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Carmelite mission to

by Father Michael Buckley, O.C.D.

1656 marked the beginning of the Carmelite Mission to Malabar. In 1956, the 300th anniversary of this event, two commemorative letters were sent from Rome to all the Carmelites of the world, one by Fr. Anastasio, General of the Order, the other by Pope Pius XII. Fr. Anastasio wrote his letter on Janu­ary 25, 1956, feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. I quote just one sentence: “Since of all the missions accredited by the Holy See to the Teresian Carmel, the Malabar mission is for so many reasons the most celebrated, it is only right that I should commemorate its third centenary by this letter, and that we should give thanks to God and strive more and more to appreciate and promote the sacred work of the missions”.

The reason I quote that little paragraph is not because it might be the most significant but because it contains the underlined phrase. We should not sim­ply glory in our mission record, however celebrated it was. The first thing to do is to give thanks to God for all that has been done, and then to strive to appreciate and promote the sacred work of the missions.

 Various Apostolates

 Pius the XII wrote his letter on October 3, feast of St. Thérèse. His words are very interesting because they indicate all the various apostolates that the Car­melites in three centuries have accomplished in Mala­bar. “Not only did the Carmelite missionaries instruct and inculcate Christian morals by word and example, but they promoted peace among them, fostered cul­ture and learning, consoled by their Christian charity the poor and oppressed, and carne to the help of the sick, caring for their immediate needs and their eter­nal salvation. They set up schools and promoted stu­dy. In this context we mention particularly their work in seminary training for the benefit of the var­ious rites, a work which still flourishes and prospers in the Apostolic Seminary in Alwaye”.

 Portuguese Explorer

 Let us begin this story of the Carmelite mission with a look at secular history. In 1498 the great Por­tuguese explorer Vasco da Gama came to the Malabar coast. Gradually in the early l6th century Portuguese trading posts and little enclaves began to dot the coast of Malabar: Goa, Calicut, Cochin, Cranganore, and others. As the early missionaries followed the flag: Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, they began the work of evangelization. Saint Francis Xavier, for example, worked in this region from 1541. The early mission­aries soon became aware of the fact that groups of Christians, called Syrian or St. Thomas Christians, were already in existence here for centuries. They were called Syrians because Syriac was their liturgical language, and St. Thomas Christians because their tra­dition was that their forebears had been converted through the mission work of Thomas the Apostle.

        From the beginning Western missionaries found it very difficult to understand the situation. The La­tin clergy who came from the west at that time had a very great sense of order in everything: in the field of Canon law, for example. The rite of the Roman Mass was very much uniform, especially after the Council of Trent. Church organization, the education of the clergy, and so forth, were strictly regulated in the West. Now they encountered an Eastern Christianity where things were very different. And on both sides misunderstandings arose.

 Synod of Diamper

 In 1599 a Synod was convoked in a place called Diamper, by the Archbishop of Goa, who had juris­diction in Malabar at that time. To this he sum­moned representatives of the Syrian (St. Thomas) Christians. At that Synod there was further misun­derstanding. The Syrian Christians felt that they were not understood at all. The Latin prelates felt that there were a lot of irregularities, as they would say, in the liturgy, in the Canon law, in the administration of the Syrian Church.

Let us not assign blame for the situation even at this distance in time. It was a lack of knowledge of the East by the people from the West, understandable at the time. This gave rise to a certain hostile reaction on the other side. The result was tragic in its final outcome. The Synod took place in 1599. Up to the year 1653 the rift continued to widen. Attempts at reconciliation failed and ultimately it solidified. And in 1653 the Syrian Christians, under an Archdeacon Thomas a Campo decided to “have nothing further to do with Latin prelates”, the famous Coonan Cross oath. The rift was a fait accompli.

 Appeal to Rome

     At this juncture the Archbishop appealed to Rome for help in resolving the crisis. Alexander VII was Pope at the time, and he chose Carmelite mis­sionaries for the work of reconciliation. A Carmelite foundation in Goa had been made in 1620. And two Carmelite missionaries from Goa had spent some time among the Syrian Christians in 1642, and had made a favorable impression. So when the suggestion was made that the Carmelites would be chosen for the mission, it found ready acceptance among the Syrian Christians. Likewise in Rome. There had been a powerful Carmelite dimension in the recent setting up of the Congregation of Propaganda Fidei. Hence the Pope decided to send Carmelites from Rome to Mala­bar to try and heal the schism. The man chosen to lead the mission was Giuseppe de S. Maria Sebastiani. He was from Caprarola near Rome, of a very noble family, and was in every way a worthy choice.

 Passage to India

 The missionaries, originally six, set forth in two groups. Two of them set out by way of Lisbon: Fr. Jacinto (an Italian) and Fr. Marcelo (a German), Seb­astiani and his three companions: Fr. Vincent, Fr. Raphael, and Brother Louis, set out from Rome. We have an interesting account of their voyage. They first sailed down the Tiber in a little bark and were nearly shipwrecked opposite St. Paul’s basilica in a collision with another boat. Sailing out to sea by Ostia, they touched in at Naples. After some weeks they took a larger boat to Messina, Sicily. Next port was Malta and from there they set course for Haifa. What a thrill surely as they sailed in under Mount Car­mel. Then on to Aleppo (in Syria at the present day). From there, they prepared themselves for a desert trip of two months, to Baghdad. Nowadays it could be done by bus in two days.

They set out in caravan, in the company of a group of soldiers. They had to dress themselves up as Turks because at that time travel was very dangerous. They got safely to Baghdad; and later from Baghdad south to Basra. Now by sea again from Basra to Hor­muz.  Next stop was Karachi (presently in Pakistan). Then to Sauli, Surat, and on to Mangalore. That’s in present-day Kerala. Next port was Calicut, where Vasco da Gama had landed in 1498. They dis­embarked finally in Parur. It had taken them a whole year to complete their journey; it was February 22, 1657.

 Work of Reunion

 Immediately they began the work of reunion. After eight months the first tangible result: 43 of the churches were reunited once again with Rome. That represented about one-third of all the dissidents, who originally numbered about 130,000.

In January 1658 Msgr. Sebastiani returned to Rome, and gave a full account to Propaganda Fidei of the situation in Malabar. As a result he was given the office of Apostolic Administrator of the Syrian Christians, consecrated bishop, and returned to the mission with three more Fathers, one of whom died on the journey. Soon 13 more churches with their congregations were reunited with Rome. Thus by 1662, 56 churches had come back; 33 still remained aloof, under the leadership of Archdeacon Thomas a Campo.

It was then, in 1662, that the Dutch ousted the Portuguese on the Malabar coast, and became the dominant power in the region. The result was a major setback for the missionaries, because the Dutch were Calvinists and very anti-Catholic. One of the first things they did was to expel all the Catholic mission­aries from Kerala. Msgr. Sebastiani was forced to leave Malabar in February 1653. He stayed for a year in Goa, but was never able to return to his mission. He went back to Rome, where he was given a Papal mission to the Aegean Isles. Later he became bishop of Bisignano, and died as Bishop of Città de Castello, near Rome, in 1689.

 Church of Antioch

 It was at this time of problems with the Dutch conquest of Malabar (1652-) that the Syrian Chris­tians who were still in conflict with Rome began to make contact with the Monophysite Church of Anti­och. This occurred during the years 1661-5; its pur­pose being to obtain the consecration of bishops for the dissident flock. In 1665 Mar Gregorios, Metropolitan of Jerusalem, came to Malabar. It is not known whether he consecrated Thomas a Campo as bishop. But he certainly succeeded in propagating the Monophysite heresy among the dissidents of Malabar. From this time, what had been a schism, came to in­volve heretical teaching also. And this served to soli­dify and perpetuate the stance taken by the Syrian dissidents. Henceforth they would go under the name of the “Jacobite” church.

By the year 1670, the Dutch rulers of the region had become more amenable to the Catholic missiona­ries; a kind of modus vivendi was reached. It was aided on the Carmelite side by one of the missiona­ries, Fr. Matthew, a noted botanist. It happened at that time that the Dutch Governor of Cochin, a man called Van Rheede, was also a student of botany. And the two became great friends. In fact, they col­laborated in writing a celebrated botanical text: Hortus Malabaricus (the garden of Malabar). In it are descriptions and illustrations of all the plants and fruits of Malabar, indicating also their therapeutic properties; it is a storehouse of knowledge of the bo­tany of the region. Fr. Matthew was also the sole author of another similar work: Viridarium Orientale.

 Seminary of Verapoly

 Through this providential circumstance and friendship, the Carmelite missionaries were able to continue their mission in Malabar. Even further at that time, they were able to found two monasteries: Chathiath (1673) and Verapoly (1674). And Vera­poly in 1682 saw the first emergence of a Carmelite­staffed seminary. It was ephemeral, but that work of seminary training was destined to continue, culmina­ting in the seminary at Alwaye in 1932.

Mission work continued; time passed; missiona­ries came and went, as we by-pass about 100 years. In 1795 the English replaced the Dutch as the dominant power in Malabar. This introduced another element in our story; the coming of Protestant missionaries to Malabar. This finally resulted in a breakaway Protes­tant infiltrated group from the Jacobites which would come to be known as the Mar Thoma church. At about this time (1776-89) Fr. Paulinus of St. Bartho­lomew (an Austrian Carmelite) was the Vicar Aposto­lic of the Mission. He was a profound scholar, noted as a linguist, orientalist, historian and even tutor of rajas (native princes). He brought great calm to an extremely turbulent period in the mission. He gives the relevant statistics for the period.

Syrian Christians (in union with Rome); 64 churches, 120 clergy, 94,000 members. Latins (new converts), 24 churches, 34 clergy, 84,000 members. Jacobites, 32 churches, 80 clergy, and 50,000 mem­bers.  

Return to Rome

 Paulinus returned to Rome in 1789, where he became in turn Prefect of Studies in the Collegio Ur­bano; Consultor to Propaganda Fide; and Procurator to the O.C.D. Missions. He published the first Sans­crit Grammar in Europe (1790) which aroused inter­est for the first time in European universities for the study of that language. His India Orientalis Christiana - a Religious History of India - was published in 1794, and Voyage to East India in 1796. He died at La Scala Monastery, Rome, in 1806. Never of robust health, he was an indefatigable missionary and gifted scholar. In his later work for Propaganda Fide in Rome, he gave wise and clear direction to Church po­licy towards mission work in India.

Let us pass now to some very significant dates and events in the later history of our mission. In 1886, the hierarchy was established in India, and in the same year the first inter-rite seminary was set up in a place called Puthempally. This was to be a cen­tral seminary for the training of the clergy of both the Syrian and Latin rites. And the Carmelites were given charge of it. In 1932 that seminary was trans­ferred to a new location at Alwaye on the banks of the Periyar River.

 Conversion work

 Another mission landmark is 1908 when Carme­lites in Malabar decided to go into conversion work as well. The work of reunion had stabilized to an ex­tent, and opportunities were opening up for the conversion of pagans. Carmelites from the Basque and Belgian provinces mostly accepted large territories for evangelisation. These later developed into as many as five dioceses: Verapoly, Vijayapuram, Quion, Kottar and Trivandrum. In the succeeding years the empha­sis will be on this work: and prelates such as Louis Mary Benziger, Bishop of Quilon from 1905 until 1931, will play a very zealous role in promoting the work.

There were others: in Verapoly, Bishop Bernard Arguinzoniz (1919) and Angel Maria Perez y Cecilia (1934); but Bishop Benziger deserves special mention for his zeal and dynamism. He was the eldest son of the family of Einsiedeln, Switzerland, of printing and publishing fame. He joined the Belgian province of the Order, and after ordination volunteered for the Malabar mission. His first assignment in India was as Professor in Pathempafly Seminary in 1890. He be­came Bishop of Quilon in 1905. By the time he resigned as bishop in 1931 the diocese counted 150,000 new converts. He set up a major and minor semi­nary in the diocese. And from about 1908 he began an apostolate among the Jacobites who still were sep­arated from Rome. The result was that in 1931 things had reached such a stage that a small group, led by Mar Ivanios, came back to union with Rome. Pius XI delegated Msgr. Benziger to receive them into com­munion with Rome. Others followed, until a whole new group, the Syro-Malankara church came into be­ing, with its own rite, government and identity. It was certainly providential that, as the Carmelites in 1656 were the first to engage in this work of reconciliation, so the latest group to make peace with Rome should also do so through the instrumentality of Carmel.

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Updated 06 giu 2003  by OCD General House
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