Indian Catholics in the Archdiocesan Five Counties area recently came together to celebrate their heritage, which Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre described as “a marriage” between culture and faith.
The bishop was the main celebrant at a Sept. 17 opening mass for Indian Catholic Heritage Day 2022, which was held at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Forane Catholic Church in northeast Philadelphia. after a welcome procession with traditional instruments.
“Each of you brought to our country…the beauty and uniqueness of your culture, and at the same time and above all…. to the life of the Church,” Bishop McIntyre said in his homily.
Organized annually by the Indian American Catholic Association of Greater Philadelphia (IACA) and local Indian Catholic communities, Heritage Day honors the rich traditions of the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, Latin and Knanaya Catholic communities, which total some 650 to 700 households in the region, according to the president of the IACA, Charly Chirayath.
Together, the four groups represent a legacy that has its origins in the evangelization of Saint Thomas the Apostle, who, according to tradition, arrived in southwestern India in 52 AD, founding seven Christian communities in modern Kerala before its martyrdom some twenty years later near what is now Chennai.
The first believers in India were known as “St. Thomas Christians” or “Nazranis”, those who followed Jesus of Nazareth. Over the centuries, the number of faithful increased under the leadership of the Church of Eastern Syria. In 345 AD, a Syrian merchant named Thomas Cana settled in the Malabar region and founded a renowned Christian community with several families.
The arrival of Portuguese colonizers at the end of the 15th century complicated the development of Christianity in India. Latin Rite missionaries sought to rob the Indian church of its Eastern Catholic roots, and in 1665 a formal schism broke out among Indian Christians. Those who remained in communion with Rome became the Syro-Malabar Church, which Pope Pius XI officially established as a hierarchy in India in 1923.
That same year, Pope Pius XI raised the Apostolic Vicariate of Kottayam, created in 1911 for the Knanaya community, to an eparchy. In 1930, members of the Syrian Orthodox Malankara Church entered into communion with Rome, becoming the Syro-Malankara Church under Pope Pius XI in 1932.
Earlier this year, Indian Catholics hailed the canonization of their first lay saint, Lazarus Devasahayam, a Hindu court official who converted to Christianity and was martyred in 1752 for joining the community of believers. of lower caste.
“He lived his faith with great devotion, fully and with great love for God, day after day,” Bishop McIntyre said.
That same zeal has infused successive generations of Indian Catholics, said Sister Jocelyn Edathil, an Imitation of Christ sister and internist at Temple University Hospital.
“India has a long history of Christianity,” she said. “So many Catholics are descendants of those early converts of St. Thomas the Apostle himself.”
Describing Indian Catholics as “very devout” and “very intense”, she cited the example of Saint Teresa of Kolkata, an ethnic Albanian who became a citizen of India, where she founded the Missionaries of Charity (MC) and served the most destitute.
“If you think of Mother Teresa, you see a major sign of Catholicism as a woman in an Indian sari,” Sister Jocelyn said, referring to the habit of the MC congregation.
Indian Catholic youth and young adults carry on this legacy, Sister Jocelyn said.
“If you look at the statistics, India produces the third highest number of nuns in the whole world,” she said. “I personally know at least 10 young women who have entered (into religious life). It is a great blessing to see more young American Indian Catholics giving up everything for Jesus.
This same commitment to service is also exemplified by lay vocations. Amilyn Thomas, an IACA member and Syro-Malabar parishioner of St. Thomas, continues her human rights advocacy — which led her to address the United Nations in 2021 — while continuing her studies in neuroscience at the university.
“I am so grateful to the American Indian Catholic Association,” Thomas said, addressing attendees after being honored at the Heritage Day reception. “Thank you for this community, and for always supporting and encouraging me.”
In the years to come, the IACA will continue to foster faith and service, Chirayath said.
“Looking at the horizon, Indian Catholics will play a major role in Catholicism,” he said. “Even with the decline in the number of priests, I see the potential for many Indian priests to come as missionaries and fill the gaps. Over the years, Indian Catholics have never lost their beliefs, their traditions, their family values, their devotion to Mass and the Rosary. And they’re still trying to maintain those things in this new country.