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Ecumenical Winter In Kerala: A Report


Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome, wrote to H. G. Philippose Mar Eusebius (dt. 18th June 2005), the president of the Commission for Inter Church Relations of the Orthodox Church: “the title of the Catholicos has not been given by the Holy See (Pope) to His Grace Cyril Mar Baselius”. He continued to say that the only title given to Mar Baselius was the Major Archbishop. The cardinal reiterated the fact that neither there is a provision for such a title in the Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches nor had it been pronounced by Cardinal Moussa I Daud, the representative of Vatican during “his stay in Kerala” when Mar Baselius was honored as Major Archbishop. Cardinal Casper wrote all these in response to the letters of Mar Eusebius and Fr. John Mathews, the secretary of Inter Church Relations Committee. Both made it clear that if Vatican is not ready to respect the history and traditions of the Orthodox Church it doesn’t want to continue the annual ecumenical dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church, which has been continuing since 1989.

The whole story began when the Syro Malankara Rite of the Catholic Church and its prelate Mar Baselius had claimed that the latter was enthroned as the Catholicos of Malankara (Catholic) Church. Mar Eusebius conveyed the protest of the Malankara Orthodox Church in person to Cardinal Casper and Monsinjor Johann Bonny, who are responsible for the inter Church relations of Rome, during his visit to Vatican on 4th March. On their advice he met also Cardinal Ignace Moussa I Daud, the prefect of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, on March 5th. All these gentlemen assured Mar Eusebius that Rome has never offered the position of Catholicos to Mar Cyril Baselius. They handed over Mar Eusebius a copy of the Papal order regarding this in English as well as in Latin.

The above Papal order recognizes sui juris the Syro Malankara Church as a Major Arch-Episcopal Church. This is in recognition to those Catholics who left the Malankara Church in 1930 and became a part of the Roman Catholic Church. Mar Ivanios was the leader of this group who got the Sacred Pallium from Pope Pius XI on June 11, 1932. This Church has got 4,10,000 believers all over the world under five dioceses: Trivandrum, Tiruvalla, Bathery, Marthandam and Muvattupuzha. The 6,200 families of this denomination reside in different states of India outside Kerala and they come under the supremacy of the Latin bishops of their respective territories. Those who are emigrants in USA and Europe have got an Apostolic Visitor bishop nominated by Pope. There are 632 priests and 2030 sisters in the Church under 16 different religious congregations. Mar Cyril Baselius will be the Major Archbishop and head of this group, which is other wise called as Syro Malankara Rite of the Roman Catholic Church with his head quarters in Trivandrum. The Syro Malabar Rite and Latin Rite of Kerala have Major Archbishops of their own. By the new recognition the Syro Malankara Church becomes “an autonomous Church in the Holy Catholic Communion”. It can have its own Episcopal synod and the Major Arch Bishop is equal to the heads of other Oriental Churches who are parts of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Orthodox Church of India and its supreme head Mar Baselius Mar Thoma Mathews II has no intention to interfere in the administration of the Catholic Church. What offended the Orthodox people was rather the ulterior motifs of Malankara Catholics in calling bishop Cyril Mar Baselius the Catholicos of Malankara and on some occasions even the Malankara Metropolitan. It is well known to Rome that these are titles used by the supreme head of the Orthodox Church of India since Sept 15, 1912. Rome recognizes the Malankara Orthodox Church as an autonomous and autocephalous Church and representatives from all the Rites of Catholic Church come for the dialogues held every year. In spite of some theological disagreements Rome and Kottayam maintain a good ecumenical fraternity. This becomes distorted when the Syro Malankara Church called Mar Cyril Baselius the Catholicos of Malankara.

This was the major concern expressed by Mar Eusebius, who heads the dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Malankara Orthodox Church for a decade, in his letter dated 12th May 2005. In his letter Mar Eusebius suggested that if Rome wants to pursue the traditions of the Church of Antioch the proper honor to be given to Mar Baselius would be “the Maphrian”. However, the whole debate makes a new chapter in the dispute between the Malankara Catholics and the Orthodox people. It is always an accusation against the Syro Malankara Church that it takes different means to get Orthodox believers in to communion with Rome. When Pope John Paul visited India Mar Baselius Mar Thoma Mathews I, the then Catholicos, did not mince his words when he asked the former to take measures “to stop the sheep stealing” of the Malankara Catholics. The formation of the Muvattupuzha Diocese, where the number of the Malankara Catholics is negligible, was the last occasion when these two Churches came in to a verbal war. The event was seen by the Orthodox Church as an attempt to take advantage of the split in the Malankara Church and to win their people for Rome. The present event is called as another step in this line. The new Major Archbishop is accused of assuming all titles used by the Supreme Head of the Orthodox Church: this was evident even on the day of his consecration as a bishop with the name Mar Baselius, say some historians. Now there are three Catholicoses in Kerala: One is the legitimate successor of the Catholicate established in 1912, another is the rebel Catholicos of the Patriarchal faction and the third one can be a false Catholicos, as far as Rome denies his appointment.

In the above said Papal order, which was read by Cardinal Moussa during the celebrations held at Tiruvalla, has no mention of the titles Catholicos or Malankara Metropolitan. Now the pertinent question is: Where did Mar Cyril Baselius receive the position of the Catholicos of Malankara? Does it make a communication gap between Rome and Kerala? While Rome is very clear in saying that Archbishop Cyril Mar Baselius has not been given the title of Catholicos, the Malankara Catholics tried their best to publicize the fact that what happened on February 10, 2005 was the establishment of a new Catholicate in India. From the speeches of other leaders of the Catholic Church in Kerala (see Aikya Deepam, March-April issue) like Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil we have to assume that the whole plot was done with the knowledge of KCBC. The letter, which Cardinal Casper wrote to Mar Eusebius, brought the Syro Malankara Church in a perplexed situation. Mar Baselius himself had to admit openly in the press that he had not been appointed as the Catholicos of Malankara. However, in the same breath he says that the head of the Syro Malankara Church deserves the title. According to him the title Major Archbishop is western and it means Catholicos at Malankara. If things go like this anybody can claim anything as per his choice. This is in any way not possible in the administrative set up of the Roman Catholic Church. The ire of the supporters of the self proclaimed “Catholicos” is visible in a letter available in the internet. It is said to be drafted by the lay leaders of the Malankara Catholics and it is addressed to Cardinal Casper. What surprises the reader is the language of this letter. It questions the basic right of Vatican in the internal affairs of Malankara Catholics. It says: “As usual Rome is engaged in making mistakes after mistakes- as the Latin Church pursued for centuries. All these divisions in the Church, as a matter of fact came in to existence because of the tremendous foolishness and lack of understanding of Rome-Latin Church…Did you or your staff meet any one of our bishops or laity leaders for the purpose of establishing an authentic ecumenical spirit?” Rome is accused of steering an “imposed slavery- slavery by the Latin Church.” Therefore the laity of the Malankara Catholics warns Rome: “We are the same people of that proud heritage protested and fought against Portughese and their allies.” This is an unusual tone in the correspondence between the Malankara Catholics and Rome and this can lead to a serious debate between Vatican and Trivandrum. Anyway, it is doubtful whether the usual dialogues between the Orthodox and the Catholics will happen in December as planned earlier. It is winter here and there!!!