Syro-Malabar Church, the second largest Oriental Church in the Catholic communion was founded by St. Thomas, the Apostle. Though its full history is shrouded in uncertainty one is forced to think that it was a flourishing Church with its own administrative system which helped it to keep up its unity. That system continued even under the Catholicos of the East Syrian Church with which the Indian Church came into hierarchical relationship in some yet unknown circumstances. A local priest-leader called the Archdeacon was the head of the community with wide ranging power while the bishops sent by the Catholicos concerned themselves with the purely spiritual realm.
Things took a different turn when the Portuguese missionaries who arrived in the first half of the 16th century, started their interference under the Padroado agreement with the Holy See. The missionaries who suspected the Indian Christians of heresy and schism tried hard to introduce the Latin customs and Latin manner of ecclesiastical administration, severing the East Syrian connection. They succeeded because they could move the forces, both religious and secular, inland and abroad, in their favour. Their efforts, however, sowed the seeds of disunity and division in the Indian Church which bred further division and disunity and as a result the once united Indian Church, a Church that was in full communion with the See of Peter ended up in various denominations as is the case today.
The present Syro-Malabar Church is the continuation of the ancient Indian Church of the Thomas Christians. Yet it was considered merely as a part of the Latin Church even when it was reorganised in the last decades of the 19th century. The ecclesiology prevalent at that time, the disunity within the Church and the suspicion of schism, made the creation of a common head in tune with our tradition, virtually impossible. Nevertheless, the Church grew, to a great extent, thanks to the strong faith and commitment of our forefathers and the timely and inspiring help and guidance of their leaders.
Canon 27 of the Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches defines an autonomous (sui juris) Church as “a group of Christian faithful united by a hierarchy according to the norm of law which the supreme authority of the Church expressly or tacitly recognizes as autonomous (sui juris)”. According to the Code there are only four categories of sui juris Churches: Patriarchal, Major Archiepiscopal, Metropolitan and other Churches which are entrusted by pope to a single hierarch. A number of matters in the sui juris Churches are to be regulated by the particular law of each Church. The Code of Canons of the Oriental Churches came into force on 1st October 1991; but the Syro-Malabar Church found itself in a juridical vacuum as it did not fit into any category of sui juris Churches.
A new Era has begun in the history of the Syro-Malabar Church, a long cherished dream has come true. On 16th December 1992 the Syro-Malabar Church was raised to the status of a Major Archiepiscopal Church and His Eminence Antony Cardinal Padiyara, the Metropolitan of Ernakulam, was appointed the first Major Archbishop. His Holiness Pope John Paul II also appointed Archbishop Abraham Kattumana as his delegate with all the powers of the Major Archbishop to exercise temporarily the functions of pastoral governance of the latter. When Archbishop Kattumana expired on 4th April 1995, the Major Archbishop was conferred upon full powers of his status except those matters reserved to Rome earlier. On 18th December, 1996 Antony Cardinal Padiyara retired and the Pope appointed His Grace Mar Varkey Vithayathil, the Administrator of Syro-Malabar Church. On 23rd December 1999, Mar Varkey Vithayathil was appointed Major Archbishop.
George Cardinal Alencherry
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