Deep Roots, Wide Branches

Antioch’s church spans Asia

by Greg Kandra

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For the Rev. Sunny Mathew, leading a Syro-Malankara Catholic parish in the suburbs of New York City involves more than administration — a lot more.

His duties do not end at managing a staff, maintaining a building or even scheduling the liturgies for his small flock of about 300 people. To the soft-spoken priest from southern India, the role of pastor also demands a fundamental focus on continuity — on helping to write another chapter in the history of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

“The Malankara Catholic liturgy is basically the Antiochene liturgy,” he says, explaining that the Antiochene liturgy is among the oldest liturgies of the church, dating to the time of the apostle, St. James the Less, for whom the liturgy is named. “And we still keep the purity and originality of that liturgy.”

This heritage has buoyed his small parish for decades, as the faithful met in various schools around the metropolitan area while trying to find a permanent home.

In the spring of 2016, the search ended when the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York turned over to the Syro-Malankara Church a parish in Yonkers that had been closed. Father Mathew’s flock now has a real church to call home, reinforcing what the priest calls the Syro-Malankara sense of family.

“It is a small church,” the 43-year-old priest says of the worldwide Syro-Malankara community. “We still live like one family. We are almost 500,000 members now. And we all feel like we belong to one family, one church. Our major archbishop knows each priest by name. He knows almost everyone in every parish, where each priest works. This is the kind of family atmosphere we have in our church,” he says.

He pauses to measure his words. “‘Small’ has its own beauty,” he explains. “That is the blessedness we enjoy.”

Along with its small size, Father Mathew says his church enjoys a pervasive sense of the sacred. It touches every aspect of life.

“Our day-to-day life and the liturgical life and our faith, these are all very much linked together,” he says. “Every aspect of the life of an individual is connected to the liturgy of our church. When a child is born, the priest has to witness the child and the mother. When the child is first brought to the church, the first time, there is a special blessing, a special prayer. When someone starts constructing a house, the first stone, the first work, must be inaugurated by the priest with a prayer.”

In this way, the traditions and practices of the faith are carried on.

“The whole life is regulated by sacraments,” he emphasizes. “The presence of the church is important. That means the particular way that we live our faith, it can be seen all through the life of the individual.”

Certainly, Father Mathew has seen this for himself — and it has had a profound effect on his own life.

The youngest of seven children born and reared in a devout Anglican family in Tamil Nadu, India, Father Mathew had long felt the stirrings of a religious vocation. His life took a different turn when he attended a high school run by Carmelite sisters.

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