leaders cite pastoral challenges that, without proper formation, could lead to experimentation and confusion. In an attempt to resolve these liturgical disputes, Pope John Paul II opened a special synod of bishops of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Rome in 1996. Two years later, he turned the matter over to them to resolve.

Self governance. Today, this ancient and apostolic Indian church is, in the words of CNEWA’s Msgr. Robert L. Stern, “finally recognized for what it is and restored to its full dignity.&rdquo:

In December 1992, Pope John Paul II raised the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church to the dignity of a major archiepiscopal church, a status that accords it more autonomy within the Catholic communion of churches. The pontiff appointed Cardinal Mar Antony Padiyara of Ernakulam-Angamaly as its first major archbishop. Retiring in 1996, Mar Antony was succeeded by Archbishop (now Cardinal) Mar Varkey Vithayathil in December 1999.

The restoration of the Syro-Malabar Catholic community as a church, rather than a rite of the Catholic Church, coincided with its resurgence. In 1876, sources indicate that there were some 200,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics; by 1931, this number had more than doubled. The 2006 edition of the Annuario Pontificio, the yearbook of the Catholic Church, lists 3,758,710 Syro-Malabar Catholics in 2,654 parishes, served by 3,080 secular priests, 2,121 religious priests, 3,644 male religious and 31,764 sisters. An estimated 1,170 young men are enrolled in the church’s 5 major seminaries.

This is a dynamic church, one that is engaged in a wide range of pastoral and humanitarian activities, many of which are supported in full or in part by CNEWA. Most of these apostolic works — child care institutions; empowerment programs for tribal women; health care initiatives, including AIDS and cancer treatment centers; programs for people with addictions; homes for the elderly and the impoverished — benefit not just members of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, but some of the most marginalized members of India’s highly stratified society, irrespective of caste or creed.

Michael J.L. La Civita is executive editor of ONE and assistant secretary for communications.

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