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The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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For one day, a modest man in the teaming city of Trivandrum, capital of the southern Indian state of Kerala, was the center of much attention.

On 14 May 2005, dignitaries from around the world, led by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Patriarch Ignace Moussa Cardinal Daoud, converged on St. Mary Cathedral. There they celebrated the elevation of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church to the dignity of a major archiepiscopal church, a status that accords it more autonomy within the Catholic communion of churches. But they focused their energies on its self-effacing leader, Major Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselios.

The archbishop, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of his episcopacy last year by building houses for the poor, is just the third leader of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. A noted scholar, ecumenist and pastor, Mar (a Syriac honorific for “Lord”) Baselios follows in the footsteps of two giants of the 20th-century universal church: Benedict Mar Gregorios, a gregarious man who guided the Syro-Malankara community from 1953 until his death in 1995; and Mar Ivanios, a visionary whose quest to reunify Kerala’s Christians led, in 1930, to the establishment of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Though the youngest of the 21 Eastern Catholic churches, the roots of this community stretch through nearly two millennia of Indian history and culture.

Apostolic origins. Until Portuguese explorers, merchants and fortune hunters arrived in southern India in the late 15th century, Kerala’s Christians flourished as a unified church. These “Thomas” Christians traced their faith to the evangelizing efforts of St. Thomas the Apostle, who is thought to have arrived on the shores of Kerala in the year 52, subsequently establishing seven faith communities.

Isolated from the development of the church west of Jerusalem – as well as the schismsand controversies that destroyed its unity – the heirs of St. Thomas were in communion with the Assyrian Church of the East, sharing its distinct Eastern Syrian liturgy and traditions. First developed by Mesopotamia’s Jewish-Christian community, who had also received the Gospel from Thomas, these customs were enhanced by Syriac-language scholars working independently of the churches of Rome and Byzantium.

Ties between Assyrian and Thomas Christians were strengthened by trade, the periodic immigration of Assyrian Christians to southern India and regular visits of Assyrian bishops to the subcontinent to ordain priests and deacons. In the eighth century the Assyrian catholicos-patriarch appointed a hierarch with the title of “Metropolitan and Gate of All India” to shepherd the Thomas Christians, though authority resided with an “Archdeacon of All India,” an Indian priest appointed by the metropolitan. Though not without its own internal conflicts, the Thomas Christian community was thoroughly integrated into the fabric of southern Indian society but remained Eastern Syrian in its religious heritage.

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Tags: India Church history Syro-Malankara Catholic Church