BY LUKE COPPEN
WESTERN CHRISTIANS are often surprised to learn that there is a thriving Christian community in India. Although Christians represent only a tiny proportion of the country’s predominantly Hindu population, they are heirs to an ancient and estimable tradition.
India’s 60 million Christians are divided into a bewildering array of denominations. The majority of believers belong to a grouping known to scholars as “Malabar Christians” or “Thomas Christians” in Kerala, in southern India, all of whom claim St Thomas the Apostle as their founder.
Until the Portuguese arrived at the end of the 15th century, the Malabar Christians were united under the Assyrian Church of the East and Syriac was used exclusively in liturgical ceremonies. In 1542, St Francis Xavier began missionary work in India and in the following years Jesuits converted substantial numbers of Indians to the Catholic faith. Under the royal patronage grants of the Pope, Portugal claimed the right to nominate all bishops and missionaries in the East. Goa, the centre of Catholic missionary operations, was made an archbishopric in 1557. In 1599, many Indian Christians formally accepted the juris diction of Rome.During the first half of the 17th century, the Jesuit Robert de Nobili pioneered the missionary method of “adaptation” to Indian life as a way of drawing high-caste Brahmins to the Catholic faith. But the heavy-handed Latinisation of the Indian church elsewhere led to a rebellion and a breach with the Western Church in 1653.
Through the efforts of the Carmelite order, some twothirds returned to communion with Rome a decade later. Those who did not return allied themselves with the Syrian Orthodox Church, though the Portuguese prevented them from receiving a bishop from Mesopotamia.
By the 17th century it was clear that Portugal could no longer fulfil its ecclesiastical duties in India and so, in 1637, Rome consecrated a Brahman from Goa as Vicar Apostolic for the nonPortuguese regions. In 1886, Pope Leo XIII created a hierarchy for India and 10 years later he appointed bishops for the Uniat section of the Thomas Christians.
The Catholic Church in India is divided into three rites: the Latin rite, the SyroMalabar rite and the SyroMalankara rite. The majority of the 16 million or so Catholics are Latin rite. Three million are SyroMalabar and an insignificant number Syro-Malankara rite.