Vatican City (Fides Service) – Our Church is flourishing, rich in priestly and religious vocations, committed to family pastoral, filled with a keen missionary spirit: the Syro-Malabar Church in India, fruit of the preaching of Saint Thomas the Apostle in 52AD, is a witness of renewed missionary impulse in Asia. This emerged in a conversation between Fides Service and Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, in Rome for the Ad Limina Visit of the Syro-Malabar Bishops.
This Church in full communion with Rome has its centre in Kerala State in south west India although its 3.9 million members are spread all over the world. The vitality of this Church is seen especially from the numbers of church personnel: more than 6,000 priests (211 ordained in 2002), 30,000 Sisters, thousands of priests and religious of Syro-Malabar origin who have joined Latin dioceses and this means that 70% of priests (diocesan and religious) and nuns in India today (which has 17 million Catholics among a population of one billion) come from the Syro-Malabar Church.
Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil visited the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples where he met Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the Prefect of the Congregation and was kind enough to spare a few minutes to speak with Fides Service. When we asked him to explain the flourishing vocations, the Cardinal from India said: “The Syro-Malabar Church is very old, with a long Catholic tradition, from the very beginning. The Pope himself recalled that our Church has never been separated from the See of Peter. Through the centuries the faith has become a main element in the identity of our people. Secondly, today, despite secularism and globalisation, the faith is lived deeply in families. Families pray together at home; before the evening meal many families, parents and children, pray the rosary; many attend daily celebration of the Eucharist. In these truly authentic Christian families vocations male and female are numerous”. The Cardinal also spoke with satisfaction of “great work in catechesis achieved in parishes. A host of lay catechists teach the faith to our children with passion and enthusiasm. We base our pastoral work on sound, systematic and regular catechesis.”
The Syro-Malabar Church also has a keen missionary spirit: “We desire to be missionaries, as the Second Vatican Council underlined, recognising the dignity and right to evangelise of all the Churches of East and West. Today we send thousands of priests and religious on mission, all over India, and also to Africa and Latin America. Many Syro-Malabar priests and nuns join Latin dioceses or communities: our Church gives with joy”.
In the delicate situation of Christians in India today, where missionaries are often accused of proselytism under the guise of social service, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil notes: “In India our missionaries are appreciated. Fundamentalists complain that missionaries have European faces and names, life-style and customs and that they are almost all foreigners who came with colonialism. Whereas we are an all Indian Church. We have the same Indian culture as Hindus. For us missionary work is easier”. However the Cardinal voices concern for anti-conversion laws adopted in some states of India: “This violates the right of every Indian to freedom of conscience and religion. Permission must be obtained from the magistrate for every baptism or conversion: there is confusion between civil and religious matters”.
Everyone recognises the great contribution made by the Syro-Malabar Church for the human and spiritual growth of the people of India: the Church’s valuable work of education has made Kerala the state with the highest grade of instruction in the whole of the Indian Federation: “many of India’s political leaders, intellectuals and defenders of human rights were educated at Catholic schools”.
“The secret of the vitality of the Syro-Malabar Church – Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil concludes – lies in the three pillars on which we found our pastoral work: devotion to the Eucharist, love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and total obedience to the Pope”. PA (Fides Service 6/5/2003 EM lines 9 Words: 57)