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The Catholic Church in India

by Rev. John Vallamattam, M.A., Ph.D.

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The Catholic Church in India is ancient, yet young; numerically small, but morally strong; diverse, yet united; self-contained, yet concerned with service of God and neighbor.

The church in India is old because it traces its origin back to the first century. According to tradition St. Thomas the Apostle reached Cranganore in 52 A.D. from where he set out to preach the Gospel throughout the south of India.

He was martyred for the faith 20 years later in Chinnamalai, Madras. A Greek monk of the sixth century speaks of churches and priests on the Malabar coast and the earliest travelogues report a Christian presence there also. This community of believers, known as the St. Thomas Christians, has grown significantly over the years.

The vast subcontinent of India, however, is substantially untouched by the Christian faith in spite of the repeated efforts at evangelization throughout the years. Missionaries have attempted to bring the Word to India since the sixteenth century when the Jesuits, led by St. Francis Xavier, risked their lives and often lost them, to preach the Gospel from Goa to Travencore on India’s west coast. The Capuchins came next and concentrated their efforts in North India; the Foreign missionaries of Paris, and others, went to central India; Belgian Jesuits covered East India; and finally the Augustinians and Salesians tried to evangelize north east India.

The church in India is ancient yet also young. Each year thousands of Indians are baptized into the faith. However, the church in India is small compared to the vast numbers of Hindus, Muslims and other religious sects. It is as it were a drop in the ocean. Out of India’s total population (according to a 1981 census) of 685,184,692, only 16,174,498 are Christian. Furthermore, two-thirds of these Christians live on the western coast, most densely in the state of Kerala, where Christians number 22 percent of the population. On the other hand, states like Uttarpradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana, there are virtually no Christians at all.

In spite of its small numbers, however, the Christian community in India has wielded much influence. Over the years, the church has provided Indian society with God-fearing and conscientious citizens. In its numerous colleges and medical centers, the church has educated many generations of young people. The whole world has taken note of the impact of India’s most remarkable Christian, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose 60,000 sisters care for the “poorest of the poor” and the dying throughout the world.

Large numbers of Christians teach and work as nurses in the church’s institutions and thus spread the Christian message of love. There are Christians in the government as well.

Many have criticized the church in India for not growing larger over the centuries and for not becoming more dominant in Indian culture. Even today, some question how zealous India’s Christians are about their faith. But these do not understand that the church’s very survival has been an accomplishment of no small achievement, at great cost, and against many odds. There has been opposition to the church’s presence from many sides from the beginning.

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Tags: India Catholic Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Church history Diversity