The Church Is A-Changing

Old yet new, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church advances into a new century.

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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While one of the most ancient of churches, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is also one of the most modern and dynamic. Throughout its extensive history the church has adapted to the powerful elements that have transformed this subcontinent. Today it is a major progressive force in India.

In the true spirit of Christ, a Syro-Malabar army of priests, religious and lay persons offer spiritual sustenance, moral education and social service programs to those in need.

Prior to his appointment as the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Mar Varkey Vithayathil, C.S.s.R., worked in various apostolates for more than 30 years. From his residence in Ernakulam, Kerala, this soft-spoken man explains that, after Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, the Syro-Malabar is the second largest of the 22 Eastern Catholic churches; its influence is great.

“All churches, East or West, have equal dignity and the same rights and obligations to preach the Gospel and address injustices,” he says. And this church has the personnel to address these issues.

Vocations to religious life are not a problem – more than 2,000 candidates for the priesthood or religious life are admitted every year. About half of these remain within the church’s territory in southern India, while most of the remaining religious join Latin dioceses in northern India. Once they leave Kerala, which is 25 percent Christian, they enter an India that is overwhelmingly Hindu and Muslim and, on occasion, hostile toward Christians. Some go farther afield and find work in Europe, the United States and Africa.

“There are 15 million Catholics in India,” Mar Varkey notes, “but only 3.5 million of them are Syro-Malabar Catholics. While some 50,000 Syro-Malabar men and women have entered religious life as priests and religious, only 27,000 of them work in Syro-Malabar apostolates. The remaining 23,000 work in Latin missions throughout India and the world.

“Seventy-three percent of the priests and religious working in the Latin dioceses in northern India,” he adds, “hail from the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.”

In spite of these impressive numbers, the Archbishop expresses concern that so many of these Syro-Malabar priests and religious may be losing touch with their particular spiritual practices and heritage.

Father Jose Porunnedom, Chancellor of the Major Archiepiscopal Curia, was a seminarian in the 1970’s at Saint Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary, which in those days functioned as an interchurch seminary. Together, Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics studied to become priests while maintaining the integrity of their particular rites and traditions.

Father Jose says he is nostalgic for those days, “when the different churches came together and I was able to mix with different Catholic groups. Now each Catholic Church in India has its own seminary and there is more separation.”

Centered in Ernakulam, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church reaches out to her country’ poor through an extensive social services network. Many of these programs receive direct support from CNEWA.

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Tags: India Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Church history Vocations (religious)