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The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church

Members of this church are direct descendants of the Thomas Christians that the Portuguese encountered in 1498 while exploring the Malabar coast of India (now the state of Kerala). As mentioned above [see Thomas Christians], they were in full communion with the Assyrian Church in Persia. But they greeted the Portuguese as fellow Christians and as representatives of the Church of Rome, whose special status they had continued to acknowledge despite centuries of isolation.

In general, however, the Portuguese did not accept the legitimacy of local Malabar traditions, and they began to impose Latin usages upon the Thomas Christians. At a synod held at Diamper in 1599 under the presidency of the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa, a number of such latinizations were adopted, including the appointment of Portuguese bishops, changes in the Eucharistic liturgy, the use of Roman vestments, the requirement of clerical celibacy, and the setting up of the Inquisition. This provoked widespread discontent, which finally culminated in a decision by most Thomas Christians in 1653 to break with Rome. In response, Pope Alexander VII sent Carmelite friars to Malabar to deal with the situation. By 1662 the majority of the dissidents had returned to communion with the Catholic Church.

European Carmelites would continue to serve as bishops in the Syro-Malabar Church until 1896, when the Holy See established three Vicariates Apostolic for the Thomas Christians (Trichur, Ernakulam and Changanacherry), under the guidance of indigenous Syro-Malabar bishops. A fourth Vicariate Apostolic (Kottayam) was established in 1911. In 1923 Pope Pius XI set up a full-fledged Syro-Malabar Catholic hierarchy.

This new autonomy coincided with a strong revival of the church. While in 1876 there were approximately 200,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics, this number had more than doubled by 1931. By 1960 there were nearly one and one half million faithful, and today they number almost four million. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life have been very strong. Statistics issued by the Vatican in 2007 indicate that in India, the church had 3,024 secular priests, 2,258 religious priests, 1,950 religious brothers, and an astonishing 33,365 women religious. There were nine Syro-Malabar male clerical religious orders and three institutes for brothers, along with nine Latin religious orders that had Syro-Malabar provinces. There were also 38 female religious orders. The Syro-Malabar Church has three major seminaries: St. Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary in Mangalapuzha, Aluva; St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary in Vadavathoor, Kottayam; and Good Shepherd Major Seminary in Kunnoth, Tellicherry. There are also eparchial major seminaries in Satna and Thrissur, and 11 seminaries under the direction of religious orders.

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Tags: Poor/Poverty Africa Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Thomas Christians Carmelite Sisters