Mar Joseph Powathil; The Crown of the Church

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 ‘In a time of Liturgical confusion, you lived and defended the right position with determination. Because of your fidelity to the oriental form of the liturgy against all distorting temptations, you had to suffer hostility, which you bore with love to the truth’.[1] (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)

Archbishop Mar Joseph Powathil passes into eternal happiness with the Lord.  He will be remembered as a Bishop who worked hard to revive the identity of the Syro Malabar Church. He lead the Church to the complete restoration of the Holy Eucharistic liturgy of the Apostolic Church of Saint Thomas in India to its genuine purity from its mutilated state.

Pope Benedict XVI acclaimed Mar Joseph Powathil as the Crown of the Church during the ad limina visit of the Bishops of Syro Malabar Church in May 2011.[2] Mar Joseph was the first Syro Malabar Bishop consecrated by a Pope and the only Syro Malabar Bishop consecrated by a Saint – Pope Paul VI on 13 February 1972 in Rome[3].

Archbishop Joseph Powathil was a Bishop for 51 years and a priest for 60 years in the Syro Malabar Church[4]. Mar Powathil served as the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) 1994- 1998, President of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC) 1993-1996, KCBC commission for education 1986-2007, founder and chairman of the Inter-Church Council for Education  1986-2007, member of the Pro Oriente foundation in Vienna Austria 1993- 2007, member of the post-Asian synodal council Rome  1998- -2007[5]. He was a staunch defender of the teachings of the Church.

Brief Biography

Archbishop Joseph was born on 14 August 1930 as P J Joseph (Pappachan) in Kurumpanadom near Changancherry to John Powathil and Mariakutty. He had his primary education in Holy Family L P school and Saint Peter’s U P School Kurumpanadom, Changanacherry[6]. His higher education was in Saint Berchmann’s College Chanaganacherry. He did his post-graduation in Economics at Loyola College Chennai before joining the petit seminary in Changanacherry. He then went to Papal seminary in Pune and was ordained as a Priest on 03 October 1962[7]. He then joined Saint Berchmann’s College Chanaganacherry in 1962. During his campus ministry, he was very keen on the formation of the students. He was the warden of Saint Joseph’s Hostel and his students commented that it was like a seminary. [8]He also studied at Oxford University in England in 1969 for a Post Graduate Diploma in Developmental Economics[9].

He became the auxiliary Bishop of Changanacherry and was consecrated as a Bishop in Rome by Saint Pope Paul VI on 13 February 1972[10]. Mar Powathil worked with Archbishop Antony Padiyara who later became the first Reesh Methrapolitha /Major Archbishop of Syro Malabar Church. When the Eparchy of Kanjirappalli was erected by the Holy See in 1977, Mar Joseph became the first Bishop and contributed to the development of the new Eparchy in all aspects for 9 years. When Metropolitan Archbishop Mar Antony Padiyara was appointed as the Archbishop of Ernakulam in 1985, Mar Joseph Powathil became the Metropolitan Archbishop of Changanacherry.

Efforts to recover the identity of Syro Malabar Church.

Archbishop Joseph Powathil pioneered to restore the authentic identity of the Syro Malabar Church from a mutilated hybrid identity of a strongly Latinised Eastern Church. Most of its leaders like Bishops and clergy perceived Syro Malabar Church as an offshoot of the Latin church with a variant liturgy.

Fr E R Hambye, Professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute at Rome wrote in 1987 giving a realistic picture of the Syro Malabar Church:

More than any other Eastern Churches in communion with Rome, the Syro Malabar Church had almost entirely lost its basic character as an Oriental reality. That loss affected not only the Liturgy but also the spirituality, theology and law. Its own people hardly knew that they were oriental. After having been told during so many centuries, that everything oriental was wrong, backward, unworthy of Catholics, one wonders how  some clergy and laity  could still hope for a restoration[11].

The hierarchy at that time wanted to rectify the anomaly of Syro Malabar Church having a different liturgy than the rest of the Catholics in India and to make a single rite in India by merging with the Latin church of India in the name of so-called Indianisation. Eminent Roman Catholic theologian William Macomber wrote in 1977:

 “The Hierarchy seems to be aiming at a modernised liturgy that will be open to Indianisation and ultimate unification with the local Latin liturgy once that too will have become Indianised. Their reforms, therefore, taking the Malabarian Mass on a course that emphatically diverges from tradition…”[12]

As a member of the central Liturgical Committee of the Church, Mar Powathil lead the movement for the restoration of the Liturgy of Syro Malabar Church to its genuine purity but he faced significant opposition from his fellow Bishops. As the magisterium of the Church teaches against undue adaptations and innovations in divine liturgy, Rome favoured the restoration of the ancient liturgy to its genuine purity. During the Pontifical visit to India,  Saint Pope John Paul II inaugurated the newly reformed Holy Raza at Kottayam on 8 February 1986.

Magisterial teachings of the Church about the restoration of Liturgy

After the Vatican Council II, the Roman Catholic Church recognised the importance of the Eastern Churches,  their rich and meaningful liturgical heritage,  their genuine rights and their lawful autonomy. In the conciliar and post-conciliar documents, the Roman Pontiffs clearly expressed their desire that all eastern Catholic churches return to their genuine traditions if they had made undue and inopportune modifications in the past due to various reasons. Saint Pope John Paul II in a homily during Armenian Liturgy in 1987 expressed the firm attitude of the Holy See that those eastern Catholic churches should have the courage to re-discover the authentic traditions of their own identity and restore them to their original purity[13]. The Holy See of Rome specifies that these Eastern Churches shine with the tradition derived from the Apostles through the Fathers which constitutes part of the divinely revealed undivided heritage of the Universal Church[14]. The Eastern Churches maintained a more direct continuity with the spiritual atmosphere of the Christian origins and therefore, it is not a sign of stagnation or backwardness but of precious fidelity to the sources of salvation if they foster their genuine traditions[15]. The Universal Church further specifies that in the organic growth of every eastern Catholic Church, any liturgical renewal should be taking into account the roots from which the heritage of these Churches developed mainly Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Armenia and Persia, and how these traditions were transmitted adapting the various circumstances in these places but maintaining a coherent organic continuity[16]. Saint Pope Paul VI clearly instructs, any liturgical renewal should be coherent and agree with sound tradition in such a way that the new norms do not appear as an extraneous body forced into an ecclesiastical composite, but blossom as though spontaneously from already existing norms[17].                                                                                                                                              

Pope Francis’s recent Apostolic letter Desiderio desideravi which exhorts for the liturgical formation of the faithful clarifies that ‘every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to space, time, gestures, words, objects, vestments, song, music etc. and every rubric must be observed. Such attention would be enough to prevent robbing from the assembly what we owed to it; namely, the paschal mystery celebrated according to the ritual that the church sets down’[18].  

From these, one can see Mar Powathil as a Bishop who was obedient to the teachings of the Church and stood firmly for it rather than diluting his stands to gain support for positions and power. This was perceived as his stubborness. He was an example of a synodal Bishop who walked together with the Universal Church.                                                                                         

Formation of faithful- a generation of Syro Malabar faithful.

Mar Powathil was very passionate about the formation of the clergy and faithful. When the restored Holy Raza was introduced, Mar Powathil took all efforts to teach the ordinary faithful. This author remembers that the Priests in the Archeparchy gave catechesis during the Sunday homilies for months before the introduction of the newly reformed Holy Qurbana in 1986.

Institutions like Missionary Orientation Centre, Amala Theological College, Mar Thoma Vidyanikethan, Denahalaya, CANA etc are examples of his vision. He was also involved in promoting periodicals like Dukrana, Christian Orient etc. He also founded an eastern monastic community for women, Sisters of Saint Thomas.

During his pastoral ministry, Mar Powathil created a generation of faithful who were passionate about Syro Malabar Church as an oriental Church. Now, this has grown into a much wider second-generation spread among all the eparchies and regions of the Syro Malabar Church. This young generation takes a keen interest in studying the Church and traditions and trying to restore the lost traditions.

Youth Ministry

While he was the auxiliary Bishop of Chanaganacherry, he founded the diocesan Youth movement Yuva deepthi which spread to other dioceses and became the Kerala Catholic Youth Movement.

Ecumenism and religious harmony

The leadership of Mar Powathil created an ecumenical culture in Kerala with cooperation with other Churches in areas of common interest like education, minority rights etc. which bore fruits. He upheld the rights of minority communities in education. Inter-Church council for education is an example. He has significantly contributed to dialogues between Catholic Church and other oriental Churches. He was a member of the Pro oriente foundation in Vienna.

Minority and Educational rights.

Mar Joseph Powathil was a judicious Bishop whenever there were any challenges for the faith or minority rights. This was seen in his interventions and leadership concerning policies of various governments in the educational sector, self-financing colleges etc. Mar Powathil was the first one to identify the violation of the Indian Constitution in the unanimously passed Self-financing colleges bill. The General public in Kerala witnessed his knowledge and powerful leadership in 2006 when the government tried to take away the minority rights in the self-financing colleges’ bill[19].

Charity and social service

Mar Powathil founded the Perumedu Development Society, Malanadu Development Society, Changancherry Social Service Society and Kuttanadu Vikasana Samithy for the integral development of the people of these regions. He took special care of marginalised people such as mentally challenged children and physically handicapped and founded institutions to support them such as the Asha Bhavan of Ithithanam[20]. There are 19 schools for mentally challenged children in the Archeparchy.

Controversies and hate propaganda against Mar Powathil.

Nilakkal Cross.

The Nilakkal issue created controversy among the multicultural community in Kerala and it was successfully resolved with a solution acceptable to all communities by his prudent leadership. Mar Powathil was accused of manipulation of facts behind the stories of a granite cross found in Nilakkal near Sabari mala temple. But the fact is that there had been excavations in Nilakkal in the 1920s and publications in Archaeological Journals like ‘The Indian Antiquary’ in 1923 about evidence of an ancient settlement of Christians in Nilakkal of an area of 4 miles by 3 miles, west of the Sabari mala temple with ruins of old houses and church with granite lined wells and part of a cross with inscriptions[21]. This proves that even before Mar Joseph Powathil was born, there was archaeological evidence of a Christian settlement in Nilakkal. T K Joseph,  the author of the paper in Indian Antiquary vouches for the tradition of their Church at Chengannur founded in AD 1244-45 emigrated from Nilakkal due to the ravages of wild beasts and locusts[22].

Mar Thoma Sleeva

Another accusation by opponents in the Church was that the Saint Thomas Crosses were the invention of Mar Powathil.  An article in Ernakulam Missam, the official journal of the archdiocese of Ernaculam in  February 1930 by Mar Augustine Kandathil, the then head of Syro Malabar Hierarchy narrates about the discovery of Alengad sleeva by Fr Joseph Panjikkaren. The title of the article itself was ‘Ancient Apostle Thomas Cross of Alengad’.[23] This article was published well before the birth of Archbishop Joseph Powathil.! Antonio Gouvea who wrote the book Jornada in AD 1606 narrates that the crosses similar to that of the miraculous cross of Mailappore were very common in the old churches of Saint Thomas Christians at the time of the visit of Archbishop Menezes and these crosses were called by the native Christians as crosses of Saint Thomas[24]. Therefore, it is a fact that the Christians of Saint Thomas at the time of Archbishop Menezes’s visit in AD 1599 used crosses similar to the miraculous cross of Mailappore and they called these crosses as Crosses of Saint Thomas. These clarify that the use of these Mar Thoma Sleeva as altar crosses was genuinely the tradition of our forefathers and they called these crosses Saint Thomas Crosses even though there is no hard evidence that Apostle Thomas brought these crosses.

Hate propaganda against Mar Powathil.

Due to the difference in opinion about the liturgical issues in the 1980s and the fact that Rome favoured Mar Powathil concerning the restoration of Liturgy, there was strong hate propaganda against him from the corners of the Church itself. There was public agitation in certain corners of Kerala unhesitatingly stating’ do not appoint Mar Powathil as the next major Archbishop’. When this author was working as a Surgeon at Medical College Hospital at Trichur in 1994-1997, there were widespread posters stating the same on the walls of Syro Malabar Churches in the city of Trichur. This was a shock to this author as this appeared sponsored by the Church leadership. This was negative propaganda. It would have been better and more Christian in spirit if this agitation was supporting any other person as the Major Archbishop rather than against a particular person. Therefore, letters were sent to all the Syro Malabar Bishops at that time pointing out this as hate propaganda and negativism which is against Christian principles.  The author has not received any replies from any of the then Bishops!  In the later years, the general public could witness Bishops and Archbishops inviting him to talk for their agitation against the policies of Government in the Education sector and so on, in the same cities where pompous processions and vivid posters were displayed against him.

Mar Powathil was humiliated by a section of hatemongers in the Church. He tolerated the widespread character assassination and humiliation by the negative propagandists in the Church in Christian principles of love and forgiveness. These dirty politics led the Church far away from the destined direction.

The ministry of Mar Joseph Powathil was so successful that it has helped to revive the Apostolic Church from its mutilated hybrid spirituality. When Mar Powathil became a Bishop, the Syro Malabar Church was a strongly Latinised Church with a hybrid spirituality with a restricted territory in Middle Kerala. Now the Syro Malabar Church has become an oriental Church with oriental liturgy, discipline, theology, church architecture, vestments etc with jurisdiction all over India and several Eparchies outside India making it a global Church. All these achievements were due to the hard work and inspiration of Mar Powathil.

Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches canon 199 indicates the role of the Eparchial Bishop as the moderator, promoter and guardian of the entire liturgical life of the Eparchy[25]. Mar Powathil was a model for this and an ever-vigilant Bishop who stood for the promotion and revival of the liturgy, spirituality, discipline and culture of the ancient Apostolic Church of Saint Thomas in India.

Mar Powathil was the most appropriate person to become the Major Archbishop at that time which was prevented by hate mongers in the Church. Pope Benedict XVI called him publicly ‘Here comes the Crown of the Church’. Even though he did not become the Major Archbishop, he was the crown of the Church, the real Patriarch.

Picture courtesy: CCBI Conference of Catholic Bishops in India.( accessed on 20/8/2023)

[1] Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in a personal letter addressed to Mar Joseph Powathil on Nov 8, 2019.

[2] accessed on 18/03/23

[3] accessed on 18/03/2023

[4] accessed on 18/03/2023

[5] accessed on 18/03/2023

[6] accessed on 18/03/2013

[7]  and    accessed on 18/03/2013

[8] Crown of the Church, accessed on 18/03/2013

[9] Crown of the Church, accessed on 18/03/2013

[10] accessed on 18/03/2023

[11] Fr E R Hambye, S J, Professor at the Pontifical Oriental Institute Rome, Eastern Churches in India and the Syrian tradition, Seminarium, No 3, July-Sep 1987, pp 373-374

[12] William Macomber, A History of Chaldean mass, Worship, vol 51, 1977, pp107-120

[13] Pope Saint John Paul II, Homily during the Divine Liturgy in Armenian Rite on 21 November 1987, L ‘Osservatore Romano 23-24 November  1987 p 6.

[14] Achille Cardinal Sylvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation of the Eastern Churches, Instructions for applying the Liturgical Principles for the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, No 9, 6 January 1996

[15] Achille Cardinal Sylvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation of the Eastern Churches, Instructions for applying the Liturgical Principles for the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, No 7, 6 January 1996

[16] Achille Cardinal Sylvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation of the Eastern Churches, Instructions for applying the Liturgical Principles for the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, No 12, 6 January 1996

[17] Saint Pope Paul VI, Discourse of 18 March 1974: nauntia 1 (1975) 6 cited in Achille Cardinal Sylvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation of the Eastern Churches, Instructions for applying the Liturgical Principles for the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, No 12, 6 January 1996

[18] Pope Francis, Desiderio Desideravi, No 23

[19] accessed oln 18/03/2023

[20] accessed on 18/03/2023

[21] T K Joseph, A Greek inscription in Chayal, Malabar Miscellany, Indian Antiquary Dec 1023, p 356-357

[22] T K Joseph, A Greek inscription in Chayal, Malabar Miscellany, Indian Antiquary Dec 1023, p 356

[23] Alengatte Purathana Thoma sleeha Kurish (Malayalam) Ernakulam Missam, February 1930, pp 78-79.

[24] Pius Malekkandathil, Jornada of Dom Alexis De Menezes, LRC Cochin,  p244 also foot note 177 on page 216 and foot note 190 in page 245

[25]   Achille Cardinal Sylvestrini, Prefect of the Congregation of the Eastern Churches, Instructions for applying the Liturgical Principles for the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, No 23, 6 January 1996

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