Syro-Malabar Catholic Church

The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church is a Chaldean Rite, Major Archiepiscopal Church in Full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It is one of the 22 sui iuris Eastern Catholic Churches in the Roman Catholic Church. It is the largest group among the Saint Thomas Christians and trace its origins to St. Thomas the Apostle who is believed to have come to India in AD 52. The Syro Malabar Church is the largest St. Thomas Christian community in India. The Church was earlier referred to as the Syro- Chaldean Church. They are also referred to as Syrian Catholics in Kerala.


Origin of St. Thomas Christians

According to ancient traditions which some argue are supported with modern archeological findings St. Thomas reportedly landed at Kodungalloor (Muziris) in 52 A.D. After preaching and establishing Christian communities in different parts of India, he is said to have suffered martyrdom at Mylapur in 72 A.D.

Tradition holds that St. Thomas reportedly founded seven churches in Kerala; at Kodungalloor, Niranam, Kollam, Chayal, Kottakkavu, Kokkamangalam and Palayoor among the nativies and the Jewish diaspora. Even before the Christian era, there were Jewish colonies in South India and there is a strange coincidence that these seven churches are situated in or near these colonies.

East Syrian Relationship

From early centuries the Church of Saint Thomas Christians came into life-relation with the Christian communities that came to be known as East Syrian Church. This relationship made the Saint 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.

At least from the 4th century until the end of the 16th century the Bishops of the Church of Malabar were sent from the East Syrian Church, appointed by the Patriarch of the East Syrian Church. While the bishops originally hailing from Persia who arrived here were placed in charge of liturgy, the administration of the church remained under the control of the local Archdeacon, who was also the head of the local community.

The bishops who came from the East Syrian Church, were concerned with purely and exclusively spiritual. Essentially, Thomas Christians followed three distinct ways of activity in their religious sphere: their liturgy was of East Syrian Church; their culture was purely Indian. They had their own style of life: austere and humble way of life with high thinking; their governance of Church was through Palliyogam, Synod, etc. as is prevalent in Oriental Churches.

Arrival of Portuguese in Malabar

Saint Thomas Christians remained in communion with the Church of the East until their encounter with the Portuguese in 1498. With the establishment of Portuguese power in parts of India, clergy of that nationality, in particular certain members of the Society of Jesus, attempted to Latinize the Indian Christians.

When Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese missionaries arrived in India in 1498 they found no Christians in the country except in Malabar. And the Christians they found were St. Thomas Syrian Christians. Syrian Christians were friendly to Portuguese missionaries at first; but later, due to certain differences mainly in the liturgy, the relations between them became more and more strained.

Under the Padroado agreement with the Holy See the Portuguese missionaries started to interfere and things took a turn for the worse. They suspected the Indian Christians of heresy and schism and wanted to introduce the Latin customs and Latin manner of ecclesiastical administration, severing the East Syrian connection.

Portuguese started a Latin diocese in Goa (1534) and another at Cochin (1558) in the hope of bringing the Thomas Christians under their jurisdiction. In a Goan Synod held in 1585 it was decided to introduce the Latin liturgy and practices among the Thomas Christians. In the Synod of Diamper of 1599 the Portuguese Archbishop, Don Alexis Menezes succeeded in appointing a Latin bishop to govern the Thomas Christians. The Portuguese padroado was extended over them.

The strife between the Portuguese missionaries and the indigenous Christians and their Iraqi prelates, was not of a truly doctrinal, but of an ecclesiological and jurisdictional character. Every attempt to resist the latinization process was branded by them heretical. Under the indigenous leader, archdeacon, the Thomas Christians resisted, but the result was disastrous. Their efforts sowed seeds of disunity and division in the Indian Church which led to further divisions and disunity and as a result the once united Church, the Church that was in full communion with the See of Peter ended up in various denominations.

Division in St.Thomas Christians

The first solemn protest place in 1653 with the Koonan Cross Oath. Under the leadership of archdeacon Thoma a section of the Thomas Christians publicly took an oath that they would not obey the Portuguese bishops and the Jesuit fathers. In 1665 an Antiochean bishop called Mar Gregorios arrived in India and the dissident group under the leadership of the archdeacon welcomed him.

This was the starting point of division among the Syrian Christians who till then were one Church. Though most of the Thomas Christians gradually relented in their strong opposition to the Western control, the arrival of the Bishop Mar Gregory of the Syriac Orthodox Church in 1665 marked the beginning of a formal schism among the Thomas Christians. Those who accepted the West Syrian theological and liturgical tradition of Mar Gregory became known as the New Party (Puthankuttukar). Today they constitute a number of individual churches mainly and Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church (Jacobite), Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (Indian Orthodox Church), Marthoma Church, Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

The Old Party (Pazhayakuttukar) remained in communion with Rome and constitutes the Syro-Malabar Church. The Present Syro-Malabar Church is the largest individual church of the ancient Thomas Christians.

Restoration of the Syro Malabar Hierarchy

After the Koonan Cross Oath Rome intervened and divided the community into two jurisdictional units, a minority under the Portuguese Padroado and the others under the Propaganda Fide. The Syro Malabarians continued their struggle to regain their heritage and get bishops who knew and respected their heritage.

In 1861, the arrival of a Chaldean Catholic bishop, Thomas Rokkos sent by the Chaldean patriarch created more problems owing to the disunity among the people. He was excommunicated on his arrival by the vicar apostolic of Varapuzha, and a schism followed. Another Chaldean bishop, Elias Melus arrived in 1874 and he too met the same fate. Syro Malabar always had people to support and fight against latinization. The Syrian Christians, popularly known as the Surais, in and around Thrissur who owe allegiance to the Syrian Nestorian patriarch are the followers of the schism Melus created.

Finally towards the end of the nineteenth century the struggle for getting bishops of the Syro Malabar Church reached its peak. In 1887 they were separated from the Latins and were given two Vicariates of their own. But they got bishops of their own Church only in 1896.

Time Line of Events

Faith & Communion of Syro Malabarians

The St. Thomas Christians had hierarchical dependence on the Seleucian Church till the end of the XVI century. The Indian Church of St. Thomas Christians was one of the four "Thomite" Churches of the East. They are known as "Thomite" as St. Thomas the Apostle was their direct or indirect Apostle. The Indian Church of the Thomas Christians in course of time was hierarchically subordinated to the Church of Persia proper first and then to the Chaldean Church which before the 9th century had its headquarters in Seleucia –Ctesiphone, the capital of the Persian Empire. This latter subordination lasted until the end of the 16th century.

Communication between Thomas Christians and Rome was impossible due to geographical, political and other circumstances. Absence of communications or relations does not mean that they had no communion. Books brought down from Seleucia contained explicit statements about the divinely instituted Primacy of Rome over the whole Christendom. Bishop Roz seems to have found in Malabar fifty of the so called Nicean or Arabic Canons. Nicean or Arabic canons inculcate that the Roman Patriarch has jurisdiction over all the other Patriarchs -apocryphal. By the arrival of the Portuguese, the Thomas Christians were enabled to enter into relations with Rome.

About the attitude of the Thomas Christians Dionisio sj writes the following: “About the Pope, they consider him as the Vicar of Christ, our Redeemer, on earth; (they consider) the Patriarch as subject to the Pope from whom he receives his power.” In fact it was by threatening them with excommunicatio latae sententiae that Dom Menezes, the Portuguese Latin prelate of Goa made the St. Thomas Christians sign the synod of Diamper. Schism can not be charged till the communion has been broken (in mala or bona fide).

Syro Malabar Identity

In their isolation, the Church of St Thomas Christians developed surprisingly few originalities of dogma.

At some point, Christians were given traditional Indian caste status and established communities centered around religious practices just as other Indians did during that time. Church structure was similar to the structure in East, and by the 8th century the church had grown to such a substantial size that Church elected their own metropolitan who oversaw at least six bishops. They were true Orientals.

They did intersperse their religious rites with local Hindu practices. Like Hindus, Indian Christian women have always worn large gold earrings in the upper part of their ears. The Christians preserve Hindu-style observances for birth, marriage and death, e.g., when a child is born, its father pours into its mouth three drops of honey in which gold has been dipped.

Placid Podipara says in an emblematic writing of his, “they are Hindu or Indian in culture, Christian in religion and Syro-Oriental in worship.

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.

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).


St. Thomas was the common Apostle for all the Thomasine churches.Syriac was a common language.There was a strong Jewish influence in ancient times and the commercial relations and social and cultural contacts due to geographical positions made the liturgical practice common among all Thomasine Churches.

Historians are of the opinion that Thomas established the early liturgy here in Aramaic (Syriac). St. Thomas provided only the rudiments of the liturgy, but it contained all the elements which later on developed into the full structure. The continued use of Syriac language for the Church is partly because they believed the language was close or similar to the actual language that Jesus and the disciples spoke, hence it carried a connection with the land of Israel and Semitic culture that otherwise might have been lost.

The liturgy of these churches also carried many symbolic connections with Jerusalem and Semitic culture at large. It was these and other distinctly Christian characteristics that prevented the Indian churches from being absorbed in the Indian religious world, thereby maintaining a distinctive Christian identity.

The Syro-Malabar Church kept the liturgy that was in use before the arrival of the Portuguese, but increasingly Latinized it. The St. Thomas Christians especially the Syro Malabar Church in India were under the hierarchy of the Latin Church from 1600 to 1896. Since the beginning, Syro-Malabar liturgy was in Syriac and went through Latinization like many other churches in the 16th century. The vestments, the church furnishings, the place of certain prayer formulas in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, etc. were thoroughly Latinized while the liturgy continued in Syriac. Syriac language which was used in church worship until 1968.

In the second half of 20th century, there was a movement for better understanding of the liturgical rites. A restored Eucharistic liturgy, drawing on the original East Syrian sources, was approved by Pope Pius XII in 1957 and for the first time on the feast of St. Thomas on July 3, 1962, the vernacular, Malayalam, was introduced for the celebration of the Syro-Malabar rite Mass.

Currently they celebrate the Divine Liturgy of Addai and Mari in Malayalam, Syriac and English.


European bishops from the Latin Church were appointed to govern the St. Thomas Christians for centuries. Thus the Syro-Malabarians were very much influenced by the European Latin Christians adding to this there was a section who were supporting latinization. This is reflected both in the system of church administration as well as in the life of worship. Most of the Latin Catholics in Kodungallur in Thrissur and many parts of Kochi believe themselves as St.Thomas Christians who embraced Latin Rite for worship.

The Latinization of the Syro-Malabar rite churches was brought to a head when in 1896 Ladislaus Zaleski, the Apostolic Delegate to India, requested permission to translate the Roman Pontifical into Syriac. This was the choice of the Malabar prelates, who chose it over the East Syrian Rite and West Syrian Rite pontificals. Various problems and concerns delayed the approval of this translation, until in 1934 Pope Pius XI decisively stated that Latinization was no longer to be encouraged among Eastern Rite Catholics. He thus initiated a process of liturgical reform that sought to restore the oriental nature of the heavily Latinized Syro-Malabar rite. A restored Eucharistic liturgy, drawing on the original East Syrian sources, was approved by Pius XII in 1957 and introduced in 1962.

Despite a reaffirmation of the main lines of the 1962 rite by the Oriental Congregation in 1985, however, there has been strong resistance to this reform. The Syro-Malabar dioceses of Ernakulam and Thrissur still use a rite that in externals is hardly distinguishable from the Latin Mass and most of the practises in these dioceses resemble more towards Latin traditions than an eastern church.These were mainly introduced later under Indian Bishops.

The strenuous efforts of Mar Joseph Powathil for the reformation of Syro Malabar Church in accordance with directives of Vatican II is particularly noteworthy. He was on the forefront in the struggles for the restoration of Syro-Malabar Church’s legitimate rights and its identity as an individual Church.

Current Issues

The Syro Malabar Church continues to be the most Latinized Eastern Catholic Church. There are differences between dioceses on whether priest have to face the altar or the people, while celebrating the holy mass or Qurbana.

To overcome the factional dispute and to implement `uniformity' in the celebration of the Holy Qurbana in all diocese the Synod later reached consensus and passed Synodal order. The Synodal order stipulate celebrating the Holy Qurbana half facing altar and half facing the people

Before the Synodal Order in the dioceses like Changanacherry, Pala, Thalassery, Kanjirappally etc have been celebrating the Qurbana in the most traditional way completely facing the east. Diocese of Ernakulam and Thrissur were celebrating the Qurbana completely facing the people. After the Synod decision diocese of Pala, Thalassery, Kanjirappally, Idukki etc have been celebrating the Qurbana half and half honoring the Synod order. Diocese of Ernakulam and Thrissur are still celebrating the Qurbana completely facing the people dishonoring the decision of Holy Synod. The diocese of Changanassery also dishonors the decision of the Holy Synod by celebrating holy Liturgy turning away from the people throughout.

The Ernakulam based anti reformers under the umbrella organisations LAC (Liturgical Action Committee) and PAC are creating identity crisis in Church and there is no effort from the church leadership for unified liturgy and practises.


Syro-Malabar Church has its presence all over the world. However the proper territory assigned for this Church is limited to India, specifically South India. There are 26 Syro-Malabar dioceses world wide though only 15 of them come under the direct control of the Major Archbishop. The rest of the dioceses are directly under the Pope and the Major Archbishop has only limited control over them.

Metropolitan Archeparchies

The believers of this church are organized under 5 Archdioceses. All five are in Kerala.


List of Prominent Syro-Malabar Catholics in History

See also


External links

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