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ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a historic first, the Vatican has permitted an Indian patriarch heading an autocephalous church branded as heretical by the Holy Inquisition to celebrate the Holy Eucharist at a papal basilica in Rome.
Christ "calls us to recognize and adore him at a single Eucharistic altar," Pope Francis stressed, as His Holiness Baselios Marthoma Mathews III offered the Divine Liturgy in the West Syriac rite at the Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls on Sunday morning.
The Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church is not in communion with the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Churches but is part of the Oriental Orthodox family of churches and a founding member of the Protestant-dominated World Council of Churches.
On Monday, Pope Francis welcomed Mathews, the catholicos of the East and the metropolitan of the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, to the Vatican and acknowledged the ancient faith of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, tracing its origins to the Apostle Thomas.
"I am convinced that we can learn much from the age-old synodal experience of your Church," Francis stressed, highlighting the contribution of the Malankara Orthodox Church's synodal experience to the forthcoming Synod of Bishops in October.
"The ecumenical movement is contributing to the ongoing synodal process of the Catholic Church, and it is my hope that the synodal process can, in turn, contribute to the ecumenical movement," Francis noted. "Pastoral ecumenism is the natural way to full unity."
"It is my hope that pastoral agreements between our Churches, which share the same apostolic heritage, may spread and develop, especially in areas where the faithful are in a minority or in diaspora," the pontiff added.
Also known as the Indian Orthodox Church, the independent church traces its origins to the arrival of St. Thomas at Malankara in the south Indian state of Kerala in A.D. 52 and to the congregations of "Thomas Christians" he established in seven villages.
After 1561, Thomas Christians were branded as heretics by the Goa Inquisition, which had been established under Portuguese rule. The 1599 Synod of Diamper anathematized the Malankara Christians and other Indian Christians who did not submit to Rome.
With the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century in South India, the ancient church of St. Thomas "began to undergo the decisive effect of the Portuguese colonial era coupled with the adverse effects of Roman Catholicism," the Malankara Church's website explains.
"Five well-planned maneuvers were played to force this church finally to obey Rome," it narrates. "The Thomas Christians as a whole reacted against Roman Catholicism in 1653 through the famous event known as the Coonan Cross Oath."
What the Roman Catholics "found to be heretical" among the Thomas Christians was "an emphasis on the full humanity of Jesus Christ, an appreciation of human freedom and responsibility, a positive attitude to other religions and cultures and a strong affirmation of the independence and freedom of the Indian Church," the history section of the website elaborates.
Thomas Christians who resisted the attempts of Roman Catholic Portuguese missionaries to Latinize them and subjugate them to papal authority, regard their struggles with Rome as "a long and unending tale of misgovernment, bitterness, tyranny and woe," writes church historian Robert Frykenberg in Christianity in India: From Beginnings to the Present.
The Malankara Church accepts miaphysitism, holding that in the one person of Jesus Christ, divinity and humanity are united in one nature without separation, without confusion, without alteration and without mixing where Christ is consubstantial with the Father.
The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church sent observers to the Second Vatican Council after Pope Paul VI met the Catholicos Baselios Augen I in Bombay in 1964.
In 1983, His Holiness Baselios Marthoma Mathews I visited Rome. Pope John Paul II reciprocated three years later by visiting Mathews I in the Cathedral of Mar Elia in Kottayam.
At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis personally received Mathews III's immediate predecessor, Baselios Marthoma Paulose II, in September 2013.
In May, Francis permitted the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Tawadros II, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran — the official ecclesiastical seat of the pope as bishop of Rome.
A month before Pope Tawadros' visit to the basilica, Anglican prelate Jonathan Baker, a suffragan bishop in the diocese of London, triggered outrage after attempting to celebrate Mass in the Roman Rite at the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.
Saint John Lateran supersedes St. Peter's Basilica in primacy, and despite the grandeur of St. Peter's (designated a "basilica" compared to the Lateran "archbasilica"), St. John's remains the cathedral church of the Roman pontiff.
The Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity has stated that bishops may allow "priests, ministers or communities not in full communion with the Catholic Church" the "use of a church" if they "do not have a place or the liturgical objects necessary for celebrating worthily their religious ceremonies."
"Where there is a good ecumenical relationship and understanding between the communities, the shared ownership or use of church premises over an extended period of time may become a matter of practical interest," the Directory for the Application of the Principles and Norms on Ecumenism adds.
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