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History of Syro Malabar Church

The Syro Malabar Church is one of the 21 Oriental Rites in the Universal Church.

The Apostles went around the world and preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ to different ethnic groups and cultures. Those people understood the Gospel Values with different cultural interpretations. They expressed their Faith through celebrations in different styles, languages, & cultures. Thus different Liturgies were formed and developed in the East which are listed in 5 Fundamental Families, namely: Alexandrian, Antiochean, Armenian, Chaldean, and Byzantine. And there are many different filial Churches in each Family.

And Latin Liturgy was developed in the West.

The Church made it’s distinction of East and West depending upon the 2 Capitals of the Great Roman Empire. All the Churches which came under the Capital City of Rome were called the Western Churches and all the Churches which came under the Capital City of Constantinople (Bizantium) were called the Eastern Churches.

Among the Eastern Churches:

There are six Patriarchal Churches. 1 Coptic 2 Syrian 3 Maronite 4 Armenian 5 Chaldean 6 Melkite

There are two Major Archiepiscopal Churches.: 1 Ukranian 2 Syro Malabar

The Syro Malabar Church was founded by St.Thomas, one of the 12 Apostles, who came to India in AD 52. He preached in different Kingdoms all around the Subcontinent and established seven and a half Ecclesial Communities in Malabar, today called Kerala. After 20 years of His Mission Work, He was martyred in Mylapore, near Madras by a fanatic Hindu priest on July 3rd in AD 72. The whole world celebrates the Martyrdom of St.Thomas on July 3rd and it is a day of obligation for the Syro Malabarians.

The early Christians of India were converted from the High Caste Hindus. They were ;called St.Thomas Christians and they developed into an Indigenous Individual Church until the 4th century.

Then the Persians came and dominated over the Indian Church and imposed their Chaldean Liturgy over us for about 1000 years. They were importing bishops from Persia from the Chaldean Church. They never ordained an Indian Bishop.

When the Portughese arrived and colonized India in the beginning of the 16th century, they also imposed their Latin Liturgy and latinized us and restricted our freedom of development for 4oo years. They were also importing Bishops from abroad and they never ordained any Indian Bishop. They burned our Liturgical Texts and Vestments.

We were liberated by Pope Pius IX in 1896 by establishing a Syro Malabar Hierarchy. But this dynamic Church’s operations were limited to a very small territory between two rivers; namely: Pambayar and Bharatha Puzha. We were not allowed to do Mission Work in Our Own Rite. Those who wanted, had to adopt the Latin Rite. Only in 1952, the late Cardinal Tisserant, Prefect of the Oriental Congregation, who studied our history and knew the beauty of our Church, recommended to the Holy Father to remove those barriers . Then

Pope Pius XII extended our proper territory to Malabar, Mysore, Nilgiris and Trivandrum and established the Diocese of Tellicherry for the migrants from the South. And it was a mile stone in the progress of our Church.

On October 18th,1990, the Code of Canon Law for the Oriental Churches was promulgated in Rome.

After repeated memorandums by the Syro Malabar Bishops’ Conference, His Holiness Pope John Paul II raised our Church on May 20th, 1993 to the Status of a Major Archiepiscopal Church which is next only to a Patriarchal Church in rank and appointed Mar Antony Cardinal Padiyara, our first Major Archbishop, and Archbishop Mar Abraham Kattumana, it’s Pontifical Administrator.

The famous saying of Cardinal Tisserant is worth quoting: The Syro Malabar Church, established in India by St.Thomas the Apostle, is “Christian in Faith, Oriental in Worship, and Indian in Culture”.

This Particular and Individual Church plays a vital role in the missionary and evangelical activities of the Catholic Church around the world. Every year it admits over 2500 candidates for priesthood and religious life, 1500 of whom dedicate themselves to serve in other communities worldwide. Approximately 500 Syro Malabar priests and few hundred nuns serve in various Mission Centers throughout the USA and Canada.

Today, the Syro Malabar Catholic Church is a Sui Juris Particular Church, headed by His Eminence Mar Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil, the 2nd Major Archbishop. It has four Archdioceses, twenty suffragan dioceses and approximately 3000 parishes and semi- parishes. At present, there are fifty five bishops belonging to the Syro Malabar Rite: thirty two serving in Syro Malabar Dioceses and twenty three serving in other dioceses and apostolic offices. There are about 8000 priests in the ministerial priesthood. This makes a remarkable ratio of about one priest for every 500 faithful – an unprecedented number among other Churches. Moreover, 2500 seminarians are studying in various seminaries to join the priesthood. The Syro Malabar Church has approximately one female member in the various Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Order for every 100 members.

The Syro Malabar Catholic Archiepiscopal Church undertakes activities which affect all facets of life including colleges of higher education to kindergarten, schools for physically and mentally challenged to orphanages, hospitals and dispensaries to hostels and day – care centers: the list goes on.

The name of our Church was ( Mar Thoma Nazranikal ) which means “Nazrenes of St.Thomas”. In the 19th century, the Oriental Congregation had renamed our Church as Syro Malabar Church. Our Bishops’ Synod has already passed a resolution to change the name of our Church from Syro Malabar Church to “The Church of St.Thomas Christians”.

The main teachings of the Vatican II on Eastern Churches:

a) “All the members of the Eastern Rites should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve the legitimate liturgical Rite and their established way of life, and that these may not be altered except to obtain for themselves an organic improvement. All these things ;must be observed by the members of the Eastern Rites themselves”. ( Vatican II, Orientalium Ecclesiarum: #6 ).

b) “Each and every Catholic (of Eastern Rites) must retain, each his own Rite wherever he is, and follow it to the best of his ability”. ( #4 )

c) “Those individual Churches of East or West are….of equal rank so that none of them is superior to others because of its Rite”. ( #3 )

d) “All members of the Eastern Churches are to aim always at a more perfect knowledge and practice of their Rites and if they have fallen away due to the circumstances of times and persons, they are to strive to return to their ancestral traditions.” ( #6 )

Based on the document of the Vatican II and Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II_ The Light of the East, the National Conference of the Catholic Bishops Committee published a document which is called Eastern Catholics in USA. This document tries to promote a greater understanding of the experience of the Eastern and Latin Catholic Churches and their relationships. It teaches the following

“It is not possible simply to be a Catholic , a member at large of the Universal Catholic Church. A person is always a member of a specific autonomous ritual Church (eg.Syro Malabar Rite ) and only as such a person a member of the Catholic Church” (US Catholic Bishops, Eastern Catholics in USA.p.24)

“A person, no matter by whom or where , or in what liturgical ceremony he or she is baptized, belongs to the autonomous ritual Church, to which he or she should belong in accordance with the norms of the law”.

( Cannons 29-30 of the Cannons of the Eastern Churches ).

By virtue of baptism, a child becomes a member of his/her father’s Rite. There is no choice. But a person of fourteen years of age or older, who requests baptism, is free to choose any Church. So it is very necessary to take membership in a parish or quasi parish or Mission of the Syro Malabar Church where it is available to become a member in the Catholic Church.

The Holy Father Pope John Paul II has erected a new Syro Malabar Catholic Diocese centered in Chicago with Jurisdiction over the entire United States. The Holy Father appointed Mar Jacob Angadiath as its first Bishop. He is also appointed as the permanent Apostolic Visitator to Canada. This newly erected St.Thomas Syro Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago is the twenty fifth Syro Malabar Catholic Diocese. The establishment of this new diocese is a mark of appreciation and recognition by the Holy See of the entire Syro Malabar Community’s contribution to the Church and to the world.

His Excellency Mar Jacob Angadiath inaugurated the third Parish of this new diocese in New York on the 24th of March 2002 in the St.Valentine Church of the Archdiocese of New York, allotted to the Syro Malabar Community by His Eminence Edward Cardinal Egan. Bishop Jacob renamed the Church as St.Thomas Syro Malabar Catholic Church and declared it a Parish and announced that Fr.Jos Kandathikudy is made its first Vicar, who was working in New York and New Jersey as the Director of the Syro Malabar Mission in both States from October 1st, 1999 onwards.

Prepared by Fr.Jos Kandathikudy .

St. Thomas Syro Malabar Catholic Church

810, 221st Street. Bronx. New York.