From ONE Magazine

The Church Is A-Changing

While one of the most ancient of churches, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is also one of the most modern and dynamic. Throughout its extensive history the church has adapted to the powerful elements that have transformed this subcontinent. Today it is a major progressive force in India.

In the true spirit of Christ, a Syro-Malabar army of priests, religious and lay persons offer spiritual sustenance, moral education and social service programs to those in need.

Prior to his appointment as the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, Mar Varkey Vithayathil, C.S.s.R., worked in various apostolates for more than 30 years. From his residence in Ernakulam, Kerala, this soft-spoken man explains that, after Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church, the Syro-Malabar is the second largest of the 22 Eastern Catholic churches; its influence is great.

“All churches, East or West, have equal dignity and the same rights and obligations to preach the Gospel and address injustices,” he says. And this church has the personnel to address these issues.

Vocations to religious life are not a problem – more than 2,000 candidates for the priesthood or religious life are admitted every year. About half of these remain within the church’s territory in southern India, while most of the remaining religious join Latin dioceses in northern India. Once they leave Kerala, which is 25 percent Christian, they enter an India that is overwhelmingly Hindu and Muslim and, on occasion, hostile toward Christians. Some go farther afield and find work in Europe, the United States and Africa.

“There are 15 million Catholics in India,” Mar Varkey notes, “but only 3.5 million of them are Syro-Malabar Catholics. While some 50,000 Syro-Malabar men and women have entered religious life as priests and religious, only 27,000 of them work in Syro-Malabar apostolates. The remaining 23,000 work in Latin missions throughout India and the world.

“Seventy-three percent of the priests and religious working in the Latin dioceses in northern India,” he adds, “hail from the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.”

In spite of these impressive numbers, the Archbishop expresses concern that so many of these Syro-Malabar priests and religious may be losing touch with their particular spiritual practices and heritage.

Father Jose Porunnedom, Chancellor of the Major Archiepiscopal Curia, was a seminarian in the 1970’s at Saint Joseph’s Pontifical Seminary, which in those days functioned as an interchurch seminary. Together, Latin, Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics studied to become priests while maintaining the integrity of their particular rites and traditions.

Father Jose says he is nostalgic for those days, “when the different churches came together and I was able to mix with different Catholic groups. Now each Catholic Church in India has its own seminary and there is more separation.”

Centered in Ernakulam, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church reaches out to her country’ poor through an extensive social services network. Many of these programs receive direct support from CNEWA.

“We offer empowerment, not charity,” explains Social Services Director Father Varghese Kattup. “The emphasis is on raising peoples’ awareness,” he added. “It is better to teach people to catch fish than to give people fish.” This invaluable program guides the poor, regardless of caste or creed, through various social service activities located throughout each of the 26 Syro-Malabar dioceses.

Micro-credit programs encourage poor families to save their money; small loans offer women the opportunity to start their own businesses. A house-building program uses direct grants or loans to allow families to obtain basic housing. Health programs, latrine construction, safe drinking water, garbage recycling, biogas generators – which generate cooking gas from farm animal manure – smokeless stoves, organic farming and composting, AIDS awareness, vocational skills training, homes for the aged, orphanages and emergency disaster relief are just some of the many programs and services offered.

Anthony and Teresa are small-scale farmers with three children. They have two water buffalo and a tiny plot of land. The waste from these animals goes into a sealed tank, which creates biogas for cooking.

“Before we got a loan for biogas we had to forage for firewood to do our cooking,” explains Anthony. “We wasted much time. Now we have enough gas for all of our cooking and the remaining waste product is an even better fertilizer for our plants than the original manure.”

Another beneficiary, the widowed Ammini Mohan, used to live in a shanty made of plastic bags and sticks. Now she lives in an attractive concrete cottage provided by the church.

“I love my new home – I am so happy,” she declares.

Christian Life communities, which provide additional social services, exist in all parishes. Twenty-two-year-old Tennyson Jacob, a bright young man from Udayamperoor, explains that “when we give, we feel joy” and describes his voluntary work building houses for the poor. He is also involved in seminar camps for India’s youth, Bible conventions, blood and eye donation campaigns, cancer screenings and simpler projects like building Christmas cribs and making Easter decorations. Tennyson comments that the Christian Life communities and their thousands of young volunteers follow a two-pronged, “social and spiritual” approach in their work with those in need.

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is also influential in educating its country’ children. It runs an effective religious education program that provides religious instruction from an early age. Father Jacob Nangelimalil is the Director of Catechists for the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. He explains how far-reaching and important the catechist movement has become in Kerala – for both Christians and non-Christians alike.

Christians run most of Kerala’s schools, even if they are funded by the state. School catechism in Kerala is called Moral Science and all students, regardless of religion, take classes in this subject. They must earn high grades if they are to further their education.

The Catechists Department publishes 12 textbooks for each year of Moral Science education. While not obviously Christian, the texts are consonant with Christian moral thought. In addition, Father Jacob claims that all Syro-Malabar Catholic children at-tend a two-hour Sunday school: “They could not advance in life without it!” he exclaims.

While on the one hand conservative and steeped in 2,000 years of liturgical tradition, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is also youthful and dynamic, with a charismatic side more reminiscent of the Pentecostal movement in the United States. A center of this movement is the Divine Retreat Center in Muringoor. Run by the Vincentian Fathers, it has space for over 6,000 guests.

“Many miracles are taking place here,” says Father George Panackal, Director, who stresses that up to 50 percent of the pilgrims who visit the center are sick and hoping for a miraculous cure.

The vast halls of the Divine Retreat Center are often filled to capacity, and offer charismatic preaching in several languages. Courses last for a week at a time and run year-round. There are several such Divine Retreat Centers in southern India; they represent one of the most astonishingly dynamic sides of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

Father Jose Puthiedath, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, explains this trend toward charismatic preaching by admitting that the Syro-Malabars are, in some ways, copying the style of the Pentecostals, who are “very successful now in India. The Pentecostal style is more charismatic and has much community spirit – they love spontaneous prayer and their spirituality is extremely active and genuine.”

There is no doubt the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is more than holding its own in the enigmatic land of India. The secret of its success must be its ability to adapt to the changing times. Through education the church provides moral stability. Through the love and devotion of its many workers the church provides comfort, relief from poverty and social improvement. To its 3.5 million faithful the church is a spiritual anchor in an ever-changing world.

Sean Sprague is a frequent contributor to these pages.