11/15/2017, 14.12
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St Thomas Missionaries at 50: the ad gentes mission of the Syro-Malabar Church

by Gianni Criveller

Established in Kerala, the missionary institute has outposts in Europe and the Americas with 345 members and 200 seminarians, a hundred in the major seminary. Despite difficulties and persecutions, there is no distrust or discouragement. It is committed to India and China.

Palai (AsiaNews) – A conference (13-16 November) on missiology is currently underway in Palai (Kerala) on the ‘Role and Relevance of Missionary Societies and Congregations in Mission ad Gentes and New Evangelisation’. Organised by the Missionary Society of St Thomas the Apostle (MST) and coordinated by fr Jose Palakeel, the event marks the group’s 50th anniversary and is a venue for participants to reflect on its missionary vocation.

St Thomas Missionaries are a young and still growing group. They are the first missionary body of the Syrian-Malabar Church in Kerala, and its members are also known, given its apostolic origins, as ‘St Thomas Christians. The missionaries of St. Thomas therefore exemplify the decision of this Church to be fully engaged in missionary activity ad gentes.

The Siro-Malabar Church has about 4.5 million members, and embodies an impressive Christian vitality. India is the country with the largest number of missionaries in the world. In particular, the diocese where the conference is taking place and where the missionaries of St Thomas were created in 1968, has the highest number of candidates for the ministry and religious life.

In India, Catholics face the serious challenges of the mission every day: anti-Christian persecution by religious fundamentalists, nationalism that seeks to marginalise and snuff out Churches, and daily exchange and dialogue on life with the believers of other faiths.

The conference, attended by about 50 missionaries and scholars as well as representatives of various missionary societies and congregations, male and female, was opened by the Bishop of Palai Mar Joseph Kallarangatt, the best-known living theologian of the Syro-Malabar Church.

MST General Director Fr Kurian Ammanathukunnel outlined the history of the society, whose plans include sending missionaries to proclaim the Gospel in India. Indeed, India is a subcontinent with many states, with completely different languages ​​and cultures. For St Thomas missionaries, leaving Kerala to evangelise in other parts of India is a true missionary act.

St Thomas Missionaries also evangelise in other countries, in Europe (Italy for example) and the Americas, upon request by local bishops. The society is growing remarkably: it now has 345 members, and 200 seminarians, a hundred in the major seminary.

Other Indian-based missionary groups were represented at the conference, including the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate, the Daughters of St Thomas, and the congregation of the Franciscan Clarists. This latter has some 7,000 members. Saint Alphonsa, the first member of the Syro-Malabar Church to be canonised (by Pope Benedict in 2008) was a member of this congregation. She hailed from Palai, home to the great shrine dedicated to her.

Sister Rani Maria Vattalil, who was killed in Indore (Madhya Pradesh) on the order of landowners in 1995, also belonged to the same Kerala-based congregation. She was beatified on 4 November. Her moving story continues to be relevant today. Her killer changed his life, was released from prison at the request of the family of the heroic nun, and took part in the beatification ceremony of his victim.

Representatives of other missionary congregations spoke at the conference, including the Missionaries of St Francis Xavier and the Indian Missionary Society, both missionary expressions of the Indian Church.

The various speakers focused on understanding the challenges of the mission, particularly in India. The missionary way of thinking expressed by the scholars present, sometimes in a very deep and innovative way, faces a mission that evolves and changes, accepting fully the complexity of current challenges.

No one expressed any sense of distrust or discouragement in the face of serious difficulties and uncertainties about the future. The Church in India is conscious of its marginality (2.3 per cent of the population), but has remained faithful to its very ancient tradition despite countless oppositions and misunderstandings (in the past, even from the colonial Church). Today, more than ever, there is awareness that there is no Church, however ancient and prestigious, without the mission.

Members of missionary societies from other Asian countries were also at the conference. The Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), present in India for 150 years, is represented by this writer who described the missionary challenges in China, and the strong historical connection between the mission in India and China.

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