Spotlight on the Eastern Churches: The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

In the subcontinent of India, Christians have flourished since ancient times. Originally united in faith, customs and caste, they are called the son and daughters of St. Thomas. According to tradition, the apostle 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 Syriac Christian tradition, are fragmented into seven churches. The youngest of these distinct churches, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, is a dynamic community that commissions priests and religious to northern India, Europe and North America, even as it grows and flourishes in South India, its geographic heart.

Syro-Malankara Catholic seminarians take part in a service at St. Mary’s Major Seminary in Kerala. (photo: John E. Kozar)

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church came into being in the early 20th century as a work of the “reunion movement” and one visionary: Gheevarghese Panicker, better known as Mar Ivanios.

As with his contemporaries, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) — whose writings inspired the young priest — Father Gheevarghese was preoccupied with the renewal of his Malankara Syriac Orthodox community. He envisioned a monastic community for men and women that would integrate the monasticism of his own Syriac tradition with the essence of Hindu spirituality, sunyasi, the process of leading an interior life. Deeply spiritual, he reasoned that a community dedicated to contemplation, social action and evangelization would spark renewal.

Father Gheevarghese founded such a community, Bethany, modeling it on the Gospel account of Bethany. In an interview with CNEWA in February 1997, one of the last surviving original members of the community, 94-year-old Father Raphael, described a “revolutionary” spirit at the monastery, which combined the asceticism of the Hindu monk with the social teachings of the church and a commitment to imitate Christ.

Boys at the Malankara Boys’ Home in Kerala pause on the lawn to pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary before going to school. (photo: Jose Jacob)

“Having taken the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience,” he recalled, “we Christian sunyami [monks]… led a simple, spiritual life. All were vegetarian, slept on the floor, ate from simple earthen pots, had only two sets of clothes, observed virtual silence and were at prayer five times a day.” On Sundays, the monks went into the community, preaching, counseling and consoling.

The monks of Bethany stirred interest among the Malankara Syriac Orthodox faithful, who, according to observers, continuously sought the community’s counsel. As Bethany grew, so too did interest among the Thomas Christians in a “reunion movement,” which picked up steam particularly after Father Gheevarghese was consecrated bishop in May 1925.

Choosing the name Ivanios, the new bishop immediately challenged the catholicos, bishops, priests and people of the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church to “bring all the Syrian Christians of Kerala, who formed one church formerly, into true union once again so that the biblical idea of ‘one fold and one pastor’ may become a reality.”

Charged by the synod of the church, Mar Ivanios contacted the Catholic Church in 1926 about re-establishing full communion between the two churches, provided the Holy See recognize the validity of Malankara Syriac Orthodox orders, preserve its administrative structures in India and the use of the Western Syriac liturgy.

To read a full account of the formation and activity of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, click here.

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