The Right of Rites

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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St. Thomas the Apostle was quite a traveler. According to tradition, the doubting apostle brought the Gospel to ancient Mesopotamia and then to Malabar, on the southwestern coast of India, where he was martyred in 72 A.D.

Indians still credit Thomas for their evangelization. Historians know with certainty that Christianity was firmly established by Nestorian missionaries from eastern Syria by the fourth century.

For hundreds of years, these Christians, known as Thomists, have experienced periods of schism and reunion. And since Vatican II, distinctions among India’s Catholics – Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin – have resurfaced.

On the outside, debates appear to involve manners of worship. There is more at stake than ritual. For Eastern Catholics, it has become a question of identity.

Until the 15th century, Thomist Christians were isolated from the churches of Constantinople and Rome. But their contacts with the Assyrian Church of the East, based in Mesopotamia, were extensive. This great missionary church, which at its height in the 13th century spread from eastern Syria through India and China, supplied its Indian faithful with monasteries, schools, priests and bishops. These priests celebrated the liturgy as developed by the Jewish-Christian community in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia.

In the 15th century the monarchs of Portugal and Spain commissioned seamen to explore India and China for gold, jewels, silks and spices. When Vasco da Gama arrived in India in 1498, he found for his Portuguese king not only those prizes, but a Christian community unlike that of his own liturgical practice. Soon a Latin-rite hierarchy was established to minister to the swelling number of Portuguese merchants. The Portuguese hierarchy then turned its attention to the indigenous Christians.

In 1599, the Portuguese summoned the Council of Diampur. Heavily influenced by the reforms of the Council of Trent, the council replaced the ancient Syrian and distinctly Indian traditions of the Syro-Malabar Church with Latin rites. With the replacement of the native hierarchy the church’s ties with the Assyrian Church of the East were severed.

Those Malabar Christians who did not agree with these reforms aligned themselves with the Syrian Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, whose church originally opposed the Assyrian Church of the East’s “Nestorian” christology. Segments of this church later accepted papal jurisdiction in the early 20th century and formed the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Two-thirds of India’s Eastern Catholics live on the southwest coast, with the heaviest concentration in the state of Kerala. Today, many are migrating to the larger cities of the north in search of better job opportunities. Once there, these migrants must cope with different values and social structures.

In a recent visit to our Association’s New York offices, Bishop George Valiamattam, the Malabarese Bishop of Tellicherryin Kerala discussed the need to teach the basics to those families that migrate and adopt the increasingly western-influenced cultures of the cities.

“Mothers work in the larger cities, so now the media forms our children,” said Bishop Valiamattam, who as a priest worked as a catechist. “The church must instill Christian values first, then build our structures. This is an acute need.”

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Tags: India Eastern Churches Church history Thomas Christians