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A New Church From an Ancient Tradition Print E-mail

October 6, 2010 | The Long Island Catholic Vol. 49, No. 24 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY


If on Sunday afternoon October 3, you had been at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale you would have witnessed a remarkable event. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict, responding to a request from the leadership of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, established a new exarchate or diocese for the Syro-Malankara faithful who live here and throughout the United States. At the suggestion of the Major Archbishop or Catholicos, His Beatitude Moran Mor Cleemis, the pope appointed a new bishop, Thomas Mar Eusebius, as the first Exarch or bishop for this Church who was given additional duties as official visitator of the Catholicos for members of the Church in Canada and Europe.

Why would this have been an event worth noting? First of all is the extraordinary growth of this Church in the past 80 years, especially in Kerala state, India where it has blossomed and grown from five members in 1930 to more than 500,000 today. But even more important than the numbers is what this means.

Indian Christian tradition has long held that the Apostle Thomas evangelized India before being martyred. Thus India claims true apostolic foundation from Thomas as Rome does from Peter and Paul. The “Thomas tradition” has been carried through the centuries with a liturgy that is the same Mass as we have in the Latin Church. Yet the liturgy has its own forms of prayer and ritual that reflect the Thomas tradition and the Indian context that these Churches have lived for as long as there has been Christianity in that country. Through the centuries, theological differences brought about some divisions. Both the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara exist side by side. Both are eastern Syrian, similar in theological tradition to the Maronites of Lebanon, but each maintains certain particular characteristics. A great and holy Bishop, Mar Ivanios, brought the small group of Syro-Malankara back into communion with the pope in 1930 and thus we have today the flourishing Syro-Malankara Church in South India with this new branch of the vine of Christ established here on Long Island for all the United States.

As most of us who live in western Nassau know, there has been a growing influx of families coming from India and settling in the villages of Nassau. Like India itself, they come here with many different religious traditions from Hindu to Muslim to Buddhist to Sikh to Jain. But there is also a significant number of Indians who are Christians of both the Latin rite who now are part of the Diocese of Rockville Centre or of one of the two eastern traditions I have just described.

The liturgy celebrated at Kellenberg Sunday afternoon was heralded by a procession with bells and drums and a throng of the faithful rejoicing to have a bishop and a Church of their own. The Major Archbishop or Catholicos, Moran Mor Cleemis, was the principal celebrant of the liturgy. He had served here until 2005 as the auxiliary bishop who cared for this growing flock until he was called back to India. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, Bishop Libasci and I joined the eastern rite bishops in concelebrating the liturgy at which the new Exarch, Bishop Thomas Mar Eusebius, was enthroned as the bishop of this new local Church.

There is a haunting beauty to this ancient liturgy. The chants are accompanied by bells and tympanis and various native instruments that, along with the vestments and the altar appointments, proclaim the Indian heritage of this ancient Catholic Church. It is not difficult for us westerners to follow the Divine Liturgy which has the same shape and the same elements of Word and Sacrament leading to sharing in Holy Communion as does every Catholic Eucharist following the example of Christ. But many of the prayers are different from ours, rich in symbolism that focuses with deep commitment on the unworthiness we all have before the Holy, the confidence we all are called to have in the Mother of God and the communion of saints and the proclamation of the great deeds by which Our Lord wrought our salvation. It kept occurring to me how wondrously are we called to fulfill the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”

The new bishop very kindly invited me to preach the homily on this historic occasion. The texts they had chosen were from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians about being one body made up of many parts but all being one in the Body of Christ, and The Gospel of John in which the Lord speaks of the vine and the branches, the Father as the vine grower and the true vine, Christ, giving birth to the branches who bud, grow and flourish so long as they remain one with Christ, the vine.

As one of those branches, this local Latin Church of the Diocese of Rockville Centre joins our Malankaran brothers and sisters in the joy that this new branch of the Church universal has been planted here on Long Island. We pledge to help them in their growth through our prayer and our common witness to Jesus Christ. These new members of our communities will offer much to deepen our Christian witness and to help build up both the faith of the Church and our service to all our brothers and sisters here in the towns and villages of Long Island.

As I welcome my brother, Bishop Thomas Mar Eusebius, I ask all of you, my brothers and sisters of our diocese, to join me in extending the hand of fraternal welcome to our new Syro-Malankaran neighbors and to offer them our prayers and support that this new Church here on Long Island may grow and flourish in the years to come.

 

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