Syro-Malankara Church

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The Syro-Malankara Church with its ancient liturgical and theological patrimony adorns the Universal Church and is a witness to the diversity of the latter. The term "Syro" denotes the church's liturgical language as well as its family among the Oriental rites. The church uses the West Syrian Antiochene liturgy in its liturgical celebrations, translated into various Indian languages such as Malayalam, Tamil, and Hindi. Malankara is another ancient name for the modern Indian state of Kerala, the cradle of Christianity in India.

Early History

The Syro-Malankara Church traces its origin to the missionary endeavors of the apostle St. Thomas. According to ancient Eastern and Indian traditions, St. Thomas came to Kerala in a.d. 52, bringing the Gospel to Indian soil. The Indians who embraced the Gospel as a result of his preaching are known as the St. Thomas Christians. Evidence points to the arrival of Christians from Mesopotamia between the 4th and 9th centuries. Tradition also reveals that from as early as the 6th century the St. Thomas Christians received bishops from Mesopotamia. Since the bishops hailed from the Chaldean Church, the East Syrian rite attained prominence among the St. Thomas Christians and it was used in Kerala until the 17th century. As a result, the St. Thomas Christians became known also as Syrian Christians. The Church of the St. Thomas Christians was undivided until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. (see india, christianity in.)

Conflict with the Portuguese and Divisions. Initially, the Portuguese were received cordially by the indigenous St. Thomas Christians. The Portuguese set up their headquarters in Goa early in the 16th century, and the archbishop of Goa claimed jurisdiction over the whole of South India. The St. Thomas Christians' relationship with the Chaldean Church and their use of East Syrian liturgy created in the minds of the Portuguese suspicion of Nestorianism. The acceptance of indigenous customs, social practices, and cultural symbolism also aggravated the doubts of the Portuguese as to their orthodoxy. The Portuguese Archbishop Menezes of Goa convened a synod at Udayamperur (see diamper, synod of) in June 1599 to correct alleged errors in the Church of the St. Thomas Christians. Although the liceity of the synod is in question, Archbishop Menezes coerced the indigenous delegates and their leader, Archdeacon George, into passing several decrees to latinize the St. Thomas Christians. Latin customs and usages were forcibly imposed while traditional customs and practices were proscribed. Since the last of the Chaldean bishops had died two years before the synod, the St. Thomas Christians were placed under the direct jurisdiction of the Portuguese archbishop of Goa. All this led to a situation of confrontation and the St. Thomas Christians lost their confidence in the Portuguese governance.

When Archdeacon George died in 1637, his nephew Thomas assumed leadership, and the spirit of confrontation escalated. This confrontation developed into a full-blown revolt in 1653 with the arrival in Cochin (Kochi) of a Chaldean bishop named Mar Ahatallah, carrying a letter from the pope. Thousands of Christians gathered in Cochin, demanding to see their bishop, but the Portuguese refused their request and sent him off to Goa. Rumors spread that the bishop was drowned. The angry faithful swore an oath never again to be under the Portuguese Episcopal leadership. Four months after this unfortunate incidence, the St. Thomas Christians declared their leader, Archdeacon Thomas, as their bishop, after 12 priests had laid their hands on his head.

The separated St. Thomas Christians, styled as Puthenkoottukar (i.e., people who have accepted a new loyalty), appealed for help to the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch, and in 1665 he sent a bishop to Kerala. Although this new prelate refused to consecrate Thomas as bishop, Thomas went ahead to assume Episcopal office and style himself as Mar Thoma I. The dissident faction was ruled by five successive separatist bishops without valid Episcopal ordination. In 1772 the Jacobite patriarch sent two bishops to Kerala, who consecrated Mar Thoma VI with the title Mar Dionysius I. The dissidents, who had held on to Catholic doctrines and practices, eventually accepted the Jacobite doctrines and practices. The Antiochean liturgy using West Syriac was introduced. The dissidents were begun to be called Jacobites and the faction called the Jacobite Church.

Attempts at Reunion. In the wake of the Dutch and the British conquests of India, various Protestant missions made successful inroads on the dissident faction. In addition, the Jacobite patriarch's demand for control not only over spiritual matters but also over temporal affairs led to an internal split. Many St. Thomas Christians longed for the pre-Portuguese unity of their Church. An attempt for reunion had been made in 1704 by Mar Thoma IV. He sent a petition to Rome with his signature and those of 12 of his leading clergymen, seeking communion with Rome. Rome did not respond to this petition. Mar Thoma made a further attempt for reunion. His petition to Rome in 1748 specifically prayed for the withdrawal of the Portuguese bishop and for permission to use leavened bread for the Holy Mass. He promised obedience to Rome and cooperation with the Latin Carmelites in Kerala. This effort, too, was fruitless, as a result of intense lobbying by the Portuguese.

The reunion of the Jacobite St. Thomas Christians was very nearly realized during the time of Mar Dionysius I. In 1778 he sent a long petition to Rome through Father Joseph Kariattil, who had dedicated himself to the reestablishment of unity among the St. Thomas Christians. At long last Rome's reaction was favorable. Father Kariattil was made a bishop in Rome and sent back to Kerala with proper authority to receive Dionysius I and his people into the Catholic communion. Unfortunately, Bishop Kariattil died under mysterious circumstances in Goa on his way back home. Hopes were kept alive when Dionysius I reunited with Rome in 1790 as a result of the efforts of Thachil Mathoo Tharakan, a Catholic layman. He even took up residence in the Catholic Church at Alleppy for about six months, hoping to receive the official mandate to rule his people. This was never realized, and Mar Dionysius, frustrated, returned to the midst of his Jacobite followers.

Mar Dionysius IV, who ruled the Jacobites from 1825 to 1853, also made a vigorous effort for reunion. He was disturbed by the Protestant influence among his people and disheartened by the demands of the Jacobite patriarch. His initial attempts at communion with Rome fizzled after he was told by the Latin archbishop of Kerala that he had to be content with a layman's status after reunion. To this list of reunion failures must be added that of Mar Dionysius V, who had been supported by Father Mani Nidhirikal. A successful large-scale reunion had to await the endeavors of Mar Ivanios in the 20th century.

Reunion Movement

Successful Reunion. Mar Ivanios was born in 1882 of an ancient Syrian family at Mavelikkara. He was brilliant and learned, the first Syrian priest to earn an M.A. degree from the University of Madras, and on him centered the hopes of his community. For four years he was principal of the high school of the Jacobite Church at Kottayam, and then he joined Serampore University (West Bengal) as professor of Syriac and economics. During his six-year teaching career there, Father P. T. Geevarghese (as he was then called) gathered around him a group of young men and inspired them to dedicate themselves to reform the moribund Jacobite Church. It was during this period, too, that he came under the influence of the High Church clergy and women religious of the Oxford Mission to Calcutta. When he left Serampore to start the Bethany Ashram (Order of the Imitation of Christ) and Convent in Kerala, he received guidance from them, especially from Mother Edith. The Bethany movement soon became a source of spiritual awakening in the Jacobite Church. Many parish churches served by the Bethany fathers sprang up in central Kerala.

In the early 20th century, the Jacobite Church in Kerala had split into two. The local metropolitan of the Malankara Church, Mar Geevarghese Vattasseril, who had resisted the Jacobite Patriarch Abdulla's demand for rights over Church properties, was excommunicated by the Jacobite patriarch in 1910. The metropolitan and his supporters, including Father Geevarghese, made contact with another patriarch, Abdul Messiah, from Antioch, and through him established a Catholicate in Kerala in 1912. The dispute between the patriarch and the metropolitan was taken to the court of law, and Geevarghese undertook a special study of the canons and ancient documents of the Jacobite Church to assist his party. This study showed him that the Jacobite documents and canons had conceded the primacy of the See of Rome. In 1925, at the age of 42, he was consecrated bishop with the name Mar Ivanios. The split in his own Church and its spiritual poverty strengthened his view that a solution to the problems of the Jacobites could be achieved in communion with the Church of Rome. Most Jacobite bishops shared his view, and with their concurrence Mar Ivanios started negotiations for communion.

In 1925 he wrote to the Catholic patriarch of Antioch at Beirut about reunion with the Catholic Church. As the reply from Beirut was long in coming, the Jacobite leaders counseled Mar Ivanios to negotiate directly with Rome. In November of 1926 he wrote to the Congregation for the Oriental Churches about reunion on two conditions, namely, the approval of the use of the Antiochene Liturgy (see antiochene liturgy) and the recognition of the Ordination (Orders) of the Catholicos party. The Roman Congregation requested a confidential report from Mr. Watts, an English Catholic, who was the Dewan of Travancore. In a meeting, Mr. Watts was impressed by the sincerity of Mar Ivanios and sent a favorable report to Rome. Rome's reply to Mar Ivanios, however, was noncommittal. Still Mar Ivanios continued his correspondence with the Holy See and with Archbishop Mooney (later cardinal of Detroit), the Apostolic Delegate in India. Meanwhile, the synod of the Catholicos party had raised Mar Ivanios to the position of metropolitan of Bethany, and his close associate, Father Jacob, to the episcopate with the title Mar Theophilus. Mar Ivanios was then at the height of his influence in his Church.

The synod of the Catholicos party had second thoughts on reunion, following their success in the court of law establishing their right to administer Church properties. They tried in various ways to undermine the influence of Mar Ivanios, whose face was set toward Rome. They asked him to turn over to them the management of the schools under him and sought control over his ashram and the Bethany churches. Opposition to Mar Ivanios slowly gathered force, and he was harassed by his own people. The synod decided to take legal action to evict Mar Ivanios from his ashram. He did not resist, but offered "to leave everything and go away." In August of 1930 Mar Ivanios, with Mar Theophilus, 18 Bethany monks, and orphans who had decided to remain with him, left the ashram and settled in a small rented house near Tiruvalla.

Archbishop Mooney and Bishop Benziger of Quilon (within whose jurisdiction the Bethany Ashram stood) were impressed with the single-mindedness of Mar Ivanios, and they took up his cause with Rome. A few days after the self-exile of Mar Ivanios, the apostolic delegate communicated to him Rome's decision to receive him into the Catholic communion. Bishop Benziger was named to perform the ceremony. The historic event took place on Saturday, Sept. 20, 1930, in the chapel of the bishop's house, Quilon. Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilus made their profession of faith and were received into communion with the Holy See. Members of a small representative group consisting of a priest (Father John), a deacon (Alexander), and a layman (K. G. Chacko) also entered into communion with Rome on the same historic occasion. On September 22 Mar Ivanios received into the Catholic Church the Bethany sisters and the monks of Bethany. A few days later he had the joy of receiving into the Church his own parents and two leading Rambans (monks) of the Catholicos party, Philippose Cheppad and Joseph Pulikottil. The historic document from the Oriental Congregation that authorized the communion also gave the assurance "that the pure Syro-Antiochean rite shall be preserved, and that it will not thus be confused with the Syro-Malabars, whose rite is of Syro-Chaldaic origin, that Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilus will be maintained in their respective office and jurisdiction and that they will depend immediately on the Holy See." Concerning the married clergy, the Oriental Congregation decided that no candidate shall be admitted in the future to Sacred Orders who does not promise to remain celibate.

Establishment of the Hierarchy and Growth. The effort initiated by Mar Ivanios was known as the Reunion Movement. Those who were separated from the communion with the See of Rome were by this time in different communions such as the Catholicos party (known from the early 20th century as Malankara Orthodox Church), the patriarch's party (known as the Syrian Orthodox Church or the Jacobite Church), Mar Thoma Church, Church Mission Society, and various other denominations. For all those who expected and desired unity among the churches, the Reunion Movement became the way to achieve their long cherished dream. Within a short time the Reunion Movement became for thousands of St. Thomas Christians the means for entering into communion with Rome.

Along with the work of reunion, the nascent Syro-Malankara Church engaged in the work of evangelization in Kerala and the neighboring states. The result was promising, especially in the civil districts of Kollam and Trivandrum in Kerala and Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu.

In May of 1932 Mar Ivanios visited Rome and was warmly received by Pope Pius XI, who conferred on him the sacred pallium and sent him back as the archbishop of Trivandrum. The Syro-Malankara Hierarchy formally came into being with the Apostolic Constitution Christo pastorum principi of June 11, 1932. On March 11, 1933, Mar Ivanios dedicated his provisional Cathedral at Palayam, Trivandrum, and assumed office as the archbishop of the Metropolitan eparchy of Trivandrum and the head of the Syro-Malankara Church. The eparchy (diocese) of Tiruvalla was created in November of 1933 and Mar Theophilus was enthroned as its bishop. Two more Jacobite bishops, Archbishop Mar Severios in 1937 and Bishop Mar Dioscoros in 1939, sought communion with the Catholic Church. The latter had belonged to the patriarch's party (Syrian Orthodox or the Jacobite Church). On Jan. 29, 1953, Mar Ivanios consecrated Father Benedict of the Bethany congregation as his auxiliary and successor, who received the name Benedict Mar Gregorios. Mar Ivanios, the pioneer of the Reunion Movement, passed away on July 15, 1953. On Jan. 27, 1955, Mar Gregorios was appointed the metropolitan archbishop of Trivandrum. Archbishop Mar Severios, who was the administrator of the eparchy of Tiruvalla from 1938 onwards, assumed office as the bishop of the eparchy of Tiruvalla in 1950. Upon the demise of Mar Severios in 1955, Zacharias Mar Athanasios succeeded him. Mar Theophilus passed away on June 27, 1956.

Developments since Vatican II

The Reunion Movement made remarkable progress in every field under the able guidance of Mar Gregorios and Mar Athanasios. Both participated in the Second Vatican Council and Mar Gregorios was a permanent member of the Synod of Bishops of the Universal Church as the metropolitan of the Malankara Church. Mar Gregorios served the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Conference as president several times and also the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India from 1988 to 1990. Owing to his active involvement in every sphere of social life, the metropolitan eparchy of Trivandrum acquired a prestigious position. Mar Athanasios passed away on Sept. 28, 1977.

Paulos Mar Philexinos, the metropolitan of the Malabar Independent Church and a great Syriac scholar, came to the Catholic communion on Aug. 28, 1977. A priest and a few faithful also followed the path of Mar Philexinos and reunited with the Catholic Church. He was appointed titular bishop of Chayal and episcopal vicar of the metropolitan eparchy of Trivandrum.

The Syro-Malankara Church had another milestone in its growth when the eparchy of Bathery was created on Oct. 28, 1978, bifurcating the eparchy of Tiruvalla. On Dec. 28, 1978, Cyril Mar Baselios was consecrated bishop of Bathery and Isaac Mar Yoohanon the bishop of Tiruvalla. The Syro-Malankara Church had a great moment of joy when it celebrated the Golden Jubilee of its communion with Rome in December of 1980 at Kottayam. Cardinal Wadislaus Rubin visited the Syro-Malankara Church as the special delegate of Pope John Paul II. The occasion was graced with the priestly ordination of 20 young men and the religious profession of 22 young women; the joy of the Church was immense when it received a new bishop: Lawrence Mar Ephraem was consecrated the auxiliary of the metropolitan eparchy of Trivandrum.

The Syro-Malankara Church was honored with a visit from Pope John Paul II, who made a historic sojourn to St. Mary's Metropolitan Church, Pattom, Trivandrum, on Feb. 8, 1986. Upon the demise of Mar Yoohanon, Geevarghese Mar Timotheos was consecrated bishop of the eparchy of Tiruvalla on Aug. 6, 1987.

When Mar Gregorios passed away on Oct. 10, 1994, Cyril Mar Baselios, then bishop of Bathery, was appointed archbishop of Trivandrum and the metropolitan of the Syro-Malankara Church, and his sunthroniso (enthronement) took place on Dec. 14, 1995. As the metropolitan archbishop he received the sacred pallium from Pope John Paul II on Jan. 9, 1996. The time since then has been one of new vitality in ecclesial life. On Feb. 5, 1996, Geevarghese Mar Divannasios was consecrated as the bishop of the eparchy of Bathery. The Syro-Malankara Church was blessed with much growth, necessitating the erection of the new eparchy of Marthandom on Dec. 16, 1996. The eparchy of Marthandom was the fruit of the evangelizing work of the Syro-Malankara Church since the inception of the hierarchy. Lawrence Mar Ephraem, the auxiliary bishop of Marthandom, was appointed as the first bishop of the new eparchy. The formal inauguration of the eparchy and the sunthroniso of the bishop took place on Jan. 23, 1997.

On July 17, 1997, Thomas Mar Koorilos was consecrated as the auxiliary bishop of the eparchy of Tiruvalla. Bishop Lawrence Mar Ephraem died on April 8, 1997. Metropolitan Mar Philexinos passed away on Nov. 3,1998. Yoohanon Mar Chrysostom was ordained bishop of the eparchy of Marthandom and he was enthroned on July 1, 1998. Joshua Mar Ignathios was ordained the auxiliary of the Metropolitan eparchy of Trivandrum on June 29, 1998.

The Malankara Church has undertaken pastoral work among its faithful outside its territorial limits, namely outside Kerala and India. It has centers in the Indian cities of New Delhi, Mumbai, Nasik, Pune, Calcutta, Bhopal, Bhilai, Surat, Bangalore, Mangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad. A priest-coordinator is appointed to organize the pastoral work outside the state of Kerala. Priests and religious women are appointed to attend the pastoral needs of the faithful in the above places.

The Church also has centers of pastoral mission in the major cities of the United States, Canada, and Germany. To attend to the needs of the Malankara faithful in the diaspora, Isaac Mar Cleemis was appointed the apostolic visitor to the Malankara faithful in North America and Europe. His Episcopal Ordination took place on Aug. 15, 2001.

Faithful and Institutions. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Syro-Malankara Church has 381,178 faithful and 838 parishes and mission stations. It has 421 diocesan priests and 139 religious priests. The 9 prestigious university colleges reveal the Church's concern in the field of higher education. The Church operates 2 teachers' training schools, 6 technical institutes, 15 higher secondary schools, 53 high schools, 65 upper primary schools, 158 lower primary schools, 128 nursery schools, 11 orphanages, and 37 boarding schools. The Church's 16 hospitals and 10 homes for the aged take care of the sick and elderly. In addition the church has 7 printing presses, 4 bookstalls, and 8 publications. There are outreach programs for socially marginalized groups such as dalits and tribals, as well as programs for the theological formation of laity and religious.

A major seminary of its own for the promotion of the liturgical, spiritual, and theological traditions of the Church was a long-cherished dream of the Syro-Malankara Church. It was realized when a major seminary dedicated to Mary, Mother of God, was begun on June 29, 1983, at Pattom, Trivandrum. His Holiness Pope John Paul II, on the occasion of his historic visit to Trivandrum, blessed the foundation stone for the new seminary on Feb. 8, 1986. The seminary was shifted to Nalanchira, Trivandrum, when the first phase of the seminary building was completed in May 1989. The beginning of the theology course in 1992 marked the second phase in the growth of the seminary. The 30 students, who made up the first class of students, successfully completed their entire formation in the Malankara Seminary and were ordained priests in 1996.

St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute (SEERI), in Kottayam, Kerala, is a center dedicated to in-depth study and research of Syriac language and literature and theological patrimony of the Eastern Churches. The national and international conferences organized by SEERI and the journal, Harp, published by SEERI, manifest its distinctive character and uniqueness.

Indigenous Religious Congregations. Most of the members of the Order of the Imitation of Christ and the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ entered into communion with the Holy See along with their founder, Mar Ivanios. Popularly known as Bethany Fathers and Bethany Sisters, members of both communities are engaged in ecumenical, missionary, and educational work. The Congregation of the Sisters of the Imitation was raised to pontifical status in 1956 and the Order of the Imitation of Christ received this status in 1966. There are 100 priests in the two provinces of the congregation. The Bethany Sisters have four provinces and there are 762 members.

In the early days of the Reunion Movement, Monsignor Joseph Kunzhinjalil founded the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary in 1938 to promote the work of reunion and evangelization. Started in the civil district of Kanyakumary in Tamil Nadu, the congregation carries out its ministries in all the eparchies of the Syro-Malankara Church and nine other dioceses in India. The congregation was raised to pontifical status in 1988 and at present they have two provinces and four regions. There are 759 members in the congregation.

The Franciscan Missionary Brothers have been doing apostolic work in the Syro-Malankara Church, especially in the metropolitan eparchy of Trivandrum, from 1936 onwards. They are principally involved in direct evangelization and faith formation and work for integral development of poor and young people.

The Kurisumala Ashram, founded in the eparchy of Tiruvalla in 1957, was an attempt to integrate the Eastern and Indian traditions of spirituality. The ashram was founded by Francis Mahieu, a Cistercian, and Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine. The Kurisumala Ashram serves as a center for spiritual and liturgical renewal and is known for its work in promoting unity among the various Christian denominations.

Bibliography: l. w. brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas (New Delhi, 1982). e. tiserant, Eastern Christianity in India, tr. e. r. hambye (Westminister, Md. 1957). m. gibbons, Mar Ivanios (Dublin 1962). placid, cmi, The Thomas Christians and Their Syriac Treasures (Alleppy 1974). c. malancharuvil, The Syro-Malankara Church (Alwaye 1973). i. thottunkal ed., Emerging Trends in Malankara Catholic TheologyVision and Contributions of Cyril Mar Baselios (Rome 1995). m. ivanios, "The Malabar Reunion," Pax 21 (1931) 115. e. r. hambye, "Syrian Jacobites in India," Eastern Churches Quarterly 11 (1955) 115129. placid, cmi, "The Efforts for Reunion in Malankara, South India," Unitas 5 (1953) 715, 8998.

[c. a. abraham/

j. padipurackal]