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“Having taken the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience,” recalled 94-year-old Father Raphael, “we Christian sunyami [monks] of Perumala led a simple spiritual life.

“All were vegetarian, slept on the floor, ate from simple earthen pots, had only two sets of clothes, observed virtual silence and were at prayer five times a day.”

On Sundays the priests went into the community to preach, but they spent the rest of their week in deep contemplation.

In 1930, Mar Augustine Kandathil, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Archbishop of Ernakulam, wrote that the priests “were self-sacrificing, pious and learned, devoting themselves to infusing some spiritual life in the Jacobite Church, which for centuries has been torn by all sorts of dissensions and litigations.”

Until the arrival of the Portuguese in the late 15th century, Kerala’s Syrian Christians flourished as a unified church. They proudly traced their faith to the church founded by St. Thomas the Apostle, who arrived on the shores of the Malabar coast (present-day Kerala) in 52 A.D.

Isolated from the churches of the West, the heirs of St. Thomas maintained contact with the Assyrian Church of the East, sharing with this church their Eastern Syriac liturgy, which had been developed by the Jewish-Christian community in Mesopotamia.

The Thomas Christians welcomed the Portuguese in 1498 as companions in the faith. While retaining their ties to the Assyrian Church, the Syrian Christians nevertheless reaffirmed their full communion with the Church of Rome. The Portuguese, however, established a Latin (Roman) Catholic hierarchy that, in 1599, imposed Latin doctrine, hierarchy and law and suppressed the Eastern Syriac liturgy cherished by the heirs of St. Thomas.

Resistance to the Portuguese, explained Cyril Mar Baselios, O.I.C., the present Syro-Malankara Catholic Archbishop of Trivandrum, culminated in Cochin in 1653 with the historic Coonan Cross Oath.

A kind man whose gentle face hides a formidable intellect, Mar Baselios recounted that all who touched the cross and a long cord attached to it cast their vote to depart from the Latinized church. These Syrian Christians may have attempted to contact the bishops of the Assyrian Church of the East. In any event, in 1665 they accepted a bishop sent by the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, who imposed the doctrine, law and liturgy of the Western Syriac tradition.

After this great schism of the Indian Church, there were at least four unsuccessful attempts to reestablish full communion between the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of Rome.

Father Gheevarghese’s spirituality and personal commitment to renewal triggered yet another interest in reestablishing full communion with the Church of Rome. This “reunion movement” gathered steam, particularly when Father Gheevarghese was consecrated bishop on 1 May 1925.

After his consecration, the new bishop, who took the name Ivanios, challenged the bishops, priests and laity of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church to “bring all the Syrian Christians of Kerala, who formed one church formerly, into true union once again so that the biblical ideal of ‘one fold and one pastor’ may become a reality.”

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