The Syro-Malabar Church

The Syro-Malabar Church traces its origin to St. Thomas the. Apostle, who, according to tradition, came to India in 52 A.D., its members being called St. Thomas Christians. It is one of the four Oriental Churches having in common the East Syrian Liturgical tradition, the others being those of Edessa, Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Persia. On account of this common heritage the Syro-Malabar Church continued its hierarchical relations with the Chaldean Churches under the Catholicate of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

Dependent upon the Church of East Syria, the “Metropolitan of All India” and the other bishops were ordained by the Syro-Oriental Patriarch of Mesopotamia and sent to the Churches in India. Eventually, an Indian prelate with the title of Archdeacon exercised the administrative functions delegate by the Metropolitan.

Tradition also holds that in the year 345 A.D., a certain Thomas Cana from Mesopotamia settled in Malabar with a number of families giving fresh life to the St. Thomas Christians. Over the centuries, it seems that these two diverse groups remained apart, namely is, the Indians converted by St. Thomas (Northists) and the descendants of Thomas Cana (Southists). The Southists presently constitute the Eparchy of Kottayam, an Eparchy of personal jurisdiction for Southists.

The succession of Syro-Oriental Metropolitans was interrupted only at the end of the 16th century with the colonizing policy of the Portuguese and the death of the last Metropolitan, Abraham in 1597. Without doubt, with the arrival of the Portuguese, the state of the St. Thomas Christians was not good. Increased isolation from the mother Church in Persia had left the Church in India in a state of spiritual weakness. With the Synod of Diamper in June 1599, the St. Thomas Christians were place under the care of a Latin bishop. The activities of the Latin missionaries in the fields of seminary formation and education did much to raise the level of the clergy and the vitality of the Church. However, the Latin missionaries did not understand the value of the Oriental rite and patrimony and the St. Thomas Christians, suspecting them of heresy, started a process of latinization in the field of liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline and the hierarchical structure of the Church.

After years of unrest, a weakening of ecclesiastical discipline became serious, in January 1653, in the famous “Coonan Cross Declaration” at Mattancherry, the St. Thomas Christians took the oath not to obey the ruling Latin Bishop. This was the starting point of division among the Christians who were one Church till that time. Though most of the Thomas Christians gradually relented in their strong opposition to the Western control, the arrival of the Jacobite Bishop Mar Gregory from Persia in 1665 marked the beginning of a formal schism among the Thomas Christians. Those who accepted the Jacobitism of Mar Gregory became known as the New Party (Puthankuttukar) and remained outside of communion with Rome to this day. The Old Party (Pazhayakuttukur) has remained in communion with Rome and constitutes the Syro-Malabar Church .

In 1887, Pope Leo XIII created for the Syro-Malabar faithful the first Vicariates of Kottayam and Trichur, but the Vicars Apostolic appointed for them were of the Latin Rite.

It was only in 1896 when the two Vicariates were reorganized into the three Vicariates of Changanacherry, Ernakulam and Trichur, that the Syro-Malabar Church received Vicars Apostolic of its own rite. In 1911 the Vicariate of Kottayam was recreated, this time exclusively for the Suddists of the Syro-Malabar Rite, descendants of the colony of emigrants from Edessa, Syria, in 345 AD under Thomas of Cana.

After 230 years of Latin rule, on December 21, 1923 Pope Pius XI established the Syro-Malabar Hierarchy in India with Ernakulam as the Metropolitan See and Changanacherry and Trichur as its suffragans; Kottayam was also raised to the status of a diocese. On June 11, 1932 as a result of the Reunion Movement  inaugurated by Mar Ivanios,  the Syro-Malankara Hierarchy was established by Pope Pius XI, comprising the Archdiocese of Trivandrum and the suffragan diocese of Tiruvalla.

From 1950 onwards the Syro-Malabar Church and its jurisdiction was gradually extended in Kerala and beyond by means of division of the old dioceses and establishment of new exarchates and dioceses. The need for giving pastoral care to the emigrants of the Syro- Malabar Church necessitated establishment of the diocese of Tellicherry in 1953 and the territorial extension of the dioceses of Changanacherry and Trichur in 1955. In 1956 the diocese of Changanacherry was made an Archdiocese.

Syro-Malabar Church exarchates were established in mission territories from 1962 onwards which later became dioceses. At present the Syro-Malabar Church has 4 ecclesiastical provinces and 25 dioceses in India with around 4 million of faithful. On December 16, 1992, through the constitution “Quae Maiori”, Pope John Paul II raised the Syro-Malabar Church to the status of a Major Archiepiscopal Church and Cardinal Antony Padiyara, the Archbishop of Ernakulam was appointed the first Archbishop Major and was given the title Archbishop Major of Ernakulam-Angamaly with the two Metropolitan Provinces of Ernakulam and Changanacherry as his “territorium proprium”. Archbishop Abraham Kattumana, until then Apostolic Pro-Nuncio in Ghana, Togo and Benin was appointed as Pontifical Delegate to complete the process with the powers of. Archbishop Major exercised by him temporarily. OnMay 20, 1993 Cardinal Antony Padiyara was installed as Archbishop Major.

On December 18, 1999 H.E. Mar Varkey Vithayathil was appointed Major Archbishop by Pope John Paul II. He was installed Major Archbishop on January 26, 2000. He was created Cardinal in the consistory of February, 21, 2001. He passed away on 1 April 2011.

On 26 May 2011, His Beatitude Mar George Alencherry was elected new Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church by Pope Benedict XVI, and was installed on 29 May 2011 at Ernakulam.