Restore the identity of Kerala Catholics: Varghese Pamplanil
Historical evidence shows that Jewish people had started migrating to the Malabar coast around the period of their Babylonian Captivity in 562 BCE. Further influx could have occurred after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in CE 70. These migrants consisted of mostly pepper traders; value of pepper was equal to gold dust in those days. They would have found in the Malabar coast the Garden of Eden, a paradise of peace and tranquility, a land of lush green with verities of flora and fauna, rivers overflowing with sweet water against their arid native land and its ever quarrelling and incessantly fighting inhabitants. The migrants could have included some followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who later came to be known as Nazranis. More would have found sanctuary in Malabar during or after the Bar Kokha Revolt of 131-136 CE. The newcomers adapted, adopted and absorbed the Indian ethos and intermarried from the local population. They merged seamlessly with the mores in vogue; noting much to distinguish the Nazranis from the local in-habitants in matters of general demeanour, food habits, dresses, hair styles, dwellings, places of worship and other aspects of living except the god they worshipped. The Nazranis maintained an ascetic life style, exemplary behaviour in social life, distinctive character in socio-cultural and spiritual matters. The administration of the affairs of their religion was run democratically through elected Palliyogams and “Katthnars“. The finances and assets of their churches were in the duel custody of the “kykkarans “. Their liturgy was Eastern attributed to saints Addai and Mari.
From the first to the fifth century, the community is believed to have had communion with the Church of Antioch, Edessa and from CE 496 to CE 1599 with the Nestorian Church of the East and followed the East Syrian Rite. From the fifth to the sixteenth century the bishops of the Church of Malabar were appointed by the Patriarch of Antioch, the bishops hailed from Persia. The bishops had to restrict themselves to spiritual matters alone. The liturgy of the Nazranis was of East Syrian Rite, their culture purely Indian and life style blended to the ethos of the localities they resided. The were active in local affairs, supported the rulers by doing military service – some of them were experts in handling weapons of war – and well versed in the art of healing. In the four layered caste system that emerged in the Hindu religion, the Nazranis discharged the role of the “ Vaisya”.They had never heard of the Popes or the Latin Church of Rome.
The placid waters of Malabar was churned for the worst with the landing of the sail ship of Vasco da Gama on the Kappad beach of Kozhikode on 29 May 1498. Initially the relationship between the Nazranis and the Portuguese was cordial. The trouble began , when the Portuguese missionaries started to interfere in the day to day operations of the churches of the Nazranis. They accused the Nazaranis of “heresy “and “schism“ and attempted to introduce Roman Rite customs and Latin church mode of ecclesiastical administration and to severe East Syrian connection. The Portuguese established a Latin diocese in Goa in 1534 hoping to bring the Malabar Christians under the Latin jurisdiction. The Goan Synod in 1585 decided to introduce the Latin liturgy and practices among the Nazranis. In the Synod of Diamper ( Udayam-peroor ) Portuguese Archbishop Don Alexis Menezes succeeded in appointing a Latin bishop for the East Syrian Catholic Diocese of Angamaly-Kodungallur to govern the Malabar Christians under the Portuguese Paroado (Patronage ). The strife between the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries and the indigenous Christians and their Mesopotamian prelates was one of “ ecclesiasological “ and jurisdictional in character. Attempts to thwart Latinisation were branded as heretical. Under their Archdeacon, the Malabar Christians resisted the hegemony of the Portuguese vehemently. The consequence of the mechanisations of the Portuguese was the fragmentation of the once homogenous and united church in full communion with the East Syrian Church into various factions. The Coonan Cross Oath of 1653, under the Archdeacon Thomas severed the connection with the Portuguese Jesuits and their illegitimate offspring the Roman Catholic Church.
Rome sent Carmalites in two groups from the Propagation of Faith to Malabar headed by Fr. Sebastiani and Fr. Hyacinth to secure its interests. Sebastiani arrived in 1665 for consultations with Arch-deacon Mar Thomma and his councillors Parambil Mar Chandy, Alexander Kadavil and the Vicar of Muttom. Mar Thomma had already reconciled with Francisco Garacia Mendes S.J. Archbishop of Kodungallur. During 1661-62, the Carmalites reclaimed 84 out of the 116 churches and congregations in Malabar. From this body the Syro-Malabar Church has emerged to the present level.
The arrival of bishop Mar Gregorios of the Syriac Orthodox Church in 1665 marked the breaking of the Malabar Church into Pazhaya-koottukar ( I.e. those in communion with Rome) and Putthankootu-kar, Jacobites in communion with the Patriarch of Antioch.
Kerala Syrian Katthanars, Joseph Kariattil and Paremmakkal Thomas went to Rome in 1778. Kariattil was installed in Portugal as the Archbishop of Kodungallur Archdiocese. Before his death in Goa, he appointed Thomas Katthnar as the Administrator of the Kodungallur Archdiocese. The Katthanar established his headquarters in Angamaly in 1782. During the invasion of Tippu Sultan, Thomas Katthanar moved out of Angamaly and managed the church administration from his parish at Ramapuram.
The Malabar Christians were known as Catholic Syrians from 1787; they had their own bishops from 1896. The Indian East Syrian Hierarchy was established on 21 December 1923. The nomenclature Syro-Malabar Catholics came into use. only in 1932.
The over view above about the Syro-Malabar Church in the historical context is to highlight the circumstances that tethered the Kerala Christians in the stable of Roman Church at the behest of the Portuguese missionaries. It was a union imposed on the reluctant indigenous Nazranis, a sort of “shot gun marriage”. As a result a participatory religion came under the autocracy of bishops and their cliques and general members reduced to mere goats and cattle to be made obedient by the leash and the crook and at best allowed to pray on payment. The ruler of Vatican was invested with the own-ship of the assets of the Malabar Church.
Ethnically or culturally there is no convergence between the Indian and European Catholics. The Europeans have left India for good leaving behind fractured societies in their erstwhile colony. The religion they planted in India stands out as a sore thump among the indigenous milieu. The plight of the Indian Christians is to subscribe to and suffer the arbitrary dictates of the obdurate Curia en-trenched in the Church of Rome.
The hard core elements of the Hindu society have started flexing their muscles. One of the reasons for this situation is the aggressive proselytising by Christians among tribals and “adivasies“ in North Indian states funded by foreign sources. The denigration of the Hindu way of life and the alleged superiority claim of the Christian religion have made the situation highly volatile. India is the birth place of two humane religions, namely Buddhism and Hinduism. Considering its huge size and its diversity, the country is by and large peaceful. From the eleventh century Indian people, especially of north of the country, had to endure the plunder, pillage, destruction of places of worship, vandalising of their images of veneration, looting of the immense treasures of their temples and above all widespread raping and dishonouring of their women folk by the foreign marauders. The “logic of the wolf to devour the lamb“ may not be the correct approach.
In order to maintain sanity in social sphere, it is desirable to follow the dictum of “live and let live“. It may be helpful to remember that no religion or institution is either superior or inferior. Harmony in social concourse may be possible in an environment of toleration and mutual respect.
Of late the Catholic media is overwhelmed by the doings and pronouncements of Pope Francis. No doubt his is a fresh voice amidst the inanities of Rome. But his latest exhortation Amoris Laetitia is matter germane to the Catholics of Europe and the US. The issues that agitate the Europeans and the Americans have very little relevance to us. For the mandarins of Rome the minuscule Catholics of Kerala, a set of docile and conformist people unable and afraid to stand up and be counted, an amorphous entity, may be a mere statistical appendage of not much consequence. Above all, Roman Catholicism’s sway over us has been for a small period in the long history of Indian Christianity.
In Europe the Catholic Church is gasping for its lasts breaths; its active membership is reduced to insignificance and its pews are becoming emptier day by day. Its relevance in the European heritage, society and way of life is negligible The Church is struggling to perch precariously and have a tenuous foothold. It's time wrapped views have become curiosities. It's obsession with the sexual orientations of its flock has put it in a Catch 22 situation.
World over monolithic organisations are giving way to smaller independent entities. The hegemony of the out sider has become abhorrent. Self determination is the accepted norm in the social and political domain. Self respect is the credo; autonomy the motto. This model is equally applicable in the domain of religious institutions. Then why not the Kerala Church revert itself to its heritage and identity? Our culture and ethos is totally different from that of Italy or Europe. Are we not capable of managing our religious affairs? Why should rush to Rome whimpering “Mamma Mia“ for everything connected to our religious affairs? Does it not hurt our self respect and belief in ourselves? Why do we think that the white man has a better morality? Is it not the time to throw off the shackles of the obscurantist Roman Curia?
The only segment to be adversely affected by an independent Church of Kerala would be the “beatitudes, eminences, the lords“ and their ilk who rush to Rome for guidance and approval for every thing. The general members who foot the bills for all the junkets of these plenipotentiaries can get rid of the unwanted and unnecessary expenditure.
Nowadays the Indian judiciary have come down heavily on entrenched and vested interests and restrictive practices, be it be the entry of women of child bearing age in to the sanctum sanctorum of Hindu temples, clipping the wings of the super rich all-powerful and high handed BCCI. If the enlightened and committed members of Kerala Christians and their organisations take up, the initiative to present the acute problems faced by the Nazranis, arising out of the arbitrary, autocratic and undemocratic doings of their priest-hood to notice of the courts, corrective steps may emerge. As an initial step, let CCV be the forum for ventilating the grievances of the rank and file due to the capricious and inhuman attitude of the clergy and also to expose their misdoings and misdemeanours. It is high time to get rid of the suzerainty of Rome. There should be further delay in mending the ways of the haughty clerics and discipline them as well as arrest their free run on all matters.