The Mission of the Syro-Malabar Church:Theological Considerations

The Mission of the Syro-Malabar Church

Theological Considerations

Dr George Karakunnel

Dr George Karakunnel


             After the Second Vatican Council communion has emerged   in the Church as the leading ecclesiological idea. Communion is understood not merely as the form of being for the Church but also as the essence of the Church at the micro and macro levels of her existence. The mission of the Church is linked to this key concept. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church shows this in the very opening article: “Since the Church, in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament — a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men – she here purposes, for the benefit of the faithful and of the whole world, to set forth, as clearly as possible, and in the tradition laid down by earlier Councils, her own nature and universal mission[1]. The very being of the Church as communion demands mission. Ecclesiology is already missiology. This paper would search for an understanding of the mission of the Syro-Malabar Church remaining within the general frame of the theology of the Church as communion while at the same time looking at the identity and role of Individual Churches within the context of oriental ecclesiology.


I. The Reality of Individual Churches

The Catholic Church comprises of various Individual Churches of which the Latin Church with over 1000 million people is the largest body. There are twenty-three Eastern Churches altogether having around 22  million faithful.[2] The composition of the Catholic Church in India is from three individual Churches, namely, the Syro-Malabar Church, the Latin Church,  and the Syro-Malankara Church. The presence of diversity of Churches within the one Church needs not only to be theologically accounted but also to be practically accepted and lived within the horizon of a broad ecclesiology. The Catholic Church, which has been long dominated by a one-sided vision of the Church determined by Latin Canon Law, came to a new awareness of the ecclesial reality with the Second Vatican Council. The earlier narrow outlook got slowly changed and is replaced by a new ecclesiological vision.[3]

The Second Vatican Council which remains as the springboard of contemporary ecclesiology has employed a variety of concepts and terms in interpreting the reality of the Church. The following usages are especially important: particular Church, individual Church, local Church, and universal Church. Particular Church is often identified with a diocese[4]. It is also used to refer to Church of a region, village, town, state or nation[5]. Sometimes it is used to refer to individual Churches[6]. A diocese is often described as local Church over which a bishop is given charge[7]. The terms “local Church” and “particular Church” also are used for patriarchal Churches[8].

           The term “Individual Church” is used in the context of an all-inclusive ecclesiology. It means a Church that has emerged with specific form of life having its own liturgy, theology, spirituality and discipline. This can be well described in the words of Lumen Gentium:


By divine providence it has come about that various Churches established in diverse places by the Apostles and their successors have in the course of time coalesced into several groups, organically united, which, preserving the unity of faith and unique constitution of the universal Church, enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, and their own theological and spiritual heritage. Some of these Churches, notably the ancient patriarchal Churches, as parent-stocks of the faith, so to speak, have begotten others as daughter Churches. With these they are connected down to our own time by a close bond of charity in their sacramental life and in their mutual respect for rights and duties.[9]

The difference in the identity of Individual Churches is the reason for their separate existence and government.[10]  Every Individual Church is linked with a rite and sometimes the term “ritual Church” is used to denote Individual Churches.[11] It is not just by having a liturgical rite alone that an Individual Church is constituted. The identity of a Church is not constituted by one factor alone. It is related to the entire life and history of a Church.[12] Since liturgical rite is one of the concrete and explicit differentiating factors of a Church, the term “rite-Church” or “ritual Church” is used to denote Individual Churches that belong to the Oriental tradition. But in fact these                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             usages are misleading and do create a false understanding of the Individual Churches. In fact many Individual Churches’ names also have apparently a false connotation. The term, “Syro-Malabar” may be suggestive of a geographically situated Church. For that reason theologians have found difficulty with its name.[13] But this is so because of historical reasons of its origin. In fact there are people who are not familiar with Oriental Churches think that the Syro-Malabar Church and other Individual Churches are limited to a locality and cannot exist as a world-wide ecclesial body.

The Decree on Oriental Churches has stated clearly that Individual Churches both Eastern and Western are of equal rank, so that none of them is superior to others because of its rite.[14] They, as Individual Churches, are autonomous self-expressions of the full reality of the Church. The Code of Canon Law calls these Churches “sui iuris” to show their autonomous character.[15]  Autonomy is rooted in the history and tradition of these Churches. It is not created or given. It presupposes certain distinctive features. Theological understanding of autonomy may be described in the following words: “Autonomy is not something that one obtains from someone or somewhere but it is a constitutive element in the very being of a person or a Church. It is an essential condition for both, a free and genuine self-expression and self-determination. It is the result of the action of the Spirit in a given community, and not a mere juridical concession made over by hierarchy. God sends his Word and Spirit into the community in order that he may bring it into being and make it operative. Autonomous means to be operative according to a norm that is self-contained – not self-produced — which is in fact the law of the Spirit.”[16] The Syro-Malabar Church with its history of two millennia has a missionary heritage which it strives to preserve and promote through its life and witness. The Marga (Way) as Christian faith was known in the tradition of St Thomas Christians became genuinely inculturated in the milieu it encountered.[17] In the interaction between Gospel and culture in India the Church of St Thomas Christians offers a paradigm in itself.

2.  Autonomy, Diversity and Communion


The Universal Church is understood as a communion of Individual Churches. It is constituted by them and cannot exist apart from them. Vatican II has seen Individual Churches within the ecclesiology of communion, which is rooted in the Bible and the teachings of the Fathers. The use of the plural term “Churches” in the New Testament contains the idea of diversity as determining the concrete shape of the one Church, which is constituted by different Churches. The Individual Churches though different are bound together by common elements, namely, confession of the same apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, common Christian life-style i.e. life in the service of the Kingdom of God and mutual recognition of pastoral leadership.

There is often a wrong ecclesiology that tends to image the Universal Church as the sum total of various small units, that are equated with dioceses which are understood as  “parts” of the “whole”. Such an understanding does not respect autonomy. As a consequence there will be centralization and domination of one Church over others. An authentic ecclesiology sees the Church as a communion realized in a legitimate diversity. The Catholic Church in this way would be described as the communion of many Individual Churches, which are in communion with each other, and with the Bishop of Rome who is seen as the visible sign and focal point of this communion. Vatican II articulated its ecclesiology accepting the individuality of Churches most clearly in its decree on Eastern Churches. The decree says:

That Church, Holy and Catholic which is the Mystical Body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit through the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same government and who, combining into various groups held together by a hierarchy, form separate Churches or Rites. Between these, flourishes such an admirable brotherhood that this variety, within the Church in no way harms her unity, but rather manifests it. For it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or Rite retains its traditions whole and entire, while adjusting its way of life to the various needs of time and place.[18]

Church is a communion within each Individual Church and at the same time is a communion of different Churches. Vatican II has spoken of communion under both these aspects, and there is no conflict between them. Moreover, they contribute to the reality of the one Church at the local and universal levels. The ecclesiological understanding among the theologians in India is stated clearly: “The existence of various Individual Churches in the Church is the best expression of the Church of Christ which keeps alive the tradition of authentic catholicity and communion”.[19] However to give practical expression to authentic catholicity and communion there is the need of recognizing the equality of Churches and their rights. The acceptance of an authentic communion ecclesiology can prepare the theological ground for better relations among Individual Churches, especially between the Latin Church and the Individual Churches of Oriental tradition. But that alone will be no solution. There is the need to develop a broadminded approach based on mutual charity in order to overcome self-interest and practice communion.

Communion means participation in a shared reality, something so prominent in the New Testament. St. John has expressed this clearly: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his son Jesus Christ” (1Jn 1:3). A vertical dimension and a horizontal dimension are characteristics of communion. The participation in the life of God makes Christians one with each other. The idea of communion is also intimately related to the Eucharist, in which the above-mentioned dimensions are concretely expressed. The Eucharist builds up the Body of Christ, the Church, which grows in a two-fold relationship i.e. with Christ and one another.[20] The New Testament shows the practical implications of communion:  (i). Those who are in communion participate in another’s joys and sorrows. (Heb.10:33; 2Cor.1:6-7)  (ii). There is mutual giving and receiving of spiritual and material goods, not only between individuals but also between communities on the basis of fellowship in Christ. (Rom. 15:26-27; 2Cor 8:1-15)

The New Testament does not have different norms for communion within a Church and communion between Churches. The diversity of Churches is like plurality of persons that constitute a society. Christian understanding attaches great importance to persons.  Different persons join together and build up Church. Every Church built in this way is a communion. The different Individual Churches form one communion, that is, one Church of Churches. The missiological perspective that emerges here is rooted in the individuality of Churches.

3.   Divine Tri-unity and Individual Identities

The paradigm of unity in diversity is most uniquely realized in the Holy Trinity, which for the Church is the original source and best exemplar for communion. In the Trinity there are three persons who make one unity. The individual identities of persons are not abolished for the sake of unity. In the Trinity it is relationships that make differences of persons and their unity. The Father is the unoriginated source from where the Son and the Spirit take their origin. Being from the Father they both have relation to the Father as well as to one another. Three persons sharing the same divinity are co-equals. In the Church, all Individual Churches have their origin from the one Church Christ himself founded. Having the same origin various Individual Churches must have brotherly/sisterly relations among them. By reason of their origin and existence they too are co-equals, just like the divine persons of the Holy Trinity are.

Differences of persons in God do not make divisions. Because they are held together by relationships there is unity and harmony in God. Equality and rights of persons are here recognized without causing friction or rivalry, domination or elimination. The Fathers of Church have used the Greek term perichoresis which indicates the co-existence of the divine persons in mutual love. Perichoresis found Latin translations as circumsessio (mutual indwelling) and circuminsessio (having the same meaning but understood as more dynamic). What is significant in the Triunity of persons in God is that the freedom and individuality of each divine person is not sacrificed for the sake of unity. Suppression of persons and their rights for the sake of unity results in tyranny.[21] Many totalitarian systems try to achieve unity in this way. The unity of Churches, we seek is communion in freedom, mutually recognizing sisterly/brotherly relationship. The identity of Individual Churches is not to be abandoned for the sake of communion. As every person of the Trinity fully possesses divinity, which is the essence of the Trinity, every Individual Church possesses the fullness of ecclesiality. The Individual Churches are not simply parts of the Universal Church. It is in and through them that the real Universal Church exists.[22] As the inner dynamism of the Trinity is love, both Individual Churches and Universal Church should be animated by love and should resist all temptations against it.

The Holy Trinity is no mere model, but the very source of the life of the Church. The value of ecclesial pluralism is rooted and founded in the Holy Trinity. A conscious recognition of the unity in the plurality of persons in God can help to promote authentic identity and rights of the Individual Churches, making it possible to live and witness to the one Gospel without mutual clash or conflict. In fact the growth of the Universal Church is possible only through the growth of the Individual Churches.[23] What the Churches need is positive and open inter-ecclesial relations after the manner of the inner dynamism of the Trinity. This Trinitarian love is not closed. It flows outwards to the world of humans, building communion of persons. Communion of Churches can be realized only through commitment to love, which has to be expressed in mutual support and cooperation. The mission of the Church is fulfilled to the extent it realizes communion to which all people are invited not merely by word but by life and example.

4. Ecclesial Pluralism and Mission

If mission belongs to the very essence of the Church, each Individual Church has this task. In the context of the diversity of Churches, which form one communion, every Church bears its missionary responsibility and has the right for evangelization. There are two aspects in the mission of a Church. The first is mission ad intra and the second is mission ad extra. As the New Testament shows these two aspects are intimately linked. Living the Gospel in one’s ecclesial context is primary to missionary witness. Every help provided to realize this is part of missio ad intra. It cannot be simply regarded as mere pastoral service.  This becomes in fact the basis for the missio ad extra of the Church, bringing the Gospel to those who do not yet know Christ. The fulfillment of the missionary task requires attention to both these aspects. In the context of ecclesial pluralism the question as to how this is to be done is a matter not practically settled.

           In the context of ecclesial pluralism within the Catholic Church in India there is much difficulty for missionary activity. The difference also lies in theological approaches of the Latin Church and the Oriental Churches. When the question is about mission policy and practice there is disagreement even as to the theological understanding of the nature of the Church. In the CBCI the Latin and Oriental views have been very often uncompromising. The Oriental Bishops of India have presented the following theological views, with their consequent bearings on pastoral and missionary issues.[24]

–          The Catholic Church is a communion of Individual Churches.

–          Individual Churches are equal in dignity.

–          Particular liturgy, discipline, spirituality and hierarchy are constituent elements of an individual Church.

–          Jurisdiction is a constituent element of ecclesial individuality.

–          Pastoral care and evangelization are ecclesial acts.

–          Unity in diversity is the richness of Catholic Church.

These theological views have resulted in some concrete moves. Following the plea made by Syro-Malabar Bishops there was the appointment of the Apostolic Visitator for the migrants and report was submitted to Rome. The statistical data about Syro-Malabar migrants outside Kerala showed the need of evangelizing the diaspora communities.[25] The need to establish parishes or even hierarchies wherever necessary is far from fulfilment. Multi-ritual practices ensuring cooperation among pastors belonging to different rites are called for in situations where mixed communities are present. But inter-ecclesial relations have not grown to the level of mutual recognition and cooperation.

The ecclesiology of the Latin Church also implies the concept of communion. But in practice it sees the Church as communion of particular Churches, not of Individual Churches as understood in oriental ecclesiology. One can find a number of well-written books on the theology of the Church which though speaking of communion as a key notion does not have  the idea of communion of Churches differentiated by liturgy, discipline, theology and spirituality.[26] According to the Latin tradition the emphasis goes to diocese which is a particular Church considered as a single territorial unit. The practical consequences of this ecclesiological approach for pastoral care and mission do not seem to agree with the Oriental perception. Without distinction of rite, language or caste, pastoral care, as the Latin Church argues, belongs to the obligation of the local ordinary.

In the opinion of the Latin Church, the right to do evangelization has been tied down to the concept of jurisdiction. Evangelization and pastoral care are to be carried out without multiplication of jurisdiction. The insistence of the Latin hierarchy in India on the principle of “one territory, one bishop, one jurisdiction” has been in direct opposition to equal rights of the Orientals to minister to their faithful and to evangelize. The rights of the Oriental Churches have been recognized by the Second Vatican Council. The decree on the Catholic Eastern Churches says: “They enjoy the same equal rights and are under the same obligations even with respect to preaching of the Gospel to the whole world under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff”.[27] Commentators on the documents of Second Vatican Council have pointed out that the Council has said this in reference to the situations of the Oriental Churches in India. According to J.M. Hoeck:

The real reason why the right to preach the Gospel, that is, the right to engage in the missionary activity, is especially mentioned among the rights and obligations of all the Individual Churches is to be traced to the situation in India, where the Malabar Church, which has a large surplus of priests, was until recently only permitted to convert people to the Latin rite.[28]


The demand for freedom in evangelization and pastoral care is not derived from a sort of ecclesial imperialism which certainly is a theologically repugnant idea. In fact imperialist attitudes surface in the policy of clinging to the concept of one Church, “one Bishop, one Jurisdiction”. In fact the idea of jurisdiction in the Latin Church is a residue of the Roman Empire which was divided into prefectures and provinces for the sake of political administration. Every part of the empire had its own authority, which was accountable to the supreme authority, namely the emperor. A long past secular paradigm is no more acceptable to a realist view of the Church which is not a politically centralized system. If Church is a communion of Churches, the respect that is due to the rights of every Individual Church demands the recognition of each other’s freedom. Pluralism, which is a reality in the society today, should be reflected also in the Church. A multi-jurisdiction is the consequence of admitting the rights of Individual Churches. As theologians in India have seen, it is the only alternative in a pluralistic and ecumenical situation like ours.[29]  The presence of two bishops in one place is possible in the circumstances envisaged under the provision of the Latin Code of Canon Law. G. R. Evans rightly points out that this provision is intended to allow respect for the ecclesial integrity of Churches of the Eastern Rite.[30] The pastoral and missionary duties that belong to the essence of being a Church necessitate the creation of structures, which may be parishes or dioceses or a hierarchy in places where there is a need.

5. Concerns and Hopes

            The pastoral ministry exists in the Church to carry out its threefold function, namely, teaching, sanctifying and leading the faithful. But the Syro-Malabar Church today is not in a position to exercise this ministry to its own  faithful who have migrated and settled in cities outiside Kerala. Surveys and statistical findings show that the Syro-Malabar Church has got thousands of faithful belonging to it, spread out in different cities in India and abroad.[31]  Because the Syro-Malabar Church has no jurisdiction beyond its present territorial demarcations, it is not able to offer pastoral care in its fullness to the people.  The members of the Syro-Malabar Church have either to depend on the Latin Church or remain satisfied with “chapliancy services” offered to them.  This is far from being the real pastoral care to which the faithful are entitled.  The right to spiritual goods is not simply to be assured in the Church in general, but in one’s own sui juris Church.   Canon Law makes it clear: “The Christian faithful have the right to worship God according to the prescriptions of their own sui juris Church and to follow their own form of spiritual life consonant with the doctrine of the Church”[32] The right of the faithful to worship in one’s own liturgical tradition and to live as a Christian in accordance with one’s ecclesial heritage is rooted in baptism by which a person is incorporated as a member in a specific sui iuris Church[33]  Canon Law prohibits any one to induce someone to change membership to another sui juris Church.[34]  No one is allowed to opt for another sui juris church validly.[35] The faithful have an obligation to know, retain and promote their own rite[36]

            Thousands of Syro-Malabar faithful today, due to circumstances are compelled to follow Latin rite and gradually become alienated from their own Church and its tradition.  These Syro-Malabar faithful, having lost their roots, have to be satisfied with certain nominal faith-practices. The obligation of the bishops to provide the necessary help to their faithful for worship and Christian life in the tradition of the sui juris Churches was stressed by Pope John Paul II in his Letter to the Catholic Bishops of India on 28th May 1987. The pastoral care of the people, as the work of evangelization, requires necessary structures.  Establishing separate parishes for the faithful, appointing separate episcopal vicars to take care of the faithful, creating dioceses etc are important for effective and stable pastoral care of the faithful.  Vatican II already envisaged this when it spoke of setting up of parishes and their own hierarchies wherever the spiritual good of the faithful requires it.[37]   According to Canon Law, it is the right and duty of the patriarch or major archbishop to collect information regarding those faithful of his Church living outside his territory, even through a visitor.  Once the report is discussed the Synod can propose to the Apostolic See measures which include the erection of a parish, an exarchy, or an eparchy.[38]

             The Major-Archiepiscopal Assembly of the Syro-Malabar Church has expressed one of its most important concerns: “Erection of parishes, dioceses outside Kerala and India are required for the Syro-Malabar Church so that effective pastoral care can be given to its faithful.  Moreover, the Syro-Malabar Church should have ‘All India Jurisdiction’ in order to do missionary work freely throughout the country.”[39] As every sui juris Church the Syro-Malabar Church has a heritage of its own.  If structures that are necessary for the protection and promotion of this heritage are absent, the life of the Church will be stiffled.  Pope John Paul II, in his allocution to the plenary session of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, said: “I would be grateful if you would pay attention to the pastoral care of the Eastern faithful in the diaspora.  In this regard, it is necessary for every one, both Latin and Oriental, to grasp the sensitive implications of the situation, which is a real challenge for the survival of the Christian East and for a general reconsideration of its pastoral programmes.  Indeed, the pastors of the Latin Church are first of all invited to deepen their knowledge of the existence and heritage of the Eastern Catholic Churches and to encourage the faithful entrusted to their care to do the same.   Secondly they are called to promote and defend the right of the Eastern faithful to live and pray according to the tradition received from the fathers of their own Church”.[40]           Despite all these there is a continuing contradiction between theology and practice, between law and implementation. The highest body like the General Council of the Church, Vatican II has clear articulation on the matter. The authority of the supreme pastor has also called for a resolution of the problem. Yet the present situation is one of limitations but not without hope.[41] There is much writing of theologians and voice of leaders of the Syro-Malabar Church asking for the recognition of the legitimate rights. They speak of this “unjust, artificial and abnormal situation which must be rectified at earliest. The Church leaders who cry for justice in the society, should first of remove injustice from within the Church itself.”[42] But despite everything, the inter-ecclesial problems remain unresolved.[43] Recently in the Synod of Bishops Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil gave strong expression to this:

 Even though the right of every individual Church to preach the Gospel everywhere in the world under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff and the right of all the faithful of the Oriental Churches to have pastoral care by their own bishops and priests throughout the world are recognised by Vatican Council II and the two Codes of Canon Law, the Syro‑Malabar Church is neither given new mission territories in India, Africa, etc., nor the freedom to exercise her right to give pastoral care by her own bishops and priests to the hundreds of thousands of migrants in India, in the Gulf Countries, Europe and elsewhere, even 43 years after the conclusion of Vatican Council II. … The Church has not only to preach the Word of justice to the faithful, but they should be pastorally helped to live by it. It is more so when it concerns practising justice within the Church. Peace is disturbed when justice is not done, because peace is the fruit of justice. Justice will also build up communion. In the case of the Syro‑Malabar Church, this justice has been denied for many centuries. It is high time that this Synod reflected over this unjust situation within the Church and proposed lasting remedies[44]

6.   Making Ecclesial Pluralism Functional

The Indian Catholic Church is aware of the problems that are encountered in the context of ecclesial pluralism. Errol D’ Lima has observed: “In spite of Roman dictates followed by exhortations, and protestations, of unity by episcopal leaders it is difficult to discern genuine harmony in the function of the three Ritual Churches”.[45] The crucial issue in India, as has been already pointed out, is jurisdiction. The Latin Church’s insistence on “one territory, one bishop, one jurisdiction” is not acceptable to Oriental Churches which see in it a political concept of unity deriving from the Roman empire where power was centralized and all diversity remained suspect. Moreover it is a plain fact that in the context of present-day society both in India and the world in general, a rigid uniform ecclesiality is impractical. Societies everywhere is already pluralistic in religion, language and culture. The relevant thinking for fostering unity should recognize diversity as an indispensable factor.

Harmony and fellowship should be created not by eliminating diversity, but allowing diversity to exist and function. Bishops as the heads of the Churches should witness to the unity not by monarchical jurisdiction but through pastoral charity. Christian brotherhood should animate and guide the communities and their heads even though they belong to different individual Churches. “The universality of the Church,” says John Paul II, “involves in the one hand a most solid unity and on the other, a plurality and diversification which do not obstruct unity, but rather confer upon it the character of communion”.[46]

The ecclesiological thinking in the post-Vatican era shows that “a richly diverse unity-in-diversity in no way calls for a formal, institutional and administrative unity, nor a super-Church”.[47] The otherness of the other has been experienced in the past as “a threat”. So nations and states tried to eliminate “the other” whether they are mere ethnic groups or religious communities, and tried to impose homogeneity. Enmity and hatred of the other have created ethnic cleansing, war and genocide. Pluralism in religion was eliminated by aggressive strategies of the protagonists of respective religion. Religious wars were fought not only between adherents of different religions but also between different groups within the same religion. Plurality in that way has often become exclusive, trying to inflict a fatal blow on “the other”. But plurality need not necessarily be so. In the opinion of G.R. Evans, “Although there is a historical plurality on a system of exclusion, there is also a multiplicity which need not arouse opposition and can be experienced within communion and mutual recognition”.[48]

In the Church what make the scandal are not differences or pluriformity; it is aggressiveness and infighting that create scandal. Schillebeeckx says, “The scandal is not that there are differences but that these differences are used as an obstacle to communion”.[49] There is often the tendency to domination, which occurs in the Church as in political or social spheres. Though all individual Churches are equal, there is a sad situation when one of them puts on superiority and considers others as subordinates. It has happened in history that the Latin Church once claimed superiority on account of its rituals. The Clementine Instruction of 1595 on inter-ritual marriages said that a Latin husband or wife should not follow the rite of a Greek spouse, but a Greek wife should follow that of her Latin husband, children follow their father’s rite, unless the mother is a Latin.[50] In 1742 Pope Benedict XIV in the Bull Etsi Pastoralis established the principle that the Latin rite was in fact to be deemed superior.[51]

           Suppression or subordination of non-Latin traditions, even of local variations of the Latin tradition, has been a fact of history. Missionaries who came for evangelization succeeded in establishing the supremacy in imposing their form of Christianity over the Church of St. Thomas Christians in South India. Indian Church history bears the scars of this oppression of one Individual Church by another. The struggle for regaining independence and recapturing a lost heritage has featured the history of the Syro-Malabar Church, the Catholic part of St. Thomas Christians in India. To undo the wrongs of the past and to have the fraternal communion today, the Individual Churches have to recognize each other not as rival groups but as different and autonomous. Churches can achieve unity only by the recognition of the “otherness” of the “other”. If fears, anxieties, distrust and resentment characterize the inter-ecclesial scene, we have to ask the question, why so? Things that must be done in mutual understanding and charity are done with much argumentation and without good will. This seems to be the reason for the absence of harmony and peace among individual Churches. A lot of problems belong to practical and administrative matters rather than to theological understanding. However if theology succeeds in creating a genuine understanding of the Church, many of the inter-ecclesial problems will vanish.

The Second Vatican Council, as noted above, was directly concerned about the inter-ecclesial problems in India. The teachings of the Council with its emphasis on the dignity, rights and obligation of Individual Churches have not been put into implementation, as desired, even after forty-three years. One can see in India a very cautious move and slow progress in giving concrete shape to the vision of Vatican II concerning the Church. The right of the Oriental Churches in India to do evangelization in areas reserved to the Latin Church was affirmed by allotting to the Syro-Malabar Church mission territories, the first of which was the creation of the exarchate of Chanda in 1962. By 1977 seven mission dioceses were erected in North India and entrusted to the Syro-Malabar Church. However, the demand for the pastoral care of the immigrants belonging to the Syro-Malabar Church in different parts of India, especially in big cites, did not meet with proper response because the Latin Church had argued that extension of multiple jurisdiction is detrimental to the unity of the Church. When discussions among hierarchies in India seemed to be reaching no solution, Pope John Paul II set up a committee of Cardinals. In 1987 Pope John Paul II wrote a historic letter to all the Bishops of India. The rights of the Oriental Churches to do missionary work and the need to give pastoral care to the immigrants were the contents of the letter. The erection of the new Syro-Malabar eparchy of Kalyan was announced by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

However, the inter-ecclesial problems persist. Until the freedom and rights of all Individual Churches are properly recognized, these problems will continue to bother us. The vocation of the Church is to promote communion, which is possible only by accepting diversity. Hence, diversity or pluriformity should not be opposed in the name of unity. A policy of rigid uniformity and monopolization of rights will also do serious harm to the promotion of ecumenical relations.[52] The Statement of the Indian Theological Association says:

A Spirit-filled community is capable of breaking down barriers to communication and communion. The Latin and Oriental Churches in India, with all their diversities, should be seen as sources of enrichment rather than as causes of division. By the common sharing of riches, the members of different Churches will become a genuine community of love, capable of living and working together and thus fulfilling their common mission.[53]

In the Indian context where pluralism is the normal fabric of the society, the Church’s witness to unity in diversity through living communion is of great value. Protests and agitations in different parts of the nation are the result of the ignoring of some sections and groups, which also make up the nation. The Church’s way of unity while allowing diversity can certainly serve as the best model for nation building.


6. Mission in the Context


             After stating the mission of the Church to humanity the Second Vatican Council spoke of the need of scrutinizing and interpreting the signs of the times.[54] Looking into the social, political and religious situation in our world today the Church has to respond to the challenges of religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, consumerism and materialism, at the same time attend to the problems of injustice, inequality, exploitation and oppression. Over and above these challenges, mission theology today emphasizes the task of dialogue with religions and cultures, and the need of working for the promotion peace and harmony which is considered as belonging to the very core of the ecclesial mission.

            The identity of the Syro-Malabar Church carries a heritage which is the result of living the Gospel in the context. The history of this Church is a missiological source for the present.  The Oriental Churches in general are esteemed for their concern for the context. Their identity is shaped by contextual concerns. Pope John Paul II has said: “one of the great values embodied particularly in the Christian East is the attention given to peoples and their cultures, so that the Word and his praise may resound in every language”[55] The Syro-Malabar way of living the Gospel in the Indian context reveals a lived theology of dialogue with religions and culture it encountered. Living in the midst of a pluralistic religious milieu it developed a way of mission approach which is specifically its own and which differs from that of West.[56] There was never any aggressive missionary strategy or a crusade of conversion in its history. Harmony with people of all religions and positive approach to local culture incorporating customs and practices into ecclesial life feature the Syro-Malabar Church’s long period of existence in India. If mission aims at not merely the realization of ecclesial fellowship but unity of all members of the human family[57] it has to be realized by building relationships through dialogue with  adherents of all religions and ideologies.

          Today there are questions that go beyond the Individual Churches and their given identities. No serious theological reflection on the Church can bypass them. In fact, they must be addressed by all Churches. The Kingdom of God offers the basic perspective for the ecclesial mission. The good news of the kingdom is at the center of Jesus’ proclamation and this has to be the overriding concern of all Churches. Seen in the perspective of the Kingdom of God, the Church is a provisional reality, and this underlines the idea of the Church as means and not an end. The historical and eschatological nature of the Church also points to the same understanding. It is not possible to stop at any given form of the Church in history because the Church is always in via. This shows that the given identities of the Church are ephemeral and can never be idolized. Christians worship God in Jesus Christ, but not Church, however admirable may be its form and shape. The individual identity of the Church cannot remain closed, obliterating the goal to which all historical ecclesial forms are only means. The Church certainly stands with its roots in the past. But it has to live in the present and move towards future. Therefore no given ecclesial identities should be considered ultimate. At the same time no Church can do away with its identity because loss of Church’s identity would mean the loss of the Church itself.

            The task of the Church placed in the perspective of God’s Kingdom calls for critical evaluation of the socio-economic and cultural changes taking place in the world today. This process is largely the result of the phenomenon of globalization, which affects not just individuals or groups but peoples and cultures in a massive way. The most powerful factor behind today’s globalization is market which is supported by media. The impact of all these is that our culture and the values it stood for are eroded by powerful currents which are beyond control. At the top of the listing of megatrends in our world comes the following: i. Megamergers and concentration of wealth. ii. Global economy under megaplayers.  iii. Economic ideology of money-theism. The consequences of these are individualism, consumerism and increasing marginalization of the poor.

              The process of globalisation is linked to science and technology. John Naisbitt says:“Intoxicated by technology’s seductive pleasures and promise, we turn our backs to technology’s consequences…Technology marches to the beat of our economy, while we left to plug in, get on line, motor on, take off, and ultimately pick up the pieces. We feel that something is not quite right but we can’t put our fingers on it. The Intoxicated Zone is spiritually empty, dissatisfying and dangerous and impossible to climb out of unless we recognize we are in it”[58] The Post-Synodal document on the Church in Asia speaks rather deploringly about our contemporary situation: “In the process of development, materialism and secularism are also gaining ground, especially in urban areas. These ideologies, which undermine traditional, social and religious values, threaten Asia’s cultures with incalculable damage. These changes have both positive and negative aspects. There is also accompanying phenomenon of urbanization often associated with the rise of organized crime, terrorism, prostitution and the exploitation of the weaker sectors of the society”.[59] Speaking about challenges to Churches in Asia, Anthony Rogers says: “In the context of the emerging mega trends in the beginning of the twenty-first century the church is being challenged to respond in new and creative ways to make the Gospel of Jesus relevant to people of today”.[60]


            What then should be the understanding of identity with which the Churches’ existence is interwoven? The identity of a Church has to be understood not in a static way, but in a dynamic way. Viewed in this way, any ecclesial identity is in a continuous process of change and growth which has an organic character in the sense that it is in constant link with the past when it interacts with the present. The question of tradition comes in here. Tradition should remain open to change and growth. It can never mean preservation or perpetuation of the past. As the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, says, “Tradition is not pure nostalgia for things or forms past, nor regret for lost privileges, but the living memory of the Bride, kept eternally youthful by the Love that dwells within her”.[61] The Church lives in history and responds to every epoch in accordance with the promptings of the Spirit.


            The continuous process through which ecclesial identity passes should be characterized by dialogue and inculturation. The context in which the Gospel is lived has a definite say in shaping the Church in every historical moment. The Churches living in the context of India and Asia have the duty to enter into a deep relationship with the poor and the suffering. Solidarity is a key-word that should mark the mode of being the Church. Arising from an ecclesiology of wider communion, commitment to the liberation of all enslaved ones of the society would feature the daily life of the Church. The work of evangelization has to be concerned about poverty, deprivation and dehumanization caused by injustice and domination, exploitation and oppression. The good news of the Kingdom cannot find tangible expression except through the removal of all dehumanizing forces. Solidarity with the poor is the way for Churches in India and other Asian countries to live and announce the Gospel of Jesus.

           To work for the poor and the marginalized needs the collaboration of all peoples. Dialogue with all religions and ideologies is another aspect of Church’s commitment to the Gospel. Dialogue involves more than intellectual concern or academic discussions. All religions and ideologies profess and aim at human well-being and the creation of a better world. The mission of the Church cannot exclude cooperation with them. Today inculturation is a leading idea in mission studies. Inculturation includes both solidarity and dialogue. It tells something that is related to the very being of the Church, which has been inserted into and shaped by every cultural context. Inculturation should not be considered a programme to adopt the elitist culture of the society. Society is multi-layered and complex. In the Indian society the Dalits and the Tribals are sections of people to whom no proper attention has been given. The subaltern groups and their cultures should figure in the being and becoming of the Church. The concern for contextually relevant ecclesial identities in India or abroad should be the result of an incarnational involvement in the lives of peoples. This would demand also an understanding of ecclesial identity which is open and dynamic.

          The Syro-Malabar Church is today a world-wide reality. Therefore it has not got just one context, but several contexts. The Syro-Malabar Church today functions at local, national and global levels. There is ecclesial life to be lived by St Thomas Christians not only in their original homeland, but also in different Indian cities and states or countries abroad belonging to different geographical zones. This makes it necessary that attention is given to a wide variety of contexts.  Pope John Paul II underlined the relevance of the heritage of Oriental Churches: “At a time when it is increasingly recognized that the right of every people to express themselves according to their own heritage of culture and thought is fundamental, the experience of the Individual Churches of the East is offered to us as an authoritative example of successful inculturation. From this model we learn that if we wish to avoid the recurrence of particularism as well as of exaggerated nationalism, we must realize that the proclamation of the Gospel should be deeply rooted in what is distinctive to each culture and open to convergence in a universality, which involves an exchange for the sake of mutual enrichment.”[62] The paradigm for ecclesial mission provided by Oriental Churches in general is an invitation to look into the heritage of each Individual Church. The study of the heritage the Syro-Malabar Church can bring out a methodology, a way of being for the Church, if not ready solutions for the fulfillment of the ecclesial mission today.

                                                                                                Fr George Karakunnel,

                                                                                                           St Joseph Pontifical Seminary,



[1] LG 1.

[2] Cf Bp Gregory Karotemprel, The Syro-Malabar Church Today (Rajkot Deepthi Publications 2008),p.8. Cf.  also Ronald G. Roberson  CSP,  The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, Revised third edition, (Roma: Pontificium Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1990).

[3] The  post-synodal document, Ecclesia in Asia ( nos 22, 27) shows its esteem for the diversity of Churches.

[4] LG 27, AG 22, CD 11, 23, 28, 36.

[5] A G 22

[6]OE 2, 3, 4, 10, 16, 19.

[7] AG 19, 27; LG 27

[8] UR 14

[9], LG, 23. Cf also Decree on Oriental Churches, OE 1,2

[10] Abp Joseph Powathil, “The Missionary Role of the Syro-Malabar Church”, Mission in India Today, the Task of   St Thomas Christians ed. K. Pathil, (Bangalore, Dharmaram Publications 1988), p.5.

[11] Cf.OE, 3

[12] Prof. Borys Guziak, “ Sulla Questione dell’ Identita delle Chiese Orientali Cattoloche: Identita Cme Categoria Teologica e sua Definizione” L’Identita delle Chiese Orientali Cattoliche, published by Congregazione per le Chiese Orientali (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1997), p.71ff

[13] Cf. Bosco Puthur, “Ecclesial Vision and Mission of the Syro-Malabar Church”,  Syro-Malabar Theology in the Context, ed. by Mathew Manakatt and Jose Puthenveettil (Vadavathoor, Kottayam Paurastya Vidyapitham 2007), p.236ff. Bp Gregory Karotemprel, The Syro-Malabar Church Today , p.773

[14] Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 3

[15] CIC 111, 1; 112, 1-2.

[16] “The Issue of  ‘Rites’  in the Indian Church”, Theologizing in Context, Statements of the Indian Theological association, ed. by Jacob Parappally MSFS, (Bangalore Dharmaram Publications 2002), p. 203.

[17] Abp Andrews Thazhath, St Thomas Missionary Heritage of the Syro-Malabar Church”, The Mission Theology of the Syro-MalabarChurch, ed. by Pauly Kannookadan, (Mount St Thomas, Kochi LRC Publications 2008), p. 17f.

[18]  Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 2

[19]  Indian Theological Association, “Statement of the Annual Meeting on the Issue of ‘Rites’ in the Indian Church”, (Bangalore, 1993), no. 12.

[20] R. Schnackenburg, Church in the New Testament (London: Burns & Oates, 1974), 165ff.

[21] Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, (New York: Cross Road Publishing Company, 1991), p.291.

[22] Jacob Parappally MSFS, “Communion  among the Individual Churches” Vidyajyothi 59 (1995),


[23] The Mission Policy of the Syro-Malabar Major ArchiepiscopalChurch  (Mount St Thomas, Kakkanad, Kochi 2006), no. 5.6

[24] S.Arulsamy and S. Singaroyan, Guide to the CBCI- CCBI Documents (New Delhi: CBCI Secretariat, 2000), p. 215.

[25] Bp Gregory Karotemprel has described the present situation of  Syro-Malabar migrants in his study, “The Pastoral Care of Syro-Malabar Migrants” in The Mission Theology of the Syro-Malabar Church, ed. by Pauly Kannookadan (Mount St Thomas, Kochi 2008), pp. 212ff.

[26] One may refer for example to the following works: J.M.R. Tillard, The Church of Churches: the Ecclesiology of Communion (Minnesota, The Liturgical Press 1992); M.M. Ganjo-Guembe, Communion of Saints: Foundation, Nature and Structure of the Church (Minnesota, The Liturgical Press 1994).

[27] Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 3

[28] Johannes M. Hoeck, “Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches” Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, Vol. I, ed. by H. Vorgrimler (London: Burns and Oates, 1966), p. 315.

[29] Kuncheria  Pathil, Indian Church at the Cossroads, (Rome: Centre for Indian and Interreligious Studies & Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 1994), 94.

[30] G.R Evans, The Church and the Churches (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 80.

[31]  Bp Gregory Karotemprel gives the data of  Syro-Malabar migrants in India and abroad. See “Pastoral Care of the Syro-Malabar Migrants”, The Mission Theology of the Syro-Malabar Church, pp. 213-215.

[32] CCEO, 17; CIC, 214.

[33] CCEO, 29,CIC, 111

[34] CCEO, 31; cf also 1465.

[35] CCEO, 32, CIC, 112

[36] CCEO, 39-41.

[37] CD,23; OE, 4

[38]CCEO, 148.

[39] Statement of the Major Archiepiscopal Assembly on 12 November 1998.

[40] L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Eng. Ed. N.42, 21 October 1998, p.7.

[41] Abp Joseph Powathil, “Missionary Activities of the Syro Malabar Church in the Present Context”, The Mission Theology of the Syro-Malabar Church,  pp.176, 177.

[42] Kuncheria Pathil, Indian Churches at Crossroads (Rome, Centre for Indian and Interreligious Studies & Bangalore, Dharmaram Publications 1994), p. 89.

[43] Cf. The Mission Policy of the Syro-Malabar Major ArchiepiscopalChurch, ( Mount St Thomas, Kakkanad, Kochi 2006), No 5.4

[44] “Summary of Synod of Bishops” Vatican Information Service, 0810(520), 15-16 October 2008.

[45] Errol D’ Lima, “Ritual Reality in the Indian Church”, The Church in India in Search of a New Identity, ed. by  K. Kunnumpuram et al. (Bangalore: NBCLC, 1997), p.193.

[46] John Paul II, “Address”, General Audience 27 Sept 1989, Insegnamenti di Gioanni Paulo II (Rome: 1989), p.679.

[47]        E. Schillebeeckx, Church: the Human Story of God (London: SCM Press, 1989), p.197.

[48] G. R. Evans, The Church and Churches, p.176.

[49] E. Schillebeeckx, Church: the Human Story of God, p.176.

[50]   Pope Clement VIII,  “Instructio super ritibus Italo-Graecorum”, Bullarium Diplomatum et Privilegiorum Sanctorum Romanorum Pontificium, Tomus X, cxii (Augustae Taurinorum, MDCCCLXV), p.211.

[51]   Hubert Jedin,  History of the Church, vol. VI, (London: Burns & Oates, 1981), p. 227.

[52] Cyril Mar Baselios, “Evangelization and Pastoral Care: Some Concerns of the Malankara Catholic Church”, Christian Orient 3 (1982), pp.30-31.

[53]   Indian Theological Association, “Statement of the Annual Meeting 1996”, no. 34, The Church in India in Search of a New Identity, p.397.

[54] The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, 3, 4.

[55] Orientale Lumen, 7

[56] George Karakunnel, “The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ in Indian Theological Reflection”, Cristologia e Missione Oggi, ed. by  G. Colzani et alii (Roma, Urbaniana University Press 2001), p.112ff.

[57] Cf. Lumen Gentium, 1.

[58] John Naisabitt, High Touch High Tech (New York Broad way Books 2000).

[59] Ecclesia in Asia, 7.

[60]  Anthony Rogers FSC, “The Challenges in Asia”, Christian Conference of Asia  FABC No 102, p.38

[61]  Orientale Lumen, 8.

[62]  Orientale Lumen, 7.

0 replies »

  1. My name yesudas from Thrissur Kerala .
    I interest to study and move missionary. I am only pass sslc and my age 30.
    Please help me and prayer 4 me to select divakarunym mission . my number 9497318260 St .Antonys church machad.


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