Individual Churches: Theological Exposition on Communion Ecclesiology


Fr. Jobins Antony Alancheril

 Multiracial Hands Making a Circle

The Trinitarian vision of the Church is the basis of Communion Ecclesiology.  Ecclesial being is essentially connected with the being of God.  Being of God is communion.  God is a community of persons.  That is the reason why the Church is also a communion

The second Vatican Council celebrates its 50th birthday.  One of the major contributions of this council was communion ecclesiology.  Even though Council affirmed the relevance and importance its recognition is not that much accepted all over the church.  People, even today, ask why do we have different churches since we have same Christ, same faith, same Pope?  Do we need to celebrate sacraments differently?  Do we need to have a different church discipline?  These questions are the background and scope of this paper.


If catholic theology is to be genuine, it must take into consideration the ecclesial reality of the communion of churches and plurality of human cultures.[1] Mutual appreciation of the riches of the Western and Eastern theological traditions will result in the enrichment  and organic growth of both tradition, rather that the dominion of the one at the expense of the other so that we can have a fuller understanding of the Mystery of Christ and Church and of her teachings on faith and morals.  Pope John Paul II, promulgating the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches wrote: “The Church by God’s providence gathered in the one Spirit, breaths as though with two lungs, of the East and of the West, and burns with the love of Christ in one heart, having two ventricles”[2]. This was a historic magisterial recognition of the ecclesial reality of the Eastern and Western traditions in the catholic communion of Churches, re-iterating the need for a pluralistic approach to theology as against a monolithic approach of cultural universalism and liturgical uniformity.  So we can say that the difference in theology, liturgy, and church discipline is a fact to be admitted and appreciated in all the realms.  Today we can see a type of allergy and reluctance towards this truth of the ecclesial diversity.  This is not a fact made out of any imagination or illusion.  It has a solid foundation in bible and tradition.  So in this section I try to find out the theological foundation of the communion ecclesiology.

1.1 Biblical Understanding of the Communion Ecclesiology

When we analyse the history of Israelites it is a notable fact that there had been the kind of unity in their worship of the true God, in spite of the diversities that did exist among them[3].  The worship of Israel manifests the need to enter into communion with God[4].  The Old Testament applies to God anthropomorphic descriptions such as loving parent, considerable friend, and powerful king but still the stress is more frequently on the distance between God and man, perhaps because Old Testament writers were reacting to the cultic religion of Israel’s neighbours.  Even the biblical image of covenant (that special relationship of loving kindness between gracious lord and subjects) highlights the distance between master and the servant.  When the Old Testament does discuss by indirection the notion of communion, it stresses that mutual sharing among Yahweh’s chosen people who become a sort of corporate personality[5].

But in the New Testament we have a plenty of information which show the communion of different individual churches.  In the Acts of the Apostles the term ‘ekklesia’ is used not merely for the Jerusalem community, but for that of all Judea, Galilee and Samaria (Acts 9, 31).  In the Acts we see that the Christian community, in different places, is simply calles ‘ekklesia’ with no question of precedence or correlation.  It is clear that in the Acts it is not one Church that divides up into churches nor does the sum total of the Churches produce the Church.[6]  Pauline expressions are very clear in this matter.  Paul uses the term ‘ekklesia’ not to denote the whole church, but to mention the different ecclesial communities of that time.  So he repeatedly uses the terms like ‘churches of Asia’ (1 Cor 16,19), ‘the church of God which is at Corinth’ (1Cor 1,2; 2Cor 1,1), ‘church of Thessalonians in God’(1 Thess 1,1; 2 Thess 1,1), ‘the churches of Galatia’ (1 Cor 16,1;Gal 1,2) etc.   Paul never uses expressions like “the Corinthian Church” or “the Galatian Church”.  It means that one “Church of God” is present in the places mentioned; the Church, in its full qualitative reality, is present in every Local Church.[7]

This seems to be one of the important bases of communion among the Churches.  Whatever forms the Local church takes in terms of its concrete expressions of faith, the sacraments and the hierarchy, the reality of the Church remains the same in all the local Churches.  Hence, as the “Church of God”, they are one and share the same mystery of the Church[8].  It is very clear that ecclesial pluralism in the same territory already existed in the New Testament times.

In the New Testament itself we can find three types of Churches: (i) Churches with a strong Jewish culture that is Jerusalem Church, (ii) Churches with a combination of Jewish and Greek culture that is Antioch and (iii) Churches with pure Greek culture that is Corinth[9].  Raymond Brown in his book ‘The Churches the Apostles left behind’, states that the Churches of the New Testament times constitute “theologically” (not locally) different Local Churches, namely they have different theological approaches and emphases depending on their particular ecclesial traditions[10].  Dr. Vellanickal substantiates it with examples.  The Pastoral Epistles reflects a Church situation where the institutional structure of the Church is emphasised which is designed to preserve the apostolic heritage.  (Tit 1, 9-2, 1; 1Tim 9, 1-11)  The Epistle to the Colossians and Ephesians reflect an idealistic view of the Church, which is identified with the Body of Christ, having Christ as its head.  (Col 1, 18, 24; Eph 1, 22-33; 5, 23)  There are also differences in the stress of Lucan and Johannine ecclesiologies, where the former stress on the continuity of the Church from Israel through Jesus and Apostles, Peter and Paul (Acts 1,5-8; 2,33; 4,8-13; 10,38,44-47; 13,2-4; 15,28) and the latter’s stress is on the importance of discipleship and unity (Jn 15, 1-17; 17,9-26).  Thus, we can distinguish different ecclesial traditions, having an individuality of their own, in the New Testament, belonging to the Pauline, Petrine, Johannine and Matthean heritages.  This New Testament pluralistic ecclesial situation is a key to understand the further development of the Church as Communion of Individual Churches after the New Testament times[11] 

1.1.1 Gospel Tradition as the paradigm for the communion

evangelistsThere is only one Gospel of Jesus Christ.  But we have four gospels today.  The four gospels are four concrete expressions of the same gospel[12].  The difference of the themes presented with regard to the gospel is very clear in each gospel.  For St. Matthew gospel is “Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 4, 17) whereas for Mark gospel is “Kingdom of God” (Mk 1, 14-15).  When it comes to Luke gospel is “salvation” (Lk 2, 10-11; 4, 18-19) and for John gospel is “life” (Jn 10, 10; 20, 30-31).  It is the same gospel of life that was shares by all the four churches represents by the Gospels though they experienced and understood it in terms of ‘salvation’, ‘kingdom of God’, ‘kingdom of Heaven’[13].  Hence there was a wonderful communion between these Individual Churches represents by the four Gospels in so far as they appropriated the same Gospel.  The communion between the individual churches represented by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, possessing the same Gospel in its four different expressions could be a paradigm for the later development of the “church of God” into the present Individual Churches the communion of which we call the Church[14].

So it is very important to note that it is not so much the geographical or cultural elements that become decisive for this diversity of New Testament ecclesial traditions, but rather the differing sources of their evangelization and traditions.  Therefore the different Churches have a basic unity deriving from the same apostolic tradition common to all of them tracing back to the originating event of Christ’s life, death and resurrection.  The diversity of Churches is due to the parallel streams of the same Tradition, taking different concrete forms of traditions: kerygmatic, catechetical and liturgical[15].

1.2 Ecclesiological Foundation of Communion Ecclesiology

We have seen that the ecclesial diversity has a biblical foundation.  From the very conception of the Church we see the differences; but these differences were unified in the great mystery of the person of Jesus Christ.  Now we turn into the ecclesiology behind this unity and diversity.  The diversity of Churches shows how different contexts have shaped the Church.  They manifest the authentic way of being the Church[16].  The Churches are expressions of the Gospel becoming incarnated in the culture of the people.  Second Vatican Council gives the theological reason for this: “There are many links between the message of salvation and culture.  In his self- revelation to his people culminating in the fullness of manifestation in his incarnate son of God spoke according to the culture proper to each age”[17].  This means that the different individual Churches not only have a theology behind them, but also have their own theological methodology.  This would mean that there is pluralism in theology and theological methodology[18].

1.2.1 Second Vatican Council and Communion Ecclesiology

The ecclesiology of the Vat II is the communion ecclesiology par excellence.  The presence of the diversity of ChurchesimagesNUBIBB1E within one Church need not only to be theologically accounted for but also to be practically accepted and lived within the horizon of a broad ecclesiology.  But the Catholic Church, whose history has long been dominated by a one-sided vision of the Church determined by Latin Canon Law, came to a new awareness of the ecclesial reality with the Second Vatican Council.  The earliest narrow outlook is today replaced by a new ecclesiological vision, which recognises the Church as Communion of Churches.  The Dogmatic Constitution n the Church, Lumen gentium affirmed: By divine providence it has come about that various Churches established in diverse places by the Apostles and their successors have in the course of time coalesced into several groups, organically united, which, preserving the unity of faith and unique constitution of the universal Church, enjoy their own discipline, their own liturgical usage, their own theological and spiritual heritage.  Some of these Churches, as parent-stocks of faith, so to speak, have begotten others as daughter Churches.  With these they are connected down to our own time by a close bond of charity in their sacramental life and in their mutual respect for rights and duties[19].

This Council affirmed that the various traditions in the Catholic Church belong to the divine heritage of the Church that means these differences in no way stand against the basic unity of the Church[20].  Consequently the Council stated as follows: “For distinguished as they are by their venerable antiquity they are bright with that tradition which was handed down from the apostles through the Fathers, and which forms part of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the Universal Church”[21].  This Council strongly taught that the varieties in the ecclesial tradition in no way hinder the unity of the Church, but it reveals and manifests its unity. Council states as follows: “For it is the mind of the Catholic Church that each individual Church or rite retain its traditions whole and entire while adjusting its way of life to the various needs of time and place”[22]

1.2.2 Trinity – Source of Communion Ecclesiology

HolytrinityThe Trinitarian vision of the Church is the basis of Communion Ecclesiology.  Ecclesial being is essentially connected with the being of God.  Being of God is communion.  God is a community of persons.  That is the reason why the Church is also a communion[23].  According to Ratzinger, the divine perichoresis (that is the perpetual, dynamic intertwining and mutual interpenetration of spirit to spirit, love to love) is to function as a model for relations between churches, bishops, and believers[24].  In the Trinity the divinity exists only in person.  In like manner the universal church exists in and from the individual churches[25]. There is no autonomous, independent and separate existence of the divine nature apart from the persons.  There is no super church separate from the individual churches.  As each person in the Trinity is full in divinity, each individual church is full in its ecclesiality.  As the communion of the three persons is a new reality, Trinity, the communion of the churches is also a new reality, the universal Church.  As each person is Trinitarian each individual church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic[26].


So far we were concerned about the theological foundations of the Individual churches.  We have seen that it is theologically possible and valid to speak of the ecclesial pluralism.  We can say that the theological pluralism is the necessary result of ecclesial pluralism.  Ecclesial diversity has its root in the mission of the Church.  The diversity of the Christ-experience of the preaching and the cultural background of the people who received the Gospel message accounted for different Churches and different modes of the celebration of faith and consequently different modes of the interpretation of faith[27]

In the history of the Church there were attempts to negate the ecclesial diversity and theological differences.  There were controversies due to theological diversity.  The controversies in the name of filioque and christotokos are examples for the resentment to recognize a different theology in another Church[28].  But we cannot ignore the steps taken to appreciate the theological plurality in the Church from the ancient times onwards.  For example, when Pope Victor was prepared to excommunicate the Churches of Asia which celebrated Easter and broke fast on 14 Nisan, whether or not it was a Sunday, St. Iranaeus wrote to the Pope to dissuade him from the plan of excommunication: “Such a diversity of observance has not just arisen now, in our times, but dates from long ago, from our forefathers…they all nevertheless kept the peace, as do we, with one another; the difference in the confirms the agreement in faith”[29]

What we see in the history that both agreement and reluctance are seen with regard to the issue of ecclesial pluralism in the Catholic Church.    The Latin domination in many of the areas of ecclesial life is still evident even today.  The cry for the jurisdiction (not only in India but all over the world) of the Syro Malabar Church still continues though In theory we have “same rights and obligations, even with regard to the preaching of the Gospel to the whole world”[30].  Although the Oriental Churches emphasise personal jurisdiction, the territorial principle is still dominating the scene.  Archbishop Powathil observes like this: “The reluctance on the part of the Latin bishops is mainly (it is said), due to the fear that the parallel presence of many sui juris Churches will lead to unhealthy competition and to confusion among people”[31]

On the contrary due to the influence of Vatican II the scene has changed a lot.  Today the Malabar and Malankara Churches are approved and affirmed among the communion of Catholic Church.  We will do into some of the major incidents which echo the spirit of communion ecclesiology from the Indian ecclesial context.

2.1 The Great Event of Re-union of Malankara Church

LogoThe reunion of the Malankara church into the Catholic Church under the leadership of Mar Ivanios, who was the prophet and protagonist of the Indian ecumenical movement, on 20 September 1930 was landmark in the history of Catholic Church in India.  They were received by Bishop of Quilon, Bishop Benzinger and the presence of Bishops Lawrence Pereira of Kottar and Mar James Kalassery of Changanassery deserves special mention[32].  It was the beautiful picture of the communion ecclesiology.  We have to remember that this was a pre- Vatican event that means, even before the promulgation of the documents like OE and UR, the Indian soil witnessed the marvellous incident of ecclesial communion.

2.2 The Formation of Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India(CBCI)

imagesCGT9QB1OThis body is a clear witness and the example for the communion among the individual catholic churches of India.  It is a permanent association of catholic bishops of India.  It was constituted in September 1944.  The official website of CBCI gives us following information: Its objectives are to facilitate, co-ordinate, study and discussions of questions affecting the Church and adoption of a common policy and effective action in all matters concerning the interests of church in India.  CBCI is at service of 166 dioceses out of which 29 Syro Malabar, 8 Syro Malankara and 129 Latin dioceses.  Besides other roles and functions the CBCI Secretariat will strengthen and foster the relationship among the three Sui Iuris churches as communion; be a co-ordinating body for common programme of inter ritual and supra – ritual character involving the three Episcopal bodies at national level[33].  So it is clear that this organisation foster and accelerates the communion ecclesiology.

2.3 Inauguration of the St.Thomas Apostolic Seminary

It has been a long standing desire for a formation centre for the future pastors of the Syro Malabar Church.  The starting untitled4of St.Thomas Apostolic Seminary at Vadavathoor in July 1962 and Paurasthya Vidyapitham in 1983 were the fulfilment of this desire[34].  It was not simply a matter of allowing a formation centre but through this the Syro Malabar Church had been honoured and recognised as an individual church in the catholic communion and it can be the manifestation of the communion ecclesiology.

2.4 Kerala Catholic Bishop’s Council (KCBC)

untitled3KCBC was constituted in 1954 as the regional Council of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India.  It is the permanent association of the three rites of the Church in Kerala.  The objectives are clear as in the case of CBCI that KCBC is at the service to strengthen the relationship among the three churches Sui Iuris as communion.  The statutes of KCBC are to have a special mention.  The statutes say: “ The Council shall in no way limit, prejudice or interfere with the distinctive character of particular rites in respect of their liturgy, ecclesiastical discipline and spiritual patrimony, such matters being subjected to competent authority of particular rite concerned”[35]

2.5 Elevation of Malabar and Malankara Churches as Major Archiepiscopal Churches

These events are the clear manifestation of the communion ecclesiology.  The Syro Malabar Church was raised to the status of a major archiepiscopal church on 16 December 1992 and Syro Malankara Church on 10 February 2005[36].  These incidents are having high theological relevance and significance because it was official declaration and approval from the part of Rome with regard to the ‘individuality’ of these churches.  It adds much to the communion ecclesiology.


In this section I don’t try for a detailed exposition, rather, to have some practical suggestions under three headings.

3.1 Scope for the co-operation

There are numerous areas for working together that will foster the fellowship among the churches of catholic communion.

  1. Intervention in the matters which affects the society in common such as politics, education, ecology etc.
  2. Conduct the programmes that can nourish the ecclesial communion and fraternity.  Bible conventions, Christmas celebrations, biblical studies are some of the examples in this regard.
  3. Eucharistic celebration of one church Sui Iuris can be arranged in the parishes of other churches Sui Iuris especially in connection with the parish feasts.  It will help the faithful know each other about the liturgical traditions and spiritual patrimony.

3.2 Catechetical necessity of Communion Ecclesiology

This is an important area which is to be developed and flourished.  We have already attained some goals in this respect since catechism texts were formulated for each individual churches.  But it should not be stopped by that.  These catechetical programmes should be continued for the adults and also in the parish and family level.  In the homilies and other exhortations especially in the family units the theology of individual churches should be taught and instructed.  The faithful should be formed and exhorted to value one’s own ecclesial heritage and the necessity to be faithful to its traditions as well as to respect other churches’ traditions.

3.3 Formation of Future Priests and Communion Ecclesiology

This is an area that can be worked out properly.  In a multi ecclesial context this would demand special formative efforts.  Priestly formation is of paramount importance in the Church.  The future priests should be addressed the rich traditions and heritages every church Sui Iuris and they should be competent enough to integrate themselves to the life patterns according to one’s own ecclesial traditions.  Pastoral plans should be arranged and conducted according to the theology of individual churches.  In the seminaries and theological faculties importance should be given to teach the various liturgical and patristic traditions of the whole Catholic Church. The words of Archbishop Powathil are note worthy: “Since this initiation into a specific tradition of faith and living, formation will have to attend to specificities.  It must be suited to the particular tradition…Today’s seminarian is tomorrow’s priest and bishop.  Therefore the ecclesial formation of the seminarians of the Oriental Churches of India is the only means to create a leadership in these Churches which will be effective in building up a truly Christian people living out their genuine life of the Church”[37].


Today ecclesiology is in a stage of transition.  The awareness of the communion ecclesiology is budding. The faithful in the Church is yet to be aware of the need and relevance of the individual churches.  The ample formation both for the priests (including the future priests) and laity will help to flourish the communion ecclesiology.  It is a proud matter that even before the Vatican II; the Indian Church had taken many steps in view of a bloomed communion ecclesiology.  Still, we need to go further in this regard.  It is a living reality that Catholic Church in India is a communion of three individual Sui Iuris Churches.  If this is an ecclesial reality, the faithful should be tuned to foster this ecclesial consciousness and to lead their ecclesial life according to this reality in all levels.

[1] D.VECHOOR,” The ‘faith lived’ of the Syro Malabar Church: A study of the Moral Vision, Moral Life and Moral Formation of the Syro Malabar Church,” Christian Orient xxxiv/3 (2013) 97.

[2] John Paul II, “Apostolic Constitution Sacri Canones”, Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium (1990) xiv.

[3] M. VELLANICKAL,”Theology of Individual Churches” in A.MEKKATTUKUNNEL ed., Mar Thoma Margam : The Ecclesial Heritage of the St. Thomas Christians (Vadavathoor,2012)34.

[4] M.VELLANICKAL, Church: Communion of Individual Churches Biblico- Theological Perspectives on the Communion Ecclesiology of Vatican II (Mumbai, 2009) 88.

[5] M.A FAHEY S.J,” Ecclesial Community as Communion,” Jurist xxxvi (1976) 11.

[6]M.VELLANICKAL,” Biblical Theology of the Individual Churches,” Christian Orient 1 (1980) 6.

[7] VELLANICKAL, Church: Communion of Individual Churches, 111.

[8] VELLANICKAL, Church: Communion of Individual Churches, 111.

[9] G.KARAKUNNEL,”Theology in the Life of the Syro Malabar Church: A Search for Orientation” in M. MANAKATT & J.PUTHENVEETTIL eds.,Syro- Malabar Theology in Context (Vadavathoor,2007)41.

[10] VELLANICKAL, Church: Communion of Individual Churches, 117.

[11] VELLANICKAL, Church: Communion of Individual Churches, 118.

[12] M.VELLANICKAL,”Communion of Churches: A Biblical Perspective” in X. KOODAPUZHA ed., Communion of Churches (Vadavathoor, 1993)36.

[13] VELLANICKAL, Church: Communion of Individual Churches, 120.

[14] VELLANICKAL,”Communion of Churches”, 36.

[15] VELLANICKAL,”Theology of Individual Churches”, 36.

[16] KARAKUNNEL,”Theology in the Life of the Syro Malabar Church”, 42.

[17] Gadium et Spes 58.

[18] G.KARAKUNNEL,”Theology in the Life of the Syro Malabar Church”, 42.

[19] Lumen Gentium 23.

[20] X,KOODAPUZHA”Ecclesial Identity of the St.Thomas Christians” in X. KOODAPUZHA ed.,Oriental Churches: Theological Dimensions (Vadavathoor, 1988)58.

[21] Orientalium Ecclesiarum 1.

[22] Orientalium Ecclesiarum 2.

[23] J,KALLARANGATT ”Communion Ecclesiology in the Light of the Second Vatican Council” in X. KOODAPUZHA ed., Communion of Churches (Vadavathoor, 1993)86.

[24] M.VOLF, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Cambridge, 1998)71.

[25] Lumen Gentium 23.

[26] J, KALLARANGATT ”Communion Ecclesiology”, 87.

[27] P. MANIYATTU,”Sources of the Syro Malabar Theology” in M. MANAKATT & J.PUTHENVEETTIL eds., Syro- Malabar Theology in Context (Vadavathoor,2007)93.

[28] P. MANIYATTU,”Sources of the Syro Malabar Theology”, 93.

[29] L. ARANGASSERY, A Handbook on Catholic Eastern Churches (Changanassery, 1999) 30.

[30] Orientalium Ecclesiarum 3.

[31] T.JOSE – J.LEENA, Sabhayeprathi (Changanassery, 2007)108.

[32] X.KOODAPUZHA, Christianity in India (Kottayam, 1998) 164.

[33] (access 10.12.2013).

[34] J.PALLIKAPARAMPIL,”The Mar Thoma Margam and the St Thomas Apostolic Seminary, Vadavathoor” in A.MEKKATTUKUNNEL ed., Mar Thoma Margam : The Ecclesial Heritage of the St. Thomas Christians (Vadavathoor,2012)984.

[36] P.PALLATH, The Catholic Church In India (Rome, 2005)142,181.

[37] J.POWATHIL,”Ecclesial Formation according to the Oriental Traditions” in X. KOODAPUZHA ed., Oriental Churches: Theological Dimensions (Vadavathoor, 1988)87,95.

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