Meeting of a delegation of three R.C. Bishops and others with H.H. The Catholicos of the East

Meeting of a delegation of three R.C. Bishops and others with H.H. The Catholicos of the East at the Devalokam Palace, Kottayam, 16 October 1985.


Fr. Antony Nirappel, a priest of the Syro-Malabar rite of the Roman Catholic Church came to Devalokam in early october 1985 and requested for an audience with the Catholicos H.H. Marthoma Mathews I. He told the Catholicos that the bishops in the two Syrian Catholic rites (Malabar and Malankara) were interested in having a discussion with the hierarchy of the Orthodox Syrian Church about the possible collaboration of all St. Thomas Christians on the basis of their common tradition. He sought the consent of the Catholicos for such a meeting. When the request was made, the papal visit to India in February 1986 had already been announced.

Since the Catholicos was always of the opinion that all Christians who belonged to the St. Thomas tradition should rediscover their unity lost to them due to the “missionary zeal” and world-absorbing spirit of Portuguese Roman Catholics and English Protestants, he responded positively to the suggestion. The Catholicos was also aware that the Roman Catholic Church in India had not yet responded to the suggestion of the Holy Episcopal Synod of the Orthodox Church to start a dialogue between their churches on the basis of the reputed Vienna consultations between theologians of the Roman Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. He wanted to understand the new initiative from the R.C. side as part of that long awaited response.

Fr. Nirappel had also met some of the prominent bishops in the Orthodox Church to seek their support for the suggested meeting. He succeeded in convincing Metropolitan Mar Coorilos of Quilon, the Catholicos-designate that it would help the R.C. bishops if the Catholicos could send out to them an invitation for tea at Devalokam as a pretext for the meeting. The unsuspecting Metropolitan arranged to have a personal note signed by the Catholicos, sent to the three Roman Catholic Bishops.
The meeting was held in the afternoon of 16th October 1985.

The R. C. delegation consisted of the following:

1. Archbishop Joseph Powathil (Malabar Rite bishop of Kanjirappally)
2. Bishop Kuriakose Kunnassery (Malabar Rite Cananite bishop of Kottayam)
3. Bishop Cyril Baselius (Malankara rite Bishop of Sultan’s Battery)
4. Fr. Dr. Xavier Koodappuzha (Prof., Church History, Vadavathoor Seminary)
5. Fr. Antony Nirappel

From the Orthodox side, apart from the Catholicos himself, the following persons were present:

1. Metropolitan Mathews Mar Coorilos (Bishop of Quilon)
2. Mathews Mar Epiphanios (Asst. bishop, Quilon)
3. Philipose Mar Eusebius (Asst. bishop, Thumpamon)
4. Geevarghese Mar Ivanios (Bishop of Kottayam)
5. Paulose Mar Militeos (Bishop of Kunnamkulam)
6. Very Rev. K. C. Oommen Cor-Episcopa (Minutes Secretary for the Holy Episcopal Synod)
7. Rev. Dr. V. C. Samuel (Professor, Orthodox Seminary)
8. Rev. Dr. K. M. George (Professor, Orthodox Seminary)

(Metropolitan Geevarghese Mar Osthathios of Niranam and Metropolitan Joseph Mar Pachomius of Kandanad, Secretary to the Holy Synod were also present in the morning.

The Orthodox side had already met in the morning at the suggestion of the Catholicos. Some members expressed the view that the approach of the R. C. bishops was a highly calculated move with the knowledge and consent of Vatican. It was suggested not to take their initiative at face value. It was resolved also to respond to any such Roman attempt on the part of the R.C. bishops as politely as possible and with honesty.)
The Catholicos asked Fr. Nirappel to introduce the subject for discussion as he was apparently the one who took the initiative for the meeting. Fr. Nirappel qualified his initiative as a personal one resulting from his deep desire for unity among the St. Thomas Christians in Kerala. He said his experience with the Nilackal Ecumenical Committee encouraged him along that line (Incidentally, it should be pointed out that Fr. Nirappel was instrumental in “discovering” the controversial stone cross at Nilackal which led to communal riots in Kerala).

One could, however, sense that behind his “personal” initiative, there seemed to be a highly planned effort on the part of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Kerala, possibly with the prior knowledge of Rome, to approach the Orthodox Church for “co-operation and unity.” The three-hour discussion which followed confirmed that suspicion. The major points of the discussion are summarised here:
R. C. Side: The Catholic Church in Kerala has closer affinity with the Orthodox Church than with any other Church. Therefore we should stand together on the basis of our common Apostolic tradition. We should concentrate on our common faith and history rather than worry about the history and faith of Churches outside India.

Orthodox side: The Orthodox Church in India always insists on our common Apostolic tradition and our Apostolic faith as the basis of Christian unity in this country. We would like to know how the Syrian Catholic rites in India, being a part of the universal Roman Catholic Church, can afford to ignore the faith and history of the Roman Church. Can you adhere to a faith other than that of the Church of ‘Rome?’
R. C. Side: Since Vatican II, the status of the Eastern rites as individual local churches is being more and more fully acknowledged. The canon law is going to be soon revised in such a way as to give these local churches maximum autonomy in matters of worship, administration, discipline etc. Thus the Syrian rites arc really free local churches. This new ecclesiology serves as an important basis of our present discussion with the Orthodox Church.

Orthodox side: But this new ecclesiology still lies within the broader universal R. C. ecclesiology. In the Orthodox Church we understand the ‘local church’ in a quite different way. It does not correspond to the Roman concepts like ecclesia localis or ecelesia universalis. Does the new ecclesiology of the Oriental Roman Catholic rites exclude the principle of the ecclesially essential nature of communion with the Bishop of Rome?

R. C. side: In our new understanding communion with the Bishop of Rome is nominal, though it is not excluded. It never becomes a barrier between us in our search for unity. Rome is ready to grant all freedom and autonomy necessary for the full growth of all oriental traditions (At this point Bishop Cyril of the Malankara rite intervenes:) We the Malankara rite people always represent the Orthodox point of view within the Catholic Church. We fully understand your concern and can assure you that the Orthodox Church will not lose any of the rights and privileges it now enjoys. (There is a discreet suggestion at this point that the Catholicos could be made the “Patriach of India” under the Pope if the Orthodox Church joins the R. C.).

Orthodox side: We seem to be moving into areas of discussion not warranted by the intention of this meeting. Exploring areas of collaboration is our main task today. The R.C. hierarchy in Kerala might be aware of the Vienna Consultations 1972-78 and the proposals they made.

R. C. side: We are aware of the Vienna conversations that took place on an international level. They were carried out in too wide a framework to be emotionally appealing to our people in Kerala. They were too academic, lacking in the emotional urge essential for the unity of Mar Thoma Christians.
Orthodox side: The Vienna documents, however, possess some real authority since they were produced by a group of distinguised theologians and bishops from R. C. and Oriental Orthodox Churches who met at the invitation of Cardinal Koening of Vienna. Five years ago the Holy Episcopal Synod of the Orthodox church proposed to the Catholic Bishops’ Coference of India to constitute a joint commission to study the documents and to continue the dialogue in India.

We would like to know whether the Syro-Malabar rite is interested in following up the proposal through the CBCI.

R. C. side: The Syro-Malabar Church is greater than the CBCI (This was said by Fr. Koodappuzha with a touch of irritation).

Orthodox side: We can understand your situation. But our common search for unity is not as simple, or racial, as you think. The Orthodox understanding of the unity of the Church is radically different from what seems to be your understanding. If you have problems going through the CBCI, we propose that a joint theological commission be set up jointly by the Synod of the Orthodox church and the Syrian Catholic hierarchy in Kerala to study the various theological and historical issues involved in our search for unity.

R. C. side: This is all right in principle. But theological commissions are time consuming and not of much immediate value for our purpose. Further we do not think that there are real theological problems between us. If only we let ourselves be moved by the Holy Spirit, things will get much easier. An official response from the Orthodox side to the question of unity will facilitate our dialogue. As for the Syrian Catholic hierarchy we have a very clear position. Could we get from your side an answer before November? (Obviously some R. C. bishops were planning to go to Rome in November 1985 for the Bishops’ Synod and also to prepare the forthcoming papal visit to India in February 1986.

Orthodox side: It seems you are constraining the Holy Spirit to hasten his unity operations. Church unity is a very serious matter with us. An official response, such as you request cannot be given by anybody present here. There has been no official demand from your church for such a response. In our tradition the whole people of God, the Body of Christ, has the decisive word, and we have a long procedure for that.
R. C. side: Then you can take some steps to teach your people about unity at this time (This was said by Bishop Kunnassery).

Orthodox side: That is a fine suggestion! But we think our people are already taught what unity means. They can easily distinguish between unity as our Orthodox tradition understands and what you mean by unity.
R. C. side: We hear that your church assembly (Syrian Christian Association) is meeting at the end of October. As it is the highest authoritative body in your church could you possibly move a motion regarding the question of unity we are talking about? That will then involve your people also.

Orthodox side: Your suggestions do not correspond to the spirit and scope of our present meeting. Besides you have made no official proposal. The Syrian Christian Association meeting has other business to transact and its agenda is set much in advance. Further we do not at this point wish to follow up your suggestions, until we get them from an official body in your church.

R. C. side: Can we meet again at the end of October? We would like very much to have another meeting without much delay.

Orthodox side: There is no point in another meeting like this. But if you like to have theological discussions we can cooperate. Anyway October is too early. Further our bishop who is responsible for inter-church relations has to be involved in any theological discussions with our sister churches. His convenience also has to be sought.

R. C. side: Can we have it as early as possible if October is too early? As venue we suggest the St. Thomas Apostolic Seminary, Vadavathoor. Since it is near to Devalokam, Your Holiness may find it easy to travel.
The Catholicos: No. I do not normally take part in such discussions. If you wish so I can send these two people (pointing to Fr. V. C. Samuel and Fr. K. M. George).

R. C. side: Your Holiness, we want your esteemed presence. We are not interested in a meeting without Your Holiness. If your Holiness finds it difficult to travel, we can come here.

The Catholicos: Well, you may come here whenever you like; but do not count on my presence.

(At the insistence of the R. C. side, a date, Jan. 7; 1986, was reluctantly agreed upon)

Bishop Kunnassery: (sensing that the meeting was to conclude without any desired result) if things move in the direction all of us wish to see, we in the Syro-Malabar church have no objection to dissolve our rite and join the Orthodox church. Then, if the Lord wills so, all of us St. Thomas Syrian Christians will have one head and one church in India.

(The Catholicos politely thanked the R. C. bishops and priests for their visit and the meeting was concluded)
The proposed second meeting did not take place, since both sides felt very little purpose would be served by it.

(Reported by Fr. K. M. George & Fr. V. C. Samuel)

Source: Star of the East, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 1986