The term ‘Catholicos’ (Katholikos) is derived from the Greek words ‘Kath-Holikos’, meaning ‘General Primate’ or ‘General Vicar’. Even before the primates of the Church adopted this title, it existed in the Roman Empire where its Government representative who was in charge of a large area was called ‘Catholicos’. The Government servant, who was in charge of State treasury, too was known by that name. In due course, the secular administrative heads in Persian Empire also adopted this title.
The Churches (mainly outside the Roman Empire) started to use this term for their Chief Bishops much later, probably by 4th or 5th centuries. Now the primates of the Orthodox Churches in Armenia, Georgia, Iraq and India, use the title ‘Catholicos’.
‘Maphryono’ (Maphrian) is derived from the Syriac word afri, “to make fruitful’, or "one who gives fecundity". This title came to be used exclusively for the head of the Syrian Orthodox Church in the East (Persia) after the prelates who occupied the office of the Catholicate since late 5th century adopted Nestorian Christology and separated from the mother Church. From the mid 13th century onwards, a few occupants of the Maphrianate were referred also as ‘Catholicos’, but the title never came into extensive usage. However in the 20th century when this office of the Maphrianate under the Holy See of Antioch was established in India, the chief of the local church assumed the title ‘Catholicos’. It is this title that is being used in India today, while the title ‘Maphryono’ (Maphrian) is no longer used.
Evolution of the historic office of Catholicos of the East
At the dawn of Christianity in the 1st century, there were two great political powers that stood against each other in the Near and the Middle East; the Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the Empire of the Parthians (or Sassanaid Persians since the early 3rd century), the traditional enmity of which has a determining influence on the history of that area for centuries. The border line between these rival empires divided the landscape of Mesopotamia with the Syriac speaking population on either side. The great city of Antioch where a Christian presence appeared for the first time outside Palestine, was the capital of the Syrian Province, in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. The bishoprics of the city of Antioch have special importance in the history of Christianity as it was here St. Peter, the chief of the Apostles, established his Apostolic See in AD 37. Antioch and regions east of it were placed under the care of the Bishop/Patriarch of Antioch and all the East. (The Christian church laws that took shape in the early era through regional and ecumenical councils reaffirmed the ecclesiastical jurisdictions of the Patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and Rome).
But the political barriers between the Persian and Roman Empires and the bitter rivalry of its rulers made intercommunications between the two regions much more difficult and dangerous. There were instances where clergy from Persia who were ordained by the Patriarch of Antioch were put to death alleging to be spies. It therefore, became necessary for the Patriarch to vest authority in an ecclesiastical dignitary to carry on the administration in the Persian region. Thus evolved the historic office of the Catholicate in Seleucia (Persian capital). The Bishop/Catholicos of Seleucia acted as the deputy of the Patriarch of Antioch, in the Persian Empire, with some exclusive privileges to consecrate bishops on behalf of the Patriarch. Though attempts to bring the Church under this single authority (Seleucian bishop) started in early 4th century itself, it became fruitful only a century later. Initially the other prelates of Persia were opposed to the idea of vesting powers in this Catholicate, but the support from the Antiochean Patriarchate helped to shed all barriers.
The First Catholicos of the Syrian Church
It was around the year 300, an attempt was made for the first time to establish the Church in the Persian Empire in an organised form. The initiative for this was taken by Bishop Papa (Baba, AD.267-329) of the Persian royal capital at Seleucia-Ctesiphon with the consent of the Patriarch of Antioch. In AD 315, the Bishop convened a Synod of the Persian prelates at Seleucia in which he tried to organize the local churches, with himself as a head. But the other prelates, especially those of Persia proper resisted and even deposed Bishop Papa. At this crucial juncture, the Bishops of Antioch, Edessa and Nisibis came to his rescue and reinstated him as prelate of the prime city.
It is believed that the title 'CATHOLICOS' was first used by this Bishop Papa. Anyhow, neither this Seleucian bishop nor his successors, until 410, never had any authority over other bishoprics in Persian empire and hence the title Catholicose, if ever used by Bishop Papa, does not mean in the same sense as it was known later.
About a century after, another serious attempt was made to unite all the bishoprics in the Persian Empire. In AD 410, an historic Synod of the churches in Persia was held under the auspices of Bishop Mor Marutha of Muipharqat (delegate of the Antiochean Patriarch), which recognized the primacy of the Metropolitan of Seleucia for the first time. Thus MOR ISHAQ (Issac), the bishop of Seleucia becomes the head of the Persian Church. He is the one who is acknowledged as the first "CATHOLICOS", with jurisdiction over the entire Persian Empire. He assumed this title at the Synod of Seleucia held in AD 410. The primate at that time, was also conferred with the title "Great Metropolitan and Chief of All Bishops". (In some other records the title is mentioned as "Great Metropolitan of All the East and Major Metropolitan of Seleucia-Ctesiphon".).
Catholicate in Malankara (India)
In 1860 the office of Maphrianate was abolished as per the decision of the Syrian Orthodox Church Synod held at Deyrul' al Zafran Monastery (Kurkkumo Dayro) under Patriarch Ignatius Ya`qub II. The same was re-established in India in 1964 by the Universal Synod held at Kottayam, presided by Patriarch Mor Ignatius Ya`qub III. From the days of the establishment of this Maphrianate in India, the Church started to officially use the title ‘Catholicos of the East’, with his jurisdiction limited to India in the East. In 2002 the office of the Maphrianate was renamed ‘Catholicos of India’ in accordance with its actual jurisdiction. Present headquarters of this ancient Catholicate (Maphrianate) of the Syrian Orthodox Church is at Puthencuriz, Cochin, with Catholicos Aboon Mor Baselios Thomas I as the Chief of the Church in India.
In Episcopal dignity the Catholicos ranks second to the Patriarch. As His Holiness’s deputy, the Catholicos preside over the provincial Holy Synod. He and all the clergy of the faithful in India pledge loyalty to the Patriarch of Antioch, the supreme spiritual authority of the Syriac Orthodox Church throughout the world. In its long history there are many instances when a Maphrian (Catholicos) was elevated to the position of the Patriarch in the Syrian Orthodox Church.
Catholicos Aboon Mor Baselios Thomas I, the spiritual head of the Syrian Christians of India, was born in the Cheruvillil family of Vadayambadi, Puthenkuriz to Mathai and Kunjamma on 22nd July 1929. Early part of his life was full of sufferings. Though he belonged to an aristocratic family, by the time he was born the family had seen bad days. As a child he had frequent bouts of illness which affected his education. His mother used to take the young boy frequently to the nearby Malecuriz Dayro where the relics of late Patriarch St. Ignatius Elias III and Saint Gregorios Geevarghese (Parumala Thirumeni) had been interred. One night, as his mother prayed with the young boy on her lap, she had a vision which prompted her to dedicate the boy to the service of the church. Within days, the boy's illness was entirely cured. God was with him, guiding him and shaping him.
His priestly formation was under the guidance of Mor Philoxenos Paulose (late Catholicos Mor Baselios Paulose II) who ordained him 'Korooyo' in 1952 and 'Shamshono' at Kadamattom Church in 1957. In August 1958, C M Thomas was ordained 'Kassisso' (full priest) by Mor Yulius Elias at the Majanikkara Dayro. In 1959 he was appointed as the vicar of St.Peter's church, Puthencuriz. Later he served the churches at Vellathooval, Keezhumuri, Fort Cochin, Valamboor, Calcutta and Thrissur. For a period of seven years from 1967, he was the organizing secretary of Kolenchery Medical Mission Hospital. He also served as the Chief organizer of the North Indian mission at Bhilai in 1970's and as the secretary of the 'Pourasthaya Suvishesha Samajam' in 1974. He was well known as a great revivalist preacher and was also recognized as an excellent organizer.
In January 1974, Fr. C M Thomas was elected to the episcopate by the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Christian Association convened at the Karingachira St. George Church and was consecrated Metropolitan with the title 'Mor Dionysius' by H.H. Mor Ignatius Ya`qub III on 24th February 1974 at Damascus, Syria. He was entrusted with the charge of Angamali diocese, the largest of all the Syrian Orthodox dioceses which has a membership of more than half a million. The untiring efforts of Mor Dionysius in those days had helped a lot to revive the confidence of not merely the faithful of the diocese, but the entire Malankara Church. Metropolitans Mor Dionysius, Mor Gregorios Geevarghese (late) and Mor Koorilos Kuriakose (late) together were a great support to the (late) Catholicos Aboon Mor Baselios Paulose II, the then Chief of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. As the Metropolitan of Angamali Mor Dionysius had successfully initiated many welfare programs and also reorganized the diocesan administration. In 1978 Mor Baselios Medical Mission Hospital at Kothamangalam was started under his patron-ship.
Following the demise of Mor Baselios Paulose II in 1996, Mor Gregorios Geevarghese (Perumpally Thirumeni) become the President of the Episcopal Synod of the Church in India. After the passing away of Mor Gregorios Geevarghese in February 1999, Mor Dionysius assumed the Presidency of the Malankara Church Synod. On 27th December 2000, His Excellency was chosen as the Catholicos-designate by the Holy Episcopal Synod. The Church delegates meeting held at Puthencuriz on the same day, unanimously approved this decision. H.H the Patriarch, however, waited for two more years in expectation of a peaceful settlement to the longstanding dispute between the two factions of Malankara Church. But as it became clearer that the chances for reconciliation is remote because of the insincerity on the part of the opposite faction; a crucial convention was convened at Puthencuriz, Kerala on 6th July 2002 in which delegates from all the parishes participated and they approved a new constitution for the effective administration of the Indian Church, with the consent of the supreme head, the Patriarch of Antioch & all the East. H.E. Mor Dionysius Thomas was elected as the Catholicos and the Metropolitan Trustee of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church at this historic Church Association. The election was later ratified by the Holy Episcopal Synod of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church on 22nd July 2002.
On Friday the 26th July 2002, His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas the Patriarch of Antioch & all the East, consecrated the 73-year old Mor Dionysius Thomas as the CATHOLICOS with the title 'BASELIOS THOMAS I' at a solemn function held at the St. Peter & St. Paul Cathedral in Mor Ephrem Monastery, Ma`arat Sayyidnaya, near Damascus. Thus, fulfilling the wishes of multitude of faithful, the Malankara Church received a Catholicos after a gap of six years (Catholicos Mor Baselios Paulose II died in 1996). In the Syrian Orthodox Church hierarchy, the Catholicos is second in rank to the supreme spiritual head, the Patriarch of Antioch.
Fourteen Syrian Orthodox Bishops, from India, Syria, Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Lebanon, Jerusalem, Turkey and Australia attended the enthronement ceremony as the co-celebrants. Thirty five Rambans, many Nuns of the Church and lay people were also present on the occasion to participate in the historical ceremony. Representatives from Government of Syria & India attended the consecration ceremony as special guests. Besides the three Metropolitans who were the co-celebrants, the Church in India was represented by Very Rev Eraalil Geevarghese Ramban (Kerala), Rev. Fr. Prince Mookkanottil (Vicar Mor Ignatius Syrian Orthodox Church Dubai), Rev. Fr. Eldho Valiya Parambil (Vicar-St.George Abu Dhabi), Rev. Fr. Kurian Maliyil (Vicar Sharjah), Rev.Fr. Mathews (Muscat) and Rev. Fr. Varghese Maikkulangara (Kerala). The consecration ceremony started with the celebration of Holy Qurbono at 8 AM by His Holiness the Patriarch, followed by enthronement ceremony, signing of 'SUSTHATHIKON' (Agreement) and 'OKSIOS' (Rising and Declaration). The ceremonial Services ended with the completion of the Holy Qurbono by the newly consecrated Catholicos.
After the enthronement ceremony a reception was given to the Catholicos His Beatitude Mor Baselios Thomas the First. During the speech delivered on the occasion, His Holiness emphasized the commitment of the Holy See to the Church in India. Replying to the congratulatory messages, His Beatitude the Catholicos Aboon Mor Baselios Thomas I reiterated that he like his predecessors, will always take great care in the continuance of the faith and traditions of the Syrian Church.
Catholicos reaching India
On Saturday 27th July at 10.50 am, His Beatitude arrived at Cochin International Airport where he was given a rousing reception by thousands of people from all walks of life. The representatives of the State government including Cabinet Ministers were present at the Airport to welcome the new Catholicos. Soon after his arrival His Beatitude went to the nearby Akaparambu Mor Sabor Mor Aphroth Church and offered prayers.
The Catholicos then proceeded to the Kothamangalam MarThoma Church where the mortal remains of Maphriyono St. Baselios Yeldho (1685) is entombed. Later His Beatitude visited Malecuriz Dayro and offered prayers at the tomb of his immediate predecessor Aboon Mor Baselios Paulose II. By around 7.00 PM the Catholicos reached St. Joseph's Cathedral, the headquarters of Kottayam diocese and then visited the Manarcaud MarthMariam Church, a major Syrian Orthodox pilgrim centre in Kerala. All through the way, huge gathering of faithful assembled at various places to have a glimpse of their beloved Catholicos and chanted, 'long live Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka I Iwas', 'long live Catholicos Mor Baselios Thomas I', 'long live Antioch-Malankara relationship'. On Sunday the 28th, H.B. the Catholicos celebrated the Holy Qurbono at the Kyomtho Seminary chapel to commemorate the second dhukrono of Mor Osthatheos Thomas, the former Metropolitan of Kochi diocese.
On 31st July 2002, the Sunthroniso of Aboon Mor Baselios Thomas I Bava was held at the Kothamangalam Marthoma Cheriapally. H.E. Mor Julius Kuriakose, the first secretary to the Patriarch of Antioch read the Susthathicon, the Patriarchal Bull, proclaiming the enthronement of the new Catholicos for the Church in India. The function was attended by all the Metropolitans of the Malankara Church, hundreds of priests and very large number of laymen who came from all parts of Malankara.
As the head of the Church in India the Catholicos presides over the Holy Episcopal Synod of Malankara Church which includes all the Metropolitans of the Syrian Orthodox Church in India. His Beatitude is also the Metropolitan Trustee of the Jacobite Syrian Christian Association.