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St. Thomas Christians: The Syro-Malabar Catholics

Kerala’s people are poor, but have a bumper crop of vocations.

Along southwestern India’s Malabar coast – which borders the Arabian Sea between Mangalore and Cape Comorin – is the newly created state of Kerala, birthplace of the Syro-Malabar rite.

Kerala (which means coconut palm), was formerly Travancore-Cochin, and became a state in 1956.

According to tradition, it was in the region along the Malabar coast that St. Thomas the Apostle himself baptized Indian villagers – ancestors of today’s Malabar Catholics. For this reason, Malabarians are often called “St. Thomas Christians.”

The Catholic Church in Kerala has three rites: the Syro-Malabar rite; the increasingly growing Syro-Malankara rite – a new restoration of Jacobite Orthodoxy; and the Latin, introduced by French and Portuguese colonists.

The “Syro” in Indian rites hails back to Syrian traders of the fourth century who combined their own liturgies with the liturgical practices of the St. Thomas Christians. At that time Syria’s territory included much of the Holy Land, and so Aramaic – the language Christ spoke – is found in the liturgies of South India.

The worship of the St. Thomas Christians is a branch of the ancient Chaldean liturgy with many features of the Latin rite. However, the Syro Christians of India have maintained much cultural individuality in their observances. Many of the rituals used at weddings and funerals, for instance, are Christianized Hindu practices with a distinct Indian flavor.

Kerala is a poor state, and like most of India, cannot supply enough local food to feed its growing population of 21 million. Agricultural techniques are simple: most farmers still use wooden plows. The per capita income is only $30 a year, and many farmers can only obtain credit from money lenders who charge 100% interest!

On the brighter side, Kerala does have some advantages. The literacy rate is one of the highest in the country. Also, the state produces more than 80% of India’s coconut products and almost all of her rubber.

One of the greatest assets of Kerala’s Catholics is the high percentage of vocations. Kerala’s Catholic families consider the best gift they can offer God is a son in the priesthood. Probably because of this, St. Thomas Christians are sometimes called, “the Irish of India.”

However, many vocations pose many difficulties. Seminaries are overcrowded, and training is expensive – more than most families make in a year. Yet the demand for vocations from Kerala is high, as Catholics in other parts of India – who have only one priest for every quarter million people – depend on the state for their clergy. It is imperative that those who desire to serve as priests have the opportunity, since the Indian government has demanded that all foreign clergy be replaced by Indian nationals.

Catholic Near East Welfare Association is helping young men and women candidates to priestly and religious life by acting as a mediator between Americans who want to sponsor a novice or seminarian and those young people with vocations who are too poor to make their dream come true. Kerala is proud of her young who have been allowed the chance to fulfill such dreams.

Rev. Michael Marlow, now working in New York, was a missionary in India.

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