Here are some quick facts and a brief history of the Syro Malabar Church:
The Syro-Malabar Church is an Oriental (Eastern Rite) Catholic Church, one of the 21 Oriental Catholic Churches worldwide. The 21 Oriental Churches and the Latin Church together form the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, a Communion of 22 individual Churches under the Pope.
With a population of approx 4 million, we are a very vibrant church and are the second largest eastern rite church, being second only to the eastern rite Ukrainian Church. In 1992, Pope John Paul II raised us to the level of a Major Archiepiscopal Church. We have 26 dioceses (and expanding), of which five are Archdioceses. We are currently headed by Major Archbishop George Alencherry, who succeeded Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, who passed away recently.
The term “Syro-Malabar" refers to the East Syrian or Chaldean tradition we follow and to the Malabar Coast where Apostle Thomas landed in AD 52. It is believed that he came to India and landed at Kodungallur on the Kerala (south west India) coast. He preached the Gospel to the high caste families of Kerala, many of whom received the faith. He established several churches and moved on to the East coast of India. He was martyred near Little Mount, Madras (now Chennai) and his body was brought to Mylapore (Near Madras) and was buried there.
A connection to the East Syrian Church (Chaldean) was established after the arrival of another Thomas and several families from Cana (Knai Thomman) in the 4th century. This infused new blood to the sagging old church established by St.Thomas and the church began to be ruled by East Syrian (Chaldean) bishops… The Indian church however, did not join the East-Syrian Church or priests from India were not made bishops. This situation lasted for about eleven centuries.
With the arrival of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco De Gama to Calicut on the Kerala Coast in 1498, a Latin connection began to take shape. The Portugese were happy to discover the St.Thomas Christians on the West coast of India, but did not like their connection to East-Syrian Church. Pointing out some expressions in their liturgical texts, the Portugese alleged that St.Thomas Christians believed in the Nestorian Heresy. The Synod of Diamper (Udayamperur) in 1599 convened by the Latin Archbishop Menezes of Goa brought an end to the connection between St.Thomas Christians and East-Syrian Church. St.Thomas Christian Church, thus became a colonial Church of the Portugese.
The Latin connection also brought division to the St.Thomas Christians. The Coonan Cross Oath in 1653 at the Church of Our Lady of Life at Mattanchery was the culmination of several years of latinization by the Portuguese, and the crowd gathered there took an oath that they would not be subject to the Portuguese Archbishop of Goa, Francis Garcia. This revolt eventually split the Church into two: one group continued to recognize the prelates appointed by Rome and the other broke away from Rome and joined the West-Syrian Jacobite Church of Antioch. This group came to be known as the Jacobites (Puthankootukar) or Syrian Orthodox Church of India. The Marthomites separated from the Jacobites in the 19th century due to Anglican Church influence. The Jacobites were further divided into two groups: Methran Kakshi or the Bishop’s group (Syrian Orthodox Church of India) whose Catholicos or supreme head resides at Devalokam, Kottayam and the Bhava Kakshi or Patriarch’s Group (Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church of India) whose head is the Antiochene Jacobite Patriach.
After the Coonan Cross Oath, Rome began to take an active interest in the Kerala Christians. Several Carmelite monks were sent to Kerala and Carmelite Vicar Apostolics were residing at Varapuzha. Also, the Portuguese nominated administrators or archbishops for Malabar who were stationed at Kodungallur. This dual jurisdiction also was cause for complaints to Rome. In 1787, Representatives from 84 churches assembled in Angamly and drew up a document called Angamaly Padiyola which made a strong demand to Rome for native bishops, citing the sins of omission and commission of the foriegn missionaries. In 1861, the arrival of a Chaldean Catholic bishop, Thomas Rokkos sent by the Chaldean patriach created more problems. He was excommunicated on his arrival by the Vicar apostolic of Varapuzha, and a schism followed. Another Chaldean bishop, Elias Melus arrived in 1874 and he too met the same fate. The Syrian Christians, popularly known as the Surais, in and around Thrissur who owe allegiance to the Syrian Nestorian patriarch are the followers of the schism Melus created.
Finally in 1887, Pope Leo XIII decreed the separation of Rite of St.Thomas Catholics from that of the Latins.