The recent celebration of our Indian Catholic community gives us the subject of our article this week.

The universal Church
During the many years that I was privileged to work in the service of the Holy See, I had numerous opportunities of seeing the remarkable reality of the universal Church. As a young student priest in Rome, I was able to be present in St. Peter’s Basilica during three sessions of the Second Vatican Council, in which the bishops of the world participated. On the pastoral journeys to various parts of the world on which I accompanied Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, I was able to witness the Vicar of Christ welcomed with faith and love by so many cultures and peoples. In the Secretariat of State, I witnessed the relations the Church has with the various countries of the world and the tremendous work of preaching and charity that Christ’s Church carries on in these countries. While serving as the President of the Pontifical Academy, which trains young priests for the service of the Holy See, and during my time at the Apostolic Delegation in Madagascar, I saw the Church in all her variety, yet in all her unity in Jesus Christ.

In many ways, these experiences were of help to me in my later service in this local Church of Philadelphia. I say this because our five-county archdiocese, composed of almost 1.5 million Catholics, is a microcosm of the universal Church. We are the home of the descendants of so many immigrants who came to this part of our country during the wave of the so-called “great immigration” of 1880-1920 and we are the home of the many newer immigrant groups, who have enriched our community and Church in more recent times. They all reflect the universal character of the Catholic Church: “one Lord, one faith, one Baptism,” but expressed by so many different peoples in so many ways. These thoughts came to my mind in a special way last Saturday as I celebrated Mass as part of a day dedicated to one of our newer groups of Catholics within the Archdiocese, those from India, who manifest even within themselves the variety of the Church that I have been speaking of.

Ancient mission of the Church in India
The great majority of those living in the great sub-continent of India, which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh, profess the Hindu and Islamic religions. However, the presence of Christianity in India dates back to apostolic times. According to tradition, the Apostle Thomas was the only one of the Twelve to travel outside the Roman Empire. He landed in southern India, in the state now known as Kerala, to preach the Gospel to the peoples of that land. To this day, the Catholics of that area of India, so proud of their ancient Faith, are called “St. Thomas Catholics.” Numerous religious vocations have come from this part of India and they have enriched the Church throughout the world.

We also know that the great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was sent to evangelize another portion of India, at the request of the King of Portugal who had colonial territories there. St. Francis Xavier is so honored in western India, that his mortal remains rest in the cathedral of the city of Goa, where great homage is paid to him to this day. The numerous churches, missions and schools still conducted by the Jesuits in India are an ongoing tribute to the work of this “great-souled missionary,” as his novena prayer calls him.

The Eastern Catholic Churches
Most of us reading this belong to what we call the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church there also exist what are called the Eastern Churches. These are those parts of the universal Church which, because of their antiquity and particular traditions, retain a liturgical and cultural form of Catholic life that is unique to them. Within the Eastern Churches, there are also what are called “Ritual Churches,” according to the particular expressions of the region and culture in which they exist. The “Decree on Eastern Catholic Churches” of the Second Vatican Council states: “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 (of the Church), and which forms part of the spaninely revealed and unspanided heritage of the universal Church” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, 1).

We have already pointed out the ancient presence of the Gospel in India through the preaching of St. Thomas. His preaching was centered on the Malabar Coast of southwestern India within what is now the State of Kerala. By Liturgy and customs, a good percentage of this portion of the Catholic Church has been a part of the Eastern Churches. Within this we find two Ritual Catholic Churches, which reflect the liturgy and historical traditions of the eastern and western portions of the Malabar Coast. I mention it here because both of those Ritual Churches are present among us. They are called the Syro-Malabar Church and the Syro-Malankara Church. The “Syro” reflects their connection with the ancient usage of the Syrian Catholic Church and the “Malabar” and “Malankara” indicate that they are from the east or west coast of Malabar respectively.

At last Saturday’s celebration, these Ritual Churches were represented, along with the Knanaya, who trace their origin to the Jewish Christian community that embraced Christianity in the early centuries of the Church. There are also many Indians who belong, not to one of the Eastern Ritual Churches but to the Latin Rite. They will often be descended from those who were evangelized by the Portugese missionaries or those who, unfortunately, were forced many centuries ago to give up their Eastern tradition for the Latin Ritual usage. I introduce these observations here so that we may understand and value even more the presence of the faithful and dedicated Indian Catholics who are in our midst.

Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, has often spoken about the fact that there is a place for everyone in the Church of God. The saving grace of Baptism in Jesus Christ makes us all members of His Mystical Body on earth and joins us to all who profess the fullness of faith found in the Catholic Church. The long history of the Church allows her to embrace the customs of many cultures, while expressing one faith. I am so pleased that we have such a variety of authentic Catholic expressions in our own Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Last week’s celebration was appropriately described as a “celebration of the rich heritage and traditions of the Indian community, with an emphasis on the uniqueness of the inspanidual Indian Catholic communities.” This week, I give thanks in a special way for our Indian Catholics and thank them for their fidelity and the rich liturgical history they bring us.

19 August 2010