Cyril Mar Baselios, the Archbishop of Trivandrum, consecrates the altar of the seminary chapel. (photo: courtesy, St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Seminary)
Cyril Mar Baselios blesses incense held by Father Varghese. (photo: courtesy, St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Seminary)
The seminary community gathered on 9 February for the consecration of the seminary chapel. (photo: courtesy, St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Seminary)
In February, the seminary hosted the plenary session of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. Achille Cardinal Silvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, was among the honored guests. (photo: courtesy, St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Seminary)
About 16 years ago, a dedicated priest moved into a poor village in northern Kerala, a southwestern state of India. The priest was very pious, energetic and earnest. He visited the poor, the elderly, the sick, loving each person regardless of caste or creed. Fond of children, this simple man of God encouraged them in their studies. His prayerful life, simplicity and humility impressed the villagers, none of whom were Catholic. Gradually a number of people requested baptism and were received into the church.
From among the villages many children a high school boy of significant character expressed the desire to become a priest. He entered the minor seminary and later enrolled at St. Marys Syro-Malankara Seminary, located in the state capital of Trivandrum.
In another rural area of Kerala, there was a young man who, after completing his college and graduate studies, approached his parish priest to discuss future opportunities. The priest noted the youths sincerity and spoke with him about the fullness of a life dedicated to God and church. The priest invited the young man to make a retreat to discern his vocation further. After prayer and reflection, the young man decided to enter St. Marys Seminary.
For each of the nearly 200 students enrolled at St. Marys, an interdiocesan institution serving the Syro-Malankara Catholic Archdiocese of Trivandrum and its suffragan sees of Tiruvalla and Bathery, there is a unique vocation story.
A seminary had been the cherished desire of the Syro-Malankara Catholic hierarchy since its establishment in September 1930, when two Malankara Syrian Orthodox bishops, Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophios, were received into the Catholic Church. For more than 50 years, Syro-Malankara candidates for priesthood were trained in Latin Catholic and Syro-Malabar Catholic seminaries. Although this improved the lines of communication among Indias various Catholic churches, the lack of a Syro-Malankara seminary inhibited the seminarians growth in the spirituality and liturgy of the Syro-Malankara tradition.
A [Syro-Malankara] seminary is certainly necessary for the strengthening of this particular Catholic tradition, writes Mar Joseph Powathil, Syro-Malabar Catholic Archbishop of Changanacherry and President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India. But it will also contribute to a really Catholic sense of communion by deepening ones ecclesial sense and communion-awareness.
Formation in a spiritual tradition can never be a closed one like the formation for an ethnic group, the Archbishop continues. Proper ecclesial formation in a Catholic tradition can only promote preservation of unity in diversity.
The Syro-Malankara is the newest of the Eastern Catholic churches. Although 20 September 1930 marks its canonical organization, the roots of this church, numbering more than 300,000 believers, may be traced to the evangelization of India by the Apostle Thomas in the first century A.D.
The establishment of a Syro-Malankara seminary was delayed for a variety of reasons: some critics were anxious about the huge expense that would accompany such a project, while others were concerned that it would render the students too parochial.
Some, explains Cyril Mar Baselios, Syro-Malankara Metropolitan Archbishop of Trivandrum, were hesitant to admit even the possibility of a theological pluralism in the church, arguing that all priests are to be trained in complete uniformity in terms of their philosophical and theological training.
A distinct Syro-Malankara seminary, however, remained a leading priority for the churchs long-term leader, the late Benedict Mar Gregorios.
In 1981, Wladyslaw Cardinal Rubin, then Prefect for the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, gave his support to the establishment of such an institution. Consultations gathering bishops, educators, formation directors, priests and religious were held to discuss the course the seminarians should take:
We had in mind a program with liturgy, Bible and Indian spirituality as cardinal points, Father Berchmans, O.I.C., a member of the early steering company, points out. We meant not teaching, but formation.
A site in the Bethany Hills of Nalanchira, the top of Trivandrum, was chosen for the new seminary.
On 29 June 1983, the Latin Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, Mar Gregorios, a few Syro-Malankara priests and 34 students gathered in the chapel of the minor seminary in Pattom (the provisional site of the seminary) to inaugurate the philosophy course.
Construction began in 1987, but funds were limited. Priests and bishops of the church traveled to Europe, the Gulf nations and the United States seeking support from the Syro-Malankara faithful who had emigrated to these countries. The faithful in Kerala were also asked to help.
Our message, says the Rev. Abraham Kackanatt, a former rector of the seminary, was clear: …no one can remain a living member of the church without maintaining a vital relationship [with] the seminary.
While committees were formed to raise the necessary funds, construction progressed with renewed enthusiasm.
In 1987, Catholic Near East Welfare Association contributed a substantial sum to complete the seminary complex, constriction of which had been divided into several phases. CNEWA also enrolled the students of St. Marys in its Seminarian Sponsorship Program. As of this writing 175 seminarians are sponsored by benefactors who, through their generosity, demonstrate their support for the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
While special emphasis is placed on the Syro-Malankara liturgy and tradition, the current curriculum is formed in accordance with the guidelines established by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India.
A candidate for priesthood who has passed the required academic and psychological tests may be admitted to the seminary, provided he is rightly motivated.
Acquisition of holiness, which manifests itself in Christian virtues and wholesome piety, is the first duty of the seminarian. Spiritual exercises are designed to foster both individual and communal prayer life and communion with God. The celebration of the Eucharist is the principal liturgy of the day; however, the canonical prayers of the Syro-Malankara Church are recited in common four times daily. Due importance is placed on other exercises, such as biblical study, the examination of conscience, meditation and spiritual reading. Spiritual direction is also provided by two priests on staff.
The academic courses of the seminary, which are essential for the successful exercise of the ministry, are organized by the departments of philosophy and theology.
Three years of philosophy lay the foundation for the theology course. These studies in philosophy also qualify the student for a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy at the University of Kerala.
After philosophy, the seminarian enters regency, a one-year period during which the student is offered the opportunity to consider seriously priesthood or another possible vocation. Having completed his regency, and having chosen priesthood, the student returns to the seminary to begin his four years of theology.
A candidate who has successfully completed his theological studies, and has proven himself to be well motivated, is ordained to the diaconate while in theology. Ordination to priesthood is conferred after the completion of these studies.
This year after more than 50 years of planning and 13 years of fundraising, worrying and building the first group of deacons, 19 in all, nurtured in the Syro-Malankara tradition, will be ordained to the holy priesthood.
As an ecclesiastical training center, states Lawrence Mar Ephraem. Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Trivandrum managed by the oriental Malankara Catholic Church, St. Marys Malankara Seminary is oriental in character, Indian in culture and very much missionary in nature.
These years have seen Divine Providence working in the establishment of the seminary. We are certain that the great concern of the bishops of the Syro-Malankara Church, the cooperation of our sister churches, the encouragement rendered by the Syro-Malankara community and our friends abroad, the dedicated service of the staff and, above all, the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church, to whom the seminary is dedicated, will enhance the further growth and progress of this infant institution.
Father Varghese Ottathengil is Rector of St. Mary’s Syro-Malankara Catholic Seminary.