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History of Catholics in Kerala

Light Shines through the Roman Rite (Latin) Catholic Church in Kerala
Bishop Selvister Ponnumuthan
Acknowledgement:- This Article on the History of Latin Catholics in Kerala appeared in the Souvenir of Indian Mission Congress 2009
1. Birth of Christianity in Kerala (52 AD)

Tradition ascribes the dawn of Christian faith in India to the ministry and martyrdom of Apostle St. Thomas. Mention must also be made of a tradition linking another Apostle to India, St. Barthalameo. There is however no dispute regarding the antiquity of Christianity in India. Cosmas Indicoplesthus in the fourth century testifies the existence of a well established Christian community in Malabar (Kerala) and its Persian connection.
But Catholicism as we understand and cherish it now was a much late entrant. It was introduced to this land by Roman Rite Catholic missionaries who started visiting Kerala from the 13th century onwards. Dominicans and Franciscans had started their evangelization in India through the missionary society of societas peregrinantium pro Christo.

2. Diocese of Quilon (09 August 1329)

In the process of missionary endeavors Quilon, Cochin and Verapoli stand out as three corner stones in the history of Catholic Church in Kerala. Quilon has the distinction of being the very first diocese established by Rome in India. Pope John XXII from Avignon issued the apostolic bull Romanus Pontifex on 9th August 1329 establishing canonically the diocese of Quilon (Columbum). By a separate bull Venerabli Fratri Jordano on 21st August 1329 he appointed Jordanus Catalani of Severac, a French Dominican as the first bishop of Quilon.
Bishop Catalani laboured in Quilon, which was a major port and a Christian bastion, as a zealous missionary. His magnum opus, Mirabilia Descripta written around 1334 is considered a landmark chronicle of its time. Bishop Jordanus was martyred by Muslim fanatics in 1336 while on a pastoral visit to Thane in Maharashtra.

Quilon reemerged as a vicariate when vicariate of Verapoly was divided and the vicariates of Mangalore and vicariate of Quilon were erected. When Pope Leo XIII established the Indian Hierarchy on September 1, 1886 Quilon was again reconstituted a diocese. Doctrina Christiana, the first book printed in Kerala came out from San Salvadore press in Quilon on 20th October 1578. The place where this Padruado press situated is very near to the Bishop’s house in Tangassery. It is still called ‘Achukoodam Parambu’, meaning the land where the press was.           

3. Diocese of Cochin (4 February 1557)

Cochin was the headquarters of Portuguese establishments in India for many years from 1500. During this period it was the headquarters of the Padruado mission also. Because of its achievements in the field of evangelization Pope Leo X made special mention of Cochin in the decree erecting the diocese of Funchal in 1514. The Franciscans, Domincans, Jesuits, and the Augustinians labored tirelessly both among the early Christians and the non Christian population. Many thousands were brought to the liberative light of the Good News and not fewer than 30000 early Christians were restored to the union of Holy See.

In recognition of all these, Pope Paul IV established the diocese of Cochin in 4th February 1557 by the decree of Pro Excellenti Praeeminentia. By the decree Pastorales Offici dated 15th December1572 of Pope Gregory XIII, the bishops of Cochin were required to take possession of the Patriarchal See of Goa when it became vacant. All the Catholic works of charity known today had their origin in Cochin – orphanages, leper asylums, hospitals, jail ministry etc. Padruado mission established India’s first printing presses in Quilon, Cochin, Palliport, Sanpaulur (Ambazhakkad), Vypeekota etc., thus launching Catholic Church’s social communication ministry in India. This was vigorously persuaded by the propaganda mission with Verapoly as its head quarters.

Cochin was one of the largest dioceses in the world. Its jurisdiction extended to the whole of south and east of India (including present Bangladesh), Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Srilanka). Cochin was annexed to the Vicariate of Verapoly in 1838. Pope Leo XIII in 1886 restored the diocese of Cochin and placed it as suffragan to Verapoly which he had raised to the status of an Archdiocese in the same year.
4. Synod of Diamper and the Renaissance in Kerala (1559)<

The Synod of Diamper was the starting point of the Renaissance movement in Kerala. The Synod of Diamper held in 1599, under the chairmanship of Archbishop Alexis de Mnezes condemned, through it decrees, social evils like child marriage, polygamy, slavery, untouchability, belief in magic and witchcraft,  concubinage etc in a ‘static society rampant with superstitions, dissoluteness and deprivation.' The decrees on social customs enacted at the Synod laid the foundations  of a new society in the middle ages in Kerala.

It was in the Synod of Diamper (1559) that the early Christians of Kerala pledged their fidelity to the Holy See of Rome in unequivocal terms. The synod effected a thorough restructuring in the Church. Several errors in Faith and Practices were diligently corrected. The synod which was in fact a Catholicization effort was wrongly pictured as Latinisation and foreign domination, by vested interests that were adversely affected by these measures. The prevailing socio-communal atmosphere was conducive to turn this into a general resentment and open antagonism against the Jesuits who then formed the frontline of the Padruado mission.

This resulted in a historic rebellion - the oath at the slanting cross in Mattanchery (Cochin) in 1653. Good majority of the churches of the early Christians seceded from their Archbishop Francis Garcia S.J. forsaking his authority by taking an oath at the foot of a cross. Their Archdeacon was illegally made their ‘Archbishop’ through a farcial ceremony led by some of their priests. Though the revolt is often diplomatically described as one against the Jesuits and the Jesuit Archbishop, in essence it was against the Holy See of Rome. Rome seized this news and acted right in earnest.

Pope Alexander VII bestowed the reconciliation mission to the Carmelite missionaries in 1655. Two delegations were dispatched one by land and another by sea, led by the Apostolic Commisaries Fr. Hycinth and Fr. Joseph Sebastiani respectively. Through the dedicated and relentless efforts of Carmelite missionaries could win back dissident churches one after another in spite of stiff opposition.

5. Diocese of Verapoly

Vicariate Malabar, the forerunner of the Archdiocese of Verapoly was established by Pope Alexander VII on 15th December 1659 and Joseph Sebastiani was made the vicar apostolic and administrator of the Archdiocese of Cranganore. The new vicariate eventually established its headquarters in the island of Varapuzha (Verapoly-Vera Polis-City of Truth).

Verapoly was entrusted with the pastoral care of early Christians of Syro Chaldic Rite, the neo Christians – all belonging to the Roman (Latin) Rite and those early Christians who embraced the Roman Rite. The situation continued till Pope Leo established two separate vicariates for the Syrians in 1887.

The Carmelite mission rendered meritorious services in the field of evangelization, clerical formation, spiritual revival, press apostolate and education. Pope Clement XVI on 24th April 1709 renamed the Vicariate of Malabar as the Vicariate of Verapoly, with Bishop Angelo Francis as the Vicar Apostolic. This Italian Carmelite wrote the very first book on Malayalam Grammer. His Grammatica Lingua Vulgaris Malabarica showed the path to many later grammarians.

When by the famous Apostolic letter Humane Salutis Auctor, Pope Leo XIII established the Hierarchy of India on 1st September 1886, the vicariate of Verapoly was raised to the status of an Archdiocese. When Syrian Christians were exempted from its jurisdiction on 20th May 1887 Verapoly became the Archdiocese for the Latin Catholics.

If today Kerala is the most literate state of India it is largely due to the bold and prophetic initiative of the great Carmelite missioner Archbishop Bernardin Bacccinelli. He issued a pastoral letter in 1860 ordering all parishes to establish a school, open to all, alongside the Church. Blessed Chavara Kuriakose Elias who was the Vicar General of the Syr-Malabar Christians in the Vicariate of Verapoly literally carried out this order among his people, spreading the light of education.

6. Reunion of Jacobites with the Catholic Church at Quilon (20 September 1930)
The great reunion movement of Jacobite Christians with the Catholic Church was a significant contribution of Quilon to the Universal Church. It was Archbishop Aloysius Maria Benzigar OCD who arranged the formal acceptance of Mar Ivanios along with his clergy and laity to the Catholic Church in 1930, paving way for the emergence of Syro-Malankara Church. This historic event took place on 20th September 1930 in the Episcopal chapel of Quilon. The very first holy mass in the Catholic Syro-Antiochian (Malanakara) Rite was officiated by Archbishop Mar Ivanios on September 21, 1930 in this chapel.
7. The Light Shines through the Roma Rite Church in Kerala
The Latin Catholic Church which has a profound tradition of missionary works continues to proclaim and testify the mission of Jesus in Kerala. This Church accepts all faithful without distinctions of caste, color, creed or culture in Kerala. Today the Roman Rite (Latin) Catholic Church consists of two Archdioceses such as Verapoli and Trivandrum and nine dioceses such as Calicut, Cochin, Kannur, Kottapuram, Vijayapuram, Alleppy, Neyyatinkara, Punalur and Quilon.

The Archdiocese of Verapoly with its new project ‘Navadarsan’ has launched in to a revolution in the field of Education. The Archdiocese of Trivandrum focuses on the empowerment of the fisher folk on the coast through Basic Christian Communities (BCC). The Diocese of Neyyattinkara has a special thrust on the integral development of people and collaboration with people of different faith communities. The Diocese of Punalur delves deep in to the liberative mission of the poor and downtrodden. The Diocese of Quilon is toiling tirelessly on the field of Education. The Diocese of Alleppey could organize thousands of fisher folk to demand their rights before the Government. The Diocese of Vijayapuram is striving to enhance the workers especially workers in the rubber plantations. The Diocese of Kottappuram through its various Social Service Activities collaborate with the government to materialize the human development projects. The Diocese of Cochin takes initiatives to empower human resources through various projects and programmes. The Diocese of Calicut has a liberative mission among Adivasis. Kannur focuses on the integral development of people irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
8. The Church Shines as a Participatory Church
The Latin Catholic Church in Kerala consists of twenty lakh people. Kerala Regional Latin Catholic Bishops Council (KRLCBC) is the regional Episcopal body in Kerala. It functions with the cooperation of Kerala Region Latin Catholic Council (KRLCC), which is the apex body of the Latin Catholics in Kerala. It was in May 2002 the Latin Catholic Bishops’ Council after wide consultation inaugurated Kerala Region Latin Catholic Council – KRLCC a larger complimentary body to make the functioning of the Latin Church in Kerala broad based and functionally participatory. This body ensures the cooperation and participation of all sections of the Latin Church.
9. Some of the main objectives of KRLCC
  1. To plan, coordinate and monitor collective pastoral action within the region for preservation, propagation and enrichment of the Catholic faith.
  2. To promote lay leadership in the Church and in the society.
  3. To strive for the modulation of the socio cultural life of the community in tune with the moral principle of the universal Church.
  4. To conduct scientific studies on the various problems affecting the community and to coordinate and guide the movements for the emancipation of the Latin Catholic Community. 
  5. To impart training and formation to the priests and laity in view of a common venture for the total and integral development of the Latin Catholic community.
  6. To evolve a common ecclesiastical discipline within the region.
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