Syro-Malabar Church History
    Syro-Malabar Church History

The church of St. Thomas Christians is an Apostolic Church founded in India by St. Thomas, one of the twelve apostles of Christ. According to ancient, strong and continuous traditions, St. Thomas landed at Kodungalloor (Muziris) in 52 A.D. After preaching and establishing Christian communities in different parts of India, he suffered martyrdom at Mylapur in 72 A.D.


Tradition holds that St. Thomas founded seven churches in Kerala; at Kodungalloor, Niranam, Kollam, Chayal, Kottakkavu, Kokkamangalam and Palayoor. Even before the Christian era, there were Jewish colonies in South India and we see with amazement the strange coincidence that these seven churches are situated in or near these colonies. From early centuries the Church of St. Thomas Christians came into life-relation with the Christian communities that came to be known as East Syrian Church.This relationship made the St. Thomas Christians share the liturgical, spiritual and other ecclesiastical traditions with the East Syrian Church (therefore they are grouped under Chaldean Rite). At the same time the Christians of St. Thomas kept their distinctive character especially in Church administration and socio-cultural and ascetic-spiritual life.

Knanaya Catholics of Syro-Malabar Church claim their origin to Thomas of Cana and the 72 families that migrated to Kerala in 345 A.D. from the land of Syria. The descendants of this group maintained their separate identity. In the matter of liturgy and spiritual activities they fully belong to the Syro-Malabar Church and as such they are an integral part of it. His Holiness Pope Pius X established the diocese of Kottayam in Kerala for this endogamous group in 1911.

Though today the Syro-Malabarians are found mainly in the southern state of Kerala and in the big cities of India there are evidences to believe that there were communities of these Christian in other parts of India right from early centuries. For some reasons unknown to us, they ceased to exist. These Christians were well established and integrated in the fabric of the society at large. In the early centuries their main occupations are believed to have been military services to the local kings, trade or agriculture. However, this is no more so today.

The head of the Church of St. Thomas Christians assumed the title “The Metropolitan of All India”. A St. Thomas Christian priest with the title ‘Archdeacon of all India’ played the role of the effective leader of the community (Jathikkukarthavyan). The Archdeacon carried out the administration through general and local assemblies (Pallyogams). Their socio-cultural life was fully Indian and in their life of worship they adopted certain elements of this life. Their ascetic-spiritual life reflected Indo-oriental tradition. The sum total of this life was called the Law of St. Thomas (Mar Thoma Margam).

Because of the Portuguese colonization of parts of India in the late 15th and in the early 16th centuries and the consequent ecclesiastical arrangements, European bishops from the Latin Church were appointed to govern the St. Thomas Christians. Thus the Syro-Malabarians were very much influenced by the European Latin Christians. This is reflected both in the system of church administration as well as in the life of worship. The Latin influence led also to the gradual disappearance of the identity of the Syro-Malabarians as a separate individual Church. In other words, the Syro-Malabarians began to be considered as a group of Catholics following a different rite in a Latin diocese.

The Synod of Diamper

In the 16th century the Portuguese encountered the Law of Thomas. In the beginning the encounter was cordial but it developed into confrontation because missionaries in general failed to accept a Christian life different from theirs. Hence they launched a policy of making the St. Thomas Christians conform to the western pattern of Christian life. They attempted to execute this policy through the decrees of the Udayamperoor (Diamper) synod of 1599.

The Portuguese convened the controversial Synod of Diamper (Udayamperoor Soonahdos) in 1599. It has been repeatedly established by historians that the manner in which the synod was convened and its decrees passed were a naked abuse of power by Archbishop Menezes of Goa and his colleagues and in violation of all the ecclesiastical laws that existed then. With the synod the long-standing relations of the Church of India with the East Syrian church of Persia were terminated and the St. Thomas Christians were forcibly brought under the Latin Jurisdiction and of the Portuguese Padroado. Thus the Church of St. Thomas Christians became a ‘Colony Church’ of the Portuguese, and a period of massive Latinization of the Liturgy and the ecclesial life of the St. Thomas Christians began.

The Coonan Cross Oath

Naturally the St. Thomas Christians protested against the Latin rule. Their protest culminated in what is known as the Coonan Cross Oath (Bent Cross Oath) of 1653. A group of priest and lay people led by the Archdeacon Thomas Parampil swore on the Bible kept on the high altar in the church of Our Lady of Life at Mattanchery near Cochin and took an oath that they would not be subject to the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa, Francis Gracia. The crowd outside shared in the oath by holding on to a rope tied to a cross in the churchyard. It is said that the cross bent as a result. Hence the oath is known as Coonan (bent) Cross Oath. The site of the oath is visited today by many tourists. A cross stands at the site as a symbol of a sensational mass demonstration of protest by the native Christians against the Latin rule.

This revolt eventually split the St. Thomas Christians first into two groups. While one group continued to recognize the prelates appointed by Rome, the other broke away from Rome and entered into communion with the West-Syrian Church of Antioch. This group has assumed various names in the course of history: Jacobites, Puthenkoortukar (the new set) and the Syrian Orthodox Church of India. In the 19th century the Marthomites separated from the Jacobites on account of Anglican influence. The Jacobites were further divided into two groups: the MetranKakshi (The bishop’s Party) calling itself the Syrian Orthodox Church of India, whose Catholicos or supreme head resides at Devalokam, Kottayam, and the Bava Kakshi (the Patriarch’s party) calling itself the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church of India which acknowledges the Antiochean Jacobite Patriarch as its head.

The Developments in the Aftermath of the Coonan Cross Oath

A crisis followed the Coonan Cross Oath. The rejection of the Latin rule by the St. Thomas Christians was so thorough that it demanded Rome’s intervention. The Propaganda Congregation of Rome acted promptly and dispatched Carmelite monks to India. One of them, Joseph Sebastiani OCD, was made the bishop and vicar apostolic of Malabar in 1661. Meanwhile the Dutch who were in competition with the Portuguese, captured Cochin and asked Sebastiani to leave India. Chandy Parambil, a son of the soil, was consecrated bishop and appointed vicar apostolic in Sebastiani’s place. After Chandy’s death in 1687, there was a period of confusion. 

As a result of an agreement between Rome and the Dutch, the Holy See, could appoint an Italian Carmelite as the vicar apostolic of Malabar in 1770. The Carmelite vicar apostolic eventually took residence at Varapuzha. These vicars apostolic were under the Propaganda Congregation of Rome. There were also archbishops or administrators appointed by the Portuguese Padroado who resided at Kodungallur. Thus the Kerala Christians were under two jurisdictions: the Propaganda represented by the vicar apostolic who resided at Varapuzha and the Padroado represented by the Archbishop of Kodungallur. 

In the course of time, the grievance of St. Thomas Christians against the foreign missionaries gained momentum. Many conventions (pothuyogams) were held at Angamaly to orchestrate their grievances, of which the one in 1778 decided to send a delegation to Rome. A few years after this convention, Fr. Joseph Kariattil and Fr. Thomas Paremmakkal made their historic journey to Rome and Lisbon. In 1782, Kariattil was consecrated Archbishop of Kodungallur in Lisbon, but on his way back before he could reach Kerala, he died in Goa in 1786. Thomas Paremmakkal kept a journal of their journey. This journal is the famous Varthamanapusthakam. Following the death of his companion, Paremmakkal was made the administrator (Govarnador) of Kodungallur.

This was the time of great turmoil. The agitation against foreign vicars apostolic continued to gain momentum. In 1787, representatives of 84 churches assembled at Angamaly and drew up a document known as the Angamaly Podiola, which lists the sins of commission and omission of the foreign missionaries. Rome took these developments seriously and sent delegates to study the situation. 

The Syro Malabar Hierarchy Restored

In the light of the report the delegates submitted, Pope Leo XIII decreed in 1887 the separation of the Rite of the St. Thomas Catholics from that of the Latins. The Pope erected two vicariates apostolic (quasi-dioceses) for the St. Thomas Catholics: Trichur and Kottayam, but appointed two Latin bishops, Bishop Adolf Medlycot, an Anglo-Indian and Bishop Charles Levinge, a French Jesuit, as their vicars apostolic. The plea for native bishops continued: In 1896, the Pope decreed the erection of three vicariates for the St. Thomas Catholics: Thrichur, Ernakulam and Changanacherry. This time the vicariates were entrusted to the care of native Indian bishops: John Menachery, Louis Pazheparambil and Mathew Makil respectively. 

In 1911, Pius X erected a fourth vicariate, the vicariate of Kottayam for the southists, an endogamous community (a community which allows marriage only within itself) among the St. Thomas Christians. They claim to be the descendants of the East-Syrian Christians who migrated from Persia along with Knai Thomman. The descendants of the original community of St. Thomas Christians are known as the Northists. On December 2, 1923 Pope Pius XI established the Syro Malabar Hierarchy in India with Ernakulam as the Metropolitan See and Changanacherry, Thrissur and Kottayam as suffagrans. 

The Church of St. Thomas Christians Today

With the progress of the Syro Malabar Church another phenomenon was also taking place. The St. Thomas Christians who were mainly agriculturists were finding it hard to have sufficient arable land in their traditional habitats in south Kerala as the population increased. The famine that followed the Sec ond World War also nearly compelled many to look for better and more land for cultivation. Thus began the migration to the northern part of the present state of Kerala in the late forties and early fifties of this century. There was also migration to the southern parts of Karnataka and western parts of Tamil Nadu.

The spiritual needs of these migrants, who often lived in very remote areas, were not looked after properly in the beginning. Later the local Latin bishops took care of their spiritual needs. Yet they were not satisfied since they were not accustomed to Latin liturgy and customs. The Syro Malabar prelates could not take care of them since none of them had jurisdiction in these territories. Their jurisdiction did not cover areas beyond the river Bharathapuzha in the central part of Kerala. Thus the need of establishing new dioceses outside the previously permitted territory became a necessity. 

In 1953 the diocese of Tellicherry was established. The new diocese covered a very extensive area including some districts in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In the south it bordered Thrissur while in the north the territories extended up to Shimoga in Karnataka. In the east the entire district of Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu was under the new diocese. In the mean time the territories of Changanacherry and Thrissur were extended to the southern district of Kanyakumari and to Coimbatore in southeast in Tamil Nadu respectively because the Syro Malabarians were settling there also. 

There was also an increased missionary consciousness in the Syro Malabar Church and about the equality of all the Churches in the Catholic Communion at this time. However, until 1962 the Syro Malabar Church had no mission territory. It may be recalled that the absence of Syro Malabar missions was not due to any lack of interest on the part of the Syro Malabarians but because the policy of Holy See was not in favour of Syro Malabar Missions. For the first time a mission Exarchate in the Syro Malabar rite was established (1962) in Chanda, which later became a diocese. The Vatican II brought about a sea change in the consciousness that the Eastern Churches also have equal right and responsibility to evangelize. This was explicitly stated by the Council after reading the plight of the Syro Malabar Church , which was restricted to a few areas in south India in spite of its vitality and vigour. Later, seven more Syro Malabar mission dioceses were established in central and north India . They are Bijnor, Rajkot , Jagadalpur, Sagar, Satna, Ujjain and Gorakhpur.

A ninth Syro Malabar diocese called Kalyan near Bombay was established in 1989. The origin of this last one, however, owes to a different factor. As in the case of the migration to the north of Kerala, the Syro Malabarians were migrating to other parts of India in search of work. The high literacy rate and the non-availability of enough jobs in Kerala catalysed this type of migration. In almost all metros of India there are considerable number of Syro Malabarians. According to the teaching of Vatican II the faithful of each Church have the right to worship according to their own ecclesial traditions and they have the duty to preserve and promote their rites. Since there are large communities of Syro Malabarians in different parts of India, provision must have to be made for them to worship in their own ecclesial traditions. The Syro Malabar Church authorities were requesting the Holy See since long to make arrangements to provide pastoral care for the faithful in diaspora. As the first step, Kalyan was established in 1989. There is possibility for the creation of many more such dioceses in different parts of India and outside. 

As the population in the dioceses of Ernakulam, Changanacherry and Thrissur increased, there was a need to divide them. Thus dioceses of Palai and Kanjirappally took origin from Changanacherry while the diocese of Kothamangalam was carved out of Ernakulam. Palakkad and Irinjalakuda were erected by bifurcation of Thrissur. Tellicherry was divided into Mananthavady and Thamarassery. The Archbishop of Kottayam has jurisdiction over the Southists in all dioceses. 

With the establishment of new dioceses there was also an increase in the activities of the Church in various fields. The Church began to establish educational institutions, houses for the aged, for the handicapped, for mentally retarded, rehabilitation centers for the distressed, centers for the alcoholics, orphans and non-formal education centers etc. Printing presses and publishing houses also were established. In the field of health more and more hospitals, clinics and dispensaries were started. It is beyond doubt that the better health and educational standard in Kerala now are among the major contributions of the Catholic institutions. 

The number of religious Congregations (Institutes of consecrated life) also increased. At present there are more than 40 Congregations for men and 130 for women in the Syro Malabar Church. The majority of these congregations are of Latin origin, founded in European countries. However, membership in Congregations of Latin origin is far ahead of other. Many of the Congregations of the Latin origin got established in the Syro Malabar Church because of the particular history of this Church. Many other came to the Syro Malabar Church in search of candidates, as the membership in these congregations in the European countries dwindled. In that process many have established their houses in the Syro Malabar dioceses. A few of them established Syro Malabar provinces. There are a couple of them who were in Kerala for decades but remained as Latin Congregations with a large number of Syro Malabarians as members. In the spirit of Vatican II they too are to establish Syro Malabar provinces. 

Even though the Syro Malabar Church grew in leaps and bounds, quantitatively and qualitatively, it was canonically in an anomaly. As far as the tradition of the Oriental Churches goes they should have a common head immediately after the Pope, normally with the title of Patriarch or Major Archbishop. The Oriental Code was promulgated in October 1990. As the Code came into force the Syro Malabar Church found itself in a difficult situation because it was not a Sui juris Church in the sense of the Code.

A Pontifical Commission was appointed in September 1992 with Archbishop Thomas White, Apostolic Nuncio to New Zealand, as Chairman and Prof. Robert Taft SJ and Fr. Michel Angelo Batiz OCD as members. The commission held extensive consultation in Kerala, visiting all the eparchies in the provinces of Ernakulam and Changanacherry. In the following December, the Pope decided to raise the Syro Malabar Church to a Major Archiepiscopal Sui juris Church and the Metropolitan of Ernakulam was appointed Major Archbishop, presumably in the light of the report of the Commission.

Since a new canonical situation was coming into existence, the necessary structures were to be created with the powers of the Major Archbishop envisaged in CCEO. Therefore, a special delegate of the Pope was appointed in the person of Archbishop Abraham Kattumana with special powers. Archbishop Kattumana was until then the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Ghana , Togo and Benin in the African continent. All the powers of the Major Archbishop were exercised by the Delegate while Cardinal An tony Padiyara, the Major Archbishop, retained only the precedence of honour and the right to be commemorated in liturgy. 

Even though the Church was raised to the Major Archiepiscopal status, two of the essential powers of the Major Archbishop and the Synod, namely, the right of election of the bishops and the right to decide on liturgical matters were reserved to the Pope. 

The Major Archbishop was installed at a religious ceremony on 20th May 1993 held in St. Mary’s Basilica Church at Ernakulam. The Curia of the Major Archbishop began functioning at the Archbishop’s House and lately has been shifted to “Mount St. Thomas”, a place twelve Kms away from the town. The Synod of Bishops met many times and did quite a lot of things. The Synod has already established the necessary administrative structures and formulated particular laws regarding a number of things.
In 1995 the Papal Delegate Archbishop Mar Abraham Kattumana died in Rome. The powers so far exercised by the Papal Delegate were given to Major Archbishop Mar Antony Cardinal Padiyara. In 1997 when Major Archbishop Mar An tony Cardinal Padiyara resigned, Archbishop Mar Varkey Vithayathil was appointed Apostolic Administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly. In 1997 a new diocese of Thackalay was created. In 1998 the Pope granted autonomy to the Church to decide on liturgical matters. In April 1999, the diocese of Belthangady was established bifurcating the diocese of Thalassery. In July 1999 the diocese of Adilabad was established bifurcating the diocese of Chanda. In 2001 the first Syro Malabar diocese outside India was established in North America with headquarters in Chicago. In 2002 the eparchy of Idukki was created bifurcating the diocese of Kothamangalam. In 2007, the diocese of Bhadravathywas established bifurcating the diocese of Belthangady.In 2010, the diocese of Ramanathapuramwas established bifurcating the diocese of Palghat; and the diocese of Mandyawas established bifurcating the diocese of Thalaserry.

To provide pastoral Care for the Syro Malabar faithful in     Delhi / Delhi, HP, Haryana, J&K, Punjab, parts of UP, the diocese of Faridabad was established in 2012. Diocese of St. Thomas the Apostle – Melbourne of the Syro-Malabar on 23 December 2013 for the migrant faithful of Syro Malabar Church in Australia.An Apostolic Exarchate for the Syro-Malabar faithful in Canada with its See in Mississauga was established on 6 August 2015.
Archbishop Mar VarkeyVithayathil was appointed Major Archbishop of the Church of St. Thomas Christians on 18th December 1999 and was installed in office on 26th January 2000. Pope John Paul II granted Syro Malabar Church full autonomy in jurisdiction in January 2004. With the conferring of the faculty to appoint bishops and create dioceses in the proper territory, the Syro Malabar Church can now exercise all faculties without reservation in accordance with the norms of Code of Canons for the Oriental Churches. 
Major Archbishop Varkey Cardinal Vithayathil passed away on Arpil 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 Syro-Malabar Church to be elected by its Synod. On February 18, 2012 Major Archbishop George Alencherry was made Cardinal and a member of the Consistory. 

Jurisdiction of Syro Malabar Church

Currently there are 31 Eparchial Sees in the Syro-Malabar Church, of which 5 are Archeparchies and 26 Eparchies. All the 5 Archeparchies as well as 13 eparchies are within the canonical territory which includes the whole of Kerala and some districts of the neighboring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The 13 eparchies within canonical territory are organized into suffragans of the 4 Metropolitan Sees. The Archeparchy of Kottayam is an Archeparchy without suffragan eparchies. Major Archbishop and the Synod has full authority over these 18 eparchial Sees.

The 13 Syro-Malabar Eparchies outside the canonical territory are directly under the Pope. Although their Bishops are members of the Syro-Malabar Bishop's Synod, the Major Archbishop has only limited authority over them. These eparchies are generally suffragans of the nearby Latin Archdioceses. 

In the Arch-eparchies and Eparchies within the canoncial territory and in the Eparchies of Kalyan, Faridabad, St. Thomas Diocese of Chicago and Melbourne, the authority of the respective bishops is over the Syro-Malabar Catholics only. The Syro-Malankara and Latin Catholics of these areas are under the respective Syro-Malankara or Latin bishop. On the other hand, in all other Syro-Malabar dioceses the authority of the Syro-Malabar bishop is exclusive. That is to say all Catholics, whether they are Syro-Malabarian, Syro-Malankarite or Latin living in these areas are under the Syro-Malabar bishop of the place. In a similar pattern all the Syro-Malabarians living in other areas are under the local Latin bishop. For example the Syro-Malabarians in Bangalore or Madras or other Indian or foreign places, even though they have many Syro-Malabar parishes, are under the Latin Bishop of the place. 

Syro-Malabar Church is constantly working for All-India jurisdiction and the right for pastoral care of its faithful all over the world.