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Saturday, 7 December 2002


Dear Friends,

1. For years I have had the desire to visit India. It is a country with a fascination all its own, even more so for me personally, since I knew I had in this huge and beautiful land brothers and sisters of the Syrian Church: the Malabar and Malankara faithful.

For this reason, after my election as Patriarch of Antioch of the Syrians, I took advantage of the first invitation to go to India for the opening celebrations of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and I saw it was even better than I had imagined. A second invitation was offered to me for the conclusion of the Great Jubilee. But in the meantime the Holy Father had nominated me Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches on 25 November 2000. So I asked to have my arrival in Rome postponed in order to make my second pilgrimage to the beloved land of India. This second visit was an even better opportunity for me to get to know the Catholic Church in Kerala, in particular the Syro-Malabar Church with the see of its Major Archbishop in Ernakulam and Angamaly. These unforgettable visits allowed me to follow in the footsteps of St Thomas the Apostle and St Francis Xavier. I saw for myself the fruits of their preaching.

For this reason I am happy and honoured to be with you here today in this distinguished Pontifical Oriental Institute in order to celebrate the double Jubilee:  the 1,950th anniversary of the arrival of the great St Thomas and the 450th anniversary of the death of St Francis Xavier.

Neither St Thomas the Apostle nor St Francis Xavier were Indian by birth. Both however became Indian by conviction and this was not just any superficial attraction, but that genuine openness of spirit, which seeks and establishes communion. It is important for us today to think of St Thomas and St Francis as Indians by conviction, not merely honorary citizens, just as St Paul became a Greek to the Greeks without stopping to be a Jew to the Jews. The closed and sometimes exclusive bonds of nationality were meant to be broken and opened up to a communion of mutual understanding, respect and trust. This new community was based not on the privilege of class or caste, but on the grace of God which unifies even the most diverse realities.

2. One could have at times the impression that there is a deep chasm on many different levels separating East from West to this very day. Such divide is not just a geographical, historical or political reality, but seems to be running before all else right through the human heart. Maybe this is why the Church's mission to the East is often thought of in rather critical terms as a misguided imposition of beliefs and values on peoples who were not willing to accept either. How refreshing it is to hear millions of Catholics in India and elsewhere today refer to themselves with gratitude and joy as St Thomas Christians. Such deep-felt association would hardly be thinkable, unless St Thomas, his person and his preaching, had been openly, heartily and gratefully accepted by his hearers and their descendants not as something imposed, but as something welcomed. St Thomas, it seems, was someone with whom the people of India had fallen in love and who, on the other hand, had fallen in love with them. Many centuries later, at a time when another wave of missionaries set out towards the East, St Francis Xavier impressed not just old and new generations of Jesuits back in the West, but was impressed by the faith he already found in the East. Here too we see a missionary zeal, which was successful only because it drew by love, not by force, greed or ambition. These two, the apostle and the missionary, so cherished and honoured by the whole Church, but especially by the Christians of India, can show us the way to true missionary zeal and to solid ecclesial communion, if we but allow ourselves to be led by them today.

3. The way begins with a call, God's call. Authentic mission is the mystery of responding to a call rather than taking the initiative oneself. At one particularly dramatic moment in the Gospel of St John, St Thomas broke his silence to instil courage in the troop saying:  "Let us too go, so as to die with him" (Jn 11,16). But after this expression of unswerving loyalty, his doubting spirit seemed to throw him off balance for a moment and he asked for the way (Jn 14,5), provoking from Jesus one of the most famous of self-definitions ever made: "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14,6). In order to save all through the grace of his Son, God's call is so potent as to make possible what seems impossible and to reconcile what seems irreconcilable.

Being sent in such a fashion is a powerful reminder that one's life is not one's own, but God's and therefore Christ's. For such an altruistic vocation selfless recruits are needed. St Thomas was such a recuit and responded to the call. He was sent by Christ and he knew it. Yet, his response was not altogether immune to the many challenges from without as from within. We catch a glimpse of St Thomas, caught up in his own inner struggle between his innate loyalty and his disarming candor.

Maybe for this reason he seems to be often connected in the Gospels to the way and asking about it. Trouble starts only the one time, when he was away, that fateful Sunday, when grief blinded him for a second and he could not believe. In this too he was in good company, for none of the eleven visions recorded in the Gospels of the Risen Lord finds people ready.

If Thomas regained his step, it is because he refused to remain out of step with his companions. Once back to the group he rose to the occasion, when the Lord appeared to him a second time, and Thomas came up with the highest expression of faith on anybody's lips in the Gospel:  "My Lord and my God" (Jn 20,28). Little did he know that, after having had his peak experience, the end of this journey was only the beginning of a new one, which took him all the way to India.

There his followers, now as then, have called what the Apostle taught them "The way of Thomas". But this was always meant to be understood not as replacing, but as leading to the only one who is The Way to the Father, Christ, our Lord and our God.

4. The seeds sown by the Apostle could be harvested in God's good time by the Missionary. Ever since he reached Goa on 6 May 1542, St Francis Xavier himself manifested a devotion to St Thomas. During his two-year stay in India (1542-1544) he not only paid a visit to St Thomas' Christians in Cochin and Travancore. He spoke with particular warmth of his stay on the island of Sukotra, though some of his comments may surprise us.

"The natives", he wrote, "proclaim themselves Christians and are proud of it.... They possess churches, crosses and sanctuary lights.... These people venerate in a particular way the Apostle Thomas and believe to go back to the Christians he converted in that region. During their prayers priests repreat frequently:  Hallelujah! Hallelujah! and pronounce this word as we do.... During my stay on the island I have baptized a great number of children, to the great joy of their parents. With heartfelt benevolence and well-meant pressures they wanted to force me to accept the gifts which their poverty allows them to make.... They asked me with insistence to remain with them and promised me that all, young and old, would be baptized, if I would not abandon them" (Epistolae S. Francisci Xaverii).

The presence, preaching and prayers of St Francis Xavier made a lasting impression on the faithful of India. In confirming "The Way of Thomas" he lovingly connected it to "The Way of Peter", so that the faith of Christ, sown and grown strong over the centuries, would enjoy the assurance of unity and truth from the office of Peter and his successors.

5. The greatest gift St Thomas the Apostle gave to the budding Christian community of India was their authentic and direct connection with the very origins of the Christian faith, with the apostles and their office, with Jerusalem. The greatest gift St Francis Xavier later was to give to the same people was their connection with the very guarantee of Christian infallibility, with the Successor of Peter, with Rome. In meeting each other in the life and legacy of the Christians of India, Thomas and Francis have become like twin brothers in spirit, inseparable in their message of the one faith, of the one Church, of the one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

The divide between East and West, as real as it is painful, can indeed be overcome. As the testimony of these two great pillars of our faith clearly demonstrates, there is hope for true and genuine communion between East and West, when we recognize that, while everybody is born either in the East or in the West, a heart filled with the grace of Christ can embrace both. Easterners and Westerners are not just neighbours, much less need they be enemies. Rather each of us through the grace of God can carry East and West in his heart. Arguing against one or the other therefore means arguing against oneself. St Thomas' name - the Twin - suggests that much. Today's anniversary celebration must impress upon us all, what can become possible through faith not just within the Church, but in the world at large. Following the Apostle and admiring the Missionary our hearts tell us that East and West can meet in harmony and peace.

Our joy today is great. Our Indian brothers and sisters have much to be proud of when they look back on what the St Thomas Christians have been able to achieve through the centuries. We, their friends and fellow Christians, can learn from them valuable lessons of faith, perseverance and loyalty. Today is a moment to recognize God's abundant blessings on this portion of the People of God. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches I am truly grateful for all those who claim St Thomas as their Father in Faith and who look to St Francis as their inspiration in ministry, Catholics of the East and of the West, Latin-Rite and Eastern-Rite. It is up to us now to show in word and deed that we have not received this grace in vain.

May Our Lady, whose Immaculate Conception, the One Universal Church celebrates tomorrow, be with us on our way as Queen of the Apostles and Help of Christians, leading us to him who was, who is and who is to come, Christ, Our Messiah and our Saviour, our Lord and our God.

Thank you.