Pope Benedict XVI’s statement that St Thomas had landed in western India and Christianity had spread from there to south India has kicked off a debate among Christians in Kerala.
Addressing a vast crowd at the St Peter’s Square during the Wednesday homily, Pope Benedict XVI stated: "Let us remember that an ancient tradition claims Thomas first evangelised Syria and Persia and then penetrated as far as western India from where Christianity reached also south India."
Kerala’s Christians are broadly divided into descendants of early Christians baptised by St Thomas and the rest drawn from marginalised sections and converted by St Francis Xavier in the 16th century.
The former are called Syrian Christians, which refers to the liturgical rites akin to Syrian traditions and underlines their upper caste origins.
The Syrian Catholic church was obviously not pleased with the papal homily, which questions their very origin.
Cardinal Varkey Mar Vithayathil, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, has pleaded the Vatican to shed more light on the part pertaining to St Thomas’s trip to India.
The community in Kerala believes that St Thomas came to their land in AD 52 and established churches.
Unless Pope Benedict XVI brings more clarity to his sermon, Christians, especially Syrian Catholics, have reasons to feel let down since what he said goes against their traditional beliefs.
Fr Kuriakose Mundadan, editor of Satyadeepam (a church publication), agrees there’s little evidence to prove that the apostle had visited South India some 20 centuries ago.
"But it’s our faith," Fr Mundadan said. "It is the question of faith over which the Pope has total infallibility, but the tradition associated with apostle St Thomas baptising the early Christians in Kerala is linked to our existence, tradition and our custom."
It is not only Syro-Malabar Church that is offended by the controversial homily but also the Marthoma church, which as it is does not accept the Pope entirely as their supreme spiritual leader.