Of Christians & conversion
By: Abraham Arakal
The Synod of Diamper, held in 1599 in the village of Udayamperoor, is a unique event in Kerala history, maybe even, Indian history. As a bilingual conference, it is a historic ‘first’. Never before in the subcontinent’s recorded history had nearly 800 delegates, lived together under the same roof for seven days and made serious deliberations on religion and articles of faith, as well as socio-cultural customs and practices.
The two languages ‘Portuguese’ and ‘Malayalam’ had their first ‘meeting’ only a 100 years earlier in 1498 when Vasco da Gama’s fleet anchored off the palm fringed coast of Calicut. The fact that in another 100 years, the Portuguese could enable the mutual contacts and relationships of these two to grow and develop to the extent of being capable of acting as the common media for the conduct of a bilingual conference is a golden feather on the Portuguese cap.
The system of simultaneous translation from Portuguese to Malayalam and back, arranged by archbishop Alexis Menezes, the architect of the synod, was unique. He chose a Malayalee priest, who was well versed in both the languages, as the chief translator, and made him swear that his translation of whatever transpired in the synod would be true and faultless. Another team of experts were sworn in to check the veracity of the translation.
The most important byproduct of the Indo-Portuguese contact was the discovery of a Christian community in Malabar unknown till then. No matter if Prester John and his Christian kingdom in the east remained as legendary and as illusory as ever, here thrived a vibrant Christian Community that could claim an apostolic tradition far more ancient than most of those in the western Christendom.
The Portuguese were very proud of their discovery of the Malabar Christianity. Their initial relationship with local Christians was warm and friendly. But soon, the relations soured. One main reason was that the Malabar Church used to entertain prelates from the East Syrian Church which accepted the Christian doctrine of Nestorius whom the Catholic Church had excommunicated. Occult practices by the clergy, Nestorian elements in worship, practice of caste system and untouchability and refusal to do evangelization work among lower castes were also among the ‘un-Christian’ and ‘anti-Christian’ practices that drew Portuguese ire.
In addition, they were also annoyed with the local Christians over maintenance of slaves without giving them baptism and discrimination against girls in inheritance. They took upon themselves the task of weaning away the local Christians from such practices.
But the local Christians resisted the changes proposed. They saw in it an attempt to distort their age-old liturgical practices and even an attempt at annihilation of their way of life.
However, there was somewhere a latent notion of papal supremacy embedded in their faith ethos. That persuaded them to attend the synod under papal orders by a Latin archbishop.
There was almost a full participation with about 150 priests and 650 lay representatives responding to the call.
In spite of the presence of hostile doubting Thomases in the synod, the proceedings went more or less smoothly and culminated in the passing of 165 decisions or canons–150 of them on faith and liturgy and the rest on sociocultural customs.
Some sessions witnessed heated debates and accusations. Several accusations about local practices were questioned. But archbishop Menezes, though only in his late thirties, was a man of scholarship with an immeasurable knowledge of local customs. His persuasive power helped ward off dissents and made the unanimous passing of the decrees possible.
But many delegates were unhappy. They were furious but silent and for the time being at least, disorganized. But the opposition continued underground, centered round the raw deal which the arch deacon, the leader of the Malabar Christians, received at the synod and the difficulties he had to face in his dealings with the Latin bishops who became all powerful.
It was this opposition, which continued unabated for the next 50 years with occasional surfacing in open that led to the ‘Oath’ at ‘Coonen Cross’. Insistence on priestly celibacy as well as periodic transfer of priests, which the synod promulgated, infuriated most priests. Priestly celibacy was almost unknown to Kerala clergy who never entertained ‘episcopal aspirations,’ as episcopacy was reserved to priests from Syria.
Most of the lay delegates to the synod were influential people-rich merchants, money lenders, and family patriarchs. They were proud of their high ranking in caste order and the untouchability they could practice against lower castes. So, they could not brook at all the synod’s call for evangelization among lower castes.
Likewise, strictures against polygamy, and prohibition of concubinage, and threat of ex-communication for hefty rates of interest by money lenders, all upset them.
Equal rights for the girl child in inheritance and even the introduction of mother tongue in daily prayers in the place of Syriac, were vehemently opposed by them. The same was the case with the severance of the centuries old connection with the patriarch of Babylon.
No wonder, many were the groups that crystallized in opposition around the aforementioned sour points.
In the latter half of 19th century, in England, ‘Had Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo’ was a favourite essay topic for history students in universities. Toeing that line, if the question ‘Had the Syrian Christian community responded positively to the call of the Synod of Diamper for evangelization among the lower castes’ is taken up, the answers would be pregnant with many surprising conclusions.
Abraham Arakal is the former principal of Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, Victoria College, Palakkad, and St Michael’s College, Cherthala. He is also the ex-vice-president of the Catholic Council of India
Courtesy : TNN