ELMONT, N.Y. (CNS) — Decades after a change in immigration laws started a wave of Indian migration to the United States, Syro-Malankara Catholics celebrated the establishment of their first eparchy, or diocese, outside of India.
St. Mary, Queen of Peace Syro-Malankara Catholic Eparchy was inaugurated 23 January. It covers Canada and the U.S., and its headquarters are on Long Island at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Elmont.
The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church is an Eastern Catholic Church based in the southwest Indian state of Kerala. It traces its origins to evangelization by St. Thomas the Apostle in the first century. The church has more than 435,000 members, including 11,500 in North America. It is one of two Eastern churches that, along with the Latin Church, comprise the Catholic Church in India. The other is the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and subsequent legislation favoring skilled immigrants provided an initial entry for students and professionals from India. Syro-Malankara Catholic communities developed in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Mission of North America was inaugurated in New York with the help of the late Cardinal John O’Connor, then archbishop of New York.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI established an exarchate for the church and named Bishop Thomas Mar Eusebius its first bishop. An apostolic exarchate — the equivalent of an apostolic vicariate in the Latin Church — is created by the Vatican for the pastoral care of Catholics living outside of the territory of the Eastern Catholic Church to which they belong.
He told Catholic News Service 14 February that the growing diocese now has 16 parishes, spread from New York to California and as far north as Calgary, Alberta in Canada.
Bishop Eusebius said if there are 25 families, he tries to open a parish. “In our tradition, our people have a very strong affinity for our liturgy. If they do not have a Syro-Malankara parish nearby, they miss something,” he said.
“It’s essential we provide pastoral care, or the Catholic Church may lose them.”
He added, “The Malankara Catholic youth movement is very strong and we try our best to keep the youth close to the church. The faith has to be carried on through them.”
He ordained the first priest for the exarchate in 2013 and assigned him to the youth movement. The group will hold a four-day diocesan youth convention in Philadelphia in July.
The diocese is served by 18 priests and 34 religious sisters. There are also 16 Syro-Malankara Catholic priests serving in Latin dioceses, as well as a number of bi-ritual Latin-rite priests who can offer the Divine Liturgy for the Syro-Malankars. Two seminarians are preparing for ordination.
The St. Vincent de Paul Malankara Catholic Cathedral Parish in Elmont has 150 families, and 95 percent of the members attend Divine Liturgy on Sunday, Bishop Eusebius said. On alternating weeks, the liturgy is offered in English and Malayalam, a language common in southwestern India. Bishop Eusebius said there has been an effort to translate the missal, prayers and other worship aids into English. First-generation parishioners may be more comfortable with Malayalam, but second- and third-generation Syro-Malankara Catholics have grown up with English.
Bishop Eusebius presided at a morning prayer service and subsequent Divine Liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent. In his homily, he said Lent is an opportunity for “a radical renewal of our life and cleansing our soul.”
The tragedy of our culture is we have lost the sense of sin, and so every heinous act can be justified, he said. “When we bypass the voice of conscience, we become numb.”
During the liturgy, Bishop Eusebius wore embroidered red and gold vestments and was assisted by seven male servers and a transitional deacon. The servers, in stocking feet, proclaimed the readings, swung censers, rang bells and shook pole-mounted, angel-faced metallic discs, called “marabasas,” to call attention to the most solemn parts of the liturgy.
The celebrant and the congregation prayed and responded in an a cappella tonal chant.
Afterward, Bishop Eusebius said it is traditional to forgo shoes in the sanctuary. He used slip-on liturgical shoes, which he removed as needed, including when he prostrated himself before the altar. He also explained that the segregation of men and women on either side of the main aisle was voluntary and the custom varied from parish to parish.
The Syro-Malankars separated from the Catholic Church in the 16th century and became Orthodox. On 20 September 1930, a group of five people led by Bishop Geevarghese Mar Ivanios reunited with the Catholic Church; there are currently 435,000 Syro-Malankara Catholics. The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has a membership of 2.5 million people.
Bishop Eusebius applauded the historic meeting 12 February between Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. He said it recalled Bishop Ivanios’ dream that the whole Malankara church would come into the Catholic Church. Bishop Eusebius did not suggest that reunification is an outcome of the meeting.
Bishop Eusebius was born in Kerala in 1961, ordained a priest in 1986 and holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. By tradition, when he was ordained a bishop, he stopped using his surname, Naickamparampil, and assumed the name of Eusebius, a fourth-century bishop and church historian. He said the name was chosen in consultation with Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, major archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. Cardinal Cleemis presided at the 23 January inauguration of the diocese, which took place during — and despite — a blizzard which closed roads, bridges and airports.
Bishop Eusebius said travel in his diocese, spread over two countries, is challenging. He relies on parishioners’ generosity and help from the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Home Missions Appeal grant program. He visits each parish more than once a year, serves on committees of the U.S. and Canadian bishops’ conferences and attends Syro-Malankara church synods in India.
The bishop serves as his own secretary and lives and works in a rectory that doubles as the diocesan chancery.
It is important people understand that “we are as Catholic as the Latin Catholics and there is no difference in our Catholicity. The Holy Father is the supreme head of the church.”
“All Eastern Catholic churches are apostolic, with distinctive liturgical and spiritual traditions,” he said.
As an example, he said the Syro-Malankara Catholics have a period of fasting and intense spiritual preparation before every major feast, including 50 days before Easter, 15 days before the Assumption and 14 days before the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.