Catechism

THE SYRO-MALABAR CHURCH AND CATECHESIS

THE SYRO-MALABAR CHURCH AND CATECHESIS

The catechetical heritage of the Syro-Malabar Church seems to be as old as this
Church itself. But the scarcity of historical data poses a great problem with regard to
catechesis among the St. Thomas Christians in ancient times. We have to depend on
traditions and the post fifteenth century historical data to see the evolution of catechesis.
History of the Catechetical Developments in the Syro-Malabar Church
We divide the history of catechesis into five periods corresponding to the different
phases of the existence of the Church in Kerala. These periods are (1) the early apostolic
Period, (2) the Indo-Chaldean period, (111) the Indo-European period, (1V) the modern
period and (V) the contemporary period.
1. The Early Apostolic Period (AD 52- 4th Cent.)
When we think about catechetical developments among the St. Thomas Christians
in the early apostolic period, the following questions may come to our minds; did any
catechetical system exist at all in the Church founded by the Apostle Thomas? What was
the nature of catechesis in those days? Traditions force us to believe that St. Thomas
might have preached the Gospel and initiated a simple form of worship which grew on
the Indian soil. We are neither sure about the indigenous nature and development of the
form of worship nor about the nature of the catechesis they followed. The general history
of catechesis teaches that the ancient form of catechesis was different from that of our
times. It was mainly directed to adults and was catechumenal or mystagogic. In the
earliest known catechetical system, catechesis was given generally in the framework of
liturgy. Tradition holds that the apostle had founded seven communities in Kerala. This
shows that he was moving from place to place from one local Church to another. So there
might have been someone to lead the community in his absence. It is not possible to
guide a worshipping community without proper instruction. All these points lead us to
think that there might surely have existed some system of catechetical instruction in those
early days of Christianity in Kerala. That the Syro-Malabar Christians kept their faith
intact for nineteen centuries among the overwhelming non-Christian majority is the proof
that there existed a handing over of faith. The scanty allusions to the faith instructions in
the Christian community during the first fifteen centuries of Christianity in India seem to
indicate the absence of a regular form of religious instruction. Therefore, as a conclusion
we can say that in this period a regular form of the religious instructions may not have
existed as today, but someway or another they transmitted their faith in the past.
2. The Indo-Chaldean Period (4th Cent. -1498)
While analysing the system of religious training among the St. Thomas Christians,
we can see that they had a tradition of learning. They were interested in scholarly
discussions and study. As early as A.D. 190, Pantenus of Alexandria, a philosopher, had
been invited by the Malabar Christians to defend their theological discussions and dispute
with the Brahmins. The Portuguese missionaries who landed in Malabar in the beginning
of the sixteenth century could see a flourishing Christian community with its own
ecclesial and liturgical traditions. Melchior Nunes Barretto, who was the rector of the
Jesuit College at Cochin in the sixteenth century (1563), reports, in a letter written to his
confreres in Europe, “I cannot tell you, my dear brethren, how much I am consoled in the
Lord when I see and speak to these Christians who from the time, when St. Thomas had
been in these parts, as it is believed, have kept faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. In spite of
the fact that they had been deprived of instruction, sacraments and other means, they have
always preserved the veneration, obedience and faith of the Holy Cross and the memory
of the mysteries of the Catholic Faith”. So we can say that it is an accepted fact that the
St. Thomas Christians kept the faith intact. They might not have had a catechesis as a
school or parish based systematic training, but they transmitted the faith from generation
to generation and this may mainly have been through the public worship of the liturgy.
The priests, who had considerable training under the Malpans (a senior priest who gave
the necessary instruction to the aspirants to the priesthood), preached during the liturgy.
They used to preach two or three hours continuously, explaining the fundamentals and
dogmas of the Church. The faithful liked these sermons very much. Hence they were
even called lovers of sermons by the early Portuguese missionaries. A community that
lives its faith is the best proof of a sound catechesis. So regarding the time of the Indo-
Chaldean period we can come to the conclusion that religious instruction was not
unknown to the St. Thomas Christians. They had their own way of faith formation in the
community either through their own clergy in the parish church or by the village school
teachers or by parents at home.
3. The Indo-European Period (1498- 1887)
An organised ministry of catechesis developed in Kerala during the Indo-European
period. European missionary activity began in Kerala when Vasco da Gamma came from
Portugal and landed in the harbour of Calicut in Kerala on 21 May 1498. Strictly
speaking it was only with the arrival of the Portuguese, that the conventional catechetical
history of India had its beginning.
Francis Xavier remains the greatest of all of European missionaries to come to
India and he reached Goa on 16 May 1542 and started his missionary activity in Kerala in
1544. From history we know that Francis Xavier had close contacts with the St. Thomas
Christians and his missionary activities had their influence on them. He visited many
villages like Puvar, Kollanked, Vallavilai,etc. all these places are in Kerala. In his letter
to St. Ignatius he extols the great devotion of the Goan Christians to St. Thomas, their
apostle. He requests St. Ignatius to obtain from the Holy Father the grant of a plenary
indulgence for these Christians on the occasion of the feast of the Apostle Thomas.
According to the Goan philogist, H.O. Mescarenhas the Christians about whom Francis
Xavier speaks in his letters to Ignatius were the descendants of the St. Thomas Christians.
Francis Xavier had initiated the systematic effort of catechizing the people. He had
his own faith formation methodology. Going around the streets ringing a small bell, he
used to invite all to attend his instructions in the nearby chapel where he taught them
basic prayers and the fundamentals of the Christian faith. “One of the greatest
contributions of Francis Xavier to the Church in India is the institution of lay catechists
envisaged as collaborators in the missionary endeavour”. He introduced for the first time
text books in the ministry of catechesis. Thus Francis Xavier gave a new orientation to
the catechetical ministry of the Church in India and thereby inaugurated a new phase in
the history of catechesis in India. In this period we see a shift from family centred
catechesis to catechisms.
Catechetical Renewal of the Synod of Diamper
The Synod of Diamper was convoked by the Goan Archbishop Alexis Dom
Mensis from 20-26 June 1599 for the Thomas Christians. It was a turning point in the
catechetical ministry of the Thomas Christians. All the clergy who attended the Synod
were given a copy of a catechism in Malayalam, the local language. The priests were
reminded of their duty of teaching catechism to their parishioners. Both the method of
teaching and the content to be taught were indicated in the decree of the Synod. Regular
catechesis was decreed for every Sunday. The faithful were to be taught before the
Sunday Mass, their interests and knowledge in religious matters were to be checked when
they came for confession. The parents were asked to teach their children the elementary
prayers at home in the evening. Every parish church had to possess a copy of the
catechism in Malayalam. The Malpans and the village school teachers were also exhorted
to continue teaching catechism. The decrees of the Synod were put into practice by the
first Latin Bishop of the Thomas Christians, Archbishop Roz. One of the outcomes of the
Synod of Diamper was the shift from the informal way of handling down the faith to
formal and systematic one. But it caused for another effect, the importance of the liturgy
centred catechesis was shifted to instruction oriented one.
By the second half of the 17th century, the Carmelite missionaries had taken up
missionary activities in Malabar. They were officially entrusted with the pastoral care of
the St. Thomas Christians and there was a renewed effort at promoting catechesis at that
time. Catechisms either in the form of manuscripts or in the printed form began to
dominate the catechetical field. They introduced Malayalam catechism. The Carmelite
missionaries of the 18th century were greatly interested in the catechetical apostolate.
They had opened many catechumanates in different parishes and were diligent in
catechizing the people. They had also introduced many western devotional practices such
as tridums, novenas, devotional months, etc. Devotions based on the Passion of the Lord
increased during these days.
4. Modern Period (1887- 1992)
The systematic development in the field of catechesis among the Thomas
Christians began with the erection of the two Syro-Malabar vicariates apostolic, Trichur
and Kottayam. Later, the indigenous leadership gave an added impetus to the growth of
the Church through the ministry of catechesis. An important development during this
period was the introduction of catechesis in the schools. In fact, the St. Thomas
Christians came very late to the field of education. The first two apostolic vicars and their
Indian successors were pioneers in promoting English education among the Catholics of
Kerala. They encouraged their flock to open schools attached to every parish. In these
schools the catechesis was given by teachers, most of whom, obviously, were lay people.
The Catechism gained a definite place together with other subjects. The children were
given instructions in religion according to their age groups as they were already divided
in the secular regular classes. This new organizational set up demanded an appropriate
content and an apt teaching method. From this time onwards the Church began to think
seriously about the formation of catechists in Kerala. During this period the system of
Sunday schools was also introduced in all the parishes of Kerala. This was an organized
effort at the catechesis of children. The Bishops of Kerala were keen on instructing the
people about the importance of faith formation at home, in the schools and in the parish.
Prior to Vatican II, each diocese had its own text and syllabus for the Sunday school
catechesis of children. During this period almost all the dioceses in Kerala started a
separate catechetical department with a director for coordinating various catechetical
activities
The establishment of the “Pastoral Orientation Centre” (POC) in 1968 at
Palarivattom (Cochin) is a landmark in the history of catechesis in Kerala. It was a joint
venture of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council. Following the model of NCLC at the
national level, the POC coordinated catechetical activities in Kerala. In 1967 an inter
diocesan-committee was formed for catechetical renewal in Kerala. Under the initiative
of this committee a catechetical seminar was organised from 25-28 October 1967 at
Aluva. Fr. Hofinger was the main speaker and 130 priests from all 16 dioceses
participated. The POC organized the first regional catechetical seminar in 1969. In 1978,
an Episcopal commission of three bishops, representing the three rites was formed under
the KCBC. This commission coordinated the catechetical activities in Kerala till 1999.
5. Contemporary Period (1992 – )
With regard to the catechetical ministry of the Eastern Churches the Code of
Canons of the Eastern Churches states, “Each Church Sui Iuris and particularly their
bishops have the serious duty of providing catechesis, by which faith matures and the
disciple of Christ is formed through a deeper and more systematic knowledge of the
teachings of Christ and through an increasingly stronger commitment to the person of
Christ” (CCEO 617). The same Code again points out that “ The Synod of Bishops of the
Patriarchal Church or Council of Hierarchs is competent to issue norms on catechetical
formation arranged in a catechetical directory, within the territorial boundaries of their
own Church; they are to observe those things prescribed by the supreme authority of the
Church” (CCEO 621§ 1).
In the meeting held in January 1999, the KCBC, having taken into account the
mind of the universal Church and following the provisions in the Code of Canons of the
Eastern Churches (CCEO 621 § 1, 621 § 3), decided to entrust the responsibility of
catechesis to the catechetical commission of each Individual Church. The Synod of
Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, held in November 1999 formed a catechetical
commission with three Bishops as its members and one priest as its secretary. An expert
committee of priests, religious and lay people is assisting its function. In 2003 the
Synodal Commission for Catechesis published a catechetical directory “Call And
Response”. Today the catechetical commission of the Syro-Malabar Church is
responsible for the co-ordination and animation of catechetical ministry in the Syro-
Malabar Church. The Syro–Malabar Church has constructed its catechetical centre near
the Major Archiepiscopal Curia, in Cochin. This centre at present coordinates the
catechetical activities of the Syro-Malabr Church. The text book for Sunday catechesis
has already been published.
The catechetical system of the Syro-Malabar Church is organized in four levels:
Synodal, Eparchial, Forane/ regional, and Parochial. At the Synodal level the
organization system has three main factors: 1 Synodal commission for Catechesis 2. the
Syro-Malabar Catechetical Committee which serves as an advisory body to synodal
commission and 3. the catechetical centre which functions as the catechetical office for
the whole Syro-Malabar Church. Actually it is at eparchial level that the catechetical
ministry is in its real action. At the eparchial level also it is organized under a department
headed by a director and a council which assists the director to co-ordinate the
catechetical activities of the eparchy. Within the eparchy, catechetical activities can be
further organized under the forane /regional levels as per the need and size of the
eparchy. At the parish level, catechetical activities are organized under the directorship of
the parish priest. In order to assist the parish priest in the co-ordination and animation of
the catechetical activities, every parish should have a team of zealous and competent
catechists. In the same way, every parish should have also a Headmaster or Headmistress
in order to facilitate the catechetical activities of the parish. The parish priest and all
catechists together form the staff council of the parish.
At the parish level, catechesis through Sunday schools is well organized in all the
dioceses of the Syro-Malabar Church. Classes are divided from 1 to 12, and in some of
the dioceses there is a senior section for youth catechesis. This programme is compulsory
for all the children in the parish. A director, a headmaster, some animators and a team of
teachers can be found in every Sunday school. The duration of the Sunday classes in each
diocese varies. But almost all the dioceses in the Church have an average one and a half
hour of classes every Sunday. The Sunday school year is divided into three semesters, at
the end of which exams are conducted. Questions for the same are prepared by diocesan
centres. There is a special examination conducted for those completing standard ten and
certificate books are distributed.

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