The Syro-Malabar Church traces its origin to Saint Thomas the Apostle, who landed on the Malabar Coast of Kerala, India at Cranganore in 52 A.D.
Saint Thomas founded seven Christian communities in Kerala: at Palayur, Cranganore, Kokkamangalam, Kottakavu, Quilon, Niranam, and Chayal. Saint Thomas was martyred in 72 A.D. at Mylapore, near Chennai (Madras). The early Christian community in India was known as Saint Thomas Christians. They were also called Nazranis, meaning those who follow the path of Jesus of Nazareth.
The adjective “Syro” in Syro-Malabar, like the broader definition of “Syrian Christian” in India, refers to the liturgical rite that the Christians celebrate, not to Syrian ethnicity. The name literally means Syrian Christians of the Malabar Coast (Kerala). Early on, the Church of St. Thomas Christians in India came into contact with the East Syrian Church, practicing a Chaldean rite, which also traces its origin to the Apostle Thomas. From the 4th century until the end of the 16th century, Thomas Christians shared the liturgical, theological, spiritual and other ecclesiastical traditions with the East Syrian Church; however, in socio-cultural organization and practices, they were distinctively Indian. With the arrival of the Portuguese in India, the close connection with the East Syrian Church faded, as encouraged by the Latin Church; and the Thomas Christians’ liturgy and organization were “Latinized” (influenced by the Latin Church). The Thomas Christians’ church split into two groups: those following Rome came to be the Syro-Malabar Church, and those who did not, became the Jacobite Church (West Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch). Over time, the Syro-Malabar Church regained its own hierarchy status; and the restored oriental identity of the Latinized Syro-Malabar rite was approved by Pope Pius XII in 1957. On December 16, 1992, Pope John Paul II raised the Syro-Malabar Church to the status of Major Archiepiscopal sui juris Church within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Pope; and in 2004, the Holy See granted full administrative powers to the Syro-Malabar Church, including the power to elect bishops. In October 2017, the Syro-Malabar Church was given jurisdiction for pastoral care and evangelization all over India.
The worship service of the Syro-Malabar Church is called the Holy Qurbana (meaning “offering”) and has many parts and structure which are similar with the Roman (Latin) Catholic Mass, although there are numerous differences in which the order of these parts occurs in the ceremony. One of the most important encompassing features of both traditions is the re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper with the consecration and distribution of the transformed bread and wine as communion. Other common features include: readings from the Old and New Testaments and the Gospel, a Homily, Offertory, and the Lord’s Prayer. The Holy Qurbana is generally conducted primarily in the vernacular language of Kerala: Malayalam (although, it is starting to be conducted in English in areas of the diaspora outside of India), rather than the original liturgical language of Syriac (a form of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus). The ceremony is typically longer than a Roman Catholic Mass, and the solemn version of the Holy Qurbana can last up to three hours, much of which is standing. In the more traditional ceremonies, the priest stands facing the altar with his back to the congregation for much of the rite, symbolizing that both are on the pilgrimage to one goal, and, if possible, are facing east awaiting the second coming of the Lord; however, in newer versions of the rite, the priest faces the congregation more of the time until the Liturgy of the Word. (These physical differences are reminiscent of the changes in the Roman (Latin) Mass before and after Vatican II.)
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Parry, Key. The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Diocese, Chicago – https://www.stthomasdiocese.org/st-thomas-syro-malabar-diocese-chicago
Syro-Malabar Church – http://www.syromalabarchurch.in/