From ONE Magazine

The Catholic Church in India

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.

In addition to these obstacles, the church also had to endure internal tensions. Conflicts developed between the Portuguese missionaries and the Oriental Christians about which rites to follow. There was even a reluctance to admit native Indians into the missionary congregations. All these slowed the church’s growth.

Along with national independence in 1947 came the sudden ban on foreign missionaries’ entrance into the country. In effect, the church was brought to a standstill. Missionary congregations were forced to search for vocations from local communities. This search proved especially successful in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Thousands of enthusiastic and zealous youth entered religious novitiates and enrolled in seminaries. Today the Indian church boasts over 13,000 priests and 60,000 religious sisters who were born in India. All 122 dioceses in India are now overseen by bishops of Indian origin.

Once a grateful hearer of the Word, the Indian church now through its own missionary efforts is preacher of the Word in such difficult terrains as the desert in Rajasthan, the snow-clad Himalayan mountains, and the Hindu strongholds of Mathura, Rishikesh, Uttarkailash and Badrinath.

The church in India is diverse and multifaceted. Its multicolored membership worships God in many languages and rites. This diversity, however, has brought with it problems unique to Indian Christianity. Since the sixteenth century, Christians in India have fallen into two major divisions: The St. Thomas Christians of the Syrq-Malabar and SyroMalabar rites and the Latin-rite Christians. The former have been numerous and socially influential, especially in the south, whereas the latter were numerous only in some areas and viewed themselves primarily as part of a larger Roman Catholic community rather than as members of a local or national community. This conflict has led to many sad consequences. Two particularly unfortunate examples: the suppression of the liturgy and destruction of liturgical books of the Eastern rites after the synod of Diampur in 1599 and the repression of the Syro-Malabars and subsequent revolt against Latin domination, all led to the schism of the Malabar church from Rome.

Before World War II, these tensions between rites and differences about primary allegiances were confined to communities on the Malabar coast. Now they are more widespread.

The Eastern Church in Kerala has supplied most of India’s vocations, replacing and supplementing the foreign missionaries. As a result, over 60 percent of the priests and religious women and men of India practice the Eastern rites. Meantime, most of the territory where Christians live has been Latinized.

Indian national independence and integration has resulted in the extensive migration of Eastern Catholics to all corners of the country. Such changes have inevitably resulted in conflicts in these regions.

Hard as it is for those unfamiliar with India to understand, there are 15 official languages in India (besides English which most Indians speak and read), three or four of which are popular in most urban areas. In order to accommodate these pastoral needs, consequently, Catholic liturgies have been conducted in the more common languages of the faithful. While the official church backs such a move, some influential groups resist it.

In spite of these divisions, however, the church in India can be said to be united. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India brings together the 122 bishops every year for discussions on a wide range of topics. Similarly, the All India Catholic Union brings together under one umbrella organization the lay leaders of various organizations to discuss problems and work on solutions.

Major seminaries, novitiates, colleges and other church and national institutes bring together people regardless of rite, language or caste.

May the church in India continue to grow and serve the people of God in India and around the world.

Rev. John Vallamattam is a priest of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and a well known Indian journalist.