ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Seeing Is Believing

Msgr. Stern learns of the tradition of St. Thomas in India.

That first Easter Sunday evening, when the “Doubting Apostle” came back to where the other disciples were, he totally discounted their testimony. He just couldn’t – or wouldn’t – believe that they had seen the Lord.

“Unless I see,” Thomas said to them, “I will not believe.”

A week later, unable to deny the evidence of his own eyes, he sought no further proof. Jesus gently rebuked him for being unbelieving. “Blessed are those,” the Lord said, “who have not seen and have believed.”

One sweltering hot afternoon this past February, the jeep I rode in bounced over pot holes, scattering clouds of dust into the palm trees. We were in southwest India, the Malabar coast, Kerala – the “Land of Coconuts.” The jeep pulled into the compound of the 16th century church of Palayoor.

A porch outside the church shelters a great stone cross, surrounded by oil lamps. “From the time of St. Thomas,” the local pastor proudly pointed out. From the time of St. Thomas?

Near the present church, built on the site of a far older one, there are remnants of Hindu worship: a well for drawing water for sacrifice and a great tank, or pond, of water for ritual bathing. But, Brahmins in the neighborhood of Palayoor never use it. The locality is called Chapakad, the cursed place. Why? Because of a tradition that St. Thomas baptized some Brahmins there.

Thomas, one of the Twelve apostles, here in this obscure corner of tropical India? My first reaction to all of this was, “I don’t believe it.”

Writing to St. Ignatius from India in 1549, St. Francis Xavier said, “There is a city called Cranganore where there are many Christians…descended from those made Christians by St. Thomas.”

St. Francis Xavier was not the first to allude to the Indian apostolate of St. Thomas. From the third century onwards many Church writers mentioned it.

Is this a plausible tradition? It was fascinating to learn about the existence of Jewish settlements in Kerala, even before the time of Christ. Six of the seven churches said to have been founded by Thomas are in these ancient Jewish colonies.

Palayoor itself was a marketing center. Jewish merchants used to buy pepper and other spices there for shipment out of the nearby port of Cranganore.

St. Paul journeyed to the scattered Jewish communities within the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel. Isn’t it likely that St. Thomas did the same outside it?

Is this proof? Of course not! But, what is proof after all? Proof isn’t just potsherds and papyrus fragments, shaped stones and seals. The immemorial, ancient traditions of a living people is itself strong evidence indeed.

Seeing the dynamic faith of the millions of Malabar Christians, deeply rooted in two thousand years of Indian history and culture, it’s easy to believe their unanimous testimony: Thomas first told us of the risen Lord.

Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA

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