By His Beatitude Baselios Cleemis
The Malankara Church received the Christian faith in the very first century from the preaching of St. Thomas the Apostle (the apostle known as “Doubting Thomas”). The Indian Church, or the Church of St. Thomas Christians, was popularly known as the Malankara Church, or the Church in Malabar, even from those early centuries.
The arrival of missionaries from Portugal in the 16th century caused tremendous changes in the life of the St. Thomas Christians. Without knowing the Eastern traditions within the Catholic communion, the missionaries tried to “Catholicize” by forcefully introducing the Western liturgical and canonical norms. This attitude caused a great revolt against the Western missionaries. The St. Thomas Christians, who were already in full Catholic communion, did not want to abandon their valid, rich, Eastern, and Catholic heritage.
As a reaction to the attempted Latinization, there took place the unfortunate revolt of the “Coonan Cross Oath” in 1653. In fact, it was not a revolt against the Catholic Church but an attempt to assert the Eastern identity of the Indian Church. But due to this revolt, the Indian Christian community of St. Thomas was divided into two: “Puthenkoottukar” (Malankara Church) and “Pazhayakoottukar” (Malabar Church). The Malankara Church was the fraction that stood for the unique Eastern identity of St. Thomas Christians.
Unfortunately, due to this position, they lost their full Catholic communion.
There were many genuine attempts to bring union to the divided Church of St. Thomas Christians after the division in 1653. All such efforts were in vain. The desperate Malankara Church slowly came into contact with the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch (Jacobite Church), whose liturgical traditions were closer to those of the St. Thomas Christians.
Fr. P.T. Geevarghese Panicker (later Archbishop Mar Ivanios) became instrumental in establishing the Catholicate in the Malankara Orthodox Church in 1912. The felt need of renewal and revival of the Malankara Orthodox Church led Fr. Geevarghese to think of founding a missionary congregation. He resigned from the post of professorship at the Serampore University, Kolkata, and founded the Bethany Ashram in Perunad, Ranni in 1919. Bethany Ashram became the center of spiritual renewal in the Malankara Church.
The meditative prayer life of Bethany Ashram enabled Fr. Geevarghese to learn about the true faith. This meditative search led him to realize that the Church should be one. In 1925, he founded a congregation for the Bethany-Sisters. The Malankara Orthodox Church ordained him a bishop in 1925 with the name Mar Ivanios. He realized that the Church of Christ dwells in the Catholic Church. He shared his conviction with the bishops, priests and lay faithful of the Malankara Orthodox Church. In order to boost the reunion efforts, the Synod of the Malankara Orthodox Church held at Parumala in 1926 authorized Mar Ivanios to start official correspondence with the Holy See of Rome. But when it was ready for Catholic communion, all the bishops except Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilos stepped back from reunion. A majority of the monks at Bethany Ashram and all the Bethany Sisters wholeheartedly followed their founder and enthusiastically worked for the success of the Reunion Movement.
On September 20, 1930, the Malankara Church re-entered the Catholic Church under the leadership of Archbishop Mar Ivanios along with Bishop Mar Theophilos, Fr. John, Deacon Alexander and Mr. Chako Kilileth (metropolitan, bishop, priest, deacon and layman, respectively). It was the partial fulfilment of the dream of St. Thomas Christians ever since the division in 1653. The reunited Christians of the St. Thomas Christians are known as the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. The Syro-Malankara Catholic hierarchy was established in 1932 by Pope Pius XI with its headquarters in Trivandrum.
The Church has been steadily progressing in various walks of life. Realizing the growth of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, Blessed Pope John Paul II said: “Your Church is one of the fastest-growing Catholic communities in the world” (ad limina visit, 2003). In 2005, Pope John Paul II raised the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church to the status of a Major Archiepiscopal Church through the apostolic bull, Ab ipso Sancto Thoma. The head of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church became the Major Archbishop-Catholicos according to the provisions of canon law and following the traditions of the Malankara Church.
At present, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church has two archdioceses, six dioceses, one exarchate in the US and one apostolic visitor in extraterritorial region. The Holy Catholic Church now recognizes the growth and the missionary enthusiasm of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church by bestowing upon its head the title of cardinal.
With half a million members, we are a minority in a populous country, but our significance is widely recognized in fields such as education, community health care, caring for the marginalized, etc. As people of God, our faithful seek out with love the weak, the sick and the marginalized. We have espoused the causes of ecumenism, reunion, interreligious dialogue and the generous sharing of the bounties of the Gospel. We are Catholic in faith, Antiochene in worship, Indian in culture and Apostolic in foundation.