The Heirs of St. Thomas

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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Although Indian Christianity has often been described as a youthful import of the colonizing West, the presence of the church dates back almost 2,000 years.

According to the Ramban Song, an ancient Indian poem, St. Thomas, the doubting apostle, arrived on the shores of the Malabar coast (present-day Kerala), preached the Gospel, founded seven churches and in 72 A.D. died a martyr’s death in Mylapore, where his tomb is venerated today in the cathedral.

Christians and Hindus together kept alive the memory of the “holy man,” chronicling Thomas’s deeds and the sites associated with his life and work.

By the fourth century the heirs of St. Thomas became hierarchically dependent on the Assyrian Church – an Eastern Syriac church also founded by Thomas, but centered in the Persian Empire. The catholicos-patriarch of the Assyrian Church regularly dispatched bishops to the Indian church to ordain priests and deacons and regulate ecclesial life.

In the eighth century, Mar Timotheos I (780? – 823), the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church, appointed an ethnic Assyrian as the metropolitan archbishop for the Thomas Christians, with the title of Metropolitan and Gate of All India. The social and political leader of these Christians, however, was the Archdeacon of All India, an Indian priest whose office was inherited.

For more than 1,500 years the Thomas Christians were fully integrated into Indian society. While their traditions and liturgical practices reflected their Eastern Syriac roots, other elements of this tradition, such as the method of praying for the dead, revealed their Hindu cultural heritage.

Persia’s hostilities with the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, as well as the advent of Islam, severed the contacts of the Assyrian and Indian churches with the rest of Christendom.

The arrival of the Portuguese at the close of the 15th century dramatically changed the lives of all Indians. When Vasco da Gama staked his claim for the king, he found not only silk and spices, gold and jewels, but a community who joyfully welcomed the Portuguese as companions in the Christian faith. But they worshipped in an unfamiliar manner.

The Portuguese monarchy supported the missionary efforts of several religious communities, which included the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans and others. A Latin (Roman) Catholic hierarchy was established in 1533 with the erection of the Diocese of Goa. The diocese claimed jurisdiction over all of India’s Christians, denying the authentic authority, rights and privileges accorded to the leaders of the Thomas Christians.

Motivated by the spirit of the Inquisition and the reforms of the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), the Portuguese focused their attention on the Thomas Christians who, while affirming communion with the Church of Rome, retained their ties to the Assyrian Church. The Portuguese identified union with Rome with Latin traditions and rites and demanded latinization as the price of this union.

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Tags: India Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Thomas Christians