The History of Catholicism in India

By Gabriel S. Sanchez, J.D.

India, the second most populated country in the world, possesses a rich Christian heritage. Tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas arrived in the country around 52 AD, establishing the first Indian Church. Given that the southwest coast of the country was an important trading center for the Roman Empire, the region would have been accessible to early Christians seeking to spread the Gospel. The Thomistic roots of India’s Christian culture are so firm that today it is barely possible to pass a church in the country that does not bear that apostle’s name.

Indian Christianity in the First Millennium

Although some historians dispute the traditional account of St. Thomas bringing Christianity to the Indian people, the Christian historian Eusebius testifies that St. Pantaenus found Christians living in the country when he arrived there during the second century. At that time, the nascent Indian Church knew only the Gospel of St. Matthew in its Syriac form. This is consistent with the fact that Syriac was the Indians’ primary liturgical language for centuries.

How the Indian Church grew is a matter of some dispute, though the region remained an important commercial center for centuries. It is likely that Christian merchants settled in the country and eventually a permanent hierarchy was established. However, India also became an arrival point for various heterodox Christian sects from around the Middle East, including Manichaeans.

The most vibrant Indian Christian community of the first millennium were the so-called “St. Thomas Christians,” that is, those living in the southwest state of Kerala and whose historical, spiritual, and liturgical patrimony came from Syriac Christianity and the so-called Syriac “Church of the East.” Due to this tie, the Indian Church eventually fell prey to the schism that erupted following the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. As such, India’s Christians were effectively cut off from the Universal Church which, at that time, included both the Latins of the West and the Greeks of the East. Even so, the Indian Church retained a valid Apostolic hierarchy who ordained priests to dispense God’s sacraments.

The St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy (Diocese) of Chicago

The St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy (Diocese) of Chicago is an Eastern Catholic eparchy for Syro-Malabar Catholics in the United States. The eparchy was erected by Pope John Paul II on March 13, 2001. It is one of the four eparchies of the Syro-Malabar Church outside India. It has jurisdiction over Syro-Malabar Catholics in the entire USA.

The Arrival of Latin Catholicism

Despite hostility from their Hindu and Muslim neighbors, Indian Christianity persisted through the centuries with little-to-no contact with the wider Catholic Church. Following the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople, the Indian Church did not take sides, but rather maintained ecclesiastical ties with the aforementioned Church of the East. At the close of the 15th century, Portuguese traders encountered Indian Christians and quickly formed an alliance against non-Christian political powers in the country.

It was during this period that India’s Christians, long separated from the See of Rome, began a tumultuous journey back into formal communion with the Catholic Church. In 1552, the Church of the East, which had been the mother church to Indian Christians for a millennium, fractured into rival patriarchates. One of the church leaders, Shimun VIII Yohannan Sulaqa (John Sulaka), traveled to Rome, formally accepted union with the Catholic Church, and was recognized as the Patriarch of the Church of Assyria and Mosul by Pope Julius III. (This patriarchate is today known as the Chaldean Catholic Church.)

While it was understood that Patriarch Sulaka’s jurisdiction extended over the Indian Church, the Portuguese were jealous to maintain their control over Indian ecclesiastical affairs. By an earlier agreement between Portugal and Rome, the King of Portugal had been vested with the right to appoint bishops for the Portuguese colonial territories. Sulaka’s brother, Joseph, was prevented from overseeing his Indian flock. While the Assyrian Patriarchate appointed another bishop for the Indians, by 1597 the Latin Catholic bishop of Goa in western India installed a Spanish Jesuit to govern the Indian Church.

At the 1599 Synod of Diamper, crucial aspects of the Indian’s Syriac patrimony were suppressed in favor of Latin liturgical and spiritual customs. This immediately led to a fresh rift between Latin and Indian Christians, with the latter looking to reenter communion with other non-Catholic Oriental Christian churches rather than forego their heritage. After local Catholic authorities seized and executed a Coptic bishop who had been sent to lead the disgruntled Indians, they formally broke ties with the Catholic Church and expelled the Jesuits from their presence.

Ironically, it was only after Dutch Protestants had driven the Portuguese out of western India that communion with the Catholic Church once again began to be restored. In the 1660s, a native Indian priest, Alexander Parampil, was consecrated as the Catholic bishop for the Indian Christians. His missionary zeal resulted in many disaffected Christians returning to the Catholic fold. Even so, bishops from the Church of the East who had not renewed ties with Catholicism also arrived in the country, leading to the existence of parallel hierarchies and renewed tensions among Indian Christians.

In the centuries that followed, non-Catholic Indian Christians had trouble maintaining unity, eventually leading to a split between those tethered to the Church of the East and those who wished to belong to an independent Malankara Church. Outside of these two bodies, various Protestant sects also arose and, following the British conquest of India, Anglicanism began to make inroads throughout the country. The Eastern Orthodox Church, which has long possessed a tepid missionary mindset, has only a limited presence in the country.

Indian Catholicism Today

Despite the 16th and 17th century turmoil that threatened to break apart Catholic unity in India, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which is based in Kerala, has 4.5 million members and continues to preach the Gospel despite its minority status. While these Catholics have opted to retain some of the Latin liturgical and spiritual elements brought to the country by the Portuguese nearly five centuries ago, they celebrate according to the Syriac Rite. While the Syro-Malabar Church had to endure centuries of being an adjunct to India’s Latin Catholic hierarchy, today it has the freedom to establish bishops in areas where a Latin hierarch already exists in order to better meet the needs of Indian Christians attached to their ancient Christian heritage.

Another Catholic communion in India, the Syro-Malankar Church, is considerably smaller, consisting of around half-a-million faithful. Their reunion with Rome was consummated in 1930 when, under the leadership of Geevarghese Ivanios, they broke away from the Malankara Church. In his apostolic constitution Cristo pastorum principi, Pope Pius XI established the Catholic Malankara hierarchy. Unlike their Malabar brethren, the Syro-Malankar Church uses its own form of the western Syrian liturgy and does not rely upon Latin liturgical elements. Its presence in India alongside both Latin and Syro-Malabar Catholics is a testament to the spirit of unity that is a hallmark of the Universal Church.

Due to the work of Jesuits and other missionaries, the remaining 19 million Indian Catholics fall under the country’s centuries-old Latin hierarchy. Unfortunately, most of these Catholics have foregone tradition in favor of the New Mass and possess few ties to ancient Indian Christianity. Prior to the late 20th century, it fell to the Latin Catholic bishops to care for most Indian Catholics, regardless of their rite.

As noted, however, a new consensus has emerged whereby the jurisdictional boundaries of both the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankar hierarchies have been extended into areas outside of western India. Such a move is consistent with the wishes of Pope Benedict XV who, in 1917, established the Congregation for Eastern Churches with the purpose of restoring and promoting Eastern Catholic traditions. While some have expressed concern that dividing Indian Catholicism could make it appear weak, particularly in the eyes of the country’s dominant Hindu population, the practical result of this diversity has been a slow but steady increase in conversions to Catholicism.

St.Mary’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Forane Church in Alleppey, Kerala

St.Mary’s Syro-Malabar Catholic Forane Church in Alleppey, Kerala. Situated right next to the famed backwaters, it is believed to be established in 427 AD