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The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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In India’s deep south, an Eastern Christian community has flourished since ancient times. Originally a distinctive people united in faith, customs and caste, they are named for the Apostle Thomas, who according to tradition brought the Christian faith to the Malabar Coast of southwestern India after the ascension of Jesus. Today these Christians, all of whom belong to the East Syriac Christian tradition, are fragmented into seven churches. The largest, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, each year exports priests and religious to Europe and North America, where vocations to the priesthood and religious life languish even as the number of Catholics grows.

Apostolic roots. Though Indian Christianity has often been described as rooted in Western colonization, its presence dates almost 2,000 years.

According to the “Ramban Song,” an ancient Indian poem, St. Thomas arrived on the shores of the Malabar Coast (present-day Kerala) in A.D. 52. He preached the Gospel, received 32 Hindu Brahmin families into the Christian faith, founded seven churches and in A.D. 72 died a martyr’s death in Mylapore, Madras, where his tomb is venerated today. In another account, the “Acts of Thomas” describe St. Thomas’s work among India’s Jewish community, traders who lived in the lively ports of South India.

Christians and Hindus kept alive the memory of the “holy man,” chronicling the apostle’s deeds and the sites associated with his life and work. While losing their prominence in the highly stratified Hindu society of the south, Brahmin converts to Christianity received privileges and honors from local Hindu rulers. Descendants of these Thomas Christians, as well as those in Kerala who continue to enter the church, are today called “Northists.”

Scholars have long debated whether or not Thomas the Apostle founded the Church of India. Enough historical evidence — including archaeological finds validating the existence of first-century Jewish communities on the Malabar Coast — as well as the existence of contemporary accounts passed from generation to generation by Christians and Hindus indicate the likeliness of Thomas’s travels and deeds.

Persian reinforcements. According to tradition, the arrival of 72 Jewish Christian families from Mesopotamia to the port of Cranganore in A.D. 345 buttressed the faith of the apostle’s spiritual sons and daughters. Led by Thomas Knaniya — a merchant who belonged to the Church of the East, the church of Persian Mesopotamia founded by St. Thomas as he traveled East — these Jewish Christian families brought with them a bishop, Mar (a Syriac honorific for “Lord”) Joseph of Uraha, four priests and several deacons.

While Thomas Knaniya’s community prohibited intermarriage, forming a closed southern Indian community (today their descendants are known as “Knanaya” or “Southists”), their priests strengthened relations between the Church of the East and India’s Northist Christians. The catholicos- patriarch of the Church of the East — a community that adhered to the most ancient rites of the early church, known as East Syriac — regularly dispatched bishops to India to ordain priests and deacons and regulate ecclesial life.

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Tags: Education Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Thomas Christians Syriac Orthodox Church