Saturday 14 May 2022

Synodality in the context of Syro Malabar Church: an inherently Synodal Church

 Synodality in the context of Syro Malabar Church: an inherently Synodal Church

Dr Martin Thomas Antony

The Universal Church is journeying together as a communion of different individual churches of various traditions and rites. It is beautiful that this communion of churches travelling together complemented each other in their diverse traditions and spirituality in partnership. 

Pope Francis’ call for a Synodal Church.

Pope Francis has called for a synodal Church in the context of the Synod 2023, the fiftieth anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops. Church in the third millennium is at the crossroads due to various issues like the global pandemic, conflicts in the world, climate change, inequality and injustice across humanity due to racism, violence, persecution etc.  Within the Church, there are examples of sufferings due to sexual abuse, abuse of power and conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated people . It seems that the Church needs to find its way back to the Church of our Lord Isho Mshiha as witnessed by the Apostles and Church Fathers. This is to bring back the original mission and authentic life of the Church. Pope Francis desires to transform the Church to be synodal- walking together towards God with unity and partnership in all layers of hierarchy. 


The Word Synod came from the Greek words Syn and Hodos means same way/path. The meaning is walking together or journeying together. The Latin word os councilum. In Christian Churches, synods are local or provincial assemblies of Bishops. Governing councils of autocephalous churches and autonomous Eastern Catholic churches are also called synods. In the early Church, ecumenical synods were called by an emperor or authority to resolve questions of theology, discipline or administration to ensure Churches 'walking together'.

Synodality: Fidelity to Apostolic traditions.

Synodality is embracing the Holy tradition, revival of the oldest tradition of Church governance . Synods were standard in Church life in the early period.  The Acts of Apostles vouches for the synodality of the Apostolic period in the selection of the seven deacons  and in the Synod of Jerusalem . 

The Council of Nicaea stipulated that Bishops should hold synods twice a year and the council of Trent ordered every bishop to hold synods annually in his diocese . The Vatican Council II described the church as people of God. Lumen Gentium describes the collegial relationship between the Pope and the Bishops. Post conciliar documents further went on to hold the view that the collegial relation between Bishops to their Priests and between Priests to their people .

Church of Saint Thomas Christians: inherently Synodal- The Christian republic.

In the context of Pope Francis’ call for a Synodal Church, Syro Malabar Church is also preparing to restore the early Church’s tradition of Synodality. The Church of Saint Thomas Christians was Synodal from the very early period in such a way that the governance of the Church was like a Christian republic as narrated by the early Portuguese writers . 

Judeo Christian tradition

Syro Malabar Church is the continuation of the ancient Apostolic Church of Saint Thomas in India in the Universal Catholic Communion. The Church of Saint Thomas Christians was the continuation of the Judeo-Christian community of the Apostles and disciples. As narrated in the Holy Bible, the earliest Church was synodal in governance. The Acts of Apostles portrays synodality in the early Church. In the Jerusalem Synod and the selection of seven deacons, the whole church was involved in the decision making, not just the Apostles and elders (the clergy) . Synods are a collegial way of governance of the Church in contrast to the hierarchical governance which crept into the Church when it became more Imperial, especially in the Greco Roman Churches. The Judeo-Christian Syriac Churches continued their synodal model of governance and collegiality. Thus, the Bishops remained spiritual leaders rather than rulers. Acts of Apostles narrates about separating temporal and spiritual roles and the Apostles wanted to remain as spiritual leaders. 

Synodality of Thomas Christians- The Christian republic

Until the advent of the Portuguese missionaries, the Church of Saint Thomas Christians was governed by Synods comprising of laity and clergy. The bishops who were usually monks from a remote monastery were spiritual leaders while the clergy and laity governed the Church. There were synods in three tiers. The Parish level assembly was called Edavaka palliyogam, a regional assembly called Pradeshika palliyogam and a national assembly, the Maha palliyogam. The edvaka palliyogam or parish assembly was the general council of the parish involving the vast majority of the laity.  The Edavaka palliyogam had the power and authority to approve the priests. Without the approval of the edvaka palliyogam, a priest could not be ordained. This certificate of the synod was called desakkury or the certificate of the local congregation. Those priests who were ordained by the European Missionary Bishops without the desakkury were not accepted by the community of Saint Thomas Christians and they had to join the Latin rite. All the temporal matters were governed by these assemblies or palliyogams. All the civil and criminal disputes among Christians were also dealt with by these palliyogams.

The second tier of the synod, the regional synod or pradeshika palliyogams were assemblies of representatives from at least 4 parishes. It is assumed that an external agency like the courts of the local rulers interferes only after a referral from the regional synod. Even European Missionaries had to accept this rule in the Mahapalliyogam of Angamali in 1773AD .

The national assembly was called Maha palliyogam. The Archdeacon, a priest was the president of the Maha palliyogam.  There are hints in the history that Bishops were selected by the Mahapalliyogam, the delegates of the Maha palliyogam travelled to monasteries in Babylon to select their Bishop. At all these tiers, the laity was the vast majority. It has been documented that the infamous Synod of Diamper convened by the Goan Archbishop Alexis Dom Menesis  in 1599 AD was attended by 4 laity representatives and a priest from each parish. These palliyogams held authority over all Christians in social, ecclesial, civil and even criminal matters. This is what the early European Missionaries narrated as the 'Christian Republic ’

Even after the Synod of Diamper and subsequent subjugation under the European Bishops, The Church of Saint Thomas Christians continued this synodal system. The historic journey of Kariattil Yawsep Malpan and Paremmakkal Thomman cathanar, two native priests to Rome in 1778 AD was a result of a Maha palliyogam of Angamali. The famous Angamali Padiyola- the Declaration of Angamali of 1787 AD was enacted by another Maha palliyogam which represented 84 parishes. After the period of Parammakkal Thomman Cathanar as Governodor, the Catholic Saint Thomas Christians lost this synodality partially and went into hierarchical governance under the colonial minded European Missionary rule. Even though the synodality was partially lost, there were informal synodal meetings among the clergy and laity to recapture the lost ecclesial independence and traditions which resulted in sending several delegations to the Patriarch of Chaldeans to get Bishops of the same rite. This strong synodal activity of ordinary faithful resulted in the Patriarch of Chaldeans consecrating a member of the delegation as Bishop, Mar Abraham (Paulose Panadry) in 1796 AD and sending Apostolic visitors,  Bishop Mar Thomas Rokos in 1861 AD and Bishop Mar Elia Melus in 1874 AD. These attempts resulted in minor schisms which prompted Rome to intervene. Rome recognised the Catholic Syro Chaldean community on the Malabar coast erecting separate vicariates at Kottayam and Trichur by Pope Leo XIII in 1887 AD. In 1896 native Bishops were appointed in three vicariates Kottayam, Trichur and Ernakulam. In 1923 AD, a Hierarchy was established for the Syro Chaldean rite in Malabar with the title Syro Malabar with a Metropolitan. Thus, the restoration of the Syro Malabar hierarchy in 1923 was a result of strong synodality that persisted among the Christians of Saint Thomas in India in the form of ecclesiastical assemblies of laity and clergy.

When the Syro Malabar vicariates were under Latin Bishops, they too continued some form of synodality in the form of diocesan synods . But when native Bishops took over the charge, the diocesan synods paved the way for advisory boards in the form of Pastoral councils.

Now, in the Syro Malabar Church, there are Parish assemblies to elect parish councils called Prathinidhi yogam or Prathipurusha yogam. At the Eparchial level, there are Pastoral councils as advisory bodies. A Major Archiepiscopal assembly also exists at the sui iuris church level. All these bodies are just an image of the ancient glorious synodal assemblies. 

Syro Malabar Liturgy: Inherently Synodal in nature.

Synodality manifests the pilgrim nature of the Church . The liturgical theology of Syro Malabar Church is that of a pilgrim Church. The Priest and the congregation standing and facing the altar. Symbolically, this is walking together towards God and heaven. Syro Malabar liturgical theology depicts the madbha as the throne of God and heaven. The liturgy celebrates all the events of salvation history symbolically and walking toward God as a pilgrim Church.

Pope Francis when he assumed charge, asked the people assembled in Vatican square to bless him and bent his head down. This was an act of seeking God’s blessing from the people of God. In the Syro Malabar Liturgy, the celebrant, in humility accepting that he is not worthy enough to perform the divine worship, asks the people of God to pray for him several times and turn to them bending his head down. This gesture is also depicting the same principle- seeking God’s spirit in the people of God who shares the common dignity and vocation through baptism . Through this Synodal process, Pope Francis is seeking God’s will in the whole people of God by their anointing of the Holy Spirit through baptism . 


Syro Malabar Church is an inherently synodal Church. This is a precious fidelity to the sources of the Church of the Apostles and Church Fathers.  Synodality exists in the Syro Malabar Church in the form of various laity forums at different levels in partnership with the clergy and hierarchy. In the context of the call for a Synodal Church by Pope Francis, the Syro Malabar Church should take serious steps to strengthen these synodal assemblies with a definite role for the laity in the governance at various levels of the Church.