KOCHI, India—More than 100,000 Catholics, including nearly 100 bishops and 1,500 priests, marked the 1,950 years of Christianity in India since the arrival of St. Thomas the Apostle.

Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, special envoy of Pope John Paul II and prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, celebrated a solemn Mass of thanksgiving here in southern Kerala state Nov.

17.

The massive celebration was organized by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council to commemorate the arrival of St. Thomas in Kerala in the year 52 and of St. Francis Xavier 1,500 years later.

“His Holiness is very grateful to India for opening its doors to Christianity and for the enrichment that has brought to the universal Church,” Cardinal Sepe said. The message was read during a closing ceremony that was attended by a host of prominent national leaders, including Indian President Abdul Kalam.

Describing the jubilee celebrations as an “important milestone” in Indian Church history, the papal message recalled that “India, this land of ancient cultures and religions, opened its heart at different points of history to these apostles from the West.” Sts. Thomas and Francis Xavier “played a very special role in India's religious history.”

The “doubting” Apostle had followed spice merchants from the Middle East to the Malabar (the name of Kerala in ancient times) coast on the Arabian Sea. He was martyred at Mylapore in neighboring Tamil Nadu state, pierced with a lance by Hindus envious of his miracles and conversions. Today, thousands throng the Mount St. Thomas shrine at Mylapore near Madras.

The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier, who reached India in the company of Portuguese invaders in 1542, preached the Gospel across India before he set out for China, where he died in 1552. The mortal remains of the saint were later brought back to India and are preserved at the Basilica of Bom Jesu in Goa, where he first set foot in India.

A Model for Others

In his homily, Cardinal Sepe hailed the “glowing past” of the Indian Church and commended the missionary zeal it has shown as a “model” for other churches.

The Kerala-based Syro-Malabar Church that traces its origin to St. Thomas is one of the vibrant Churches in the Catholic communion. It was raised to “autonomous” status in 1992. The 3.3 million-strong Syro-Malabar Church has an enviable vocation ratio of a nun or priest for about every 50 members of the Church. Hundreds of nuns and priests from the Church are working in Africa, America and Europe.

More adulation for Indian Christians came from Indian President Kalam—a Muslim—who hailed the Christian contribution in the field of education and health care.

Born in a poor fishing family in south India, Kalam was educated at a Protestant school and a Catholic college and went on to spearhead India's missile program for two decades before he was chosen as Indian president earlier this year.

Hailing the patriotism of the Indian Church, Kalam narrated an incident that led to India's first missile being built inside St. Mary's Catholic Church near Thumpa in Kerala. Kalam recalled that when India's defense research scientists were looking for an ideal location for a space research center in the early 1960s, they identified Thumpa village with the Catholic church and a school surrounded by fishermen's dwellings.

Responding to the scientists' request to hand over the church land in the interest of the nation, Bishop Peter Pereira of the Trivandrum Diocese invited the chief of the team of scientists to address the faithful at Sunday Mass. The congregation agreed to hand over the church premises in exchange for a new church built at government expense.

‘Foreigners’

However, during a seminar on the history of Christianity in India, Church historians and others expressed “perplexity and deep anguish” over growing attempts to portray Christians as “foreigners” by Hindu fundamentalists.

The seminar, part of the Jubilee celebration, ended with a statement decrying attempts “to vociferously malign our community by distorting historical facts and representing us as aliens in our own motherland.”

“Our fears get ever more confirmed that despite the good will of the vast majority of fellow citizens, there are people who intentionally exploit the religious sentiments of the majority [Hindus] to achieve at our expense political gains for themselves,” said the statement, endorsed by 200 seminar participants, including a dozen bishops.

Despite these difficulties, the statement reiterated that the Indian Church “will continue” all its ministries and will show a preferential concern for the less privileged sections of Indian society—with more than 30% of India's 1 billion people living in penury.

The Holy Father in his message also urged the Church in India to follow the example of Jesus, “who sought out the lowly and those in need, irrespective of their background.”

“As long as one person is suffering, the Church cannot turn a blind eye or close up and get into a shell looking after its own members,” exhorted the papal message.

Archbishop Cyril mar Baselios, president of the bishops' conference, said the Indian Church is thrilled by the Vatican's commendation of her missionary work as “a model for other churches.”

Asked whether the Church in India feels intimidated by increasing anti-Christian propaganda, Archbishop Baselios replied: “There is nothing new. Even our Apostle [St. Thomas] was martyred. We should be ready to face obstacles to defend our faith and our mandate.”

“In the face of opposition we cannot keep quiet or back away,” continued the archbishop. “Only trials can test the strength of our faith. The challenge [before the Indian Church] is whether we are prepared to embrace martyrdom to prove our faith if at all it is required.”

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.