The SyroMalabar Catholic Church is one of the 23 Eastern (Oriental) Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome. It is the second largest Eastern Catholic Church after the Ukrainian Church with roughly 4.6 million believers. It is a sui juris Church governed by the Synod of Bishops headed by the Major Archbishop. The SyroMalabar Church, with its deep-rooted spirituality and high rate of vocations to priesthood and religious life, can be considered as the most vibrant Catholic community in the world.
The St. Thomas Christians (Nazranis)
The SyroMalabar Church is an Apostolic Church which traces its origin to the St. Thomas, the Apostle, who landed at Cranganore (Muziris) (currently known as Kodungaloor) in 52 AD and founded seven Christian communities in Kerala, at Palayur, Cranganore, Kokkamangalam, Kottakavu (Parur), Quilon, Niranam, and Chayal. St. Thomas was martyred in A.D. 72 at Mylapore, near Chennai/Madras. The early Christian community in India was known as St. Thomas Christians. They were also called Nazranis, meaning those who follow the path of Jesus of Nazareth.
The East Syrian (Chaldean) connection comes from early centuries wherein the Church of St. Thomas Christians came into contact with the East Syrian Church, which also traces its origin to Apostle Thomas. From the 4th century until the end of the 16th century Thomas Christians were governed by Bishops who were appointed and sent by the Patriarch of the East Syrian Church. The Thomas Christians developed a unique system of ecclesiastical administration with the Bishops from Persia in charge of liturgical and spiritual matters and the local Archdeacon of All India, heading the Christian community and handling the administration of the Church through Palliyogam. Thus the Thomas Christians shared the liturgical, theological, spiritual and other ecclesiastical traditions with the East Syrian Church; in socio-cultural organization and practices, however, they were distinctively Indian.
The Arrival of Portuguese and the Influence of the Latin Church
The arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th Century marks a new era in the life of the Thomas Christians. East Syrian Bishops stopped coming. Archdeacon lost his position and Latin Prelates exercised full authority over ecclesiastical administration for almost three centuries. This paved way for the latinization of liturgy and ecclesiastical administration. Following the Coonan Cross oath in 1653 and the introduction of the Padroado (the Portuguese jurisdiction under the Propaganda Congregation) in 1661, the Thomas Christians got divided into two groups, of which the group who resisted Latin rule formed a separate community under the Archdeacon. Later they accepted the West Syrian theological and liturgical tradition of the West Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and came to be known as the Jacobite Church. They were further divided into several independent Churches. The group that remained faithful to Rome came to be known as SyroMalabar Church, a name which became a common epithet only in the nineteenth century. It literally means Syrian Christians of the Malabar Coast (Kerala).
The SyroMalabar Church
In 1886 the Padroado jurisdiction over the whole Malabar (Kerala) was suppressed and in 1887 Pope Leo XIII re-organized the SyroMalabar Catholics into two independent Vicariates of Kottayam and Trissur. Finally, the SyroMalabar Church obtained bishops of their own rites and nationality in 1896, when they were further reorganized into three vicariates of Trissur, Changanacherry and Ernakulam by Pope Leo XIII through his Brief Quae rei Sacrae. Later, the SyroMalabar Hierarchy was established on December 21, 1923, by the Apostolic Constitution Romani Pontifices of Pope Pius XI (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 16 , pp. 257-262), with Ernakulam as the Metropolitan See and Trichur, Changanacherry and Kottayam(established in 1911 for the Southists) as suffragans. In 1956 Changanacherry was raised to the status of a Metropolitan See, with Pala as a suffragan diocese.The restoration of the hierarchy initiated a process of liturgical reform that sought to restore the oriental identity of the Latinized SyroMalabar rite, which was approved by Pius XII in 1957 and introduced in 1962. In subsequent years several new dioceses were established both within and outside Kerala. From 1962, the Church began to set up mission centers in Northern India, which later became dioceses. Last 40 years have been a period of steady growth for the SyroMalabar Church.
On December 16, 1992, Pope John Paul II, by the Apostolic Constitution Quae maiori (Acta ApostolicaeSedis, 85, pp. 398-399), raised the SyroMalabar Church to the status of Major Archiepiscopal suiiuris Church with the title of Ernakulam-Angamaly. Mar Antony Paidyara, the then Metropolitan of Ernakulam was appointed its First Major Archbishop with Mar Abraham Kattumana as the Pontifical Delegate who discharged the duties of the Major Archbishop. Archbishop Kattumana died unexpectedly during his visit to Rome in April 1995 and Mar Padiyara was given the powers of the Major Archbishop. In November 1996 Cardinal Padiyara resigned from his office as Major Archbishop. In his place Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, C.Ss.R. was appointed as the Apostolic Administrator. In December 1998 he was appointed Major Archbishop by the Pope. In February 2001 Archbishop Vithayathil was created a Cardinal by Pope John Paul II. In 2004, the Holy See granted full administrative powers to the SyroMalabar Church, including the power to elect bishops.Major Archbishop Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil passed away on April 1, 2011. On 24 May 2011 Mar George Alencherry was elected Major Archbishop. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the election on 25 May 2011. He is the first head of the SyroMalabar Church to be elected by its Synod. On February 18, 2012 Major Archbishop George Alencherry was made Cardinal and a member of the Consistory.
The SyroMalabar Church Today
Today the SyroMalabar Church is the second largest Eastern Church in Catholic communion and constitutes the largest group of St. Thomas Christians. The other two Catholic Churches in India are the Latin Church and the Syro-Malankara Church. At present there are 5 Archdioceses in Kerala. These are - Ernakulam-Angamaly, Changanacherry, Trichur, Tellicherry and Kottayam and 13 eparchies - Bhadravathi, Belthangady, Irinjalakuda, Kanjirapally, Kothamangalam, Idukki, Mananthavady, Mandya, Palai, Palghat, Ramanathaa puram, Thamarassery, and Thuckalay within the canonical territory of the Major Archiepiscopal Church and 12 eparchies outside, of which Adilabad, Bijnor, Chanda, Gorakhpur, Jagdalpur, Kalyan, Rajkot, Sagar, Satna, and Ujjain in India are with exclusive jurisdiction and Kalyan and Faridabad in India and the St. Thomas Eparchy of Chicago in the United States of America enjoy personal jurisdiction.. There are altogether 4018204 (4 million) SyroMalabarians within the 30 SyroMalabar Eparchies and approximately 5,85,900 members live as migrants outside any SyroMalabar Eparchy. There are 47 Bishops, 8547 priests (3,556 diocesan and 4,991 religious), and 32,114 women religious and 1214 major seminarians. Many Bishops, priests, religious and laity of the SyroMalabar Church are present all over the world and share in missionary and pastoral life of the sister Churches.
The SyroMalabar Church is very actively involved in educational, social and health-related fields. The SyroMalabar Church runs 4860 educational, 262 ecclesiastical and 2614 health and charitable institutions. The corporate contribution of the of the SyroMalabar Church to nation-building is inestimable.
The SyroMalabar Church in America
People in various cities across America, comprising of Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, and Latin Church members from Kerala organized several Kerala Catholic Associations. Kerala Catholic fellowship of Chicago, and India Catholic Association of New York were such organizations. These Associations arranged Holy Qurbana (Mass) once a month in various locations and special celebrations were arranged for Christmas and Easter. “Onam” celebrations and picnics were other occasions of cultural gatherings.
In 1996 His Excellency Mar Gregory Karotemprel, CMI, the chairman of the Commission for the pastoral care for the migrants and apostolic visitator to USA and Canada, came here and made personal effort to visit as many places as possible to meet with the priests and people of Syro-Malabar Church. This formal visit enabled him to make a thorough study of the spiritual care of the faithful and formulate a detailed report to be submitted to the Holy Father and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. In his report, he requested for the establishment of a diocese for the Syro-Malabar faithful in USA and Canada. Enormous work done by Mar Gregory Karotemprel, CMI, for the formation of a diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church in USA/Canada has to be acknowledged and appreciated.
Again, His Beatitude Mar Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil, C.Ss.R. present Major Archbishop but then Administrator of the Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Church, in 1998 made an extensive visit to main cities of USA/Canada where the Syro-Malabar faithful were in considerable numbers. Having visited the people and realizing the need for better spiritual care for our people, the Major Archbishop also recommended to Rome the need of a hierarchical arrangement here.
In 1999 August a North American Syro-Malabar Catholic Convention was held in Philadelphia. The initial step was taken by lay-leaders of our Church in consultation with the then Directors of Syro-Malabar Missions in different places. The organizers worked hard to make this first Syro-Malabar Convention a great success. The presence of His Beatitude Mar Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil and other dignitaries of our Church made the Convention successful and it enhanced the need of hierarchical setting here in USA/Canada.
The announcement of the establishment of the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago was a moment of joy to everyone. Rev. Fr. Jacob Angadiath, the Director of Syro-Malabar Mission in Chicago was appointed as the first bishop of this newly formed diocese. The area of this diocese (Eparchy) comprised the whole USA and Bishop Jacob Angadiath was also appointed as the Permanent Apostolic Visitator to Canada also. The Episcopal consecration of Mar Jacob Angadiath and the inauguration of the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago took place in Chicago on July 1, 2001 at Hyatt Regency Hotel.
The eparchy's cathedral can be found in Bellwood, Illinois. The Mar Thoma Shleeha Cathedral (Saint Thomas the Apostle Cathedral) is a parish with almost 1000 families and is seat to the bishop. Their cathedral was dedicated on July 5, 2008.
There are an estimated 87,600 Syro-Malabar Catholics following this rite in the United States. Some of the parishes and missions are dedicated to the pastoral care of faithful of the Knanaya Catholics, under the pastoral guidance of Knanaya priests. The eparchy includes 35 parishes and 43 missions. Congregations are located in the following states and provinces: