This paper was published in the Journal of Saint Thomas Christians July- Dec 2020.
Martin Thomas Antony, Role of ecclesiastical structure in the promotion of authentic spirituality among the diaspora : An experience from the evolution of the Syro Malabar Church in the United Kingdom, Journal of Saint Thomas Christians, Vol 31 No 2 July- Dec 2020 Rajkot.
Role of Ecclesiastical structure in the promotion of authentic spirituality among the diaspora: An experience from the Evolution of the Syro Malabar Church in the United Kingdom.
Dr Martin Thomas Antony
Syro Malabar Church in the second largest particular Church of the Universal Catholic communion in the United Kingdom. For several decades, there have been migrations of Syro Malabar faithful to the U.K. For the last two decades, the number of migrants increased significantly. Their pastoral care was provided by the local Roman Catholic hierarchy. These migrant communities functioned as ethnolinguistic groups within the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom with no care of the identity and individuality of the Particular Church. The Universal Catholic Church teaches that all the liturgical, spiritual, theological and canonical traditions of Eastern Churches be preserved. There was a real need for the pastoral care of these migrants in their rite and traditions. Now, the Syro Malabar faithful in the United Kingdom has been blessed with an Eparchy and a Bishop, thriving in its authentic Spirituality as a genuine witness of the Judeo-Christian East Syriac tradition.
Saint Thomas Christians- a migratory community.
Saint Thomas Christians of India are well known as hard-working people and migratory community. The origin of Christianity in India was the fruit of Missionary journey of Apostle Thomas to India to evangelise the Jewish mercantile community who settled in India. They were mainly based around the coastal areas near to maritime ports. Later, due to various socio-political reasons, they migrated to the interior of Kerala. When there was a war between King of Cranganore and Samuthiry of Calicut in AD 1524, Cranganore was destroyed, all the three churches, Saint Mary’s, Saint Thomas’ and Saint Kuriakose’s churches were burnt down and Christians had to flee to interior areas. When the Portuguese got a stronghold in coastal areas and they started socio-cultural invasion in terms of Latinisations, the Christians migrated to interior areas to protect and preserve their local church and apostolic spirituality. In the late 19th century, Agrarian Saint Thomas Christians moved to upland in central Kerala and started agricultural activities. In the early and mid 20th century, Christians from Travancore migrated to Northern Kerala for cultivable land due to famine and food shortage. In the 20th and 21st century, Syro Malabar faithful migrated to the Americas, Europe and Australasia as economic migrants looking for better living standards and quality of life.
As the name of the second book in the Holy Bible, the whole story of Christianity is exodus. God chose Abraham and asked him to follow God to a land where milk and honey are plentiful. The old testament is the story of the Israelites’ migratory journey. In the new testament, Lord Jesus Christ invites people to follow him to his eternal Kingdom. The Holy Eucharistic Liturgy of Syro Malabar Church symbolically represents this journey. During the worship, the whole community along with the leader, the Priest representing Jesus, faces the altar which represents heaven.
Growth of a local church to a global
Syro Malabar Church is the evolution of the Pazhaycoor Saint Thomas Christians who remained loyal to the Universal Catholic Church during the religio-colonial invasion of the Portuguese Roman Catholic Missionary enterprise in India in the 15-16 centuries. Due to the colonial mind of the Missionaries, when the Syro Malabar hierarchy was re-established in 1923, its jurisdiction was restricted to Kerala in between river Bharathapuzha and Pamba. Later, the area of Jurisdiction extended to Southern Kerala and Northern Kerala and now, all India with the establishment of the Eparchy of Shamshabad.
A large number of Nurses started migrating to the United States and Europe. This resulted in the establishment of Eparchy of Chicago in 2001, Australia in 2014, Canada in 2015, Great Britain in 2016, and an Apostolic visitor for Europe in 2016. Thus, the Syro Malabar Church has become a global church now. During the colonial period, a large number of Missionaries came over to India. Now, a large number of Missionaries of Syro Malabar in origin are going all over the world.
Syro Malabar migrations
History of humanity is that of migrations. In the modern world, migrations are restricted within sovereign states. There are peaceful migrations and forced migrations due to civil war and conflicts. Peaceful migrations are in search of labour and amenities of life. Syro Malabar migrants in the western world are peaceful economic migrants who came over from India and contribute to the society and culture of the new country based on a give and take principle. The Syro Malabar faithful in the UK are well educated and intelligent who got assimilated into all walks of the local community.
Syro Malabar Church in the UK
Syro Malabar Church is the largest Eastern Catholic community in the United Kingdom and the only Syriac Church with an eparchy and Bishop. In the 1950s a small number of Syro Malabar faithful migrated to the UK on employment purposes. Later, in the 1960s a few Medical Doctors and their families arrived. By 2000, a large number of Nurses and some Information technology professionals migrated to the UK. Now, there are about 8000 families and about 38000 faithful in the United Kingdom. Most of the faithful are young and working families, well-educated professionals which is an asset to the community.
Malayali Catholic Associations- ethnolinguistic sects
Most of these Nurses arrived in the UK from Gulf countries where there is no religious freedom. Their spirituality was secret prayer groups and prayer gatherings. Understandably, they brought their prayer group spirituality with them. This resulted in the formation of prayer meetings in many places in the UK. The main theme of these were prayers and spirituality in the Malayalam language in the form of prayer meetings, the celebration of Holy Eucharistic liturgy in Malayalam language, confession in Malayalam language and retreats in the Malayalam language. In a nutshell, these were mere ethnolinguistic communities. These were followed by regular visits of celebrity Priests of the charismatic movement from Kerala. In 2001 July, fist retreat by Divine Retreat centre was organised. Most of these gatherings and retreats were organised by lay volunteers of the Catholic Charismatic movement. Many of these gatherings were strongly associated with Malayali Associations, with secular celebrations of Malayali festivals like Onam, Vishu, Easter, Christmas etc. The Catholic Priests of Kerala origin who were in the UK as students and on other capacities helped these organisations.
Most of these faithful were members of Syro Malabar Church. Being a particular church with sui iuris status in the Catholic communion, the need for the pastoral care of these migrants were felt by the Roman Catholic Church in the UK and the Holy Synod of the Syro Malabar Church. The second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar documents exhort for prompt actions for promotion and observance of the rites of the Eastern Catholic faithful in a foreign land as the patrimony of the Universal Church of Christ.
Syro Malabar Chaplaincies.
As the community grew, the Syro Malabar Church also started to take an interest in the pastoral care of this migrant faithful. Some of the learned Syro Malabar Priests involved in this showed interest in promoting Syro Malabar Spirituality to these Malayali Catholic associations. Their efforts resulted in the English Church recognising Syro Malabar communities as a particular church in the UK. The Syro Malabar Bishops Synod sent Bishop Mar Gregory Carotemprel, the then Chairman of the Synodal Commission for the pastoral care of Migrants as a visitor to study the situation. In 2005 the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales agreed to appoint a National Coordinator to promote the spirituality of Syro Malabar Church as a sui iuris Church in the UK. This lead to the formation of chaplaincies. But most of the Priests were of the Charismatic mindset and were interested in pastoral care in the Malayalam language rather than promoting the Syro Malabar Church as a Sui iuris Church. Most of the migrants were already under the pockets of the Malayali Catholic Charismatic sects. Some of these chaplains even fell into the trap of becoming personal chaplains of certain Malayali organisations. One of the larger communities even resisted and refused to accept a Syro Malabar Chaplain appointed from the Holy Synod of the Church to remain as an independent association with a personal priest as their chaplain. The organisations were interested only in getting a few celebrity preachers from Kerala regularly, that too every so often, to build up their affiliation groups. Thus, the Syro Malabar community in the UK became affiliation groups of a few celebrity Charismatic preachers from Kerala. It was very unfortunate to note that these local Syro Malabar Chaplaincies were officially known as Malayali Catholic communities rather than Syro Malabar Chaplaincies with a very few exceptions.
As the Malayali Catholic organisations and their chaplains were not much interested in promoting the identity and individuality of Syro Malabar Church, widespread liturgical abuses prevailed in the Syro Malabar communities in the UK. The celebration of Holy Eucharistic Liturgy in its proper form with dignity, sacredness and ecclesial sense was not on the top of the priorities. Most of the visiting Bishops and celebrity preachers explicitly disobeyed the unanimous decisions of the Holy Synod concerning the celebration of the Holy Eucharistic liturgy. Their main excuse was that they are following the local customs. The local Roman Catholic Bishops and certain learned English Priests were astonished about the ignorance and indiscipline even among the visiting Bishops. Even in a Latin rite Church in Central Manchester where all the Eucharistic liturgies were celebrated ad orientum (Tridentine mass), the Syro Malabar Chaplains celebrated Holy Qurbana there ad populum showing that they were not following the local custom but their own personal and sectarian interest.
The faithful were sad about this anarchy and indiscipline. Many letters were sent to the Syro Malabar Chaplains, Holy Synod of Syro Malabar Church and even to the local Roman Catholic Church to facilitate the proper celebration of the Holy Qurbana and to promote the identity of the Church as a particular church and spirituality. Cardinal Vincent Nicholls, the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales even acknowledged this need in 2014 and commented that all the Chaplains and visiting priests should adhere to the approved norms of the Holy Synod in celebrating the Holy Eucharistic liturgy. But abuses and indiscipline continued renouncing the decisions of the Holy Synod of Syro Malabar Church and instructions of the local Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Lights of Hope
By the Grace of God, Lights of hope were seen with the appointment of two priests of Missionary Society of Saint Thomas, Rev Fr Thomas Thaikkoottathil as the Chaplain of Syro Malabar Community in Manchester in 2012 and Rev Dr Lonappan Arangasserry in 2014 to Cheshire. Both these Priests started using the name ‘Syro Malabar’ as the title of the community for the first time in the region. Both of them started celebrating the Holy Qurbana according to the norms of the decisions of the Holy Synod of the Church- initial parts up to anaphora facing the people, the whole of anaphora and communion facing the altar and final prayers after the communion facing the people.
They seriously took efforts to promote the identity of the Church. They worked hard to establish the first-ever Syro Malabar communities in the UK by transforming the existing Malayali Catholic communities.
Syro Malabar Day in Warrington and Festival of Eastern Catholic Churches in London 2015
Even when the Official Syro Malabar Church was helpless in promoting the Syro Malabar spirituality, there were a few efforts from the faithful. In 2015, Rev Dr Joseph Palackal visited the UK. Interested faithful organised two events promoting Syriac spirituality of Syro Malabar Church making use of this opportunity with a celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy of Syro Malabar Church in the English language incorporating many Syriac chants along with seminar of Syriac language and spirituality and poster exhibition on the history of Syro Malabar Church-a Syro Malabar day in Warrington on 29th of July 2015 and Festival of Eastern Catholic Churches in cooperation with the Society of Saint John Chrysostom and Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of England with the theme of Syro Malabar Church on the 1st of August 2015 at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral at Central London. These could be the first time Syriac chants were sung in the history of the UK.
These events attracted the CNN team who were preparing a documentary on Christianity- Finding Jesus, Faith Fact, Forgery and their team attended. These events were instrumental in the CNN documentary episode ‘Doubting Thomas’ as part of finding Jesus, with significant coverage on the St Thomas Christians of India, particularly Syro Malabar Church aired in April 2017.
Eparchy of Great Britain of the Syro Malabars- 2016.
In 2016, Pope Francis established the Eparchy of Great Britain for the Syro Malabar’s and Bishop Mar Joseph Srampickal was consecrated amidst a large crowd of faithful of about 12000 at Preston on 09th October 2016.
With the establishment of the Eparchy, the Syro Malabar Church in England has gained a large momentum in demonstrating her identity and individuality. This was a great leap from an ethnolinguistic community to a Particular church with a Bishop. Eparchy has been organised as regions. Parishes and Mission centres were established with a regular celebration of Holy Qurbana according to the decisions of the Holy Synod and regular catechism classes in each centre. Eparchial gathering, a unique event to listen to the faithful was organised. Along with this, the establishment of different laity organisations were great efforts to promote laity involvement in the Eparchy. Yearly Bible conventions, yearly Biblical art festivals and efforts for the faith formation of adults by organising theology classes are all wonderful catechetical activities.
Promotion of Syriac traditions is also given due importance in the Eparchy. Kennara 2018, a Syriac music seminar and Kadavil Chandy cathanar Syriac music festival organised in July 2018 in Gloucester with the cooperation from Laus Plena Foundation and Christian musicological society of India. Rev Dr Joseph Palackal represented the Syro Malabar Church, Polus Gajo of the Syriac Catholic Church from Iraq and Veronica Nebel of Laus Plena Foundation from Switzerland attended. Professor Sebastian Brock and Professor David Taylor, famous academics of Syriac spirituality from Oxford University were facilitated in an eparchial event for the Youth in December 2018.
During the COVID 19 lockdown, the Syro Malabar Eparchy rose to the situation immediately and started live streaming of Holy Qurbana, regular celebration of Liturgy of Hours for the spiritual and psychological well-being of the vast majority of faithful who were frontline healthcare workers. Every parishes and mission centres started prayers online making use of the mass media platforms like zoom. Various online pious activities like singing devotional songs, Bible quiz programmes, little talks and messages by children and youth were organised. The English Catholic community was astonished to see this vibrant parish centred activities for the faithful to get them over the crisis of COVID 19.
Syriac chants are sung in the liturgy on important feasts and festivals. The identity and individuality of the Syro Malabar Church have become more prominently visible among the native English Catholics.
Future of Syro Malabar Church in the UK
Syro Malabar Church in the UK has a significant role in the revival of the Catholic church in the country. There are several ethnic groups in the Catholic Church in Great Britain such as Polish Catholic group, Philippino catholic group, Tamil, Vietnamese etc with their clergy and churches but Syro Malabar Church is unique in that it is a particular church with its discipline, theology and spirituality.
Comparing to other ethnic groups, the English Catholic Church is hopeful that the Syro Malabar Church would lead a new revival with a different Eastern spirituality in England. The English church is very supportive of the Syro Malabar Church and spirituality and insists that the Liturgy and sacraments of Syro Malabar Church are promoted and nourished in England. Preserving and upholding the authentic spirituality of the Syro Malabar Church is a strong witnessing of the Judeo-Christian movement of the Apostles. It will be a unique spiritual experience to the native English people who are only familiar with the Hellenised Latin West and the Greek East rather than the Judeo-Christian Syriac Orient. In every feasts and festival of Syro Malabar Communities all over the United Kingdom, the English Catholics curiously observe the socio-cultural paraphernalia of Saint Thomas Christians and their strong devotion. It will be a great opportunity for the Syro Malabar Eparchy and faithful to witness and promote faith transmission in the Syriac spirituality to the native English people too. This can lead to another revival similar to the Oxford Movement in the 19th century lead by Cardinal John Henry Newman who has been canonised by the Universal Church as a Saint recently.
For achieving this, the Syro Malabar Church in the UK has to come out of the Malayalam identity. Syro Malabar Church has become a global church now with eparchies in 4 out of 6 continents with human habitation in the World. The Church should not limit itself into the Malayalam language and culture. The new generation Syro Malabar faithful are more comfortable and more fluent in English. There is a strong need for the Eucharistic Liturgy in the English language. The Eparchy of Chicago has realised it already, and they have a bilingual text for Holy Qurbana- in English and Malayalam, not Manglish. This has shown results too. They have a few young Priests now who do not know Malayalam showing that the Malayalam language is not necessary for faith transmission to the next generation in a foreign land and culture.
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