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The Heirs of St. Thomas

India’s Thomas Christians maintain the memory of the apostle who arrived on India’s shores more than 1,500 years ago.

Although Indian Christianity has often been described as a youthful import of the colonizing West, the presence of the church dates back almost 2,000 years.

According to the Ramban Song, an ancient Indian poem, St. Thomas, the doubting apostle, arrived on the shores of the Malabar coast (present-day Kerala), preached the Gospel, founded seven churches and in 72 A.D. died a martyr’s death in Mylapore, where his tomb is venerated today in the cathedral.

Christians and Hindus together kept alive the memory of the “holy man,” chronicling Thomas’s deeds and the sites associated with his life and work.

By the fourth century the heirs of St. Thomas became hierarchically dependent on the Assyrian Church – an Eastern Syriac church also founded by Thomas, but centered in the Persian Empire. The catholicos-patriarch of the Assyrian Church regularly dispatched bishops to the Indian church to ordain priests and deacons and regulate ecclesial life.

In the eighth century, Mar Timotheos I (780? – 823), the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church, appointed an ethnic Assyrian as the metropolitan archbishop for the Thomas Christians, with the title of Metropolitan and Gate of All India. The social and political leader of these Christians, however, was the Archdeacon of All India, an Indian priest whose office was inherited.

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

Persia’s hostilities with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, as well as the advent of Islam, severed the contacts of the Assyrian and Indian churches with the rest of Christendom.

The arrival of the Portuguese at the close of the 15th century dramatically changed the lives of all Indians. When Vasco da Gama staked his claim for the king, he found not only silk and spices, gold and jewels, but a community who joyfully welcomed the Portuguese as companions in the Christian faith. But they worshipped in an unfamiliar manner.

The Portuguese monarchy supported the missionary efforts of several religious communities, which included the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans and others. A Latin (Roman) Catholic hierarchy was established in 1533 with the erection of the Diocese of Goa. The diocese claimed jurisdiction over all of India’s Christians, denying the authentic authority, rights and privileges accorded to the leaders of the Thomas Christians.

Motivated by the spirit of the Inquisition and the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), the Portuguese focused their attention on the Thomas Christians who, while affirming communion with the Church of Rome, retained their ties to the Assyrian Church. The Portuguese identified union with Rome with Latin traditions and rites and demanded latinization as the price of this union.

In 1597, the last metropolitan archbishop appointed by the Assyrian catholicos-patriarch died. This void in leadership cleared the way for the Portuguese to impose their own hierarchy, customs, law, liturgy and rites. In 1599, under the leadership of Alexis de Menezes, Latin Archbishop of Goa, these Latin usages were formally adopted by a diocesan synod held in Diampur. The Thomas Christians reluctantly signed the synod’s directives, although the legality of this synod remains in question by church historians.

The impositions of Diampur radically changed the nature of the Church of India. The Thomas Christians retained a few of the elements of the sacred Qurbana, or divine liturgy, which was celebrated according to the Eastern Syriac tradition, but authority, customs and law rested with the Portuguese clergy.

Sadly, the decisions of Diampur divided Thomas’s family. In 1653 a group of Thomas Christians broke from communion with the universal church. The pope sent the Carmelites to restore calm, but the damage was done; the die, cast.

Today the heirs of St. Thomas, who number more than six million believers, are divided among seven ecclesial jurisdictions:

• The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which embraces half of the Thomas Christians, is the direct descendant of the doubting apostle’s community.

Although a portion of the Thomas Christians rebelled against the reforms of Diampur, most returned to full communion with the Church of Rome. For more than 200 years these Syro-Malabar Catholics, as they were now called, were guided by Latin Carmelite bishops. They attempted to maintain contact with their Eastern Syriac kinsmen. However most of the attempts to preserve the Syro-Malabar Church’s connection to the past were thwarted.

Not until 1896 was the Syro-Malabar community led by Syro-Malabar bishops. Pope Pius XI completed the restoration of the Syro-Malabar hierarchy in 1923 with the erection of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam and three suffragan sees. As the church continued to prosper, a second archdiocese was created in 1956.

The number of believers has increased remarkably, from 170,000 in the late 19th century to more than three million today.

In 1993 Pope John Paul II raised the Syro-Malabar Church to the rank of a major archiepiscopal church, with Antony Cardinal Padiyara as Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly. And in 1995, the Pope erected two additional metropolitan archdioceses.

• Those Thomas Christians who rebelled in 1653 and did not return to full communion with Rome may have attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact the Assyrian Church. In any event, in 1665, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch sent a bishop to these Thomas Christians. Those who welcomed the bishop were required to accept the Christology, liturgy and rites of the Western Syriac tradition; practices that differed from the customs of the Assyrian Church.

Of the more than two million Syrian Orthodox in India, roughly half belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church headed by Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.

The one-million-strong Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, which declared its autonomy from the Syrian Orthodox patriarchate in 1912, is led by Baselius Mar Thoma Matthews II, Catholicos of the East.

• The demise of the Portuguese merchant colonies, and the rise of a new colonial power, the British, brought additional interpretations of the Christian faith to India. Anglican missionaries, who ministered to the East India Company (which held India for the British), were at first inspired to bring the Christian faith to Hindus, Muslims and animists. However many worked among the indigenous Christian population, training priests, translating the Bible and sacred works into the vernacular, and instituting other reforms.

These changes led to the creation of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, a Western Syriac church totaling more than 700,000 believers that accepts reformed theology. Another reformed community, the Malabar Independent Syrian Church of Thozhiyoor, counts about 10,000 followers. Both maintain links with the Anglican Communion.

• In 1874, an Indian bishop consecrated by the Chaldean Catholic patriarch professed union with the Assyrian Church of the East and re-established an Assyrian Church on Indian soil, which today numbers about 15,000 believers.

&#149 Less than 100 years after a group of Thomas Christians joined the Syrian Orthodox Church, there were at least four attempts to establish links with the Church of Rome. All of them failed.

In the late 1920s, letters from India’s Latin Catholic bishops, which described the pro-Rome movement in the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, were sent to the Rev. Paul Wattson, S.A., Vice President of CNEWA. Prayers and funds from thousands of American Catholics were sent to Mar Ivanios, Metropolitan Archbishop of Bethany and the leader of the group seeking union.

In September 1930 Mar Ivanios and his brother bishop, Mar Theophilos, were received into the Catholic Church. Several monks from the Order of the Imitation of Christ of Bethany, which Mar Ivanios had founded in 1919, and all of the Bethany sisters followed their lead.

From 1955 until his death last October, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church was shepherded by the dynamic Benedict Mar Gregorios, Archbishop of Trivandrum. For more than 40 years, Mar Gregorios worked to bolster the lives and faith of his people. Today the Syro-Malankara Catholic community, which began with a few humble followers, numbers more than 300,000.

Although Thomas’s heirs are divided among seven jurisdictions, they are not estranged; they share a common history and, in this era of ecumenism, a renewed hope “that all may be one.”

In a heavily wooded area of Kerala stands an ecumenical complex dedicated to their common father in Christ, St. Thomas. The seven Christian jurisdictions that look to him as their founder – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant – have contributed to the building of this center and shrine near Nilackal, one of the seven Christian villages evangelized by St. Thomas.

On special occasions, such as the feast of St. Thomas and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the heirs of St. Thomas gather in the thousands to pray and sing together. With joy they have returned home.

Michael La Civita is the Editor of Catholic Near East magazine.

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