Comment Opinion & Features

The Newman of the East

Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India

In 2019 we became more familiar with the life and mission of St John Henry Newman. Perhaps in 2020 we might learn something about Mar Ivanios, called the “Newman of the East” by his people.

This year the Syro-Malankara Church, the seat of which is here in Thiruvananthapuram, will be marking the 90th anniversary its reunion with Rome.

Mar Ivanios, who led the movement, was received into full communion on September 20, 1930. He is thus considered the father of the Syro-Malankara Church, one of the 23 Eastern Churches in communion with Rome.

The Syro-Malankara, like Syro-Malabar Catholics, trace their history to the missionary journey and martyrdom of St Thomas the Apostle in south India. It is traditionally held that he arrived on the south-west coast of India in 52 AD and established various churches in what are today the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These “St Thomas Christians” were long united under their own bishops. In the early second millennium they began to be governed by bishops from the Near East and then centuries later from Portugal. Eventually, division came and the Church split into Latin Catholics, Syro-Malabar Catholics and the Orthodox. It was from these last that Mar Ivanios came.

He was born on September 21, 1882 into a family belonging to the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church. Baptised with the name Geevarghese, he joined the minor seminary before going to Madras for higher studies. He was ordained a priest in 1908, and served first as principal of the minor seminary at Kottayam before going to Calcutta as a professor. In Calcutta, Fr Geevarghese founded a monastic community in the Orthodox tradition.

In the 1920s there was a “Reunion Movement” in the Malankara Orthodox Church, and Mar Ivanios, who took that name upon being consecrated a bishop, was appointed to lead it. The movement towards corporate unity with Rome faltered, and Mar Ivanios found himself increasingly alone. In 1930, he and four others – a bishop, a priest, a deacon and a layman – entered into full communion with Rome.

From that event the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church dates its recovered unity. It experienced astonishing growth under the leadership of Mar Ivanios, its first bishop. He died on July 15, 1953 and is buried at the cathedral in Thiruvananthapuram. The Syro-Malankara Church is now established as a major archiepiscopal Church and has its own patriarch or “major archbishop”, Cardinal Baselios Cleemis. The Church numbers some half million members, mostly in Kerala but also spread in diaspora communities in Europe and North America.

The Syro-Malankara see a parallel between the “Reunion Movement” of the 1920s and the Oxford Movement of the 1830s. Like Newman, Mar Ivanios was part of a broader grouping that sought to discover the sources of unity in their own traditions, Anglican and Orthodox. When the time came, though, it was not a corporate unity that was possible but an individual conversion.

Like Newman, Mar Ivanios dedicated himself to Catholic education. The Syro-Malankara have a large campus in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram, whose liberal arts college was founded by Mar Ivanios. The campus now includes schools of law, engineering, education, management and information technology, as well the major seminary. It is hoped one day to bring them all together into a unified Catholic university. Newman would have wished for the same success for his Dublin university project.

At the Newman canonisation last October in Rome, one of the ancillary events was a day-long symposium on the “personal ordinariates” set up for corporate reunion with Rome. While coming more than a century after Newman’s death, ordinariate members take Newman as a patron, if not a trailblazer. To a certain degree, the English Oratories were Newman’s attempt to preserve some aspects of the Anglican tradition in the Catholic Church – the Oxbridge college model of clerics living in common without vows, the choral tradition, the priority giving to preaching.

In that regard, Mar Ivanios was rather more successful. The Syro-Malankara is a fully established Church with a complete hierarchy and distinct liturgical tradition.

During the Amazon synod controversy over the “Pachamama”, Vatican editorial director Andrea Tornielli defended the statuettes by quoting these words of Newman: “The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees, incense, lamps and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water, asylums; holy days and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields, sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the east, images at a later date, perhaps the ecclesiastical chant, and the Kyrie Eleison, are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the church.”

Leaving aside the merits of the Pachamama, Newman wrote that when all the items he listed could be found in English Catholic life. In an impoverished time of Catholic liturgy, architecture and art, much of Newman’s list would be rather alien to Catholics today. Not so to the Syro-Malankara in Kerala, where the Catholic tradition breathes deeply with its eastern lung.