The Church as the Communion of Individual Churches: Theological and Pastoral Challenges



The Church as the Communion of Individual Churches:

Theological and Pastoral Challenges


Rev. Dr. Malpan Mathew Vellanickal



The term ‘Individual Churches’ is used to refer to the ‘Ritual Churches’ precisely because these Churches have an ‘individuality’ of their own, distinct from other Churches, in terms of their faith expressions, namely, liturgy, theology, spirituality and ecclesiastical discipline.


The twentieth century has borne witness to a revolutionary change in Ecclesiology. The Church as Communion, which has been one of the significant concepts of the different Ecclesial denominations in the East, has gained a new vigour in Catholic Ecclesiology. This is certainly the result of ecclesiological reflection during and after the 2nd Vatican Council. It has its repercussions in the different areas of the life of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in India also contributed to the development of this ‘communion Ecclesiology’, specially in the context of dialogue in inter-ecclesial relationships. Very Rev. Fr. Xavier Koodapuzha has also substantially contributed to this development of ecclesiology in India. So I am glad to present in this paper some important aspects of this Communion Ecclesiology and the consequent theological and pastoral Challenges.

 1. Clarification of Terms: Local, Individual and Particular Churches

Vatican II is not consistent in using these terms in its documents. Particular Church appears very often and usually designates a diocese. It is also used to refer to the Churches in the same region or culture (AG 22) and to refer to rites or the Individual Churches (OE 2-4, 10,16,19). ‘Local Church’ is also used of dioceses (AG 19,27). Local congregations gathered for the Eucharist are also said to be ‘Churches’ (LG 26,28). The inconsistency in the conciliar vocabulary and the usage of the term in the Code of Canon Law makes the choice of a regular terminology difficult and arbitrary. There is unending controversy and discussion among the theologians regarding the preference of one term to the others.[1] The theological reflections and discussions in India succeeded in arriving at a consistent use of terminology in this regard.

‘Local Church’ is a generic term which can be applied to any realization of the Church at a given place (locus) such as in a house, town, region, state, nation or continent. Thus we can speak of the Indian Church, Asian Church, Kerala Church etc. The term ‘Local Church’ can thus be applied to both ‘Particular Churches’ and ‘Individual Churches’.

The ‘Individual Church’ results from the realization or incarnation of the apostolic Christ-experience in a people, taking a specific form of life, worship, liturgy, spirituality and ecclesiastical discipline. It is also called a ‘Rite’. The Canonical Code of the Oriental Churches (CCEO) uses the term ‘Sui Juris Churches’ instead of ‘Individual Churches’.[2] The Canonists found it difficult to accept this term, because of the philosophical and sociological implications of the term ‘individual’.[3] However, there are Canonists who admit the suitability of this term to indicate the different ‘Rites’.[4] This term is used to refer to the ‘Ritual Churches’ precisely because these Churches have an ‘individuality’ of their own, distinct from other Churches, in terms of their faith expressions, namely, liturgy, theology, spirituality and ecclesiastical discipline. So it is a theological designation rather than philosophical or juridical one. Therefore it is quite appropriate to call the ‘Ritual Churches’ ‘Individual Churches’.[5]

‘Particular Church’ is the eparchial unit of an ‘Individual Church’ under the leadership of a hiearch of its own. Since the Individual Church is divided into different dioceses for the sake of a better administration, being, in a sense, parts of the whole Church, it is suitable to designate them as Particular Churches. In the Vatican II documents also the term ‘Particular Church’ is applied to the diocese (CD 11,23,28,36).

2. Individual Churches rather than Rites

The term ‘rite’ is not an appropriate term to designate the reality of the Church. The Catholic Church is the Communion of the different Individual Churches which are united in the same faith, same sacraments and same hierarchy, but are different in their liturgical, spiritual, theological and disciplinary tradition. The liturgy is the celebration of the faith tradition of a Church, while theology is its interpretation. Spirituality is the particular way of living the faith tradition of a Church, while discipline is the sum-total of the norms to be followed by the members of that Church individually and collectively for the building up of the community. This particular total heritage of a Church cannot and should not be reduced to a rite. A rite in itself is something of an external and superficial nature. The Oriental Churches are entirely unfamiliar with the designation of a Church as rite, since the term rite does not convey the above mentioned essential ecclesial aspects of a Church. Hence the Churches are never viewed as rites by the Easterners.

This will introduce us also to the problem of ecclesiology that developed in the Catholic Church in the post- Vatican II period. Before the 2nd Vatican Council the Latin Church was considered as the Universal Church. The Oriental Churches were considered as representatives of different liturgical traditions and canonical disciplines, which are to be accommodated and protected within the Latin Church in the eventual reunion then envisaged. The promises of Pope Leo IX, of Celestin III and the declaration made in the Councils of Lyon II, Florence etc are good instances to clarify the point.[6]

Even in the documents of Vat. II, though the term ‘rite’ is used with varied meanings, it is sometimes identified with the Church: “That Church Holy and Catholic, which is the mystical body of Christ, is made up of the faithful who are organically united in the Holy Spirit, through the same faith, the same sacraments, and the same government and who, combining into various groups held together by a Hierarchy, form particular Churches or Rites” (OE 2). It is the historical vicissitudes of the Western ecclesiastical world that created a situation to apply the term ‘rite’ to the other Churches. From the early centuries the Church of Rome had been spreading mainly in the West and set an almost uniform pattern of ecclesial life through a long process of centralization. The liturgy, theology, spirituality, discipline and administrative system of the Roman or Latin Church became identified with the Catholic ecclesial life to be followed everywhere. In such a situation, the diversity in the Catholic Church was considered possible only in externals, which does not necessarily imply the richer and deeper dimensions of ecclesial life.[7]

On the other hand, for the Orientals, the Catholic Church is the Communion of the different Individual Churches in which the divine heritage of the Christian faith is enshrined. This is indicated in the document of Vat. II on the Oriental Catholic Churches: “The Catholic Church holds in high esteem the institutions of the Eastern Churches, their liturgical rites, ecclesiastical traditions and Christian way of life. 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” (OE I). For the Orientals the Catholic or Universal Church does not have concrete existence but in and through the different Individual Churches.

3. Acceptance of this Terminology in the Church

As a result of the subsequent theological discussions in the context of the inter-ecclesial dialogue in India, this terminology was accepted on the level of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI). The different documentations of the CBCI meetings and discussions give ample evidence of the acceptance of this terminology in the CBCI circles. To a great extent, it is also accepted by the ‘Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).[8] Even in the papal documents the term ‘Individual Church’ is adopted to indicate the Churches ‘sui juris’. In the letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of India, dated 28 May 1987, confirming the applicability of the teachings of Vatican II in India concerning the pastoral care of the Christian faithful of the Syro-Malabar Church outside the proper territory, he consistently makes use of the term ‘Individual Church’ for the ‘Rites’.[9]

4. Development of the Theology of Individual Churches

The development in ecclesiology that took place in the Church of India after the All India Seminar in Bangalore in 1969, All India Consultation on Evangelization in Patna in 1973 and the CBCI meeting in Calcutta in 1974, was along the lines of the theology of the Church as a Communion of Individual Churches.[10] This is quite understandable, because most of the discussions had to take into account the ecclesial pluralism of India. It is the context of interecclesial dialogue that contributed mainly to the development of the Theology of Individual Churches. In the CBCI meeting of Calcutta, the Orientation paper on Evangelization highlighted the pluralistic ecclesial context of the existence of the three Catholic Individual Churches (Latin, Malabar and Malankara) and its significance for evangelization in India. The paper showed clearly the relationship between evangelization and the authentic existence of Individual Churches. Based on the biblical analysis the paper proved that an authentic process of evangelization in India should take place in the framework of the genuine and organic growth of all the three Individual Churches of India. Subsequent to the CBCI meeting of 1974 several events took place which are of significance in this regard. On September 8,1978, Cardinal Antony Padiyara, the then Archbishop of Changanacherry, was appointed Apostolic Visitor to study the situation of the Syro-Malabar Catholic emigrants outside Kerala and suggest practical ways and means of providing adequate pastoral care for them. After the enquiry the report was submitted to the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II on January 5, 1980.

Objections were raised on the part of the Latin Hierarchy of India regarding the implementation of the suggestions proposed in the report. Therefore it was suggested that bishops belonging to the three Individual Churches present papers at the next CBCI meeting, pointing out their positions and discuss the matter. Accordingly at the CBCI meeting at Tiruchirapally in January 1982, papers were presented by Mar Joseph Powathil, Mar Cyril Malancharuvil and Archbishop Henry D’souza representing the Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara and Latin Churches respectively, highlighting their positions regarding the problems related to the right and obligation of their respective Churches for pastoral care and evangelization. Following the CBCI meeting an inter-ritual Commission was established to discuss the issues involved and find solutions. Thus a representative body of the bishops and theologians of the three Churches met at the Goregaon Seminary, Bombay, from 23rd to 26th August 1983. The representatives were the following:

Syro Malabar Church: Mar Joseph Powathil, Mar Kuriakose Kunnassery, Mar Sebastian Mankuzhikary, Frs.Matthew Vellanickal and Xavier Koodapuzha.

Syro- Malankara Church: Archbishop Benedict Mar Gregorios, Cyril Mar Baselios and Fr.Berchmans OIC

Latin Church: Archbishop Henry D’Souza, Archbishop Angelo Fernandes, Bishop Patrick D’Souza, Bishop Thumma and Frs. James Dupuis S.J, Albert Fernando S.J. and Felix Wilfred.

The discussions were centered on the ecclesiological issues and pastoral implications in the light of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. It was agreed that the equality of rights and obligations of all the three Churches regarding evangelization and pastoral care are to be accepted by all. But the representatives of the Latin Church argued that India should be considered as an exception to that general principle, since the Indian reality is different from elsewhere, and that the coexistence of the Oriental and Latin Churches in the same place would lead to confusion and division. But the Orientals pointed out that the Indian reality is deeply rooted in diversity of cultures, customs and religious traditions etc. and therefore is prepared to accept ecclesial diversity in unity.

Meanwhile correspondence was going on between Rome and the three Churches in India favouring or objecting the implementation of the principles agreed upon by the inter-ecclesial Commission for dialogue. In October 1985 the representatives of the three Churches of India presented this problem in the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome and it became decisive for taking further steps in this matter. On Feb 1, 1986, on the very first day of his visit to India, Pope John Paul II, in his speech at Delhi, gave an assurance regarding the proper implementation of the Council directives regarding the inter-ecclesial problems in India.

Later, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the Bishops of India, dated 28th May 1987 in which he stated the following:-

  1. All the three Individual Churches in India have the right to establish episcopal bodies in accordance with their own ecclesiastical legislation.
  2. The Catholic Bishops of India should organize and coordinate the missionary work in the country respecting the equal rights and obligations of all the three Individual Churches for evangelization (OE 3).
  3. The Latin Ordinaries are to provide for an adequate pastoral care of the faithful of Eastern Rites in their dioceses (OE 4).
  4. Where circumstances would so indicate, the Apostolic See will establish a proper hierarchy for the faithful of Eastern Rites (OE 4).
  5. Given the number of Catholics of the Syro-Malabar Rite in the Bombay-Pune region of India, the situation is considered as mature enough for the establishment of an Eparchy of the Syro-Malabar Rite.

In this letter, the Holy Father states explicitly that the mystery of the Universal Church is constituted by the Rites (Individual Churches) which makes up her variety in unity.[11] Soon after this letter, on April 30,1988, the Diocese of Kalyan was erected for the Syro-Malabar immigrants residing in the Latin dioceses of Bombay, Pune and Nasik. Later in response to the letter of Cardinal Simon Pimenta, Archbishop of Bombay, concerning a group of faithful of Kalyan Diocese who requested permission to maintain their membership in the Archdiocese of Bombay, Cardinal Sodano, the Secretary of State wrote on 31st January 1991 recalling the words of OE 2, that the variety of the Individual Churches within the Catholic Church in no way harms her unity but rather manifests it.[12]

It is the recognition of the Theology of the Individual Churches by the Universal Church that is manifested in the development that followed in the Syro-Malabar and Malankara Churches. The constitution of the Major Archiepiscopate of Ernakulam – Angamaly together with the upgrading of the Syro-Malabar Church as a Major Archiepiscopal Church on 16th December 1992; the erection of the Eparchy of St.Thomas the Apostle of Chicago of the Syro-Malabarians in the United States of North America, dated 16th February 2001; the constitution of the Syro-Malankara Church as a Major Archiepiscopal Church on.Feb.10, 2005 are all clear indications that the Theology of the Church as Communion of Individual Churches, developed in the context of Inter-ecclesial dialogue in India, has been accepted internationally on the level of the Universal Church.

5. Church as Communion

Out of the different images of the Church, Communion is the one that highlights the inner reality and the true nature of the Church. The fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit, the manifestation of the Father’s love in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, is the gift towards which the whole economy of salvation tends.

Out of the different images of the Church, Communion is the one that highlights the inner reality and the true nature of the Church. The fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit, the manifestation of the Father’s love in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, is the gift towards which the whole economy of salvation tends. The Church is the Sacrament of this gift. It has its anticipations in the Old Testament in terms of worship and covenant, and its various descriptions in the New Testament. Out of all the New Testament descriptions, the most important one is that of John presenting it as an experience of mutual abiding and love relationship in God, in Jesus Christ and with one another. The ecclesial communion is three dimensional: Trinitarian, sacramental (Eucharistic) and anthropological. The three visible elements of the ecclesial communion are the profession of faith, fraternal charity and the celebration of the Eucharist to which correspond the threefold ministry of the Word, namely, teaching, shepherding and sanctifying.[13]

6. Local and Individual Churches in the New Testament

Investigations into the Church situations and into the usages of the terms referring to them show that the Christian community took the name ‘the Church of God’ inspired by “the Church of the Lord”, i.e., the Old Testament assembly of the People of God in the desert. This term was applied equally to the Jewish and the Gentile Christian communities. Though the Church is identified by means of a local reference, emphasis is more on the people rather than on the place. The concept of the ‘Local Church’ in the New Testament times is equivocal rather than univocal. However, it is evident that it is the interaction between the Gospel and the people of different socio-religious and cultural background which resulted in the different Local Churches. It is the individuality of the concrete expressions of faith that differentiates one Local Church from another. Hence we call the Local Churches as Individual Churches.

The New Testament bears testimony to the existence of distinct Ecclesial Traditions which exist in mutual communion. Thus we can distinguish in the New Testament, different ecclesial traditions, having an individuality of their own.[14] We can very well point to the Pauline, Petrine, Johannine and Matthean heritages. It is not so much the geographical or cultural elements that became decisive for this diversity of the 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 the life, death and the resurrection of Christ. The Individual Churches are often known by their liturgical traditions, because the liturgical rites are one of the most explicitly differentiating elements of the Churches. This is quite understandable because Liturgy is the most sublime expression of the faith of the Church. It is also in accordance with the New Testament data where the Christians identified themselves as ‘the Church’, precisely in their act of coming together to celebrate the Liturgy and the Eucharist.

7. Apostolic Christ-Experience and the Individuality of Ecclesial  Traditions

The Individual Churches, born of the apostolic proclamation of the Word, develop different forms of Catechetical methods, Theological reflections, Spiritualities, Disciplines and Liturgies which differentiate the Individual Churches from one another.

It is the process of evangelization that is decisive for the existence of the Church and therefore, all the Individual Churches have to be traced back to the ministry of the unique witness of the Apostles as their origin. This unique witness goes back to their living encounter with the Risen Christ and their experience of Him. This apostolic ministry is called the ministry of the Word. The most decisive element of the Individual Church is the sharing of the apostolic Christ-experience through the proclamation of the Word made relevant to the concrete situation in the lives, religious needs, aspirations and the struggles of the people. This ministry of the Word is carried out in the Church mainly in four ways: 1. receiving the Word through the apostolic teaching, which builds up the Church as a believing community; 2. living the Word through the apostolic ministry of shepherding, which builds up the Church as a sharing community; 3. celebrating the Word through the apostolic ministry of presiding over the liturgical and Eucharistic assembly, building up the Church as a worshipping community; 4. proclaiming the Word through the lives, words and deeds of the members of the community as an evangelizing community. These four different ways in which the ministry of the Word is carried out in the Church, constitute the basis of the diversification of the Individual Churches. Thus the Individual Churches, born of the apostolic proclamation of the Word, develop different forms of Catechetical methods, Theological reflections, Spiritualities, Disciplines and Liturgies which differentiate the Individual Churches from one another.

Therefore, the generative principles of the Individual Churches are the Word or the Gospel of Christ, the apostolic ministry, the Eucharist, the fellowship of love, the redemptive mission in and to the world and the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. These divinely bestowed principles are generative of the Individual Churches only as received and appropriated in faith, hope, love, communion and the mission of the concrete groups of men and women. This introduces locality or individuality as the counter-part of the genesis of the Church. The Liturgy is the most important way in which the Church expresses her faith. This is the reason why the different Individual Churches are mainly characterized by their Liturgies. However, there are other elements such as Catechesis, Spirituality and Discipline which all together constitute the ‘Individual Church’.[15]

8. Individual Church and Universal Church

As regards the Universal Church, there is no Apostolic Tradition in the abstract but as contained in the existing Individual Ecclesial Traditions. Hence a Christian can authentically proclaim the Word only within a concrete ecclesial tradition. The original apostolic Christ-experience is decisive also for the growth of an Individual Church. Since the apostolic Christ-experience or the Word remains a constituent of every Individual Church, the growth of an Individual Church, to be authentic, should be in harmony with those expressions of faith, through which the apostolic Christ-experience is handed down to the Church.

 An Individual Church is the true representation of the one Church in that place. It is wholly the Church, but not the whole Church. The Church is Universal only by being Individual and in communion with the other Individual Churches throughout the world.

Though the Church as an embodiment of the Word or the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, is spiritual in its nature, it is visible, hierarchical and sacramental. It can take any structure or institutional set-up, provided it does not go against its nature as the Church of God in which the enduring reality of the saving act, which God accomplished in Jesus Christ, is present. Jesus Christ, who was present among the Twelve, is now present in the Church through His Spirit. He is the animator of the Church, and who gives life to the traditions of the Individual Churches and to the communion among them. The Spirit gives to the Church a unity which can absorb differences without obliterating them, and a universality that is always concrete.

The Communion Ecclesiology is based on the Trinitarian vision of God. God is a community of Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the Trinity, the diversity exists only in persons. Similarly, the Universal Church exists in and through the Individual Churches. There is no super God apart from the three Persons. In the same way, there is no super Church apart from the Individual Churches. As each Person in the Trinity is full in divinity, each Individual Church is full in ecclesiality. As each Person is Trinitarian, each Individual Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. As the communion of the three Persons is one reality, the Triune God, the communion of the Individual Churches is one reality, the Universal Church. According to the Trinitarian perichoretic principle, the Individual and the Universal Church are inside one another. An Individual Church is the true representation of the one Church in that place. It is wholly the Church, but not the whole Church. The Church is Universal only by being Individual and in communion with the other Individual Churches throughout the world.

Two New Testament terms describe this reality of the Church as Communion of Individual Churches, namely, the “Fullness of Christ” and the “Body of Christ”. Every Individual Church possesses the fullness of Christ, but is not the whole fullness of Christ. Only in the communion with the other Individual Churches can it claim to the whole fullness of Christ. In the same way, each Individual Church is the Body of Christ. However, the Body of Christ is not exhausted by one or other Individual Church, as Christ is the head of the Church, which transcends the Body.

The communion, though invisible by its nature, must be made visible through a community, in order to be a witness in the world. The visible elements of communion are Faith, the Sacraments and the Hierarchy. Fidelity to the teaching of the Apostles, the sacramental life centred on the Eucharist and the guidance and the direction of the pastoral hierarchical authority are the three visible elements of the Church as Communion. These are the same in all the Churches, though the concrete expression differs according to the different Individual Churches.

The Individual Church has a certain priority over the Universal Church, in so far as the Individual Churches are the entities in which, and the processes through which, the Church Universal comes to be.[16] However, the generative principles of ecclesiality, present in each Individual Church, are of themselves and in themselves necessarily universal. These principles and realities historically originate from the Trinitarian economy as present in history, operative in and through the Paschal Mystery. The gifts of the Gospel and the Grace given in concrete historical moments have a universal significance. Therefore, there is a priority of the Universal Church in relation to the Individual Church.[17] The particular expressions of faith in the Individual Churches constitute the heritage of the Universal Church. These expressions of faith, contributing to the individuality of a Church, should be respected in the process of change and adaptation.

Within the Catholic Communion of Churches, the Eastern Catholic Churches should be regarded as independent and equal member Churches of the one Church, acting with relative autonomy, with a different Theology, Liturgy, Spirituality and Ecclesiastical Discipline. A better appreciation of the catholicity and universality of the heritage of Christ within the Catholic Communion of Churches will result in recognizing the Eastern and Oriental Catholic Churches as autonomous Churches of equal rank, and respecting their legitimate right for pastoral care and for evangelization.

The communion between the Universal Church and the Individual Churches is rooted, not only in the same faith and baptism, but also in the Eucharist and the unity of the Episcopate. The very idea of the body of the Churches calls for the existence of a Church that is the Head of the universal communion of charity. In the same way, the unity of the episcopate involves the existence of a Bishop who is the head of the body of the College of Bishops.

9. Ministry in the Church as Communion of Individual Churches

The apostolic succession is not simply an unbroken chain in the occupation of an Episcopal See, nor is it a mere fact of sacramental validity. Rather, it is the succession of faith and its profession, because the apostolic ministry is primarily in view of the mission of the Church, namely, the ministry of the Word, which is accepted in faith. The question of jurisdiction in the Church can be tackled only within the framework of the faith expressions of the respective Individual Churches, because, the authority in the Church is given by God in view of its ministry of the Word enshrined in its faith traditions. Since the most sublime expression of the Church, as a community of faith, is its Liturgy, the liturgical Head of the Church should also be the juridical Head of the Church.

Episcopate is intimately related to apostolicity, which is an essential mark of the Church. An episcopate, that is historically traceable to the apostolic period, can function as a clear sign of apostolicity. However, apostolic succession in the Church is to be understood not exclusively in terms of a succession of persons, but primarily in terms of a succession of Christian faith. The apostolic faith is handed down by an act of transmission which is visible, historical and coextensive with the life of the Church. Such a handing down of the faith requires on the part of the Church an interpretation of it in response to the needs of the times and the demands of the people. This process of transmission of the apostolic faith resulted in diverse expressions of the same faith. Thus a treasury of such expressions came into being in the shape of Liturgies, Writings of the Fathers, Spiritualities, Theologies, Disciplines and the Life styles of the different Individual Churches. The Church possesses the apostolic succession of authority in order to keep up the apostolic succession of faith and mission. Since the episcopate is the ministry at the service of faith in the Church, it is to be exercised in this context of diversity in the unity of faith.

Strictly speaking, there can be no successors to the Twelve as such, because certain aspects of the apostleship were not transferable. Therefore, apostolic succession is a succession of the apostolic function rather than of the Apostles themselves. Apostolic function of the Twelve cannot be restricted to a Particular Church, but is related to the whole Church. Hence the bishop, by virtue of his apostolic succession, exercises a function which concerns the Universal Church, and not exclusively to the Particular Church. This function is exercised by a ‘particular’ versus ‘universal’ way, by means of Bishops’ Synods and Conferences, Major Archbishoprics and Patriarchies. The supreme example of one bishop having responsibility for the whole Church is that of the Bishop of Rome. No bishop may regard himself as the successor of the Apostles in isolation, independent of the other bishops. The sacramental nature of the ecclesial ministry and authority makes it collegial. The authority in the Church is conciliar in its source and origin – Christ Himself, and consequently should be exercised in communion with God, with the people and among the Churches.

In course of time, the structure and the exercise of authority, in the Church, have undergone a pluralistic development both in the West and in the East. The St. Thomas Christians of India also seem to have had originally an authority structure which was conciliar in nature. Their hierarchical communion with the Seleusians is an indication that the exercise of authority among them was conciliar. The fact that, the Bishops coming from the Persian Church, associated with the same St. Thomas ecclesial tradition, gave leadership to the community along with the Archdeacon, the indigenous head of the Christian community, is an expression of this conciliar nature of the exercise of authority.[18] The Church, being the embodiment of the Gospel, is ministerial in its nature. Therefore, all the members of the Church have charisms and ministries. All these charisms and ministries are intended for the building up of the Church as a believing, loving and worshipping community. Along with these charisms, we find also charisms connected with the ministry of leadership, as ordained ministry, which helps to co-ordinate all the ministries and thus to build up the Church as Communion.

10. Syro Malabar Church as an Individual Church

The constituents of the individuality of the Syro-Malabar Church are its Theology, Spirituality, Liturgy and Canonical Discipline. These are rooted in those of the Church of St. Thomas Christians and are the concrete expressions of the Christ-experience of St. Thomas, inherited by this Individual Church.

The process of evangelization is identical with the process of the formation and the growth of the Individual Churches. Only in the context of evolution of the Individual Churches will evangelization become a true reality. To fulfil the task of evangelization, an authentic growth and development of the various Individual Churches is indispensable. Therefore, optimum conditions should be maintained for their proper and organic growth. The evangelizing mission is the primary goal of all the Individual Churches. The members of each Individual Church should be aware of the importance of protecting and living their authentic ecclesial heritage, which is decisive in fulfilling their evangelizing mission.

The Syro-Malabar Church is an Individual Church tracing its origin to the Christ-experience of St. Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles. The Christ-experience of St. Thomas the Apostle as reflected in the Johannine Gospel Passages is characterized by features like ‘dying and living with Christ’ (Jn 11:1-16), ‘Jesus: the Way to the Father’ (Jn 14:5-7) and ‘faith in Jesus as the Lord and God’ (Jn 20:24-29). The constituents of the individuality of the Syro-Malabar Church are its Theology, Spirituality, Liturgy and Canonical Discipline. These are rooted in those of the Church of St. Thomas Christians and are the concrete expressions of the Christ-experience of St. Thomas, inherited by this Individual Church. As a result of the ‘Romanization’ that took place since the 16th century, many elements of the St. Thomas Christian heritage have been lost or Latinized. However, many of the elements could be traced still from the traditions and the documents available to us. In spite of the critical historical vicissitudes, through which she passed in the past twenty centuries, she always remained faithful to her apostolic heritage as an Individual Church in communion with the Universal Church.

As an Individual Church, the Syro-Malabar Church has today a God-given call and a mission to restore and preserve its ecclesial heritage and to give its members a faith formation in accordance with it. Though the Syro-Malabar Church has been given better possibilities for evangelization, as a result of the development that took place after the Second Vatican Council, she has to have a still better evangelizational thrust and methodology attuned to its Individual ecclesial heritage. Since many members of the Syro-Malabar Church have gone out of the “territorium proprium” of the Syro-Malabar Church especially to the various industrial centres of India and abroad, she has a grave responsibility to see to it that adequate provisions are made to give proper pastoral care to her immigrant faithful.

The ecclesial heritage of the St. Thomas Christians in India can and should contribute its legitimate share in the process of returning to the sources for the renewal of the Catholic Church, which was initiated by the Second Vatican Council.[19]

11. Theological and Pastoral Challenges

From the above analysis, it is clear that there had been a real development in ecclesiology in the context of the Inter-ecclesial dialogue between the three Individual Churches of India. This development was mainly along the lines of the theology of the Church as a Communion of Individual Churches. The two questions that formed the background of theological discussion in this development were that of the possibility and feasibility of evangelization by all the three Churches in India, and that of the pastoral care to be given by each of them to its own faithful all over India. These questions still remain as challenges for the members of the Syro Malabar Church.

As regards evangelization, it was carried out mostly by the Latin Church, and the Oriental Churches had been confined to certain boundaries set up by historical vicissitudes, without being able to fulfil this fundamental task according to their own ecclesial traditions. This situation is changed in principle by the development of the ecclesiological vision and by the historic intervention of Pope John Paul II through his letter of 28th May 1987. He has lifted the restrictions on the Oriental Churches in this regard and clearly stated that all the three Individual Churches in India have the same rights and obligation to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hence the two Oriental Churches too along with the Latin Church can and should take up the task of evangelization, with necessary coordination among themselves and under the guidance of the Roman Pontiff. But practical steps are to be taken by the Hierarchies of the respective Churches with the new ecclesiological vision and in mutual collaboration.

As regards the pastoral care of the emigrants of the Oriental Churches outside the proper territory the provisions are still very inadequate. The new ecclesiological vision and the intervention of the Holy Father have paved the way for future adequate arrangements, by erecting parishes and dioceses proper to each Individual Church as mentioned in OE 4. But here again it depends on the members of the hierarchies of all the Individual Churches of India to take up the new ecclesiological vision and make adequate provisions in mutual trust and collaboration. If such practical steps are taken, it will not only ensure adequate pastoral care for all the members of the Church, but also will bring into relief the Catholicity of the Church, providing a chance to the millions of India to share the Communion with the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church in more than one way.

There are also other challenges that could be mentioned such as, acceptance of the terminology of the Church as communion of Individual Churches in the international theological and ecclesiastical circles; formation of the Syro Malabar clergy, religious and laity about their Thomistic apostolic identity and heritage; growing together into an authentic liturgical unity in accordance with the East Syrian liturgical patrimony; restructuring of the theological formation in Seminaries and Religious Congregations in accordance with the oriental heritage proper to the Syro Malabar Church and fostering an authentic Christian Spirituality which is necessarily ecclesial and liturgical.    


[1] Cf. KOMONCHAK, “Ministry and the Local Church”, CTSAP 36 (1981), 56-62; H.De LUBAC, Les Eglises Particulieres dans 1’Eglise universelle, (Paris, 1977); H. LEGRAND, “The Revaluation of Local Churches: Some Theological Implications” in Concilium (1972), 53-64.

[2] For a discussion on this, Cf. A. VALIYAVILAYIL OIC, The Nature of a ‘Sui Juris‘ Church, (Dissertation) (Rome, 1992) 123-180.

[3] Cf.. G. NEDUNGATT, “The Equal Rights of the Churches in the Catholic Commuion”, The Jurist 49 (1989) 3-4, note

[4] Cf. J. FARIS, The Communion of Catholic Churches: Terminology and Ecdesiology (New York, 1985) 127-128.

[5] It is interesting to note that this term is used in some translations of the Council Documents. Cf. ABBOT GALLAGHER, The Documents of Vatican II, 373-386; FLANNERY, Vatican Council II, 445 (DE 3,10).

[6] Cf. I. THOTTUNKAL (ed)., Emerging Trends in Malankara Theology, Vision and Contributions of Cyril Mar Baselios (Rome, 1995) 29.

[7] Cf. CYRIL MAR BASELIOS, The Holy Catholic Church as the Communion of Churches (Ernakulam, 1992) 3.

[8] Cf. Theses on the Local Church, FABC Papers, No.60 (1991) 11.

[9]Cf. P. PALLATH, Important Roman Documents concerning the Catholic Church in India, OIRSI 273 (Kottayam, 2004) 242-255.

[10] On the theology of Individual Churches, Cf.M.VELLANICKAL, “Biblical Theology of the Individual Churches”, in Christian Orient (1980) 5-19; “Communion of Churches: A Biblical Perspective” in X.KOODAPUZHA (ed.), Communion of Churches (Vadavathoor,1993) 28-46.


[11]Cf. P. PALLATH, Important Roman Documents concerning the Catholic Church in India (Vadavathoor, 2004) 49.

[12] Cf. P.PALLATH, Important Roman Documents concerning the Catholic Church in India, 253.


[13] For a detailed description of the nature of this communion, cf. M. VELLANICKAL, Church: Communion of Individual Churches (Mumbai, 2010) 84-105.

[14] For a detailed study of the ecclesial traditions in the New Testament, cf. R.E.E BROWN, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (N.Y., 1984).

[15] Cf. The Final Statement of TAC,FABC on Local Church 2,12,3.

[16] Cf. W. KASPER, “From the President of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity”, in America 184 (2001) 28-29.

[17] Cf. J.RATZINGER, Church, Ecumenism and Politics (N.Y., 1989) 75.

[18] Cf. X. KOODAPUZHA, Oriental Churches an Introduction (Kottyam, 1996) 47.

[19] For a detailed description of the ecclesial heritage of the Syro Malabar Church, cf. M. VELLANICKAL, Church: Communion of Individual Churches (Mumbai, 2010) 298-319.

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