The Holy See
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An Oriental Church returns to unity

choosing priestly celibacy


Benedict Varghese Gregorios Thangalathil

Archbishop of Trivandrum (Syro-Malankara)


Origins of the Church of India


It was a singular act of divine providence that the Good News of salvation was preached in India by the Apostle, St Thomas, not long after the resurrection of the Lord. In this country, situated far away from the great centres of Christianity, the growth of the faith was very slow. However, the Christian community remained united until the sixteenth century. Due to certain vicissitudes of history, a considerable section of the faithful broke away, and eventually separated itself, from the communion of the Universal Church. During these three centuries of separation, continuous efforts were made for re-establishing unity. However, until the beginning of this century, the results have been quite meagre.


The split and efforts for reunion


It was through the efforts of the Orthodox Metropolitan, Geevarghese Mar Ivanios, that an organized reunion movement finally started. The Metropolitan Mar Ivanios was an erudite person. He was the first Orthodox clergyman to obtain a postgraduate university degree and, as such, he was held in great respect by all. From his earliest days, he dedicated himself to God and to his service. With his intense loyalty to the Church and his unique achievements as a scholar and an administrator, he was promoted to highly responsible positions in the Church. With his keen mind and all-consuming love for Jesus Christ, the young priest looked far beyond the borders of his small Christian community. He realized, with great anguish, that the children of St Thomas had not faithfully continued the great mission entrusted to the Apostle by Jesus Christ. In his autobiography, Mar Ivanios has said: «It must be reckoned as a great crime that the Malankara Syrian Community, which claims origin from St Thomas the Apostle, and an antiquity of twenty centuries, has not so far done anything significant with regard to its mission and the purpose for which it was established. We must admit that the wonderful light that was kindled in AD 52, at the command of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, still remains in its initial stage; it has not shed its radiance, in the surrounding darkness.»


He was fired by great enthusiasm and expressed his determination to take up and to continue this great mission. «It must be a great tragedy,» he said, «if we do not make reparation for the past. If India remains in spiritual ignorance and has not embraced the faith, the Malankara Syrian Community will one day be held responsible for it. Whatever be the omissions and the lethargy of the past, the Malankara Syrian Community should now wake up and act in such a way that they make amends also for the negligence of the past. The all-important duty of the Christian Church is the proclamation of the Gospel.»


Resigning from the position in the Orthodox Church, Fr Geevarghese went away to Bengal, the cultural capital of India, and there, taking up a teaching post in a Christian university, he began to plan for the future. He made as many contacts as possible with men of eminent positions in the various Christian communities and even outside. In consultation with them, and with their support, he started a programme of training young men and women for the service of evangelization.


Priests and evangelization


From the very beginning Fr Geevarghese understood the vital role of priests in evangelization and in the life of the Church and its entire ministry. «The spiritual growth of the priests,» according to him, «is the same as the spiritual growth of the community. Schools and even seminaries are not so important as the ministry of the priests. Their mission is much more valuable and much more pleasing in the sight of God.»


It is interesting to consider the reflections of the Metropolitan on priestly life, ideals and training. Since it was through his service and leadership that the Syro-Malankara Church eventually took shape, his earlier thoughts and ideals have a certain normative value for the Syro-Malankara Church in its present and future discipline. This is how the Metropolitan expressed himself: «The members of a missionary group should not be left to live and act according to the good pleasure of each one. There should be rules of conduct suitable to their ideal. If they are married people, they will not be able to carry out mission work vigorously. If they preach the Gospel like ordinary people, acting on their own, and without a rule of life, no purpose will be served and they will not be able to gather the harvest in proportion to its abundance. Missionary work is not to be done with words and statements; it must be performed through a virtuous life and genuine service and charitable activities. A virtuous life is more important than virtuous deeds. The conviction grew on me that to possess God is far more important than to serve God.»


Monastic life — an attempt to revive missionary



Adopting the monastic life, according to the rule of St Basil, Fr Geevarghese spent long years in the seclusion of a mountainous area with a group of disciples. He and his companions prayed, reflected and waited for God’s guidance. He also founded a monastery for women with an intense life of prayer and ascetic practices. They joined the monks in this search for Christian unity.


In the Orthodox Church, for many generations, missionary activities were almost nil. Temporal preoccupations and long drawn-out litigations for Church properties had almost totally absorbed the time and the energy of the clergy. There was very little pastoral ministry for the faithful. Spiritual life was at a very low ebb. The strong religious traditions in the Christian families, healthy personal relations among the spouses, regular prayers and the pious reading of the Word of God, kept the light of faith from fading out. This was the only silver lining in an otherwise dark atmosphere in the Orthodox Church.


Fr Geevarghese had left his native land for Bengal partly to have a respite from the tragic experiences in his Church. Things were worse when he returned. With a heart full of anguish, he began to think seriously about the future of the Church. Meanwhile, in the year 1925, Fr Geevarghese was ordained bishop with the name Mar Ivanios, and was given charge of the Religious Community of the Imitation of Christ, which he had started. This community had begun establishing churches in various eparchies with permission from the Malankara Metropolitan. In order not to become involved in the litigations, which were besetting the entire Jacobite Orthodox Church, these new churches were made independent of the general administration of the Orthodox Church. This was a far-sighted policy of Metropolitan Mar Ivanios.



Unity the immediate concern of all


The prelate started consultations with a number of bishops, priests and lay leaders of his Church who shared his concerns. At this stage, it was not clear for them what ultimate form Christian unity would take. At one stage, there was even an idea of establishing relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. However, Mar Ivanios was eventually attracted towards the Catholic Church, and in this he was supported by several bishops, eminent priests and well-informed lay people. There was already a good number of priests and lay men who had preceded him into the communion of the Catholic Church. In fact, during the long years of separation, continuous efforts were being made to heal the wound. There were several occasions when corporate reunion seemed almost within reach, but through the vicissitudes of history, this noble objective eluded all except a few individuals and small groups. Some of these leading lay people whom the Metropolitan had consulted, proposed that it would be ideal to retain our ancient liturgical traditions with the system of administration of the Western Church, which had proved very helpful for the growth of Christian life, for missionary activities and in the entire service of the Church for the benefit of humanity.



The all-important Synod and its resolutions


A Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church was held in 1926 at Parumala, a sacred sanctuary of the Orthodox. In this synod, it was decided to seek formal union with the Catholic Church. Metropolitan Mar Ivanios was chosen by the synod to make necessary correspondence with the Holy See.


The following is the form of petition which was finally submitted to the Holy See:


The Holy Synod of the Catholicate prays that they be admitted into the unity of the Catholic Church, themselves


1. Preserving the ancient rites and rituals

2. Retaining for the Holy Synod, and for the individual bishops, their jurisdiction over all the Jacobite Syrians that come into reunion, and

3. Accepting the supremacy of the Holy See, the Pope being the successor of St Peter, the Chief of the Apostles of Our Lord.


A positive reply from Rome came after four long years. Meanwhile, due to various pressures and circumstances, the signatories of the petition for communion with the Catholic Church, with the exception of Metropolitan Mar Ivanios and Bishop Mar Theophilos, withdrew from their resolve. The Holy See in its reply accepted in substance the request of the petitioners. The longed-for reunion was thus effected in September 1930.


During these long negotiations, Mar Ivanios, among other things, had shown serious concern about the life and the discipline of priests. He made definite proposals for their continued training and spiritual formation.



Celibacy and the Malankara Catholic Church


Celibacy of priests was especially in Mar Ivanios’ thoughts. The Holy See was generous and well-disposed to make necessary concessions, as in other cases of reunion of Oriental communities with the Catholic Church. The Metropolitan, solely concerned about the well-being and progress of his Christian community within the Catholic Church, deliberately opted for a celibate clergy for the future. In this, he had the support of the priests and the leading lay people, whose advice he sought. The Holy Father approved this choice, which had to be, and was, made once for all. This was the final decision from Rome:


The Holy See, on account of its special regard to the priests of Malankara, desires that those Malankarites, who come into the Catholic Church, should not lag behind the Malabar and Latin priests, in matters of great importance, like priestly celibacy. Therefore, it is hoped that the Malankarites will accept this way of life. But this will not stand in the way of married priests, who reunite themselves with the Catholic Church.


The deacons who were married could proceed to priestly ordination. In the case of subdeacons and those below them, in the clerical order, special permission is to be obtained in each case.


The wisdom of the choice of the Metropolitan, and the decision of the Holy See, has been amply justified by the results, as manifested in the life and growth of the Malankara Catholic Church ever since. The Church has grown numerically. From a handful of those who were reunited in 1930 (five in the first instance), in the course of 62years, there are over 300,000 faithful, and over 400 priests.


The fruitfulness of the Malankara Catholic Church, in the field of evangelization, is consoling and is in God’s providence the continuing realization of the hopes and ideals of Archbishop Mar Ivanios for the children of St Thomas. There are today, under the three eparchies of the Syro-Malankara Church, 800 mission centres, all making steady progress. In addition, the number of priests of the Malankara Catholic Church serving outside the boundaries of the three eparchies is also quite considerable. There is every hope that this number will grow in the years to come. Again, the services rendered by the Malankara Catholic Church in the field of education, social welfare and in every field of human promotion are unparalleled in the history of the Malankara Syrian Church. This is evident from the appreciation and recognition of the general public and the State and Central Governments of India.


In India, among the Orientals separated from the Catholic Church, there has been no uniformity in the observance of priestly celibacy. However, bishops have always been celibate. It is certain that celibate priests existed among the Syrians before the schism took place and that such priests were held in great honour by the people. Moreover, remarriage was not allowed. Married priests, among the Orthodox, were to keep sexual abstinence during the period of celebrating the Holy Mysteries. Since in the Catholic Church daily celebration of the Holy Qurbana is customary, it is most appropriate, according to the sense of the faithful, that the Malankara Catholic priests practise perpetual abstinence.



Celibacy as the Indians see it


It seems quite appropriate here to recall the sensitivity of the people of India regarding celibacy in general arid celibacy of priests in particular. In India, renunciation of worldly pleasures is the hallmark of a person of God. A celibate Brahmachari is one who lives and moves in Brahman (God). The great spiritual leader of modern India, Swami Vivekananda, said: «Without chastity, there can be no spiritual strength. The spiritual leaders of men have been very continent and this is what gave them power.» Priestly celibacy is quite in keeping with the spiritual ethos of India. Mahatma Gandhi, whom Pope John Paul II acknowledged as «a symbol of the highest qualities and values of the Indian people, and is admired in every country of the world», said: «Celibacy is a great help, inasmuch as it enables one to lead a life of full surrender to God... Protestantism did many good things, but one of its few evils was that it ridiculed celibacy. It is celibacy that has kept Catholicism green up to the present day.»

If the non-Christians do not fail to see the advantage of celibacy for the good of religion and society, for a Christian, however, the motives for celibacy are much more deep and the benefits are much more lofty. Jesus, who lived a virgin life and exhorted his close followers to leave all, including marriage and family attachments, is the ultimate inspiration and the most exalted model of perfect renunciation. «If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple» (Lk 14:26).


It is true that in the early Church, celibacy was not imposed as a necessary condition for discipleship, even upon those who were to enter the sacred ministry. However, the example and the words of Jesus Christ, as well as the fervent exhortation of St Paul, bring out the deep meaning and the spiritual advantages of celibacy. «I would like to see you free from all worry. An unmarried man can devote himself to the Lord’s affairs, all he need worry about is pleasing the Lord; but a married man has to bother about the world’s affairs and devote himself to pleasing his wife; he is torn two ways» (1 Cor 7:32-34).


The priest who is taken from among his people, and appointed for them, is to be the faithful and wise servant the Master has put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time. Jesus invites the disciple to remain in him so that, with the reciprocal presence of Jesus in him, he bears much fruit, fruit that will last.


An analogy from nature


Following the example of the Master, who illustrated his teachings with the ways of Providence in nature, we can draw a simple and useful analogy. In Psalm 19, we read about God sending out the sun to sustain life on this earth:


High above, he pitched a tent for the sun, who comes out of his pavilion like a bridegroom exulting like a hero to run his race.

He has his rising on the edge of heaven, the end of his course is its furthest edge, and nothing can escape his heat.


We know that, although all creatures are open to the heat and light of the sun, in the providence of God, only one of God’s creatures (the humble plant) is the channel for communicating this life-giving energy to other living creatures.

Of the spiritual order, the prophet Malachi tells us: «But for you, who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will shine out, with healing in its rays» (4:2). Jesus Christ, the Sun of Justice, is the source of all supernatural life and fruitfulness. It is through his priests, that he distributes his grace, the nourishment for supernatural life. The keys of the heavenly treasure house have been confidently handed over to them. It is manifest that the great High Priest is Christ himself. The fruitfulness of the minister will depend upon his intimacy with this High Priest —«if one remains in me and I in him...»


In nature, the more complete and the more unhindered the plant world is, in its openness and exposure to the sun and to its rays of light, the more abundant its vigour and its fruitfulness. In a similar way, the priest, who is the channel of divine light and life for God’s children, the more complete and more unhindered his openness and exposure to Jesus, the more abundant will be his own spiritual vigour and his fruitfulness as a minister. Any cloud, or any shadow, that may come between the priest and the Master will in that measure lessen his effectiveness as a faithful and wise servant. The consecration of the priest to Christ, in a spousal relation, through the vow of chastity, is an inestimable grace and a help to him to turn to Jesus with singleness of purpose and to be wholly in him, so that he may bear much fruit and the fruit may remain.




In Asia, where two-thirds of humanity live, and where Catholics are less than 2%, the need for a fruitful apostolate is overwhelming. «The harvest is great, the labourers few.» Every unit of energy, every moment of time, is required for the work most urgently and insistently asked of the priest by the Lord of the harvest. It is no time for looking back and brooding over the structures. Evangelization is not one issue among many, but the «unum necessarium».