St. Thomas the Apostle, one of the twelve apostles of Our Lord Jesus Christ, came to India in A.D. 52 and preached the Gospel and established ecclesial communities. Seven of such communities are well known in the Malabar coast of South India: They are Kodungalloor, Niranam, Kollam, Chayal, Kottakkavu, Kokkamangalam and Palayoor in the present state of Kerala. It is good to remember that there were some Jewish settlements
in South India at that time due to the commercial relationship between India and Mesopotamia. After his preaching in Malabar Coast he traveled to East coast and there he suffered Martyrdom in 72 A.D. July 3 is observed as a Holy Day of Obligation by the Syro-Malabar Church. His tomb is located at Mylapore in Tamilnadu. The early Christians of India were known as St. Thomas Christians or “Nazrani Mappila”. The head of the Church in India was called the “Metropolitan of the whole of India”.
Due to the commercial relationship between Persia and South India, East Syrian language was introduced to the early Christians. The St. Thomas Christians of India accepted the liturgy developed by the disciples of St. Thomas in Mesopotamia known as Ss. Adai and Mari. The Chaldean Church of Iraq uses the present anaphora –Eucharistic prayer – of the Syro-Malabar Church, known as Anaphora of Ss. Adai and Mari. These two Churches have common East Syrian liturgical tradition. But St. Thomas Christians – Syro-Malabar Church – had different style of administration, customs and practices. The historian of our Church, Rev. Fr. Placid Podipara, CMI, has rightly put it: “The Syro-Malabar Church is Christian in faith, oriental in worship and Indian in culture”.
Around A.D. 345 Thomas of Cana and 72 families from Syria came to India and settled in Kodungalloor. It is believed that there was a bishop and priest with them. The descendents of this group are known as Sudhists or Knananites, keeping a separate identity among St. Thomas Christians. Since that period, the bishop of the Syro-Malabar Church used to be from Persia of East Syrian tradition. He was the spiritual leader of the community, while a local priest, called Archdeacon, administered the temporal affairs. St. Thomas Christians indulged in military service, agriculture and commerce. They were given special recognition by the local kings.
It was in 1498, the Portuguese navigator Vasco de Gama reached Kodungalloor. Following him, western missionaries also came to India. The St. Thomas Christians welcomed them cordially. Since the Syrian liturgy and local customs were unknown to the missionaries, they wanted to latinize our liturgy and practices. This caused disagreements and dissensions. The Synod held at Udayamperoor in 1599 (Known as Synod of Diamper) was an enforcement for latinization. No more Syrian bishop was welcome; the administration was taken over by the latin (Western) bishops. The resentment between the St. Thomas Christians and missionaries continued and following the event of Coonan Cross Oath in 1653, real division took place among the St. Thomas Christians. The majority of St. Thomas Christians remained faithful to the Catholic Church under the Latin bishop while others accepted the Syrian Jacobitism. Then the former group came to be known as old party (Pazhayakur) and the latter group called New party (Puthenkur). The old party is the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the new party is the Orthodox Church. Both have St. Thomas Christian tradition.
In 1996 His Excellency Mar Gregory Karotemprel, CMI, the chairman of the Commission for the pastoral care for the migrants and apostolic visitor to USA and Canada, came here and made personal effort to visit as many places as possible to meet with the priests and people of Syro-Malabar Church. This formal visit enabled him to make a thorough study of the spiritual care of the faithful and formulate a detailed report to be submitted to the Holy Father and the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. In his report, he requested for the establishment of a diocese for the Syro-Malabar faithful in USA and Canada. Enormous work done by Mar Gregory Karotemprel, CMI, for the formation of a diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church in USA/Canada has to be acknowledged and appreciated.
Since the coming of Latin – Western – Missionaries, Latin Church was established in India and mass conversions to Christianity happened in various parts of India. The Syrian Christians were separated from the Latin administration in 1887 by the establishment of two Vicariates to them, namely, Trissur and Kottayam. The Vicar Apostolic of Kottayam, moved the office to Changanacherry. In 1896, the long desired dream of administration of the Syro-Malabar by the Syro-Malabar bishops was materialized. Three Vicariates were formed – Ernakulam, Trissur and Changanacherry and three Syro-Malabar priests were appointed as Vicars Apostolic for our faithful. In 1911 a separate Vicariate was established for Sudhists – Knananites – at Kottayam. In 1923 the Syro-Malabar Hierarchy was established, with Ernakulam as the Metropolitan Archdiocese and Trichur, Changanacherry and Kottayam, as suffragan dioceses. Diocese of Palai was formed in 1950 and diocese of Thalassery was established in 1953. Then the diocese of Changanacherry was elevated as Metropolitan Archdiocese in 1956. Thus the Syro-Malabar Church came under two Metropolitan Archbishops, without a unifying head of the particular Church.
Since the division among the St. Thomas Christians immediately after the Coonan Cross Oath in 1653, there have been several movements towards reunion. For a long while, nothing worked out. But in 1930, a large group of Syrian Jacobites, under the leadership of Metropolitan Mar Ivanios and Metropolitan Mar Theophilos, reunited with the Catholic Church. They were allowed to continue their Antiochean liturgical tradition. This reunited group is recognized as Syro-Malankara Catholic Church in Catholic Communion. They have also the same St. Thomas Christian tradition.
With the opening of the Chanada Mission in 1962, there was a new spirit in the Syro-Malabar Church. Second Vatican Council enabled the bishops, priests and people to have a better understanding of ecclesiology and missiology. The role of Eastern Churches in Catholic Communion was better illustrated. New dioceses were formed in the proper territory and mission dioceses were given to the Syro-Malabar Church in North India. Vocations to priesthood and religious life abounded. In 1993, the Syro-Malabar Church was elevated as a “Sui Juris” Major Archiepiscopal Church. It is named: Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Church of Ernakulam – Angamaly. The title of the head of the Church is Major Archbishop.
Another major event, in the history of Syro-Malabar Church, was the establishment of St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago, in USA, in 2001. Its bishop is also permanent Apostolic Visitator to Canada. The Syro-Malabar Church, which was limited between Bharatapuzha and Pampanadi, was extended to the north of India and now it is extended to the western world, and thus the Syro-Malabar Church is now universal in full sense. Now what we are waiting for is the elevation of this Church to a Patriarchal Church.