Catholic Church is a communion of Churches with their own particular
characteristics expressed in worship, spirituality, theology and
disciplinary laws. Syro-Malabar Church is one among them.
Until the 18th century, the
Church was known as the Church of the St. Thomas Christians because it
was founded by St. Thomas, the Apostle. According to tradition, St.
Thomas came to India in 52 A.D., preached the Good News and a Martyred
in Mylapore near the present Chennai (Madras).
a Church that existed outside the geographical limits of the Roman
Empire, the Church of the St. Thomas Christians had little contact
with the Roman Church or the other Churches within the Empire. At the
same time, it maintained communion with the Church of Rome through the
Church in the Persian Empire, which later came to be known as the East
Syrian or Chaldean or Babylonian Church.
is believed that, in
Persian Empire, Christianity was introduced by the
It seems that the Christians in
had contact with these Christians of the
from very early times. Such a contact was possible as India had
foreign commercial relations in those days. In the middle or the later
half of the 4th century, under the leadership of a merchant named
Thomas of Kanayi, a group of Christians from these communities
migrated to the southern parts of India, today known as Kerala. The
descendants of this latter group are called Knananites or Southists
and the former Northists. Both of these groups belong the Syro-Malabar
Church. Even today, they live as two separate communities with their
own separate dioceses and parishes.
some unknown reasons, at least from the 8th century till the end of
the 16th century, the Bishops of the
Church were appointed and sent by the Patriarch of the East Syrian
Church. There is a tradition, which says that there were Indian
Bishops in the beginning. But there is hardly any written proof for
to the Portuguese colonization in the early 16th century and of the
consequent ecclesiastical arrangements, European Bishops from the
Latin Church were appointed by the Pope to govern the St.Thomas
Christians from 1600 onwards, which practice ended in 1896 when
indigenous Bishops from among the St.Thomas Christians began to be
appointed. By that time, the ancient name ‘Church of St. Thomas
Christians’ had given way to the present name ‘Syro-Malabar
During the period from 1653 to 1887, many divisions took place within
the Syro-Malabar Church, mainly in their attempt to get rid of the
rule of the Latin Bishops, who often gave little value to the ancient
system of administration of the St. Thomas Christians and their
The European missionaries seem to have had the impression that the
St.Thomas Christians were not Catholics but Nestorians, since they
accepted Bishops from the East Syrian Church, which officially had
adopted Nestorianism. As they were living in a period contemporary to
the Council of Trent, which decided to deal toughly with heretics,
they were all out to "reduce the Syro-Malabarians to the Roman
There were also the commercial interests of the Portuguese behind the
appointment of Latin Bishops to rule the Syro-Malabarians. When the
last Bishop appointed by the East Syrian Patriarch died in 1597, the
Portuguese tightened their hold on the Syro-Malabarians and never
permitted any more East Syrian Bishops to enter Malabar.
In 1599, the Latin Archbishop of
Goa convened a Synod at a place called
Udayamperoor in Kerala, and enforced many unfamiliar customs on the
people. He also spread the news in
Europe that Syro-Malabarians were "reduced to
the Roman obedience," and in the Synod they accepted Catholicism as
well as the authority of the Pope.
The fact, however, was not so. The Syro-Malabarians had never accepted
Nestorianism even though they had contact with the East Syrians, and
they were not at all involved in any of the Christological
controversies. On the contrary, whenever they got a chance, they
reiterated their allegiance to the Pope and their communion with the
Church of Rome.
In any case, the rule of the Latin Bishops was never accepted by the
Syro-Malabarians and the climax of their protest was what is known in
the history as ‘Coonan Cross Oath’ (Coonan Kurissu Sathyam). The
leadership of the St.Thomas Christian community pledged never again to
accept the rule of the Jesuit missionaries any more, because it was
from among them that the Bishops were appointed. It took place in
History tells us that the St. Thomas Christians, who had gathered at
Mattancherry near Fort Kochi under the leadership of the Archdeacon to
receive a Bishop from Persia, took the oath touching on a cross that
was there, that they would not obey the Jesuits any more, who were the
main European Missionaries in India during that time.
‘Coonan Cross Oath’ was a revolt against the oppressive rule of the
Europeans and not against the Pope or the Holy See. After the Oath, 12
priests, at the instigation of one of them, laid hands the
Archdeacon’s head and “ordained him Bishop”. From there began the
division in the Church of the St.Thomas Christians.
Tension existed within the Church, because the faithful wanted to keep
the true faith; but they did not wish to be under the rule of the
Bishops, who were appointed by the Portuguese crown. Some of them
stood aloof in schism, while some others returned, accepting the
authority of the Latin Bishop.
Those who remained under the "pseudo Bishop" later accepted the
tradition of the Antiochean non-Catholic tradition, and came to be
known as the Orthodox Church. Later, as the fruit of Protestant
missionary work, many other non-Catholic Churches began to grow in
India, particularly in Kerala.
There were continuous attempts for the re-establishment of the lost
communion. But nothing succeeded mainly because of the opposition from
the European missionaries. It was to obtain permission for receiving
this group into the Catholic Church that Fr. Joseph Kariattil and Fr.
Thomas Paremmakkal, two priests from the Church of St. Thomas
Christians, went to
Rome in the 18th century. Fr. Kari attil was ordCiined archbishop of
the St. Thomas Christians, and had received a mandate to receive the
dissident group with its bishop to the Catholic communion.
Unfortunately Bishop Kariattil on his way to Kerala died in
Goa in 1786.
Finally, in 1930 a group of them under the leadership of their
archbishop called Mar Ivanios reestctblished their communion with the
Catholic Church and the Holy See accepted it as a separate Catholic
Church with the name of Syro-Malankara Church. Those who remained in
communion of Pope after the Coonan Cross Oath later came to be known
as the Syro-Malabarians. It was a name given by the Roman authorities
to refer to the Catholic St.Thomas Christians. The name Syro-11alabar
was chosen apparently to avoid confusion with the Malabar rite which
existed as a part of the Latin Church in the
Even those who remained in communion were fighting for getting Bishops
of their own rite and nation. It became a reality only in 1896 when
the Apostolic Vicariates of Trichur, Ernakulam and Changanachery were
established and three indigenous priests were appointed as vicars
Ever since the Syro-Malabar
Church grew phenomenally in all aspects. Because of the increased
mobility of people many members of the
Church emigrated to other parts of
and foreign countries. Though they remain members of the Syro-Malabar
Church, they had little chance of following their own traditions in
their life of faith because only the Latin Church was present in many
of the lands they migrated as U.S.A and Canada.
As a result of the teaching of the second
council there was an awakening both in the Bishops of this Church as
well as the faithful scattered all over the world about their identity
and their duty to preserve and promote their tradition.
The Code of Canons of the
Churches or the Oriental Canon Law prescribes that these traditions be
preserved and fostered. That means that provision must be made for
these faithful to practice and grow in their own tradition everywhere
in the world.
Various ways are prescribed for providing pastoral care for these
migrant Eastern Christians. The first one is to set apart a priest in
the Latin Parish for the care of Eastern Christians. If that does not
ensure proper care, then vicar general under the local Bishop is to be
appointed. If that too becomes ineffective because of any reason,
particularly because the number of the faithful to be taken care of is
too big, then a diocese should be established for them.
The Knanaya community had their own parishes and in 1911 a separate
vicariate apostolic, Kottayam was erected for them. Bishop Kuriakose
Kunnacherry is their present bishop. He has jurisdiction over all the
Kananaya faithful within the provinces of Ernakulam , Changanacherry,
Trichur and Tellicherry. The auxiliary bishop of Kottayam as Syncellus
or representative of the Bishop of Kottayam resides at Kannur in
Northern Kerala nnd looks after the needs of the
Kananava faithful in the
the time of the Coonan Cross Oath many of the Kananaya parishes also
had accepted the "pseudo bishop" ordained by the twelve priests. In
the course of time they too accepted the Antiochean way of worship and
When the reestablishment of communion came about in 1930 some of the
Kananaya parishes also followed the same. However instead of joining
the Syro-Malankara Church they joined the archdiocese of Kottayam in
the Syro-Malabar Church even though they follow the Antiochean
liturgy. They have separate parishes and parish priests within the
archdiocese of Kottayam. The S1. Thomas Christians in India were under
the rule of the Latin bishops from 1600 to 1896. In 1887 the S1.
Thomas Christians were given two separate ecclesiastical
circumscriptions called Apostolic vicariates. They were Trichur and
1896 there took place a reorganization as a result three vicariates,
namely Trichur, Emakulam and Changanacherry came into existence. Three
Syro - Malabar priests were ordained bishops and put in charge of
these units. These indigenous bishops were John Menacherry (Trichur),
Louis Pazheparampil (Emaklllam) and Mathew Makeil (Changanacherry). In
1911 a new vicariate at Kottayam was established for the Knananites
and Mar Makeil was transferred to this new vicariate .
Later in 1923 the Apostolic Vicariates were made dioceses and the
diocese of Ernakulam was made .Archdiocese and its bishop archbishop.
In the same year the Syro-Malabar hierarchy was established. In 1957
the diocese of Changanacherry was made archdiocese. Having two
archbishops with no common head is not customary in the Eastern
Churches. So this new provision created an anomalous juridical
situation in the S yro - Malabar Church. As the new Oriental Canon Law
was promulgated in 1990 this situation could not be continued.
Canon Law foresees only four categories o.f sui iuris Churches -
Patriarchal, Major ArchipepiscopaL Metropolitan and other. Syro-Malabar
Church did not fall into any of them. So on 16 December 1992 Pope John
Paul II declared the Syro-Malabar Church as a Major Archiepiscopal
Church and appointed Cardinal Antony Padiyara, the then Archbishop
ofErnakulam as the first Major Archbishop.
In November 1996 Cardinal Padiyara resigned from his office as Major
Archbishop. In his place instead of allowing the synod to elect a new
Major Archbishop the Pope appointed an Administrator in the person of
Archbishop Varkey Vithayathil, C.Ss.R. He was a priest belonging to
the Redemptorist Congregation. 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.
According to the Oriental Canon Law the Major Archbishop is the head
of the Syro - Malabar Church immediately under the Pope. However his
authority is limited to the dioceses that are the suffragans of the
archdioceses of Emakulam, Changnacherry, Trichur and Tellicherry. The
Syro-Malabar dioceses in other parts of India and abroad are directly
under the Pope.
Even though according to the Oriental Canon Law the Synod of this
Church has the right to appoint new bishops, these rights were
reserved to the Pope until recently. On
3 January 2004 the Pope restituted this right to
the Bishops' Synod.
The Major Archbishop of the
Church is automatically the archbishop of ErnakulamAngamaly
archdiocese also because it is determined so by the Holy See. So
whoever is elected as Major Archbishop or whoever exercises his
authority unless otherwise decided by the Holy See will have two
offices. As Archbishop of Emakulam - Angamaly he has his office at
Ernakulam. His office as Major Archbishop is at Mount S1. Thomas.
As in the secular administrative systems there are three \V'ings in
the administration of the Syro-Malabar Church also: Executive or
administrative, legislative and judicial. The Major Archbishop, his
officials, various commissions and committees, the Permanent Synod and
the Major Archiepiscopal Assembly form the executive. His officials
include his chancellors and finance officer or officers. Various
commissions are appointed by the Major Archbishop for dealing with
matters as liturgy, pastoral care of the migrant Syro-Malabarians and
so on. The members of the commissions are ordinarily bishops. The
Permanent Synod is an• advisory council of bishops to heip the Major
Archbishop in fulfilling his function. Three of them are elected by
the Synod and o'ne is nominated by the Major Archbishop. Among the
three elected at least two must be bishops who govern dioceses.
Including the Major Archbishop there are five members in the Permanent
The Major Archiepiscopal Assembly is a meeting of the representatives
of the various sections of faithful of the Syro-Malabar Church. It is
to meet at least once in five years. If necessary the Major Archbishop
can convene it as often as needed. The fIrst Major Archiepiscopal
Assembly of the SyroMalabar Church was held from 9 to
12 November 1998
at Mount St. Thomas.
The Synod of Bishops is the legislative body. All the bishops of the
Syro-Malabar Church are members in it and have voting rights. It can
enact laws for the Syro-Malabar Church. If they are liturgical laws
they will be applicable for all the dioceses; but if disciplinary they
are applicable only in those dioceses which fall within the proper
territory of the Syro-Malabar Major Archbishop.
For judicial activities there are the Superior Tribunal and the Major
Archiepiscopal Ordinary Tribunal. The Superior Tribunal is the Synod
itself However it exercises this function through three bishops
elected from among the members of the synod. One of them is nominated
as the Moderator. The Major Archiepiscopal Ordinary Tribunal will have
its own personnel. They are not bishops. The personnel can be anyone
with the prescribed qualifications. The head of the Ordinary Tribunal
is known as president.
The Syro-Malabar Major
Mount St Thomas,
P.B. No. 3110, Kakkanad P.O., Kochi 682 030,Kerala, India
Tel. +91 484-2424768, 2424780, 2425727, 2426235, 2426236, Fax: +91
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