The Jarring Note

Editorial, The Star of the East, March 1986

The text of the address of welcome delivered by His Holiness Catholicos Mar Thoma Mathews I on the occasion of the visit to Kottayam of His Holiness John Paul II, according to a section of the English Press in India, struck a jarring note. The speech, which was otherwise courteous and respectful, used expressions like “If only all could stop sheep-stealing and abjure proselytism!”. The Catholicos expressed the hope “that the dialogue will begin. We hope that proselytism would stop. We hope that Catholics and Orthodox can work together in serving the nation and in dialogue with people of other faiths”.

The jarring note, of course, referred to words like sheep-stealing and proselytism. The text of the speech is self-explanatory. Those who know the history of the Christian Church in Kerala since the coming of the Portuguese and Spanish Roman Catholics in the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries, know that Roman Catholic proselytism among the Orthodox has been the main source of the growth of the Catholic Church in Kerala.

The largest and perhaps the first Uniat Roman Catholic Church was formed in Persia and Kerala in the 16th century. Historically it is clear that the Malabar (or Chaldean) Rite, especially later through the Carmelite Mission of Mary Immaculate, drew millions of Orthodox people into the Catholic faith. Since 1930, when the other, the smaller Malankara (or Antiochene) Rite was formed, hundreds of thousands of Orthodox people have been drawn into the Roman Communion through the offer of various enticements.

The Orthodox Church has often complained to the Roman Catholic Church, since ecumenical relations between Catholics and Orthodox became possible in the sixties of our century, about the proselytizing activities of the Malankara Rite. We have not had occasion to complain about the Malabar Rite, because since the Malankara Rite came into being 56 years ago, the Malabar Rite has lost out in proselytism. The Malankara Rite uses identical liturgical rites with the Orthodox, and can more easily tempt them than the Malabar Rite which uses a heavily Latinised Chaldean or Persian or East Syrian liturgy.

Our complaints about the Malankara Rite to the Vatican have always brought forth sympathetic and positive verbal responses, but the proselytising activities go on unabated. In direct personal confrontation with prelates of the Malankara Rite, the Orthodox elicited the response that Rome cannot decide policy for the Malankara Rite, and that the Malankara rite has its raison-d-’etre in seeking to bring all Orthodox into communion with Rome.

What lies behind the jarring note is the conviction on the part of leading circles in the Indian Orthodox Church that Pope John Paul II himself secretly and openly supports Uniatism and proselytism among the Orthodox, especially among the Oriental Orthodox.

Corroboration for this conviction has come since the Pope’s Kottayam visit from two sources. One was Pope John Paul II’s speech on the occasion of his visit, (February, 1986) to the head­quarters of the Archbishop of the Malankara Rite in Trivandrum. The Pope not only did not counsel the Malankara Rite to refrain from proselytizing among the Orthodox nor asked them to direct their activities to non-believers. His Holiness in fact praised without reservation the activities and development of the Malankara Rite. The speech left no doubt that the Pope totally approved the proselytizing activities of this Uniat group.

A second element of corroboration for the conviction that the Pope himself is committed to Uniatism, sheep stealing and proselytism comes from Ethiopia where one finds the largest oriental Orthodox Church with more than 22 million members. Until a few years ago, this Church was partly protected from Roman Catholic proselytism by the policy of the Imperial Ethiopian government. The new revolutionary government in Ethiopia does not grant any position of privilege to any particular religion-- Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Roman Catholics, Protestants or Jews. The government recognizes that the largest segment of Ethiopia’s 42 millions belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but the Revolutionary Law of the land has no provision against proselytism.

Even though the Roman Catholic Church as a whole is passionately opposed to the Ethiopian Revolutionary government and seeks its eventual overthrow, she has decided to make use of the law to freely engage in renewed activities of proselytism and sheep-stealing among the Orthodox. The first public action of Pope John Paul II to support these new activities was to name a Roman Catholic Cardinal for the minuscule Uniat Church in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has taken public umbrage at some of the pronouncements of the new Cardinal. Chief among these statements are his claims that granting a Cardinalate to Ethiopia is honouring the whole nation, and that this is the first time in its 1600 years of continuous history that it is so honoured. From the perspective of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the latter claim implies that it was the Roman Catholic Church in Ethiopia that has this 1600 year history, and that the Pope had always authority in Ethiopia to grant Cardinalates. This the Ethiopian Orthodox most vigorously refute, as they have done in the Church newspaper Zena Beta Christian of Yekatit 30th, 1978 (1986). A Roman Catholic Pope had no authority whatsoever in Ethiopia until the Portuguese and Spanish conquerors and Jesuit missionaries began invading Ethiopia in the 16th century. The granting of a Cardinalate to the minuscule Uniat group in Ethiopia is an undue honour given, not to Ethiopia as a nation, but to the despicable activity of proselytism and sheep-stealing in which members of that Uniat group freely and with renewed vigour now engage themselves.

The Ethiopian Church newspaper recalls two bad experiences in the past. First is the sixteenth century conversion of Ethiopian King Sosenyos to Roman Catholicism at the persuasion of Alfonso Mendez and other Portuguese Jesuits. The people revolted against the King until Sosenyos, seven years later, repented and returned to the Orthodox Church. Second comes the memory Pope Pius XII blessing Mussolini’s fascist soldiers and armaments which raped Ethiopia in 1935. It was during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia that the Uniat Church there began to grow. The newspaper uses strong language about the new Cardinal, quoting our Lord, “Amen, Amen. I say to you, he who does not enter the sheep-fold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber” (St. John 10:1)

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church suspects that the Roman Catholic Church is using its relief operations during the current drought as a means of proselytism. Those operations are massive, widespread and providing vast opportunities for contact with the Ethiopian people. They are asking the question: “Do these vast opportunities provide the apt occasion for naming a Cardinal for Ethiopia, so that he can command the resources for large scale proselytism?”.

The Ethiopian newspaper concludes with the observation that the assurances given by Roman Catholic theologians ten years ago that Uniatism is a thing of the past do not hold any longer. Those assurances were clear and unequivocal at the Vienna conversations (1972-78) organized by Pro Oriente, the Roman Catholic foundation started by Cardinal Koenig. Theologians admitted that Uniatism was based on a wrong Roman ecclesiology. Now the Pope himself seems to be going back to that same Uniatism which Roman Catholic theologians ten years ago abjured.

This is not the end of the justification for the jarring note in the Kottayam address of the Catholicos to the Pope. There is a story behind it which is much more painful. It is the story of three Kerala Roman Catholic Bishops calling on the Catholicos in October 1985, and persuading him to join the Roman Catholic Church, with the hardly veiled offer that the Pope during His visit a few months later to India, would be willing to declare the Catholicos as some kind of Patriarch of all the St. Thomas Christians in India. This was an offer summarily rejected by the Catholicos and his fellow-bishops in October, 1985.

The Pope during His Kottayam visit in February 1986, virtually repeated the offer personally to the Catholicos of the East when he said: “I am Pope of Rome; You are Pope of er ... er ... Kottayam”. Is the Pope himself a Shepherd-stealer? That question remains to be answered.