Thursday, January 14, 2010

Random thoughts on the procedure to become a Christian, Syrian Christians

I have two granddaughters. Both had been baptized shortly after birth. The Confirmation (a sacrament of the Church) of the elder one was last month and the First Communion of the younger girl last Sunday. It was while attending these functions that the question came to my mind – when does a person really become a Christian?

At the outset I must explain that I am a Syro-Malabar (the second largest Rite in the Catholic Church) Christian from Kerala and this writing could be influenced by the practices and teachings of that denomination. There are, however, similarities among the major organized Churches in the matter of accepting members into the fold.

In several non-Christian communities, birth decides the religion of a child. It is assumed that the baby belongs to the religion of its parents. In Christianity, only when a child receives baptism it is accepted into the community as a Christian. In the modern Church this function is held when the baby is a month old or so. Of course, at that point of time the infant is unable to realize the significance of the function.

But the godparents who would be present and undertake the responsibility of being the child’s spiritual guardians answer, on behalf of the baby, the questions the priest asks at the baptism. These include queries like ‘Do you renounce Satan?’ The answer by the godparents is of course, ‘Yes’ irrespective of whether they understand the theological aspects or not. Once the baptism ceremony is over, the infant is brought up as a Christian.

The next major step in the spiritual ladder of a Christian is receiving the Eucharist or the Holy Communion. This is a sacrament where consecrated bread is consumed in commemoration of the Last Supper. This has to done with purity of body and mind. The Church teaches that confession absolves one of the sins committed and thereby cleanses the mind.

Normally a child is given the Holy Communion for the first time when he about seven to ten years old. The Church considers that to be the age of reason or moral responsibility. Whether the child understands its implications or not he has to confess to a priest before receiving Communion. And once the Eucharist is received, the boy or girl concerned is bound to obey all the rules of the Church.

But it would appear that even after receiving the Eucharist the person is still not a full-fledged Christian. There is one more Sacrament, ‘Confirmation’, before one becomes ‘a true soldier of Christ’. At this ceremony, according to the teaching of the Church, the Holy Spirit bestows on the recipient several gifts that would help him to lead a true Christian life. This Sacrament is given when a person is around 15 years of age by either the Bishop or a senior priest authorized by him. Surprisingly, Confirmation does not seem to be taken very seriously these days.

In the original Malabar Church the procedure was different. What is referred to as ‘Malabar Church’ is the community that is believed to have been founded by the Apostle St. Thomas, and its descendants. After the Portuguese practically subjugated it starting from the 16c CE, the unified Malabar Church became truncated and today there are several denominations - Syrian Catholics, Jacobites, Orthodox, Mar Thoima etc. They are generally referred to as Syrian Christians of Kerala, or St. Thomas Christians, or Nazranis.

In the Malabar Church Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation were held when the recipient was well past puberty, say, at the age of 16 or 17. Usually the person’s wedding too followed shortly thereafter. Here the obvious difference was that in this system one accepted Christianity as an adult. It was with the Portuguese intrusion that infant baptism was introduced in the Malabar Church.

Child baptism was permitted by the Universal Church only from the 6c CE. What is interesting here is that when the Church policy changed in other parts of the world, the Malabar Church continued with the original practice of adult baptism till 16c CE. In my opinion, this is another proof of the antiquity of Christianity in Kerala. The Malabar Church remained an isolated community with hardly any meaningful interaction with the churches elsewhere.

Nevertheless, it had a sound theological basis. Unlike the Churches elsewhere, from the early days the Malabar Church believed that there was salvation outside the Church, that a man who lived according the rules of his religion would attain ‘moksha’ (salvation). That was why there was hardly any missionary work by the Malabar Church. It effectively led to a position that being a Syrian Christian was a matter of birth.

Here the question arises why did then St. Thomas travel to India and convert people to Christianity. The Apostle is claimed to have landed in Kerala in 52 CE. He would have left on this journey a few years before that. It would appear that his departure for Kerala was before gentiles too were accepted into Christianity; originally only Jews had the privilege Therefore his initial target for spreading the Word would have been the Jewish communities which, according to historians, were in Kerala long before Christ.

It is possible that later on local gentiles were also taken into the fold. This could explain the claims that the Apostle converted some Brahmin families. It is doubtful whether 2000 years back there was a sizable Brahmin presence in Kerala. But there could have been an elite set of local people sufficiently educated and knowledgeable to engage St. Thomas in debates. After all, they were involved in trade with many nations. Quite possibly, some of them accepted the new religion. That was a period when Kerala was a haven to all communities.

The label ‘Nazrani’ also indicates the antiquity of the Malabar Church. The name ‘Christian’ was coined by the Apostles at Antioch in the seventh decade of the Christian Era. Till then the followers of Jesus Christ from Nazareth were known as ‘Nazrani’. When St. Thomas established the Malabar Church, its members also were called Nazranis, in all likelihood initially by the Jews and the Arabs who were present in Kerala.

The Western missionaries who reached Kerala with the Portuguese and subsequently too, unfortunately, did not understand the ethos of the Apostolic Malabar Church. Their endeavour to westernize the Nazranis went on for three centuries and, in the process, much was lost. The once unified Malabar Church today lies divided into several denominations.

Related posts:

History of conversions to Christianity in Kerala – an overview

Vedas, Syrian Christians


perumalythoma said...

Bravo! Mr. Tharakan.
The Changanassery Diocese will be dispatching hitmen by the evening.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand Changanacherry diocese is perhaps the only syro malabar diocese which has still not completely departed from the ethos of st thomas christianity. Qurbana of the Ernakulam Angamaly diocese is near identical to the Latin Mass.

Nebu said...

As per the new adaptation (not sure whether it is prevalent in Ernakulam), the baptism, first Holy Communion and confirmation are administered to the toddler jointly at one go during the regular Sunday hour and a half long Holy mass (before the baptism used to take only 5 to 10 minutes). After a short while into the ceremony the baby finds it exasperating in the baptism dress and starts wailing uncontrollably and the pitiable mother finds it hard to manage (breast feeding). The clever ones carry honey or even cough syrups for the dozing effect! The devotees who are not related with the baby too are not very amused either.

The Chenganacherry practices (pardon me your Excellencies) are more comparable to the Orthodox / Jacobite version and I believe will eventually hold good if all sections of the Indian Christians decide to come together one day. (Due to fall in numbers)

Many outstanding - those who stand outside during mass, Syro - those with Zero faith, Malabar Catholics go to the Latin Church because of the short service. The elaborate praise and worship with the accompaniments of the Syro Malabar version of the Holy Mass is good for ceremonial occasions.

Irrespective of the theology involved, from the point of the laity it would have been better if all Roman Catholics celebrated Holy Mass as the Pope celebrates it (facing the congregation) and in text as well. All could feel at home throughout the universal church. But the one fallout will be the less number of dioceses, Bishops and Cathedrals!

Pattom Radhakrishnan said...

St. Thomas visited Kerala and introduced Christianity .After St. Thomas other missionaries from Persia came to Kerala and converted many people.. The early converts in Kerala belonging to different grades in society on the basis of occupation were commonly called Christians But the name Christian was changed to Nasrani when the Arabs (Moplahs) came to Kerala. Muslims used the word Nasrani in a contemptuous and derogatory manner. Christians and Jews were hated by Muslims in the Middle East and so they used the word 'Nasrani' in a derogatory and spiteful manner, as the Greeks called others 'barbarians.' Muslims quote the Koran to call Christians and Jews as 'Nasranis.'
This is the basis of the verse. " Jews say: 'Uzair is the son of God' and the Christians say: 'The Messiah, son of God'. Such is their saying with their mouths; they imitate the infidels saying earlier. Allah has cursed them, how are they to turn? "(Surat al-Tawbah: 30) By this interpretation, Muslims regard Christians and Jews infidels and collectively call them ‘Nasrani.’
Even today all Christians are contemptuously called Nasranis in the Middle East by the Arabs. In Kerala also, after the Arabs gave the derogatory name 'Nasranis' to Christians, Brahmins and Nairs also used that word in a derogatory and insulting manner till the arrival of colonial powers. Vrahnins and Nairs made Christians work as coolies, agricultural labourers in their farmlands and compulsory service called ‘oozhiyam.’ The true economic and social condition of the Christians who were ridiculously called Nasranis was recorded by a missionary when European powers were slowly establishing their authority; Abbe J.A. Dubois, a missionary in Mysore, in his letter dated August 7, 1815, writes: “The Jesuits, on their first arrival in India, hearing of them, in one way or other converted the greatest part to the Catholic faith. Their liturgy is to this day in the Syrian language, and in the performance of their religious ceremonies they use this ancient dead tongue. There remains still among them large congregations, consisting of 70 or 80,000 Christians, of whom two-thirds are Catholics, and a third Nestorians. They are all designated under the contemptuous name of Nazarany, and held by the pagans in still greater contempt than the Christians of this part of the country. The Nairs chiefly keep them at a greatest distance, and they form a separate caste.” Muslims who immigrated into Kerala called all Christians, Nasranis. But the Chritian colonial powere, the Portuguese Dutch and English called them Syrian Christians because of Syriac liturgy, and gradually the contemptuous name 'Nasrani' disappeared.

Pattom Radhakrishnan said...

(Contd from previous post)

When the Portuguese and the British educated these hapless Christians and appointed them as soldiers, businessmen and planters, Christians ascended to top position in the fields of education, business, plantations, and commerce making Brahmins and Nairs inferiors. The Portuguese were in Kerala for 150 years and during this period there was widespread inter racial marriage between Portuguese and local Hindus. Albuquerque officially encouraged such marriages to increase Christian population. Later the offspring of such marriages married local Christians which eventually led to change in skin color and personality. Gradually the contemptuous name Nasrani was given up and the words, ‘Christians’ and ‘Syrian Christians’ became common usage. But in Arab countries Christians are even today called in a vulgar form, ‘Nasranis.” In a recent riot in Cairo when Muslim fanatics attacked Christians, the Huffington Post dated August 17, 2013 reported the following incident
“Naguib’s home supplies store on a main commercial street in the provincial capital, also called Minya, was torched this week and the flames consumed everything inside.
"A neighbor called me and said the store was on fire. When I arrived, three extremists with knifes approached me menacingly when they realized I was the owner," recounted Naguib. His father and brother pleaded with the men to spare him. Luckily, he said, someone shouted that a Christian boy was filming the proceedings using his cell phone, so the crowd rushed toward the boy shouting "Nusrani, Nusrani," the Quranic word for Christians which has become a derogatory way of referring to them in today's Egypt.”