At six o’clock in the morning Priest Dr. George Pulikottil of St. Gregorios Orthodox Church, Oak Park, Illinois, USA woke me up from my deep sleep to tell the sad news of the demise of our Holy Father Mor Thoma Basilios Matthews II, who had retired from the administration of the Church about two months ago.
Normally speaking, one has no reason for a shock after listening to the news of the earthly departure of a ninety-one year old high priest who has had the longest tenure in his episcopate in the history of the Church of Malankara. In fact, His Holiness was a bishop of Holy Orthodoxy in Malankara for about fifty-three years. But what was most shocking was his unexpected demise as he maintained a habit of fighting for his life as a man of prayer and vigil. None of us thought that this would happen so soon.
I was seven years old when my mother placed me in front of Hieromonk Matthews for his blessing when he visited my mother parish at Edavankad, Cherianad, India. This was about a year before his consecration to the episcopate at the age of thirty-eight. He laid his hands on me and blessed me. It was the same hands that were laid on me when I became a Chor-Episcopos of Holy Orthodoxy in 1986. This is the personal spiritual bond that connected both of us, in addition to his rank as the hierarch of hierarchs in the Church of Malankara.
IHe saw the good days of the Church from 1958 to 1971 when the Holy Church of Malankara was united again after the famous Supreme Court verdict of 1958. He saw also the unpleasant days of the Church since 1971 when the Church was again rocked with the resurrected schism. AS head of the Church he received another verdict from the Supreme Court in 1995 establishing the legitimacy of the Catholicate and the Constitution of the Church promulgated in 1934; which was definitely a victory. However, it is observed that he could not reap the benefits of this victory due to the uncompromising position of the patriarchal faction. On many occasions, this writer has observed, that the meekness and humility of His Holiness were detrimental, because they prevented him from taking decisive actions as an administrator. He was a kind and compassionate father that he never wanted to inflict pain on anyone, and so he sought ways that were diplomatic and comforting rather than surgical. In this sense, his meekness was his weakness. The monastic life that he embraced always reminded him to be least punitive and offensive. Many people exploited his meekness and took advantage of him. The results? The Church could not harvest the fruits of peace despite the great Court victory in 1995.
His Holiness will be remembered as a great pioneer in establishing educational institutions within an ancient Church. He believed in the social power generated by educational and social institutions. Therefore, he mobilized his energy and time in this direction. There are numerous collegiate, secondary and primary institutions erected by him. In a society where relevance is measured in terms of the strength of institutions that support the community at large these establishments are definitely lighthouses that declare the contributions of the Orthodox Church in Keralam. Thousands of students are being educated in these institutions, and thousand are employed in various capacities and thus are supporting their own families and the economic framework of the community. If we look for an individual entrepreneur employing the largest number of workforce, we may not find any other person but His Holiness.
There were critics about how these institutions were built; many people were not happy about donations demanded for these institutions. Once Metropolitan Eustathios of Niranam observed in connection with a reception accorded to His Holiness, “People generally consider His Holiness and me the most skillful in fundraising. What I do is simply the job of a postman; I get your contributions and give to the projects for which the funds are raised. His Holiness is the wise entrepreneur, who invests your funds in constructing and reconstructing our communities where the members of those communities become beneficiaries of his farsightedness as students, clients and employees”. Yes, an enormous number of beneficiaries, beyond the denominational lines, venerate His Holiness as their provider, father, benefactor, mentor, adviser, healer, and spiritual master. In the history of any Church in Keralam, there is no prelate or community leader parallel to His Holiness in this respect.
His Holiness was regarded by other church leaders and community leaders as the lighthouse of hope when there erupted community disharmony within the pluralistic population of Keralam. Catholicos-Patriarch Matthews I, his predecessor, delegated him to lead the Christian community in Keralam when there arose a crisis dismantling the unity between the Christian and Hindu communities based on a proposed church-building at Nilakkal which was said to be within domain and vicinities of the Shabarimala Temple. Hindus vehemently opposed the project and Christians were equally offended by the resistance from the Hindu community. It was His Holiness, a Metropolitan then, took the lead to diffuse the crisis and received the acclamation from both sides and turned out a champion of concord among the diverse people of Keralam. The Hindu community saw in him a Mahacharya and Maharshi, who was totally Indian in culture
Moran Mor Matthews II was a great friend of all Christians, whether Roman Catholics or Protestants. He maintained extraordinary closeness to both of these denominations, although there were critics about him being too charitable to them sometimes. Both of these groups have a history of exploiting and destroying the ancient Orthodox Church in Malankara. For example, the Uniate Romo-Syrian Catholic hierarchies are still stealing the sheep of the Orthodox Church, but His Holiness showed his magnanimity by attending and addressing a congratulatory gathering to honor their newly-consecrated bishop at Trivandrum. The Church of Malankara did not really appreciate this act of charity towards the Uniate Ivaniosites, because there was no one like Archbishop Ivanios in the history of the Church in Malankara, who inflicted the deepest wound on her. Similarly, he was also graciously generous to the Syro-Malabar Roman Catholic and the CSI and Marthomite communities that are vestiges of western uncanonical and criminal encroachment into the apostolic ancient Church of Malankara. He loved every human being without reservation, fully understanding his role as a high priest and community leader, who should treat everyone equally beyond the boundaries of his own Church, often forgetting and forgiving past deadly wounds.
He was never a politician, but attracted politicians of all persuasions. The veneration that Mr. R. Bala Krishna Pillai of Kottarakara had towards our Holy Father was always far greater than his own spiritual children had. Mr. R. Bala Krishna Pillai treated him like a father, and a great Rishi. One could watch an adoring Bala Krishna Pillai in front of the mortal remains of the Holy Father after his death. Great political leaders like K. Karunakaran were his regular visitors. When the Church celebrated his 90th birthday a year ago at Adoor all social, political and religious leaders of Keralam surrounded him with the acclamation of “Ad Multos Annos”. An unusual political figure surprised the multitudes with his mesmerizing presence: it was Mr. V.S. Achyuthanandan, the Marxist Communist opposition leader of Keralam, who had no special reason to appease a towering religious leader like His Holiness. Mr. Achyuthanandan very well knew the extent of Holy Father’s charisma that influences the Malayalee communities and the incomprehensible aura that surrounds the person of the Holy Father. It was striking to watch the 81 year Achyuthanandan, an unbending Communist, painfully rushing through the crowd for kilometers to the funeral site of His Holiness on the day of his entombment.
Again, we watched the crowd that attended the funeral! It is estimated that more than a million people viewed his mortal remains seated on the Patriarchal throne and received his invisible blessing. Who among the religious leaders in Keralam had such a farewell! In the history of Keralam, no religious leader ever received a State Funeral; His Holiness was accorded with this honor. He was great when he was alive, but was even greater after his demise. He was unique while he was living, but he was uniquely singled out after his passing away.
This writer has personally witnessed the spiritual fervor of His Holiness even when he was into his nineties. He officiated in the Holy Week services at St. Gregorios Church at Bellwood near Chicago. He took his fasting all the way to 3.00 PM. He stood all the time during the services, which this writer, who is only old enough to be his son, could not observe. I wondered at his perseverance in still observing all the prostrations required for Holy Week services! How many of our prelates, or priests, or monks could observe such penitential practices diligently and fervently as he did when he was ninety or ninety-one! Yes, his religious observances were fruits of his monastic and ascetic practices for over seventy-five years. He was not forced into them, but he voluntarily embraced them to spiritually tune him up and to identify with Christ through self abnegation, mortification and charitable acts, all for the love of God.
He did tell me several times what he had endured at the Monastery of Othara. Several days, he did not even receive a grain of rice for food. He cooked the jackfruit that was provided by a tree on the courtyard of the monastery, which was indeed a poor source of nutrition. He became so lean and pale, lacking hemoglobin in his blood. Occasionally, God brought some visitors, who might bring some rice and other provisions. The members in the monastery can use them up so fast. Again, the kitchen pantry was empty. But God provided. Often they could not afford a normal Malayalee lunch or supper; instead they often just had only a bowl of boiled rice cereal with a side dish of tapioca or jackfruit. Many monastic aspirants came under the novitiate of Fr. Matthews, but a good number of them left the monastery being unable to understand the theology of extreme poverty. But Fr. Matthews never quit. He was slowly climbing the ladders of sanctity and monasticism accepting joyfully the ordeals and rigor of ascetic life. From the depravity experienced in the monastery he became spiritually richer day by day. It prepared him even for a more austere life. Catholicos Givargis II noticed the sublime monastic virtues of Hieromonk Matthews, and cherished a special predilection for him; and that is why he was consecrated a bishop at the age of thirty-eight, even without the consensus of an association, which he secured before assuming the administration of the Metropolitanate of Quilon.
In the Indian tradition there three ways one can achieve moksha, or emancipation. They are the ways of Bhakti or piety, Gnana or knowledge, and Karma or action. One of these ways is sufficient for anyone to achieve self-emancipation or moksha. To put in Christian terms, one of these paths would take to salvation. In other words, people have different aptitudes and temperaments, but one of them would be more predominant in any person. When a person has a strong aptitude is for securing deep spiritual knowledge, he would receive moksha through the path of knowledge. When a person has a strong aptitude for deeper spiritual contemplation, he would receive moksha through the path of spiritual exercises like prayer and contemplation. When a person has a strong aptitude for working for others, he would receive moksha through the path of action. If a person possesses all these three aptitudes he has achieved self-realization as some one who has exemplified humanity, which is the ultimate mark of total humanity, and when he exemplifies humanity through these threefold path, he becomes a god. In other words, exemplification as a human being is the starting point of one’s divinity.
When we think of Holy Father Matthews II, he had the aptitudes for all these three ways (margas), and he definitely must have achieved perfection through these three paths. Definitely he has exemplified humanity, and has become a god. But Christianity is totally opposed to the concept of man becoming a god. But there is a biblically sound Christian theology that emphasizes a process called theosis or deification where humans become god-like.
Teilhard de Chardin, a great paleontologist and Jesuit thinker, who was mistakenly misunderstood by the Roman Church, says that we remain as animals until we reach Christ through convergence. Convergence is another theological way of embracing evolution, which Teilhard de Chardin, as a paleontologist, could not oppose. For Chardin Christ is the ultimate form evolution, towards Whom everything from inert matter to rational humans tend to converge. Christ is the example of real humanity, where humanity and divinity are proportionately combined. Our vocation is to become Christ-like so that we can become fully human beings. Although we cannot become Christs in the fullest sense, we can become humans in the fullest sense when we become Christ-like. When this convergence with Christ takes place a person becomes a SAINT according to Christian theology.
The fortieth day after one’s passing away is considered a milestone in the eternal plan of God for a human soul. Orthodox theology has patristic credence for a special memorial on the fortieth day after one’s passing way as it was on the fortieth day after His death and resurrection that Jesus the Lord ascended into heaven. Therefore, a fortieth day memorial has the cogency of tradition in view of the ascension of Jesus. Although it is not a dogma of faith, it is believed that the souls of the departed still linger around vicinities of their earthly abode for another forty days after their death, and are assumed into the paradise to pre-taste their heavenly reward. That is why the Church offers liturgies, prayers and acts of charities on their behalf for their glorification.
On the fortieth day after the demise of Holy Father Matthews II all the Churches under the Catholicate of the East conducted special services for the repose of his soul and also prayed to the Holy Father for his intercession for the members of the Church.
Thousands consider Moran Mor Matthews II a saint as his life was striving after perfection and after becoming Christ-like. Holy Father, may your prayers protect us. We also offer our prayers for your glorification and sanctification.
Most Holy Father, may your memory be eternal!