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Once Again, Syro-Malabar Yogam

Church representatives gather in a major assembly to discuss the challenges confronting their community.

by Father Andrews Thazhath

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Last November, 353 Syro-Malabar Catholics gathered at Mt. St. Thomas in Kerala, India, for an event that has not occurred in centuries. This gathering, a “Major Archiepiscopal Assembly,” included archbishops, bishops, priests, religious and members of the laity – all representatives of the Syro-Malabar Catholic community, an autonomous (sui iuris) Eastern Church in full communion with the Church of Rome.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which today numbers 3.5 million faithful, traces its origins to the Apostle Thomas, who arrived on the shores of southern India, founded seven churches and died a martyr death in 72 A.D.

Over time, those who embraced the Gospel preached by Thomas became known as Thomas Christians. Eventually this Christian community, who maintained communion with the Universal Church, established jurisdictional links with the Persian Church, which was East Syrian in its rites, traditions and disciplines. The Catholicos-Patriarch of this church sent bishops to the Thomas Christians, led by a metropolitan archbishop who held the title of Metropolitan of all India. These bishops administered the Thomas Christians in accord with East Syrian disciplines and celebrated the sacred mysteries, including the Qurbana, or Eucharistic liturgy, according to East Syrian traditions.

After the European powers began to colonize India in the 16th century, the ancient bonds uniting the Persian and Thomas churches were severed. The Portuguese authorities, and later the Holy See, doubting the Thomas Christian Catholicity, appointed Latin bishops to govern them. Over time, many Thomas Christians left the community and sought communion with the Syrian Orthodox or Protestant churches, thus dividing the apostolic Thomas Christian community.

At the end of the 19th century, the Holy See began a process of restoring a native hierarchy for this “Syro-Malabar Catholic” Church, yet it lacked a major archbishop. In 1992 Pope John Paul II, recognizing this need, appointed Antony Cardinal Padiyara, Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, as Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. Many thought this appointment might heal the wounds dividing the Syro-Malabar community.

For decades, debate had raged within the church over the form of the Eucharistic liturgy to be restored in place of the Westernized liturgy imposed by the Latin bishops in 1599. One group advocated the complete restoration of the pre-16th century East Syrian Qurbana. A second desired a restoration of this liturgy but with certain adaptations to meet the needs of the region modern Christian community. Questions of adequate pastoral assistance for Syro-Malabar migrants – particularly in other regions of India – and concerns for the changing political and social scenario in India concerned all Syro-Malabar Catholics.

Since ancient times, the yogam, an assembly of Syro-Malabar clergy and laity, gathered to tackle issues such as these affecting the community. Even during the colonial period, when Portuguese bishops convened synods among Thomas Christians, the laity participated. This institution existed without parallels in either the Eastern or Western Christian traditions. There, different “synodal” models existed, but participants included bishops almost exclusively.

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Tags: India Syro-Malabar Catholic Church Church history Thomas Christians