THE SYRO-MALABAR CATHOLIC CHURCH
Syro Malabar Catholic Church is the second largest of the Catholic Eastern Churches and the largest of the Thomas Christian denominations with 4.6 million believers. It is a Major Archiepiscopal Church headed by Major Archbishop George Alenchery and she is in full communion with Rome. Traditionally, the faithful of this Church are known as Mar Thoma Christians or Mar Thoma Nazranis tracing their origin to the preaching of Apostle Thomas. During the colonial period they were also known by other names such as Syrian Christians, Christians of Serra/Malabar, Chaldeans etc. to distinguish them from the new Christians. The name Nazranis is traced to the fact that they followed the path of Jesus of Nazareth. However, the title “Roman catholic” given to Catholic Thomas Christians is a misnomer, since “Roman catholic” refers to Latin Catholic. The Catholic Thomas Christians born and brought up as an indigenous Church shares its liturgical, theological, spiritual, and disciplinary patrimony with the Church of the East or East Syrians. Thanks to the stable, deep-rooted faith and spirituality, Syro-Malabar Church is blessed with abundance of vocations to priesthood and religious life and the Church is considered the most vibrant of the Christian communities in the world.
According to strong and consistent tradition, the origin of the Church of Thomas Christians is traced to St.Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. St. Thomas came to India in A.D.52 and it is believed that St Thomas landed at Crangannore (Kodungalloor /Muziris) and established Christian communities in Kodungalloor, Niranam, Kollam (Quilon), Chayal, Kottakkavu, Kokkamangalam and Palayoor. He embraced martyrdom at Mylapore near Chennai (Madras) in Tamil Nadu where his tomb is still venerated. From early centuries, the Church of St. Thomas Christians was in contact with the East Syrian Church which also traces its origin to Apostle Thomas. In the middle of the 4th century or later in the 8th century during severe persecutions, a group of Christians under the leadership of a merchant called Thomas of Kinayi migrated to the southern parts of India known as Kerala. The descendants of this group are called Southists, while the Thomas Christians were consequently known as Northists. Although both the communities today form part of the Syro-Malabar Church, each community preserve its own peculiar customs and practices.
Until the end of the 16th century, Thomas Christians were governed by Bishops from the Patriarchal Church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon or East Syrian Church. The Thomas Christians developed a unique system of ecclesiastical administration under the spiritual leadership of Bishops from the Church of Seleucia-Ctesiphon and temporal leadership of indigenous Archdeacons from the community. The Archdeacon, who is a priest, headed the community in all temporal and administrative matters with the help of Palliyogam, which is a unique institution among Thomas Christians. The Thomas Christians, who shared the liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony with the East Syrian Church, maintained her indigenous character in the socio-cultural, temporal and organizational practices.
The first batch Padroado missionaries from Portugal arrived in India in 1500 AD under Fr Cabral and since then they gradually and systematically interfered in the affairs of the Thomas Christians. After the death of Mar Abraham in 1597, the Archbishop of Goa Dom Menezis came down to Kerala, with a view to take control of the Church of Thomas Christians and visited many churches, ordained many to priesthood and finally convened the Synod Diamper which was held in 1599. Since 1600, the Latin Padroado prelates, starting with Francis Roz, the first Bishop over Thomas Christians, began to exercise full authority over the Church and systematic Latinization of the Church of Thomas Christians lasted till 1887 under Padroado and Propaganda missionaries. Under the pretext of the confusion created by the Coonan Cross oath in 1653, and the Propaganda interfered in the affairs of the Church by sending a commission consisting of Fr Maria Sebastiani and Fr Hyacinth. When Fr Sebastiani returned to Rome to submit the report, he was ordained bishop secretly and was sent back to India by propaganda. In 1663, when Bishop Sebastiani was forced to go back by the Dutch, he ordained Mar Chandy Parampil and excommunicated the Archdeacon and Anjalimoottil Ittithommen, making the return of the dissidents impossible. Thus in 1663, the Thomas Christian community was divided into two groups. The group that resisted Latin rule formed a separate community under the Archdeacon and later accepted Oriental Orthodox (West Syrian) tradition joining hands with Jacobites. All the attempts, including the efforts made by Mar Joseph Kariattil and Fr Thomas Paremakkal in 18th century, to re-establish the lost communion were thwarted by the missionaries. Fr.Kariattil who returned from Rome-Lisbon was ordained Archbishop over Thomas Christians with the mandate to receive the separated brethren with its bishop to the Catholic communion, unfortunately died in Goa in 1786 on his way back to Kerala in a mysterious circumstance.
The Birth of “Syro-Malabar Church”
In 1886, the whole of India was brought under Latin jurisdiction suppressing the Metropolitan See of Angamali and all Thomas Christians were brought under Verapoly. Thus the Church of Catholic Thomas Christians disappeared from the face of the earth. When Rome sensed the danger of Thomas Christians drifting away from Catholic communion, Pope Leo XIII and Propaganda decided to bring the Thomas Christians under two Vicariates namely Kottayam and Thrissur headed by two Europeans with a new name “Syro-Malabar” and new “Uniate” identity. The newly born Syro-Malabar Church obtained bishops of their own rite and nation in 1896 when the Vicariates were re-organised as Changanacherry, Ernakulam and Thrissur by Pope Leo XIII. In 1911 a new vicariate was established for the Southists and when Syro-Malabar hierarchy was established on December 21, 1923 Ernakulam was made archdiocese and others its suffragans. In 1956 Changanacherry was raised to the status of a Metropolitan See, with Pala as its suffragan. The process of the revision and restoration of liturgical texts commenced in 1933 when the Latinised indigenous bishops asked for the Latin Pontifical translated into Syriac. The restored texts were approved by Pius XII in 1957 and the restored Qurbana was introduced in the Church in 1962. In 1962, Chanda, the first Syro-Malabar mission Exarcate outside the proper territory of the Church was established and later a few more were established. In 1930 a small group from the Orthodox Syrian Church was re-united to the Catholic Church under the leadership Mar Ivanios and this community is known as Syro-Malankara Church.
Syro Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Church
In 1991 the new Oriental Code of canons (CCEO) were promulgated and in keeping with code, On December 16, 1992, the Syro-Malabar Church was raised to the status of a Major Archiepiscopal sui iuris Church by Pope John Paul II, by the Apostolic Constitution Quae maiori (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 85, pp. 398-399), and Mar Antony Paidyara, the Metropolitan of Ernakulam was appointed the First Major Archbishop and Mar Abraham Kattumana as the Pontifical Delegate to discharge the duties of the Major Archbishop.
When Archbishop Kattumana died in April 1995 Mar Padiyara was given the powers of the Major Archbishop. In November 1996 Cardinal Padiyara resigned from his office as Major Archbishop and in his place Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, C.Ss.R. was appointed as the Apostolic Administrator of the Church. In December 1998 he was appointed Major Archbishop by the Pope. In 2004, the Holy See granted full administrative powers to the Syro-Malabar Church, including the power to appoint bishops within its proper territory. Mar Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil passed away on Arpil 1, 2011 and on 24 May 2011, Mar George Alencherry was elected as Major Archbishop by the Synod of Bishops for the first time. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the election on 25 May 2011. On February 18, 2012 Major Archbishop George Alencherry was made Cardinal. The Syro Malabar Church today has 5 Arch eparchies and 26 eparchies.
Archeparchies within the proper territory:
|1. Ernakulam- Angamaly
Eparchies outside proper territory in India and abroad
|12. Chicago (USA and Canada)13. Melbourne (Australia &New-Zealand)
Syro Malabar church has today over 4 million believers and approximately 585900 migrant faithful living in Latin dioceses all over the world. There are 47 Bishops, 8547 priests, 1214 major seminarians, 32114 women religious in the Syro- Malabar church. The Syro-Malabar Church is actively involved in works of mercy, and in educational, social, humanitarian, and health-related fields. The Church runs 4860 educational, 262 ecclesiastical and 2614 health and charitable institutions. The corporate contribution of the of the Syro-Malabar Church to nation-building is inestimable.