church about

The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, which follows the West Syriac or Antiochene tradition was raised as a Major Archiepiscopal Church on 10 February 2005, just 73 years after a Hierarchy was established for this Church by Pope Pius XI in 1932. There is strong and living tradition that St. Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ arrived at Kodungallur, in the northern part of Kerala, in 52 AD, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ and established the Christian Church over here. The Christian believers of this locality are even now known as Mar Thoma Christianikal, alias St. Thomas Christians, after the name of the Apostle. This Apostolic Church was in Catholic Communion from the early centuries. It came in contact with the Syro-Chaldean Church of the Middle East and consequently adopted some of the East Syriac Liturgical traditions in its liturgical practice. In the seventeenth century a part of this Church came into communion with the Church of Antioch of the West Syrian tradition.

Its name, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, commonly in use since 1930, distinguishes it from the Syro-Malabar Church and from other Eastern Churches, into which the original Thomas Christian Church is now divided. The name depicts the Church’s subsistence in the Oriental Syriac tradition with its roots in the indigenous Indian culture, apostolic tradition and its communion with the Universal Catholic Church. It was in the sixteenth century, that this apostolic Church came under the reign of the Western Church through the Portuguese missionaries. The Portuguese missionaries were ignorant of the Oriental, especially, Indian traditions of the Church. Hence they wanted to latinise the Indian Church. The Church in India resisted this move.

In 1599 Archbishop Alexis Dom Menezis convoked a Synod at Diamper and declared the latinization policy. This was a blow to the identity of the Indian Church. However, the relation continued till the beginning of the second half of the seventeenth century. The Church of the Thomas Christians could not withstand any more the denial of their ecclesial autonomy. The initial resistance slowly gave way to discontentment, which ended up with the revolt of the Thomas Christians gathered at Mattancherry (Kochi in Kerala) in January 1653. This event is known in history as the Kūnan Kuriś Sathyam (Crippled Cross Oath). Eventually it led to the division of the Thomas Christians.

Ecclesial Divisions and Aspiration to Unity

The St. Thomas Christians eventually emerged into two groups, Pazhayakūttukar (those of the old allegiance) and the Puthenkūttukar (those of the new allegiance). In 1685 two more Syro-Orthodox Bishops came and the Puthenkūttukar, who continued mostly with their traditional Chaldean rite, drew closer to the Antiochian Patriarchate chiefly for valid Episcopal order and prestige, but at an enormous cost.

The Puthenkūttukar were left without a Bishop with apostolic succession from 1693 till 1751. In December 1704 Mar Thomas IV (1688-1727), and his successor Mar Thomas V (1727-1765), wrote letters to the Roman Pontiff asking to be reconciled and re-united. At the death of Mar Thoma V in 1765, the King of Travancore, desirous of peace among the Christian subject of his realm, exerted pressure on the Antiochian Bishop, Mar Gregorios to ordain the nephew of Mar Thomas V as Bishop of Malankara. In 1770 Mar Thomas VI (1765-1808) was ordained Bishop under the name Mar Dionysius I who was subsequently honoured with the title “Dionysius the Great”. The request of Mar Dionysius was discussed on 22 July 1774 at the Congregation of the Propoganda, which was kept briefed by the missionaries. To overcome this missionary stranglehold, a highly esteemed Syro-Malabar priest and malpan, Joseph Kariattil, who was deeply impressed by Mar Dionysius, undertook to travel to Portugal and to Rome in 1777 to present this complex case personally to the highest authorities. Kariattil succeeded in his mission against all odds and was ordained Archbishop of Cranganore on 17 February 1783 and he died in 1786. Mar Dionysius, however, did not abandon his project of reunion and finally he was received into the Catholic communion on 11 June 1799 together with a few followers. However, since even after six months of waiting, his canonical status was not clarified, he reverted to the Malankara Jacobite fold and died in 1808.

The Reunion Movement

After the final failure of the reunion movement under Mar Dionysius I nearly a century passed by, before the question of union was raised again under Mar Dionysius V (1865-1909). Encouraged by an eminent Syro-Malabar priest called Manikathanar (Emmanuel Nidhiry), he wrote a personal letter to Pope Leo XIII. The programme of re-establishing the lost “community-unity”, launched jointly by the two, was the forerunner of what came to be known as ecumenism in the 20th century.

A decisive turn of events in the history of the Malankara Jacobite Church was its split into two factions on the occasion of the visit of Patriarch Abdul-Missih II in 1912. The Bishop’s Party (Metrān Kakshi) and the Patriarch’s party (Bāva Kakshi). The former became an autonomous Catholicate called “Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church”, while the latter remained dependent on the Syro-Orthodox Patriarch and came to be called the “Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church”. It was once again the search after autonomy that galvanized this split of the Puthenkūttukar into two parties. After some temporary pacification, the division finally deepened and confirmed in September 2004, again during the visit of a Patriarch of Antioch, Mar Ignatius Zakka I at the Mulanthuruthy Synod.

The internal split impelled a movement towards return to the Catholic unity in the Catholicos Party, which has come to be called “The Reunion Movement”. The Syrian Catholic Patriarch and noted Syriac scholar, Mar Ephrem Rahmani had personal relations with Patriarch Abdul-Massih II and developed keen interest in the Thomas Christians of his own Antiochene tradition. In 1925 he wrote to the Malankara Metropolitan, inviting him to full communion with the Catholic Church. Fr. P.T. Geevarghese, later Archbishop Mar Ivanios, was asked to prepare a reply to this letter, the first step on his way to communion with the Catholic Church as the head of a small group in 1930. Thus he became the Moses of the Malankara Catholic Church and came to be well known under a new name, Mar Ivanios.

Fr. P.T. Geevarghese Panickaruveettil was born on 21 September 1882 at Mavelikara. Soon after his graduation with a Master’s degree in 1906 from the Madras Christian College, he was appointed principal of Mar Dionysius Seminary, Kottayam, Kerala. With an ardent spiritual quest and spirit of evangelization, he dedicated himself for the spiritual growth and autonomy of the Malankara Orthodox Church. With this aim, under the leadership and guidance of Vattasseril Mar Divannasios, the then Metropolitan of the Malankara Church, he brought Patriarch Abded M’siha, the Patriarch of Antioch from whom Patriarch Abdulla had usurped the Patriarchal See of Antioch, and got established the autonomous Malankara Catholicate. Moved by the Spirit of God, he took up a job as professor at the University of Serampore from 1913 to 1919. This was a turning point in his life. He had there, the occasion to meet many foreign missionaries, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant. Simple, but serious-minded, unmarried, he pondered over seriously on the problems and needs of his Church. He found that the lack of monasticism was one among them. So he decided to become a Sanyāsi (monk) and to found a religious community (an āshram) at Perunad, which he named the “Order of the Imitation of Christ”, popularly known as the “Bethany Ashram”, as a necessary requisite and instrument of spiritual and ecclesial renewal. In May 1925 he was ordained Bishop of Bethany by the Metropolitan, Mar Dionysius VI and chose a new name, Ivanios. He was raised to the rank of Metropolitan in 1928. Bethany Ashram was made at the same time a monastic centre and an Eparchy, not a territorial eparchy but a personal one created for Mar Ivanios, who was empowered to found churches in any place and to incorporate the faithful from any circumscription. It was intended to be a model eparchy with the churches being free of faction feuds in the Malankara Church.

At a meeting of the Syro-Orthodox Synod of Bishops on 1 November 1926, Mar Ivanios was “authorized to make enquiries with the authorities of the Roman Church with a view to reunion…”. In 1926 Mar Ivanios sent an unofficial memorandum addressed to the Pope, in which he presented the history of his Church, its character and the conditions envisaged for the re-establishment of full communion with the acceptance of papal primacy, namely, the retention of its ancient liturgy, and retention of its Hierarchy with its synodal structure and powers of jurisdiction over its faithful wherever they are. In a second memorandum he admitted: “…one cannot at this stage say with any certainly how many churches and people will come into reunion at the very beginning”. Exchanges continued, and on 5 August 1929 the Holy See responded, accepting most of the conditions but, inter alia, excluding a synodal form of Episcopal government and, the neither retention of the position nor the title of “Catholicos”. A final decision was taken in Rome on 4 July 1930 at a plenary session of the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Churches. This decision was sent to the Apostolic Delegate in India, who forwarded the same to Mar Ivanios. By this time, Mar Ivanios and his suffragan Mar Theophilos were the only two Bishops considering union with Rome. According to the Roman decision, the pure Syriac rite of Antioch was to be retained; the two Bishops will, on the usual conditions like the validity of Orders, be retained in their respective office and jurisdiction and will be immediately subject to the Holy See. Other provisions were added later by Mar Ivanios with regard to the married clergy and clerical celibacy: “…in future no candidate will be admitted to the Holy Orders unless he promises to remain celibate. For the present, however, married priests who are converted will be accepted and tolerated, and married deacons may receive the priesthood”.

Msgr. Aloysius Benziger, Bishop of Quilon, was delegated by the Holy See to receive Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilos. On 20 September 1930 they were received into the Catholic Church in the presence of the Syro-Malabar Bishop of Changanacherry and the Latin Bishop-elect of Kottar. A priest, a deacon and a layman were also received along with two Bishops. Within a year most of the members of the Order of the Imitation of Christ also joined. They were followed by all the members of the Sisterhood of the Imitation of Christ, some 35 diocesan priests, and about 4,500 faithful. And the flow has continued ever since. By 1950 the Syro-Malankra Church numbered some 65,000 faithful and today it is 4,50,000 strong.

Consolidation and Growth

On 13 February 1932 the new Church was provisionally divided into two Eparchies, to the north and to the south of river Pampa. Mar Ivanios, titular Archbishop of Phasia, was entrusted with the southern part and Mar Theophilos, titular Bishop of Arad, was entrusted with the northern part. With his apostolic constitution Christo Pastorum Pricipi, dated 11 June 1932, Pope Pius XI erected an ecclesiastical province with these two parts and established the Syro-Malankara hierarchy: Mar Ivanios was entrusted with the newly created Metropolitan Archdiocese of Trivandrum, and Mar Theophilos as his suffragan with the Diocese of Tiruvalla. Two other bishops, Mar Severios (from the Catholicos Party) and Mar Dioscoros (from the Patriarchal Party) were also received into the Catholic Church.

Mar Ivanios passed away in 1953 leaving behind the legacy of a founding patriarch. He is held in great esteem and veneration today. His cause of beatification is in progress. He was succeeded by Mar Gregorios, who consolidated the work begun by Mar Ivanios and was much loved by the faithful and esteemed also by people irrespective of caste and religion. Since his death in 1995, the third in the line was Major Archbishop-Catholicos His Beatitude Moran Mor Cyril Baselios Malancharuvil, OIC. He died on 18 January 2007. He is succeeded by His Beatitude Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis Catholicos.

Six new eparchies were established: Bathery in 1978, Marthandom in 1996, Muvattupuzha in 2003, Mavelikara in 2007, Pathanamthitta and Puthur in 2010. Thus there are now a total of eight eparchies. With the territories of Bathery, Puthur and Marthandom, the Syro-Malankara Church extends far outside Kerala into the neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu respectively. In several other parts of India and abroad there are Syro-Malankara personal parishes and mission centres, but they are under the direct jurisdiction of the Latin ordinary of the place. This Church has been active in the evangelization of the peoples, especially with its mission to the Nadar and Dalit communities residing south of Trivandrum.

The Order of the Imitation of Christ or the Bethany Ashram, which was founded in 1919, and the Congregation of the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ or the Bethany Madhom, founded in 1925, by Mar Ivanios, Another religious institute is the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary, which was founded by a Syro-Malabar Priest, Msgr. Mathew Kuzhinjalil, a Syro-Malabar priest. It is active in all the eparchies. Special mention may be made of a monastery called Kurisumala Ashram. This monastery was particularly favoured by the patronage of Mar Athanasios, Bishop of Tiruvalla, and was formally established in 1957.

Syro-Malankara Church-Major Archiepiscopal Church

As a tribute to the impressive progress already made and maintaining the pace for greater prospects and possibilities, the Syro-Malankara Church was elevated as a Major Archiepiscopal Church on 10 February 2005 by the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, with Trivandrum as the Major Archieiscopal see. According to the tradition of the Malankara Church, this appointment was received together with the title “Catholicos”. The two bulls, Ab ipso sancto Thoma and Cunctis ecclesialibus communitatibus, by which the Church was raised to the status of a Major Archiepiscopal Church and its head was elevated and appointed as the Major Archbishop respectively, states clearly that the Church and the Major Archbishop have all the rights and obligations as stated in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (CCEO). The Code stipulates that each Eastern Church shall be governed by the Code, the Common Law for all the Eastern Churches and by its own Particular Law and legitimate customs. Canons 151 to 154 of the CCEO stipulates that the Major Archbishop does not have the title “Patriarch” but “what is stated in common law concerning patriarchal Churches and patriarchs is understood to be applicable to major archiepiscopal Churches or major archbishops, …” (c 152). According to the Particular Law and customs of the Malankara Church, the proclamation of 10 February 2005 was received with the understanding and acceptance that the head and the father of the Church is Catholicos. With eight Eparchies constituted in two Ecclesiastical Provinces and fourteen Bishops (in 2007) constituting the Synod of Bishops, this Church has now a synodal form of governance, it had asked for in 1930. Accordingly, with the power to make particular laws, the Synod of Bishops can more freely attend to the needed updating of the Church.

The Rights and obligations of the Major Archbishop-Catholicos

The above mentioned rights and obligations are vested in the Major Archbishop-Catholicos. These functions of sanctifying, teaching and governing, as seen in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, can be summarized (though not exhaustively) as follows.

The power which the Major Archbishop-Catholicos (MA-C for short) exercises over the Christian faithful of the SMCC is ordinary and proper, but personal (c 78 § 1). The MA-C represents the Church in all its juridical affairs (c 79). In places where provinces have not been erected, the MA-C exercises metropolitan powers (c 80.1o). The MA-C can supply for the negligence of the Metropolitan  according to the norm of law (c 80.2o). When a Metropolitan See is vacant, the MA-C exercises the rights and obligations of a Metropolitan in the entire province (c 80.3o). The MA-C is to warn a Metropolitan who has not appointed a Finance Officer (c 80.3o). The MA-C will not fail to hear the Permanent Synod and the Synod of Bishops, or even the Major Archiepiscopal Assembly on more serious matters (c 82 § 2). The MA-C has the right and obligation to visit canonically an Eparchy without prejudice to the obligations of the Eparchial Bishop at times established by the Particular Law (c 83 § 1). In serious matters, with the consent of the Permanent Synod, the MA-C can visit a church, city or Eparchy either personally or through another Bishop (c 83 § 3).

The MA-C can provide a Co-adjutor Bishop or Auxiliary Bishop to an Eparchial Bishop according to the norms of canons 181 § 1, 182-187, 212 (c 85 § 2). For a serious reason, with the consent of the Synod, the MA-C can transfer a Metropolitan or an Eparchial Bishop or an Auxiliary Bishop to another Metropolitan, Eparchial or Titular See (c 85 § 2.2 o). The MA-C, with the consent of the Permanent Synod can erect, modify and suppress Exarchies (c 85 § 3). The MA-C is competent to give to a Metropolitan or Bishop a Major Archiepiscopal letter of canonical provision (c 86 § 1.1o). The MA-C ordains Metropolitans either personally or, if impeded, through other Bishops, and if Particular Law so provides, also to ordain all Bishops (c 86 § 2.2o). The MA-C enthrones a Metropolitan after Episcopal Ordination (c 86 § 2.3o). By the law itself, the faculty is given to the MA-C to ordain and enthrone Metropolitans and Bishops who have been appointed by the Roman Pontiff outside the territorial boundaries of his Church (c 86 § 2).

The MA-C can appoint Bishops to the curia according to the norms of c 87. The Metropolitans and Bishops of the SMCC must show honour and respect to the MA-C and must render due obedience to him (c 88 § 1). The MA-C is to seek to resolve controversies that perhaps might arise among the Bishops with due regard for the right of deferring them to the Roman Pontiff at any time (c 88 § 2). The MA-C exercises vigilance, according to the norm of law, on all clerics; … (c 89 § 1). According to the norm of c 89 § 2, the MA-C can commit a function that regard the entire SMCC to a cleric. The MA-C can confer titles of his Church to any Cleric according to the norm of c 89 § 3. The MA-C can exempt places from the power of the Eparchial Bishops according to the norm of c 90. The MA-C must be commemorated in Divine Liturgy and in the divine praises after the Roman Pontiff by all Bishops and other clerics according to the norm of the liturgical books (c 91). The MA-C is to manifest hierarchical communion with the Roman Pontiff, commemorate him in the Divine Liturgy and visit him according to the norm of c 92. The MA-C is to reside in his see (c 93).

The present Hierarchy of the Church is: His Beatitude Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis – Major Archbishop-Catholicos of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and Major Archbishop-Metropolitan of the Province of Trivandrum, His Grace Most Rev. Thomas Mar Koorilos, Archbishop-Metropolitan of Tiruvalla, His Excellency Most Rev. Geevarghese Mar Divannasios, Metropolitan of Puthur, His Excellency Most Rev. Yoohanon Mar Chrysostom, Metropolitan of Pathanamthitta, His Excellency Most Rev. Joshua Mar Ignathios, Metropolitan of Mavelikara, His Excellency Most Rev. Geevarghese Mar Timotheos, Metropolitan Emeritus of Tiruvalla, His Excellency Most Rev. Joseph Mar Thomas, Metropolitan of Bathery, His Excellency Most Rev. Abraham Mar Julios, Metropolitan of Muvattupuzha, His Excellency Most Rev. Vincent Mar Paulos, Metropolitan of Marthandam, His Excellency Most Rev. Thomas Mar Anthonios, Bishop of the Curia, His Excellency Most Rev. Samuel Mar Irenios, Auxiliary Bishop of Trivandrum, His Excellency Most Rev. Philipose Mar Stephanos, Auxiliary Bishop of Tiruvalla, Thomas Mar Eusebius Esarch of America and Apostolic Visitator to North America and Europe and His Excellency Most Rev. Jacob Mar Barnabas, Bishop and Apostolic Visitator to the Syro-Malankara Catholics India outside the territorium proprium.

The greatest achievement of the Church is its autonomous (sui iuris) growth in the communion of the Catholic Church with its own liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony rooted in the culture and history of India.  The leadership and contribution of the Church in the socio-political fabric of India is immense and well recognized.