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from issue no. 10 - 2011


The India that is in the heart of Rome

The Institute was founded by Pope Pius XII and now houses forty priests of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara rites.
Our visit was an opportunity to become better acquainted with these two rites which, together with the Latin one, form the Indian Catholic Church, one of the most flourishing in Christendom

by Pina Baglioni

The chapel of the Pontifical Institute of St John of Damascus decorated with icons made by Don Jacob Kooroth; in the center, a mosaic by Marko Ivan Rupnik <BR>[© Paolo Galosi]

The chapel of the Pontifical Institute of St John of Damascus decorated with icons made by Don Jacob Kooroth; in the center, a mosaic by Marko Ivan Rupnik
[© Paolo Galosi]


One breathes an atmosphere of great joy at the Pontifical Institute St John of Damascus, the home of forty Indian priests, in Rome to further their studies.

They are the sons of the Church of St Thomas, founded, according to tradition, by the Apostle of the Lord in the extreme south of India, the present federal state of Kerala. Thirty-one of them belong to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, the remaining nine to the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. All are between thirty and thirty-five, and have been priests for several years.

Their head is Father Varghese Kurisuthara, a Syro-Malabar who comes from Kerala. He has been head of the St John of Damascus Institute for four years, after nine as deputy head. After his studies and ordination in India, he gained a doctorate at the Accademia Alfonsiana in Moral Theology, a discipline he now teaches at the Teresianum, the Theological Faculty of the International College of Discalced Carmelites of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross.

Father Varghese belongs to the Malabar province of the Order of Discalced Carmelites. “The role of the Carmelites has been extremely important in the history of the Christians of St Thomas”, says the rector. “They were sent by Pope Alexander VII under the jurisdiction of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, in the mid-seventeenth century, in order to bring the faithful together and put an end to the running disputes between the Portuguese missionaries and the Christians of St Thomas. They were so esteemed by Indian Christians, especially in Kerala, that they inspired indigenous Carmelite congregations”.

Among the priests housed at the St John of Damascus there are students of the Missionary Congregation of the Most Blessed Sacrament, the Vincentian Congregation, the Congregation of St Theresa, the Society of the Oblates of the Sacred Heart, the Order of the Imitation of Christ and of the Missionary Society of St Thomas the Apostle.

All forty priests are in Rome thanks to bursaries given by the Congregation for Eastern Churches. Some are studying for a licentiate, but the majority for a doctorate. Thirteen are attending courses in Canon Law and Eastern Liturgy at the Pontifical Oriental Institute. The others are mostly studying theology and philosophy at all the other pontifical universities. “This institute, which opened on 4 December 1940, was very much wanted by Pope Pius XII for priests from the Eastern Churches who did not have their own training houses, and for those wishing to exercise their priestly ministry in the East. At the time, there wasn’t a single Indian”, says Father Varghese. “The Pope decided to name it after John of Damascus because of the saint’s affection for the papacy and his special devotion to the Mother of God”.

In those years Indian seminarians and priests stayed in a wing of the Russicum Pontifical College. Subsequently, they were lodged in the Pius Romanian College, because the communist regime barred Romanian priests from coming to Rome. Then, in 1993, the Institute was moved to its present site, a former clinic, wedged in a dense network of roads between the basilicas of St John Lateran and Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, purchased by the Congregation for the Eastern Churches and completely renovated.

The St John of Damascus depends directly on the prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri. And since the academic year 1996-1997, it is reserved exclusively to students belonging to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.


Students of the Pontifical Institute of St John of Damascus with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, at the blessing of the iconostasis, 4 October 2010 [© Saint John of Damascus Pontifical Institute]

Students of the Pontifical Institute of St John of Damascus with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, at the blessing of the iconostasis, 4 October 2010 [© Saint John of Damascus Pontifical Institute]

An Institute for two churches

The Institute’s day, the rector explains, begins with a morning Mass at 6.30. It is celebrated in the two rites in the respective chapels : in the larger, for the Malabars in the Syro-Malabar rite, in the smaller for the Malankaras in the Syro-Antiochene rite. “Then Mass is celebrated in the Latin rite, all together. A sort of ‘exercise’ for when they go to say mass on Sundays, in the Roman parishes, or also at Christmas and Easter. Or in summer, when the Indian priests go to lend a hand in many parishes in Italy and Germany.”

In addition, speaking from direct experience I can say that the Institute enjoys an excellent cuisine: twice a week Indian recipes, for the rest, Italian.

I asked Father Varghese what these priests will do, once they are back in India. “Some of them will go to teach in seminaries, others will be employed in the episcopal curia, in the youth ministry in catechesis in the diocese. Others again will be parish priests”.

In Kerala, the Syro-Malabars and Syro-Malankaras run many Catholic schools of all types and levels, where the normal national courses of study are taught. “And the costs are largely borne by the Churches. They are frequented not only by Catholics but also by a large number of Hindu students because of the very high level of the education imparted. And it is thanks to the Catholic schools that Kerala is the most educated state of India. “In India, Catholics – of Latin, the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Rite – number around 17 million faithful: less than 2% of India’s population.

All together the three churches run twenty-five thousand schools. Not to mention thousands of homes for widows and orphans, shelters for lepers and AIDS patients, hospitals and nursing homes. Kerala, where Christians make up 22% of the population, can also boast the highest level of female education in India. It is also the state with the greatest number of readers. Since 2008 a weekly edition of L’Osservatore Romano, edited by the Discalced Carmelites of the Province of Malabar is printed in the local language, Malayalam. In addition, Kerala is the state with the highest rate of religious pluralism: in short, an example of ongoing coexistence.

“The Catholic schools, which are open to all, teach the national curriculum. In addition there are specific courses for Christian students that include doctrine, ethics and morals”.

What is the reason for the great vitality of the Syro-Malabar Church, which, with over four million faithful, is the most vigorous Eastern Church and the one with the most rapid growth in Christendom? It alone furnishes almost 70% of the 120,000 Catholic vocations throughout India. Almost all the dioceses in this state have a junior seminary and it is one of the few regions able to ‘export’ priests and nuns.

“It depends on the families, where attachment to the Angelus, the Holy Rosary and Holy Mass, is very strong and heart-warming”, says the rector. “Fathers and mothers, but also grandparents, teach children from infancy the sign of the cross and the first prayers. In short, they take it all in with their milk. Consequently, the family is an environment that fosters the flowering of priestly vocations, something held in high esteem in the family”.


The rector of the Institute, Father Varghese Kurisuthara [© Paolo Galosi]

The rector of the Institute, Father Varghese Kurisuthara [© Paolo Galosi]

The diocese of Adilabad: a flourishing Church

The Syro-Malabar Catholic priests live in a paradoxical situation: their Church is among the most flourishing of all Christendom, but outside of Kerala they find themselves on the mission. “To carry out our mission and to better train the faithful according to our traditions, we need our own eparchies. That’s why we have been asking the Holy Father for a long time for greater jurisdiction outside Kerala”, says Don Prince Panengadan Devassy, in Rome to study for a licentiate in Biblical Theology at the Urbaniana.

He comes from the city of Thrissur, where he attended from first to tenth grade, that is from primary to high school, and then, two years of seminary in Bangalore, Karnataka State, to study philosophy. “I went, then, on the mission in the eparchy of Adilabad in the State of Andhra Pradesh, in central-eastern India”.

Adilabad is one of the most recent Indian eparchies, created by Pope John Paul II on 23 June 1999. Before that it was part of the diocese of Chanda, which extended into the states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, with two different languages and cultures.

The first Syro-Malabar priests came to Adilabad in 1962. There they founded school facilities to promote access to education for the poorest children.

In the villages, then, the missionaries worked hard to improve the social conditions of people, especially in terms of health and nutrition. And many people, attracted by the wonderful witness of the missionaries, have chosen the Christian life. Today the Church of Adilabad has 15,000 Catholics, with sixty priests, all Indians, twenty-four of them diocesan and with seven local vocations.

Don Prince is an eyewitness to such success. “To be able to communicate with the people I had to study their language. At home in Kerala, Malayalam is spoken. In the State of Andhra Pradesh, Telugu. The writing is also completely different”, he tells us.

After the years spent in Adilabad, Don Prince had to go north to Madhya Pradesh, to study theology for four years. Then he was ordained priest and went back again to Adilabad for another two years. I asked what it means to be on mission in the midst of an ocean of Hindus and a large number of Muslims. “It’s the wonder of Indian culture. India has given rise to diverse religions and has welcomed all the religions of the world. The Indians are tolerant, peaceful and welcome everyone. Respecting other religions and accepting the good with open hands, wherever it may come from, is characteristic of Indian culture. Everyone is free to believe in the religion he chooses”, the young priest adds. “For us to go on the mission is to first of all visit the villages scattered in the large rural areas inhabited by agricultural laborers and stockbreeders. We say nothing about Jesus and the Gospel, but we tend the sick and help the poorest. Then we ask parents if they want to entrust their children to study with us for free. Almost all agree. And then we bring the children into our schools where we teach the curriculum subjects. That’s the first phase of the mission. That is the one in which we try to build a strong relationship with people through help with their needs. Many missionaries have striven to bring electricity and water to isolated villages.

Later, only when a relationship of mutual trust is established, we try to make them aware of the dignity of life and human rights. Sometimes we collaborate to rid them of exploitation and injustice”, Don Prince Panengadan Devassy tells us. “After some time serving in villages and schools, it happens very often that people ask us about our religion and our God. At that point we speak explicitly of Jesus. We don’t preach Jesus by force and don’t try to convert anyone with incentives. But we seek to bear witness to Jesus through our lives, loving all people without distinction. Our way of life attracts people who are led to ask us where our capacity to accommodate everyone, rich and poor, comes from, and who Jesus really is and what the Gospel is. To facilitate the understanding of our faith, we project sometimes films on the life of the Lord in some room or public space in the village, since almost no one owns a television. The splendid thing is that many of these people, especially children, gain a personal experience of Jesus, because through prayer and a personal relationship with Him, they see a correspondence in their lives, get an answer to their questions, as never happened before. Of course, many do not want to know about Christ. But those who say ‘yes’, gain a very strong faith. In short, we don’t convert anyone, but the people convert themselves through the action of divine grace. It’s their choice. In this context, the State guarantees the freedom to believe in the religion chosen by each. That is the third phase of the mission”, concludes Don Prince. “It’s understandable that all the people we serve and help do not reach the same point. Many remain in the first or second phase. Nevertheless, they don’t put a halt to the ministry. We continue to serve those people, because our activities are not aimed at conversion, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, but at a respectful and free proposal”.

Meanwhile Benedict Kurian, of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, joins the conversation. He comes from the eparchy of Mavelikara, suffragan of the archeparchy of Trivandrum. Ordained in 2002, he was parish priest in Amburi, in Kerala for four years. In Rome since 2007, he is about to gain his doctorate in Eastern Canon Law with a thesis on the rights and duties of the laity. “I really love Rome. Not least because in India, at school, we study the history of the Roman Empire in depth”, he says.

I ask him what is particular about the Syro-Malankara Catholics, who only came back into communion with Rome in 1930. “The difference from our Malabar brethren lies only in the liturgy, ours is the Syro-Antiochene. Whereas that of the Syro-Malabar comes from the Chaldean tradition. One of the peculiarities of our liturgy is that we will celebrate Mass with the priest always facing the altar, and our faithful are extremely attached to our liturgical tradition”, explains Don Benedict.

“The reunification with the Pope, the Successor to Peter, was achieved by five people. Today we are 500,000. And in our Church two female congregations have been founded – known as the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ and Daughters of Mary – and a male congregation, the Order of Imitation of Christ.

We Syro-Malankaras have the same apostolic tradition, the same origin as the Syro-Malabars. We too are heirs of the Christians of St Thomas. And we, like our Malabar brethren, are asking the Holy Mother Church of Rome to help us to extend our jurisdiction”.

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