Syro-Malabar Church

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The official name in the Annuario Pontificio for the major Oriental Catholic group of indigenous Christians in India. This community along with other Oriental Christians in India was, according to an ancient unanimous tradition, founded by St. Thomas the Apostle. Hence the community was and still is known popularly as "St. Thomas Christians." "Malabar" was the name given probably by the Arabs to the southern part of the west coast of South India (from Ezhimala/Mt. de Eli to Kanyakumari/Cape Cimorin). The most ancient name of this locality was Kerala, and the Malayalam-speaking part of it forms the state of Kerala today. Another name is "Nazranis" (Nazarenes), which also probably originated from Arab sources. The early St. Thomas Christians used the East-Syrian (Persian) liturgy until the middle of the seventeenth century, when the group that gave allegiance to the Syrian (Jacobite) patriarch of Antioch began using the West Syrian liturgical tradition. It seems that Syrians ("Suriani" in Malayalam) came into use in order to distinguish them from the Latin rite Christians ("Latheen" in Malayalam) who emerged as a parallel Catholic community in Kerala from the sixteenth century onwards. The term "Syro-Malabar" was applied to this community by the Holy See toward the close of the nineteenth century, when it restored the Syro-Malabar hierarchy. The appellation "Syro-" is considered inappropriate by many within the community, and there are increasing calls for its removal.

The Syro-Malabar Church, together with the Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite), Marthoma, the Syro-Malankara, the Assyrian groups and even a section of the Church of South India, are considered to be the most ancient Christians of India. This combined community of Christians was one and undivided, but it began to split beginning in the middle of the seventeenth century. There are at present no fewer than eight groups of which two, the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara Churches, are in communion with Rome. The former follows the East-Syrian tradition in worship, the latter the West-Syrian tradition.

For further information on the various Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Reformed communities of the St. Thomas Christians, see india, christianity in, under the heading "St. Thomas Christians." For further information on the Syro-Malankara Church, see syro malankara church.


East Syrian (Persian) connection. Both from oral tradition and extant fragmentary documents, it can be reasonably established that the Indian Church came into contact with the East Syrian (Persian) Church from early centuries. According to tradition, occasionally small colonies of East-Syrian Christians came to Kerala. The earliest of such colonies is said to have arrived in the fourth century. This event is attributed to the emergence of an endogamous group known as the "Knanaya community" (sometimes called the "Southists" or Thekkumbhagar ), a small minority separate from the majority ("Northists," or Vadakkumbhagar ). The Knanaya Christians trace their origin to the above-mentioned East-Syrian colony, which came under the leadership of a Knai Thomman, a merchant.

The Persian connection was beneficial to the Kerala Christians to a limited extent, especially for the fact that this connection opened the small Christian community to the larger Christian world. But many see this relationship as compromising the independence and local character of the community. It led to tighter controls, of the Church of Persia over the Kerala Christians. This adversely affected the spontaneous growth of the original community into a genuine Indian Church, with its Indian Christian patterns of thought, worship, and lifestyle. Not only were foreign bishops sent from Persia, but also the Kerala Christians were required to adopt Persian thought forms and formulas of faith, worship patterns, laws, church customs, and practices. It meant that the Kerala Christians had to lead a life not in one world but in two worlds at the same time: the geographical, political and sociocultural environment of Kerala on the one hand, and on the other, the ecclesiastical world of Persia. This was somewhat an artificial and unnatural kind of life. The core elements of Christian life remained foreign, adapted only peripherally, that, too, in a country that possessed a rich culture, a rich philosophy, and a deep religious spirit comparable toor even surpassingthe Greek culture, philosophy, and religious thought. It is this "artificial" and "unnatural" kind of life that some writers have characterized as "Hindu [Indian] in culture, Christian in religion and Syro-Oriental in worship."

Church life. Very early in their existence, the ancient Christians of Kerala developed a lifestyle. In Church matters, this lifestyle reflected to some extent the pattern of the Persian Christians. In the socio-cultural realm, it was similar to that of their Hindu neighbors. In the social setup of Kerala, they emerged as the peers of the higher classes, especially the náyars. The long experience they had acquired of the Hindu way of life and the good neighborly relations they maintained with their Hindu neighbors enabled them to acquire a more positive approach to Hinduism and "Hindu" practices. As a result of the Portuguese authorities' destruction of early writings, it is difficult to ascertain the extent of this integration in their world view, spiritual life, worship, and church structure. It appeared that the St. Thomas Christians led a privileged upperclass life with an amount of ecclesiastical and civil autonomy. The yógam (assembly of priests and lay people) at various levels was the administrative body that was responsible for exercising the functions related to this autonomy. It enjoyed ample power to administer Church affairs, mete out justice, and impose punishments.

Unique identity and theological vision. In addition to the institutions of the archdeacon and the yógam, the St. Thomas Christians possessed a unique theological vision that encompassed: (1) an implicit incarnational theology which pervaded their social and socioecclesiastical life and practice; (2) a lived theology of dialog with other faiths; and (3) a practiced theology of ecclesial autonomy and individuality as a particular Church. This individuality is expressed as "Mar Thoma Margam" (the "Way of St. Thomas"), which many western writers called the "Law of Thomas." This "Margam" is deemed distinct from the "Margam" established by St. Peter (Latin tradition) and other Apostles.

The East-Syrian prelates brought to Kerala their disciplinary codes of canons. Among the books condemned in the Synod of Diamper are such canonical texts as Book of the Synods (Synodicon Orientale ) and the Nomocanon of Abdisho. Yet in the administration of Church affairs, these codes were practically ignored. What mattered for the archdeacon and his yógam was the "Mar Thoma Margam," the traditions of the St. Thomas Christians, which functioned as their canon law. It was with the implementation of the decrees of the Synod of diam per under the Latin bishops that a radical change took place: The Latin (western) canonical outlook came to prevail. This changed situation continued more or less, even after indigenous prelates were appointed for the Church in 1896. The code of canons for the Eastern Churches promulgated in 1990 is considered applicable to the Syro-Malabar Church too, although there are moves to include the ancient traditions of the community in the particular law that is being framed by the Syro-Malabar Synod.

Until the arrival of the Portuguese in India near the close of the sixteenth century, the Christians of St. Thomas enjoyed a privileged position in society and a significant amount of social and ecclesiastical autonomy. They led a life at the core of which was an identity consciousness, which, if not expressed in clear-cut formulas, was implicit in their attitude toward their traditions; their social, socio-religious, and religious customs and practices; and their theological outlook. It is this particular mode of life that came into conflict with the particular Christian vision and way of life of the Portuguese. The struggle began very early in the sixteenth century and led to a major crisis and schism in the mid-seventeenth century.


Early contacts. With the arrival of the Portuguese, the St. Thomas Christian community was thrust into the world of Latin or Western Christendom. This new world would, in the course of time, exert such a deep influence on them, whether they wanted it or not, that it became a difficult task to shed its traces. The first representatives of this world were cordially and even enthusiastically welcomed. Before long, the Portuguese posed a challenge toeven threatenedthe particular identity, autonomy, and unity that the St. Thomas Christians had developed throughout many centuries. The new world did not only distort the identity, but shattered the unity and destroyed the autonomy of the Indian Church of St. Thomas.

Synod of Diamper. Attempts to bring the St. Thomas Christians under Portuguese Padroado (patronage) (see patronato real) and to introduce Latin customs culminated in what is known as the Synod of Diamper, convoked in 1599 by Alexis de Meneses, archbishop of Goa, who was determined to bring the community once and for all under the Padroado. Historians and ecclesiologists have pointed out that the synod was invalid because it was summoned without proper authorization, it did not follow proper canonical form, and the decrees were obtained under duress. Nevertheless, its decrees became slowly the major part of the law of the St. Thomas Christians. The acts and decrees of the synod have become very significant in shedding light on pre-Diamper customs, practices, and the theological vision of the St. Thomas Christians.

Latinization. In the wake of the Synod of Diamper, Latin Padroado prelates were appointed to lead the Christians. The first Padroado bishop of the St. Thomas Christians, Francis Ros, S.J., returned his bishopric to its ancient location in Kodungalloor (Cranganore). He and subsequent prelates administered the church along Latin jurisdictional lines, implemented the synodal decrees, and enforced a program of latinization, resulting in stiff opposition from the St. Thomas Christians. This opposition culminated in a revolt in 1653, known as the "Koonen (Bent) Cross Oath." Under the leadership of the archdeacon, a group of St. Thomas Christians swore that they would never live under the rule of the Jesuits, and insisted that they would not obey the Jesuit Archbishop Garcia of Goa. This schism marked the culmination of the storm that had been gathering on the horizon for over a century.

Crisis. The ensuing crisis was so serious that it demanded immediate and tactful handling, through the intervention of some agent other than the Portuguese. The Congregation for the Propagation of Faith dispatched Carmelite missionaries to India with full power to deal with the situation. The mission, under the leadership of Joseph Sebestiani, OCD, met with partial success. But as the Dutch wrested hegemony from the Portuguese, the foreign Carmelites were asked to leave Kerala. Before leaving in 1663, Sebestiani installed a local St. Thomas Christian priest, Alexander Parampil, as vicar apostolic of Malabar, a position Sebestiani had held from 1659. Except for one, all of the Carmelites left Kerala. Beginning in 1675, a few Carmelites were allowed in the area under a special arrangement with the Dutch. The initial goodwill that Sebestiani cultivated was destroyed when two recently arrived Carmelites pushed hard for an India-born Portuguese priest, Raphael Figueredo de Salgado, to be appointed coadjutor to Bishop Parampil. Chaos and strife ensued after Parampil's death in 1687. Finally in 1700 a foreign Carmelite, Angelo Francis, OCD, was appointed vicar apostolic. At the same time the Portugese Crown, which had earlier temporarily suspended the appointments of Padroado prelates, resumed the practice of appointing prelates to the See of Kodungalloor (Cranganore). Padroado archbishops or administrators governed Cranganore again in competition with the appointees of the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith. Thus the Catholic St. Thomas Christians came under a double regimePadroado and Propaganda. This competition would continue until 1887, when the see was suppressed.

In any event, the new arrangement was highly unsatisfactory, and the St. Thomas Christians soon began complaining against the Carmelite prelates and missionaries, who were no better than their Padroado counterparts. In the eighteenth century, this dissatisfaction culminated in agitation for autonomous rule. An imminent revolt was averted only through timely negotiations, but it became increasingly clear to the St. Thomas Christians that only by regaining their autonomous status with an ecclesiastical head from their own community, could a satisfactory solution to their vexing problems found.

Frustrated by their failure to get one from among themselves appointed head of their Church, they turned to the East-Syrians or Chaldeans of Persia. The Chaldean Church was not immediately in position to intervene. But after four or five decades, when relations between the St. Thomas Christians and the Carmelite missionaries had further deteriorated, and when the Chaldean Church under the leadership of Patriarch Joseph VI managed to organize itself better, the interventions came, further complicating the situation. Against the explicit directive of Rome, the Chaldean patriarch sent to India Bishop Mar Rokos (1861), followed by Bishop Mar Millus (1974). The presence of these prelates caused schisms in the community. The first did not last long, but the second did, and the followers of Mellus eventually gave allegiance to the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East. This gave rise to the small Church, now called the Assyrian Church of India, which is not in communion with Rome.

Limited autonomy. This sorry state of affairs succeeded in convincing Rome that the community's aspirations required an impartial assessment and a suitable course of action. Pope Leo XIII's broad vision proved to be a decisive factor in the gradual process by which the St. Thomas Christians were granted the autonomy for which they had agitated for over three centuries. The separation of these Christians from the Latin jurisdiction and the creation in 1887 of two separate vicariates, Trissur and Kottayam, were the first milestones in the process. These two vicariates were subsequently divided into three in 1896 (Trissur, Ernakulam, Changanachery), and indigenous bishops were appointed from among the community. The Syro-Malabar hierarchy was established in 1923. Thus the Church of St. Thomas Christians was constituted an autonomous, self-ruled particular Church in communion with the See of Rome. It was made independent of any intermediary jurisdiction, whether Latin Padroado/Propaganda or Chaldean-Syrian. But what emerged was a hierarchy patterned after the Latin model, not the oriental model. Even the autonomy achieved was partial and limited. This situation would remain unchanged until Pope John Paul II elevated the Church to major archiepiscopal status.

Nevertheless, with the limited autonomy, the Church began to make tremendous progress. Already before 1923, the Kottayam Vicariate was created for the Knanaya (Southists) community. At the time of the establishment of Syro-Malabar hierarchy, Ernakulam was elevated to an archdiocese, and the other vicariates (Trissur, Kottayam, and Chenganacherry) became its suffragan dioceses. Later Ernakulam, Trissur, and Chenganacherry were divided into several dioceses, and Changanacherry was made a second archdiocese. New dioceses were created in the territories extended since 1954, to the north, south, and east, both in and outside Kerala. In 1962 the first mission territory (Chanda) was entrusted to this Church. Since then a few others were also established. (For a listing of the Syro-Malabar sees within and outside Kerala, see india, christianity in.)

The spiritual renewal of the Syro-Malabar Church that began in the nineteenth century gained strength and produced an unprecedented evangelical fervor. Thousands of these Christians now work as missionaries throughout India and abroad. Phenomenal progress has been made by the community in the fields of education and social welfare programs. Arts and science colleges, technical colleges and institutes, schools for various purposes, crèches, boarding houses, hostels, and homes for the aged run by Church institutions have multiplied manifold in the twentieth century. In addition, political involvement and the power of mass communications have rendered the St. Thomas Christians an influential community in the public life of Kerala.

Clerical training. Historically, clerical training was conducted usually in the parishes under the guidance of an elderly priest. However, a few centers arose where clerics from different parishes gathered around an erudite priest ("Malpan" or teacher) for better training. These "seminaries" were known "malpanates." In 1541 the Franciscans started a seminary at Kodungalloor (Cranganore), but it soon lost its relevance because of its Latin orientation. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, the Jesuits started a seminary at Chennamangalam (Vaipicotta). It continued to function until the 1770s. The Carmelites started seminaries at Varapuzha (Verapoly) and Alangad. These were later amalgamated, and a common seminary began to function at Puthenpally. In 1932 this facility was transferred to Mangalapuzha (Aluva). This seminary functioned as a combined Oriental-Latin seminary until the year 1997, when it was bifurcated: Mangalapuzha for Oriental students and Carmelgiri for Latin students. In 1962, a seminary exclusively for the Orientals was established at Vadavadhur (Kottayam). Since then other seminaries for the Orientals have opened, or are in the planning stages, within and outside of Kerala.


Elevation to major archiepiscopal status. Pope John Paul II's visit to Kerala in 1986 for the beatification of a son and a daughter of the Church, Blessed Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Blessed Alphonsa, became the impetus for the movement toward fuller autonomy and recognition of Syro-Malabar Church as a sui juris Oriental Church. The many petitions of the Syro-Malabar Church for full autonomy had started much earlier. Since the publication of the 1990 code of canons for the Oriental Churches, the autonomy process intensified. Perhaps the first sign of the process was in the erection in 1988 of the diocese of Kalyan in West India, mainly for the Syro-Malabar Christians settled down or working in and around Mumbai (Bombay). Following the visit of a special pontifical commission to Kerala in 1992, the Holy See elevated the Syro-Malabar Church to the rank of major archiepiscopal Church on Dec. 16, 1992, with Ernakulam (renamed Ernakulam-Angamaly) as the seat of the major archbishop; and the archbishop of Ernakulam, Antony Cardinal Padiyara, made the major archbishop. Archbishop Abraham Kattumana was appointed the first pontifical delegate to the Syro-Malabar Church.

Further developments. On March 13, 2001, the Holy See and the major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church announced the creation of a new diocese for the Syro-Malabar Church in the United States. Headquartered in Chicago, this new diocese is known as the Syro-Malabar St. Thomas Diocese, with Jacob Angadiath as its first bishop. This is a momentous event in the history of the Syro-Malabar Church, for it is the first Syro-Malabar diocese outside of India. It is also a sign of official recognition of the growing Syro-Malabar diaspora in North America.

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[a. m. mundadan]