This article is twelfth in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of Asian Catholics in the United States, and how the Church might better serve their pastoral needs. The article was submitted by Mr. Susai Anthony of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in Washington, D.C. Mr. Anthony volunteers for the Indian American Catholic Association and was instrumental in drafting the by-laws and constitution for the association.
India is the second most populous country in the world after China. The estimated population of India as of January 2000, is 1 billion. Of its 1 billion inhabitants, 30 million (3%) are Christians, 800 million are Hindus, and 7.9 million are Buddhists. About 17.5 million are Catholics comprising the Latin, Syro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara Catholic traditions.
According to tradition, St. Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles, introduced Christianity to India in 52 AD. It is believed that he reached Crangannore on the West Coast (Malabar coast) of the South Indian peninsula and worked his way along the coastal regions. In 1972, Paul Paul VI declared St. Thomas the Apostle of India. His apostolic work was continued by missionaries from West Asia and Europe over the centuries.
Very little is known about the early Malabar Christians (also known as St. Thomas Christians) except a few historical notes. Pantaenus, sent by Demetrius of Alexandria, visited Malabar in 189. In 345, Thomas Cana, a merchant from Persia, traveled to Travancore and established a Christian colony apart from the Christian community that existed there. Timotheus I, the patriarch of the Nestorians in Persia, sent bishops to India (c. 800). In 825, Marwan Sabriso brought a party with two bishops, Mar Sapro, and Mar Prodh. The local ruler, the king of Venad, gave him land and some privileges. In 1122, there was an Indian patriarch in Rome. Indian churches came into contact with the Roman Church through European travelers and missionaries such as the Franciscans and Dominicans in the 13th century. In 1293, Marco Polo, a Venetian traveler, came to India and left some records of his visit to Mylapore. And in 1321, Four Franciscans were martyred in Thana, near Mumbai (Bombay).
Around the 1500's, an influx of Christian missionaries and religious orders propagated Christianity in India.
were the first to arrive. They founded a convent in Goa (1518) and engaged in missionary work at Goa, Bombay, Cochin, Quilon, and Tamil Nadu. They opened schools in Crangannore, Poinsur, and Reis Magos in Bardez.
spread their message through the work of St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552), a Spanish Jesuit, who arrived in Goa in 1542. With his Jesuit companions and successors, they strongly emphasized the need for evangelization. St Francis worked along the Malabar Coast and baptized hundreds of fishermen.
arrived in 1548 and established convents in Goa and Cochin. They also established a college of philosophy and theology near Goa. When the Portuguese viceroy divided the missionary territories (1554-1555), the Dominicans received the western part of Goa, and the Franciscans received the eastern part. Later the Dominicans established themselves in other parts of Portuguese India.
came to Goa from Persia in 1572 and opened a large monastery and a convent of Santa Monica in 1606.
, Italian , and arrived in 1600. The of St. Philip Neri extended their activities to Sri Lanka (Ceylon).
Around the 1500's, tensions began to arise between the Portuguese Jesuits and the St. Thomas Christians. This tension culminated in the Coonan Cross Oath of 1653 in which 20,000 Malabar Christians, under the leadership of their Archdeacon, Thomas Parambil, pledged their independence from the Roman Church. As a result, congregations were forced to choose between the two. About 32 congregations stood faithful to the Archdeacon, and 84 congregations rejoined Rome.
St. Thomas Christians who rejoined the Latin Church were called Malankara Christians. Those who maintained their independence and gave their allegiance to the Jacobite ("Orthodox") Patriarch of Antioch were called the Jacobites. The Malankara Christians were further subdivided into two groups. Those who followed the rites of East-Syrian traditions were called "Syro-Malabar" Catholics and those who followed the West-Syrian traditions were called "Syro-Malankara" Catholics.
There are some Malabar Catholics called "Knanaya Catholics" who are an integral part of Syro-Malabar Catholics. They trace their origin to a congregation established by Thomas of Cana (Cnae of Thomman), a merchant who came to India in 345 AD from Syria. He brought along with him Mar Joseph of Uraha, a Bishop of Edessa (Turkey), four priests and deacons, and 400 families. They were received by a local raja and were given some land. In 1911, Pope Pius X established a Diocese for them at Kottayam in Kerala.
During the early part of the nineteenth century, Catholic missionaries from France, Ireland, Italy, and the United States, as well as Protestant missionaries from England, Canada, Scotland, Denmark, and the United States, were engrossed in propagation of the faith. However, during the English rule over India, the British religious neutrality was not conducive to missionary work. Only the Anglicans received accommodation from the British. The Catholic missionaries took to establishing schools, hospitals, and charitable institutions such as nursing homes, orphanages, and dispensaries.
When India became a free and sovereign republic in 1947, it was ordered that the Indian Churches should function with the help of native clergy and, therefore, stopped all new missionaries from entering India. Later on, the order was revised to allow only those missionaries with specialized skills. At present, there are 900 foreign missionaries and 4,200 indigenous missionaries working in India. "Anti-conversion laws" are in effect in several states which have a restrictive effect on pastoral ministry and social service.
Presently, in India, there are 23 Archdioceses, 109 Dioceses, and 7,247 Parishes. There are 3 Cardinals; 1 Patriarch; 26 Archbishops; 125 Bishops; 16,593 Priests; 73,030 Sisters; 2,671 Brothers; 9,525 Seminarians; and 40,673 Catechists.
The following Indian states have more than one million Christians: Andhra Pradesh (2,959,606), Assam (1,028,817), Kerala (8, 893,496), Maharashtra (1,026.183), and Tamil Nadu (3,239,819).
According to the U.S. Bureau of Census, Asian Indians constituted 11.8% of the Asian population in the United States in 1990. No formal survey has ever been conducted to report the actual number of Indian immigrant Catholics in the United States, but conservative estimates from local Catholic associations project the population at 230,000. Vast numbers of these immigrants reside in and around Boston, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., in the Great Lake region (Chicago and Detroit), Florida, Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles.
Many from the first wave of immigration were professionals: professors, doctors, nurses, engineers, and scientists. The second wave of immigrants, though not primarily professionals, were able to become productive members of society quite easily because of their previous exposure to the English language. Census figures show that both Asian Indian males and females have the highest educational attainment among all other Asians.
Since most Catholic Asian Indian immigrants belong to the Latin tradition and speak English, they easily assimilate into U.S. Catholic communities and parishes. The Indian immigrants participate in the apostolate of the Church. They support the Church's efforts with financial contributions. In parishes, they serve on parish councils and are Eucharistic ministers, lectors, and ushers. They join the choir, and their children serve as altar servers. They teach CCD classes and volunteer for parish charitable organizations. One important and highly visible contribution of which the Indian Catholic immigrants are especially proud is the establishment of the Vailankanni Oratory. On August 15, 1997, they erected an Oratory to Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. This project, an undertaking of the Indian American Catholic Association of Washington, D.C., received donations from both Catholic and non-Catholic Indian immigrants from every state in the Union and Canada. It is a testament to their abiding faith in Our Mother's readiness to obtain healing for the sick. In the month of August, the Annual Pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. draws a few thousand pilgrims from across the nation.
Though the Indian immigrants are part of religious communities in the United States, they do not forget the hardships of people in their homeland. They contribute generously and dispense the contributions through local Indian bishops for disaster relief efforts provided to victims regardless of religion. They are particularly concerned about on-going persecution of Christians in parts of India.
There is a growing population of adults with limited English proficiency. For them, the administration of the Sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick require clergy with Indian language proficiency. There is also a sizeable number of Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholics in the major cities of the United States and Canada. In some dioceses, there are Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara priests working in American parishes who assume additional responsibility of looking after the pastoral needs of the Malabarites and Malankarites.
Indian Catholic associations in various dioceses are organized to provide a structure for preservation of the deep spirituality and family values which Asian Indians have brought with them. These associations hold annual gatherings to deepen the faith and celebrate their cultural and linguistic traditions such as Tamil and Malayalam.