Ecclesiological foundations in the writings of Placid Podipara


Ecclesiological foundations in the writings of Placid Podipara

Dr. Varghese Kochuparambil

placidachan1117 th Birth day of  Fr. Placid J Podipara, one of the greatest ecclesiastical personalities of the 20th Century in India is on 3rd October 2016.


Father Placid Podipara (1899-1985) is considered one of the greatest ecclesiastical personalities of the 20th century in India. His contribution to the Church both for the universal and particular Church is extraordinary. His involvement in the Church is always diversified, that means, as a historian his orientation was to find out the historical elements in the transmission of Apostolic faith, as a theologian, he paved the theological foundations for the ecclesiology of the particular Church, as a canonist he traced the canonical sources of the eastern Churches, as a participant (come peritus) in Vatican II, he contributed to the theological and canonical foundations of the oriental Churches, and as an ecclesiologist he has given priorities to the communion of different Apostolic Churches. All these contributions emerged from his vision of the Church and also from his affinity towards the oriental Catholic Churches. What are the theological principles behind his ecclesiological visions? Or what are the basic elements rooted in his ecclesiological visions? According to Dr. Xavier Koodapuzha “Fr. Placid Podipara did not write any theological text on ecclesiology. He wrote on the unique role of the Petrine ministry and Roman Papacy. But he has given a clear vision of the Church which was truly Apostolic, Catholic and universal and at the same time local and indigenous.”[1]  A concentrated study of his works will point out the basis of his ecclesial vision. As Dr. Xavier Koodapuzha pointed out it consists in his knowledge regarding apostolicity towards which all of his works are oriented and it is the source of his ecclesiological visions. Through this article our aim is to bring out the fecundity of this theological principle which marks the ecclesiological vision specific and incomparable. Among his writings most of them are historical, which narrates the history of St. Thomas Christians, their relation with Eastern Churches and also with the Latin Church. Placid Podipara intentionally adopted a specific historical method to integrate and bring light apostolicity as the source in which all particular Churches are rooted.

Historical method

            In the beginning of the theological carrier of Placid Podipara, the saint Thomas Christians, particularly the Syro-Malabar Church,  were undergoing a serious identity crisis  which intimately connected with her history, that means in her relation with other particular Churches: Chaldean Church and the Latin Church.  For the Syro-Malabar Church after the reestablishment of proper vicariates in 1896 the important task was to rediscover and retain her identity. Placid Podipara who started his theological mission in this context rapidly asks the question: is it possible to be a Catholic without denying the proper apostolic identity of a particular Church?  To respond to this question Placid Podipara adopted a historical approach.  So the main orientation of all the writings of Placid Podipara is historical because by adopting this historical method he is proving the identity of the particular Church which is historically transmitted. We can say also to respond to the important theological questions, it was the method adopted by many theologians of this period for example when we analyze the works of Yves Congar who lives at the same time also adopted this method. By narrating history, they explain theological notions and principles.  For Placid Podipara, it is the historical continuity of the unique apostolic identity which brings out the theological, liturgical, spiritual, disciplinarian and cultural specificities of a particular Church.

Historical continuity of a particular Church is the expression of the history of her faith which explain also how much she was faithful to the apostolic faith, how much she suffered for  guarding and transmitting it,  how much pain she had taken  in the course of history to adapt it in each generation. For him, the history of a particular Church, which is the history of her faith and its transmission, is portion of the universal Church and it is not a separate history. It is only through an understanding of the history of different particular Churches; we can have an integrated and universal picture of the history of Church and her identity.  So in this perspective, Placid Podipara analyzes the history of different Churches and their inter relations: the history of St. Thomas Christians, their relation with Chaldean Church and Latin Church.[2]

Apostolic identity as être ecclesial

st-thomasFor Placid Podipara the apostolic identity is the être (essence or nucleus) of the Church. It is from this être all other elements originate.[3]  For him, the better understanding of the identity consists in the comprehension of the apostolic tradition of the Church. The apostolic tradition is the transmission of the message of Christ that is accomplished since the origins of Christianity by preaching and testimony of the apostles and their successors. Placid Podipara holds the view that the apostolic identity of a Church originate from the Christ himself, head of the apostles and Church. The identity of the particular Church rests on her apostolic foundation. So the ecclesial identity is basically apostolic. “Through its apostolicity the Church is conformed to Christ, who is the only true head of the Church.”[4] For Placid Podipara, we cannot limit this apostolic identity into unique liturgical practices or in her proper rights and observations. This apostolic identity concerns all the aspects of her life such as ecclesial traditions, liturgy, spirituality, discipline, etc.  By analyzing different traditions and historical continuity of the St. Thomas Christians Placid Podipara is firmly convinced that the être of a particular Church is none other than its apostolic faith.[5] The identity of the particular Church is different from local church and the first one should not be limited into its liturgical practices and proper rights.

The être of each particular Church belongs to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It is not something separated or distinct from the common apostolic faith. “The ecclesial identity of a Church is vested in the tradition which comes from the apostles through the Fathers and which is part of divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church.”[6] In the ecclesial perspective of Placid Podipara the apostolic tradition of a particular Church is not only the history of its origin but it is the source of all her life. It is intimately related and non separable from the Gospel. It is the source from which the identity and all her life are rooted in the continuity of time. “The deeply rooted apostolic tradition is the key factor in the individuality consciousness of the Thomas Christians. It serves as a living symbol of the unbreakable link between the apostle and the present day community.” [7]

Thus, Placid Podipara present the Tradition Apostolic as the être of the Church and at the same time it is the source of her historical continuity because it is deeply rooted in the proclamation and transmission of Gospel through the apostolic succession. In this perspective we can say also the Apostolic Tradition and its historical continuity is pneumatological action because it is through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit her transmission is made possible through the passing of time and generation.

Specific and universal dimension of Apostolic Tradition

jesus-and-disciplesIn the writings of Placid Podipara, the double dimension of unique apostolic tradition is evident: specific and universal dimension. Even though each apostolic tradition in the catholic communion is rooted in the unique risen experience and all the particular Churches have the same faith, same sacraments and same apostolic authority, she lives it in different ways. That means the same faith is lived and expressed in different ways. So the apostolicity justifies the diversity in the faith expressions.[8] There is no individual faith experience and faith expression outside the apostles Risen Christ experience. But the ways to live it and express it can be differ according to the culture and context. It does not mean there is difference in the faith and sacraments. So Placid Podipara affirms clearly that “…collegiality and individuality should go hand in hand, when we consider the apostolicity of the Church.”[9] By analyzing the historical context of St. Thomas Christians Placid Podipara affirm this interdependent relation. “They (St. Thomas Christians) did not consider themselves an independent Church or a Church separate from Rome. They believed in the Roman primacy (…) though they had no occasion to enter into relations with Rome. Their liturgical and other books brought down from Mesopotomia contained classical passages that in most clear terms affirmed the divinely instituted primacy of St. Peter.”[10] So for him there is interdependence between the different apostolic traditions which is rooted in the Gospel.   So if one particular Church accepts and recognizes the apostolicity of another particular Church, she recognizes herself, as originated from the unique source: Risen Christ experience and Gospel transmitted through the apostolic communion. The recognition of the proper apostolic identity itself is the recognition of the catholicity of her faith.

Fidelity towards the Apostolic Faith

icon-of-st-thomas-believingOne of the important tasks which Placid Podipara took up in his writings is to affirm the necessity to keep intact fidelity towards the Apostolic Tradition. He considers the fidelity towards the apostolicity as the source of her catholic belongingness and the credible transmission of unique faith.

Apostolicity signifies ‘the identity of Christian faith and practice of the present Church with the Church of the Apostles’. Podipara realizes the Christ-event as a gift of God once for all, which has a historical and eschatological dimension, that Jesus handed over through his apostles. According to him apostolicity refers to the continuity of Jesus’ mission through the apostles, until the end of the world.[11] It is the apostolicity which guaranties the transmission of Gospel and the ecclesial traditions. “Apostolicity deals with the transmission and preservation of the whole ecclesial tradition in an apostolic Church which extends both to the historical and eschatological direction.”[12] Placid Podipara clearly hold the view that the life a Church depends up on her fidelity towards the apostolic experience of Risen Christ. It is because of this fidelity towards the apostolicity which demands each particular Church to proclaim what they have received with their own specificities. “Though faith is one and the same, it could be expressed in several ways: it is too deep to be expressed in one way alone. Therefore, there came into use several liturgies, or several ways of expressing the Rule of Faith. These ways depended on the different circumstance and accomplishment of those who gave expression to the Rule of Faith under the Magisterium of the Church.”[13]  It is in this perspective Placid Podipara says that the fidelity towards the apostolicity in the catholic communion leads towards the individuality of each Church, in their liturgy, spirituality, culture, discipline. All the specificities are related to the apostolicity in its historical continuity and it cannot be reduced to a single element such as apostolic succession or liturgical life, but it includes the total life of the Church.  So the fidelity towards the apostolicity becomes the decisive criteria for the authenticity of the Church, her faith, her diversity and in one word the totality of her life.

Apostolicity and missionary nature

The fidelity towards the apostolicity is the nucleus of the missionary nature of the Church.  Through the analyses of the theological works of Placid Podipara, we can assure that he implies historical method or historical analyses to prove this missionary nature handed over through the time. He says that “by preserving the leaven of faith the Thomas Christians were slowly leavening the mass around them.”[14] In this background Placid Podipara invites us to understand the missionary perspective of the St. Thomas Christians not as organized missionary work but as giving importance ‘for preserving their apostolic faith.[15] “Their approach consisted in communicating the living faith from a believing community to another community that it may form and develop into a community of living faith.”[16] Because of the historical context and dominance of the other churches “much of the time and energy of the community was spent for self defense and protection of its own identity and individuality.”[17] But in the midst of the non-Christians they preserved and practiced their faith giving testimony to Christ is the greatest mission work they did in the past.[18]

Placid Podipara by taking a historical orientation in his writings tries to uphold the view that for the St. Thomas Christians the mission is the existence of their Church and the preservation of her identity. The mission for a Church it is firstly an ecclesial act which is the transmission of its apostolic faith it includes the totality of her life. So the mission is the être of the Church is absolutely related with her apostolicity. To be faithful towards once own apostolic identity means to be faithful towards the mission entrusted to her. Placid Podipara in his work, Hindu in culture, Christian in religion, Oriental in worship, published on 1969 express this synthesis of mission which includes the total life of the Church, her faith (lex credenti) her prayer (lex orandi) and her life (lex vivendi). The mission of the Church includes the totality of these three aspects and According to Placid Podipara “Church is a believing community, it is also a praying and worshiping community. The worship of the Church and her belief are mutually related. It is the Church who believes and prayers. It is in the prayer that faith is expressed, lived and transmitted.”[19] It is in this optic Placid Podipara establish the relation between the mission and life of the Church.

st-thomas-azhikode-kodungallur-landingFor Placid Podipara authenticity of one Church depends up on its apostolic origin and fidelity towards the Christ event transmitted through the apostles. “Each of the early Church was the result of the interaction between the Gospel message preached by the Apostles and the cultural milieu that received the same.”[20] Her mission is always the transmission of this apostolicity with her own liturgical, spiritual, cultural and disciplinary identities. The mission of the Church is intimately related with the mission of apostles which Christ has transmitted to them and ‘the apostles mission (Mt 28) by the token of which the entire humanity is called to enter into one communion.”[21] The apostolic heritage of one Church guarantees the mission he has received and the dynamism to live in the name of Christ. The mission which is apostolicity itself is initially and originally subsists in a permanent manner in each particular Church.

The continuity of the apostolic tradition for a Church depends not only in the faithful preservation of that heritage but also its transmission through the passing of time and culture. Preservation and transmission of the apostolic heritage is the center of mission which all Churches have received from Christ through the apostles. So Placid Podipara says “…building  up our true identity is the first necessary step in making others accept our claim to be an alternative form of catholicity that would enrich the common heritage.”[22] This mission consists in preserving the liturgical traditions because it is the “motivating factor for mission by providing both the content and context of mission.”[23] It is in this perspective the Vatican II affirms “the liturgy is the submit towards which the action of the Church is tending, and at the same time, it is the source from which all her strength flows out.”(SC 10). For Placid Podipara “the liturgy is like strong tree, the beauty of which comes from the continual renewal of its foliage, but the vigour of which is attested to the antiquity (apostolicity) which puts strong and deep roots down in to the earth.”[24] The transmission of unique faith through different apostolic liturgical traditions manifests the vitality and communion of the Church. So for Placid Podipara ‘each liturgical community is the basis of mission and evangelization.’[25] The mission of the Church is also the transmission of her faith in a given culture. It is not by keeping  a distance to once own proper apostolic tradition and once own culture one Church engage in the transmission of faith but it is by safeguarding the reciprocity between these two. Each Church should respond to the mission mandate of Jesus (Mt 28, 19) by respecting the authenticity of the apostolic faith and the proper culture.


The central theme in the ecclesiology of Placid Podipara is the apostolicity. All of his theological works exhibits this central theme and explain its different perspectives. To make this central theme more clearer Placid Podipara always uses a historical approach because for him the history of the Church is the history of her faith and the history of her mission. Fr. Placid Podipara, as indicated, was historian, canonist, theologian, ecumenist and liturgist. So he presents through different articles and books the comprehensive view of the ecclesial apostolic traditions which is expressed through liturgy, spirituality, discipline and culture.

When we take apostolicity as the key point to understand the ecclesiological vision of Placid Podipara it brings to light several aspects of an Apostolic Church. The main orientation which we have taken is the mission which is integrated in the notion of apostolicity. Mission is an undivided part of the apostolicity which is to be transmitted through the liturgical, spiritual, disciplinary and cultural aspects of the Church. It is possible through the faithful transmission of apostolic tradition which is the être of all Churches. Placid Podipara had this conviction and because of this vision he proposed a historical method through which all these elements can be understood by the future generation.

[1] Xavier KOODAPUZHA, “The ecclesial vision of Fr. Placid J. Podipara”, in Varghese Pathikulangara (ed)., Placidachan, Kottayam, Denha service, 1995, p. 231.

[2] Cf. Thomas KALAYIL, Collected works of Rev. Dr. Placid J. Podipara CMI (1899-1985), Vol. I,  Dr. Placid’s writings on the history of the St. Thomas Christians of India, Mannanam, Sanjos Pub. 2007, 1119p. (this collected work is cited now onwards CWPP)

[3] “The Law of Thomas as the reflection, the icon of the very faith experience of and expression in its totality of Thomas Christians in India. It is manifested through the liturgical, spiritual, theological, disciplinary and cultural patrimony of this Apostolic Church”. Prasanna VAZHEPARAMBIL, “The Thoma Marga: Icon of the Indo-oriental identity of Thomas Christians of India”, in Christian Orient, 15(1/1994), p. 22.

[4] E. R. HAMBYE, Dimensions of Eastern Christianity, Kottayam, OIRSI, 1983, p. 23.

[5] « All the Church have to trace their origin to the apostolic experience of the Risen Lord. The experience of the Risen Lord, presented by the different NT writers, reflects the Christ-experience of the respective individual churches whom they represent. The Christ experience represented by each NT writing has an individuality of its own which is in its turn shows that the Church which is represented by it has its individuality which distinguishes it from the others”. Mathew VELLANICKAL, “Biblico-Theological foundations of ecclesial identity”, in Thomas Velliamthadam (ed.), Ecclesial identity of Thomas Christians, Kottayam, OIRSI, 1985, p. 54.

[6] CWPP,1, p. 266

[7] CWPP, II, p. 555. « we are Syrians from the time of the Apostle St. Thomas who was in our country and gave us the treasure the holy faith, we have been until today, without any break, performing our ecclesiastical ceremonies and practices in this tradition.” From Varthamanapusthkam, in the translation of Placid Podipara, cf. CWPP, 1, p. 516. 

[8] Cf. CWPP, II, p. 533.

[9] CWPP, 1, p. 255. 

[10] CWPP, 1, p. 63.

[11] Johnson VADAKKUMCHERRY, Placid Podipara’s vision of the Church, ‘Hindu in culture, Christian in religion, Oriental in worship’, A Bio-Bibliographical study, Rome, Pontificium Institutum Orientale, 207, p. 186.

[12] Ibid.,  p. 187.

[13] CWPP, 1, p. 773

[14] CWPP, 1, p. 779.

[15] “Evangelization in its traditional form…almost came to an end when the Portuguese Latin jurisdiction was imposed up on them. The mode of the evangelization of the Portuguese was of a different kind. They gave importance to the number of the baptized and in the beginning many of them who wielded authority d/id not care much for the integrity of the means employed”. CWPP, 1, p. 779.

[16] Xavier KOCHUPARAMBIL, « Missiology of the Thomas Christians », In Andrews MEKKATTUKUNNEL (ed), Mar Thomas Margam, The ecclesial heritage of St. Thomas Christians, Kottayam, OIRSI, 2012, p. 168.

[17]Ibid., p. 169.

[18] CWPP, III, p. 62.

[19] CWPP, I, p. 774.

[20] CWPP, 1, p. 319.

[21] Johnson VADAKKUMCHERRY, Placid Podipara’s vision of the Church, p. 125.

[22] CWPP, 1, p. 816.

[23] CWPP, 111, p. 138.

[24] Paul VI, in Osservatore Romano, 31 October 1964, cited by Placid PODIPARA, in CWPP, III, p. 116.

[25] CWPP, III, p. 145.

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