Indian Church with global reach: Mar Thoma primate

Metropolitan Joseph Mar Thoma

By N. Niranjan Nikam

Mysuru, June 29, 2019: Joseph Mar Thoma, the 21st Malankara Metropolitan and the current Primate of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, was in Mysuru recently to open a new building of St. Thomas Institutions, a school.

The 88-year-old metropolitan shared with the Star of Mysore about the rich history of his community, the Church’s logo, his association with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and religious conversion. Excerpts:

Star of Mysore: Is this your first visit to Mysuru?

Metropolitan: No. I have come many times as a priest and bishop. However I have not come for the past ten years. I have been a bishop for 45 years. I am the Metropolitan for 13 years.

What is the difference between a bishop and a metropolitan?

Metropolitan is the head of the Church and the term is derived from the Greek word ‘Metropolis.’ A bishop or Episcopas is the head of a diocese. An Episcopa is an overseer appointed by the Metropolitan.

Your Church has a history that dates back to 52 AD when St. Thomas came to India. Do you have any link with the Pope in Rome?

No, we do not have connections with Rome. According to tradition, Saint Thomas the Apostle visited the Jewish community in Malabar Coast. Peter, another apostle, went to the Jewish community in Rome. Both are traditions, there are no historical documents about their visits. However, there is record of a bishop from Egypt, Alexandria, visiting Kerala in 182 AD. That is the first historical record and others are only traditions. But the presence of a Christian community during that time was documented. Our Church is one, independent and national without any foreign association. But we have relationships with three Patriarchate of West Asia — One is Patriarch of Alexandria, that is Gothic Church, the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Patriarch of Antioch and we treat them as Brothers in Christ. When the Portuguese came to Kerala they wanted to Latinize St. Thomas Christians.

You are in charge of a Church that has 13 dioceses with 1,224 parishes and about 1,200 priests, who cater to the spiritual and other needs of approximately 1.6 million members. How do you manage to do all this?

Because of modern communications. The diaspora has come only after 1970s and 1980s. Before that we were concentrated in Kerala. After independence many people moved out of Kerala. I do have 11 bishops and each person is assigned a territory to look after. I am the appellate authority of all the bishops and I also look after one of the dioceses which has 100 or 110 parishes.

Metropolitan, you turned 88 on June 27 (Born: June 27, 1931). How do you look at this long journey of yours?

I come from a family that provided Church leaders during the last two centuries. I am the fifth in succession of Metropolitans in 200 years and when all dominations and customs have come, my great-grandfather Abraham Malpan (a theology professor) along with another Professor Geevargis Malpan were enlightened about the customs prevailing in the Church then that were not in coordination with the biblical teachings. The two were reformers in the Malankara Church like Martin Luther in Europe. Some people stuck to the old traditions but we stood for reform ideals parallel to what happened in the Western Churches. Our Church defines itself as “Apostolic in origin, universal in nature, biblical in faith, evangelical in principle, ecumenical in outlook, Oriental in worship, democratic in function and Episcopal in character.”

St. Thomas Institutions in Mysuru was established 54 years ago. How did you feel when you entered the institution to bless the new building?

From the inception I am very much associated with this school, watching the development and helping them in their journey towards progress.

I remember the school’s humble beginning when our Metropolitan Mathews Mar Athanasius started it with one student in the first year. That first student Jacob Eapen is the husband of Sobhana Eapen, who is teaching in St. Philomena’s College.

The Church claims to maintain good relations with Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups. What is your view on conversion?

Our Indian Constitution has given freedom to opt for one’s own religion after the age of 18. But we are not in favor of conversion by any means of coercion or any other influence. If one gives an affidavit that he or she deserves to have the baptism, we demand an affidavit on 100-rupee stamp paper saying that there is no coercion in her changing the religion and the name. We will not ask anybody to change the religion because they are working in one of our institutions and we do have Hindus and Muslims in Kerala.

For festivals we share the joy by exchanging greetings. Onam [Kerala’s harvest festival] that remembers the state’s past when there was no discrimination based on religion, caste or economic status. We long that age to come back. The Mar Thoma church all over the world celebrates Onam. Even in our liturgy we pray for the president, the prime minister, the parliament and state ministers. We started praying for the rulers even during the pre-independence time. Where our people reside, we pray for the leaders of that country.

As a Metropolitan you cannot lead a conjugal life but a priest can. Does it mean that you had decided early in life that you will not enter holy matrimony?

No, no. At the time of the ordination when the Church calls our names for a celibate life, I was obedient to that call and that is God’s call. It is not by parents’ dedication or by coercion but by personal conviction that I have selected this way of life.

The tradition behind this is that no bishop can own property of his own and no relative can claim bank accounts as that belongs to the Church’s Trust. When the bishop dies, everything is transferred to the Church. No father, brother or sister or any relative can lay claim. We do not have a salary but only living expense given by the Church. The Metropolitan gets 25,000 rupees a month. There is also the cook, driver and clerk we have to pay. We all eat from a common mess. Our diocesan bishop gets 20,000 rupees and another 5,000 rupees to entertain the guests.

Whatever we get we give to certain projects through the Church. We have projects for physically, mentally and economically challenged persons and for educating transgender boys and girls, who are thrown out from their families.

Every year we distribute 500,000 rupees of interest from the 5 crore (50 million) rupees collected during my 80th birthday celebrations for the Snehakaram (Hand of Love) Project where people with chronic illnesses like heart, kidney and other diseases and also HIV patients are treated. For the victims of Kerala’s recent floods we have given 100 houses costing 750,000 rupees each and repaired 50 houses costing from 100,000 rupees to 300,000 rupees irrespective of caste, creed, religion or language.

Jawaharlal Nehru in his “Glimpses of World History” says that Christians came to India long before they went to England or Western Europe. What do you make of his statement?

I think St. Thomas has raised intellectual doubt about resurrection. It was not enough for him to hear about Jesus’ resurrection. H wanted to see, hear and put his finger into the wounds of Jesus’ hand and the right side. He raised an intellectual doubt and it was he the Holy Spirit sent to India where religious philosophies exist. It is also the place of Adi Shankara.

What is your view on the controversy over women entering the Sabarimala temple?

When a devotee puts the beads on his neck for the 41 day of penance and abstinence to go to Sabarimala, he loses his own name. The devotees address each other as Ayyappan. That is the symbol of secularism — no religion, no caste or no language.

Until recently, Sabarimala was in thick forest and not safe for young women. The recent controversy was unnecessary. It was unfortunate that divisive forces entered into it to gain votes. That is a shame for democracy.

The Sabarimala unites people who long for oneness of humanity. When there was transportation problem and people had to walk the distance, Christian houses on the way welcomed Ayyappa devotees to cook in their place and even shared their food. Similarly, when hundreds of thousands of people visit the Christian Maramon Convention Hindu families allow them to stay. That is Kerala’s tradition.

Metropolitan, we heard that you were the only Christian to be invited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the swearing-in ceremony on May 30 this year. How did you feel about this honor?

I do not know about that. On the day before the swearing-in, I had got a call from Delhi that the prime minister wants me to be there and my VIP pass was being handed over to the Delhi diocesan office. So I immediately arranged for the ticket. I do have close association with Narendra Modi, Sushma Swaraj, L.K. Advani and Rajnath Singh.

The swearing-in at Rashtrapati Bhavan was really beautiful and very homely. I was able to see all the leaders there. However, it was impossible to meet the PM on that day. I was with the Delhi bishop for whom I had requested for a pass to assist me to walk. My principle is to be open to all confessions, accept the things which we can accept and respect the things which we differ. That is my basic principle.

The Mar Thoma Church logo consists of a shield emblazoned with a Christian Cross with representation of Ashoka Chakra at its center. It is flanked in the right and left by a Lotus and a Hand Lamp respectively. The Motto ‘Lighted to Lighten’ is written in English over the Cross.

I am very close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I have explained our logo to him when he invited me for a high tea when he was the Gujarat chief minister. Our motto is ‘Lighted to Lighten.’ We have both ‘Lighted to Lighten’ and Lotus, that takes energy from the mud to produce a beautiful flower.

But the official color of the Logo is Red. Now, many things intriguing here are the Ashoka Chakra, the Lotus and the Hand Lamp — all Hindu symbols?

They are not Hindu but Indian symbols. We use this traditional lamp which is a national Indian symbol and we use them in our churches. These symbols were there long before. When we consolidated we had taken all this from the Indian traditions. We are Indian by nationality and also independent without any foreign domination and the head of the Church is an Indian national. Now we have become a global Church.

Source: Star of Mysore

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