The Bettiah Christians are considered the oldest existing Christian community in northern India. Their history starts with
the establishment of Hindustan-Tibet mission.
When it was established, the Prefecture Apostolic in northern India included the entire state of Nepal. Its northern boundary
was Tibet and the Ganges was its southern end.
In 1738 Capuchin Father Joseph of Carignano arrived at Bettiah, in the present Bihar state, on his way to the missions
of Nepal and Tibet. He cured the Queen of Bettiah, who was grievously ill. In return, the king allowed him to preach the Gospel
in his kingdom.
The Nepal war of 1769 forced Christians to move southwards to Bettiah. In 1883 Father Alexander of Albano opened an orphanage
at Chaknee. Six years later, it was entrusted to the to the Capuchins province of Northern Tyrol.
In 1892, the region was made an independent prefecture, suffragan to Agra. The districts of Bettiah, Champaran, Sarun,
Tiroot, Muzuffarpore, Dharbanga, and part of Bhagalpur and Monghry were assigned to it.
The Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide in 1893 attached the whole of Nepal to this new prefecture, separating it from
the diocese of Allahabad.
Bettiah Christians, more educated than followers of other religions in Bihar, are now occupy high government offices. They
also take pride in their Catholic faith and effectively witness to Christian values
The Konkani Christians
The Catholic community in Canara region is a sterling example of brave defense of Catholic faith and agile acculturation
of Christianity in Indian soil.
Often called the Konkani Christians because of the language they use, the original community migrated from Goa during 1500-1763.
Varied political, economic and cultural reasons led to the migration.
The Portuguese colonizers in Goa imposed excessive taxes on the native Christians. The taxes were so huge that in 1642
some native Goans sent a memorandum to Lisbon.
The Portuguese, in their efforts to keep Christian purity, insisted the converts should avoid anything that is Hindu. The
Portuguese rulers also insisted the natives should adopt foreign food habits and dress. They also gave European names to the
natives. But Konkani Christians wanted to preserve their language, culture and manners.
The "Edict of Goa Inquisition" could have also led to the migration. The edict wanted to remove all traces of paganism
in the native Christians' birth, death, festivals and dress. It instilled fear and insecurity among the native Christians.
Some historians say better prospects for the agrarian community and greater political stability in the Canara region contributed
to the migration.
As they settled happily, Konkani Catholics learnt Kannada and Tulu, the local dialects in Canara region. However, they
fostered their love for their mother tongue Konkani. By 1763, they were organized into several communities of parishes and
built up their own business.
A historical event of great significance happened when South Canara came under the rule of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan between
Soon after the treaty of Mangalore in 1784, Tipu Sultan issued orders to all stations in Kerala to seize the Christians,
confiscate their estates and deport them to Seringapatnam.
The Konkani Christians of South Canara were caught in the crossfire of Anglo-Mysore relations and many of them suffered
what the Konkani Christians call "the historical experience of Captivity" under Tipu Sultan.
Tipu committed several excess on the Christians and subjected them to inhuman misery, including death and torture.
The fourth Anglo-Mysore war led to the liberation of Christians from captivity after 15 years. The British took over South
Canara after the fall of Tipu Sultan in 1799.
Some 15,000 of the exiled Konkani Christians survived. British General Wellesley helped some 10,000 of them return to Canara
and allowed them to resettle on their land. He also restored their land holdings.
The present Konkani Catholics in Canara are the descendents of those survivors.
The spread of Christianity in the eastern part of India began with the arrival of Jesuits in Calcutta.
Around mid sixteenth century, Portuguese merchants started trades with the ports of Bengal. But they did not stay there.
Their ships came to Bengal when the monsoon started in Kerala at the end of May and returned to Cochin in October.
About 1571 they obtained from Mogul emperor Akbar, then residing in Agra, concessions to build a town in Hugli, erect churches
and send for priests for evangelization.
Portuguese merchants and settlers soon flocked to Hugli. Many natives became Christians. In 1598 Hugli had some 5,000 Catholics,
including Portuguese, natives and people of mixed origin.
Around this time native kings approached the Portuguese for protection. The Portuguese mercenaries were numerous in India
and famous for their undaunted bravery.
Some Portuguese settled in Bandel, on the bank of a river to rend military services. In return they received land and monthly
salaries. Their numbers increased rapidly. They married local women. Many native converts came to them for protection and
security. These converts were called topassees, because they wore a hat, like the Portuguese (topa means hat).
All the Catholic communities of Bengal were under the jurisdiction of Cochin diocese, erected in 1557. But no regular provision
had been made for the maintenance of priests and building churches. Hugli alone had a church and a parish priest. Elsewhere
Catholics depended for spiritual ministrations on any priest who happened to travel through the place.
In 1606, the diocese of St Thomas of Mylapore was erected, and Bengal was put under its jurisdiction.
The Jesuits built
a school and hospital in Hugli, and some churches residences in other places. The native rulers generously aided the new missions.
But political disturbances ruined these happy beginnings. Churches and residences were destroyed in 1603 and Jesuits recalled
their four men from Bengal. In the meantime, Cochin made some permanent provision for the Catholics of Bengal. It entrusted
Bengal to the Augustinians of Goa and conferred exclusive right to the parishes.
In 1599 five Augustinians landed in Hugli, built a house and took possession of the church or churches existing in the
In Calcutta, the first Catholic chapel dates from 1700. In 1834, the Vicariate Apostolic of Bengal was created and entrusted
it to the English Province of the Society of Jesus, and at the end of 1838 to the diocesan clergy.
In 1845, the Vicariate of Bengal was divided into the Vicariate Apostolic of Calcutta and the Vicariate of Chittagong,
the latter to be administered by its own Ordinary under the direction of the Vicar Apostolic of Calcutta.
In 1850, the two Vicariates of Calcutta and Chittagong were made independent and called West Bengal and East Bengal respectively.
In 1856, Propaganda Fide handed over the Vicariate to the Belgian Jesuits. In 1886, the Vicariate Apostolic became the
Archdiocese of Calcutta.
With the foundation of Propaganda Fide in 1622 a new chapter began in the history of the missions in the Church, although
its effects were not immediately shown on the Indian soil.
In 1637, the Propaganda Fide erected the Apostolic Vicariate of Idalcan/Deccan/Bijapur independent of Goa. The congregation
also chose Father Matteo de Castro, a Brahmin Catholic of Goa as its Vicar Apostolic, a move the Padroado archbishop and priests
of Goa opposed.
Between the erection of this first vicariate (1637) and the formation of Indian hierarchy (1886) we will see several overlapping
jurisdictions, established by either the Propaganda Fide or by the Portuguese Padroado.
Despite problems the Vicariate of Bijapur continued and several other vicariates were also established by the middle of
19th century. Rome wanted to strengthen these ecclesiastical units and end jurisdictional complexities linked with Padroado
In 1886, Pope Leo XIII constituted an Indian hierarchy through the promulgation of the Bull Humanae Salutis.
With this, six archdioceses were erected in India. They were Agra, Bombay, Calcutta Madras, Pondicherry and Verapoly. The
bull also established 10 dioceses of Allahabad, Cochin, Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Krishnagar, Mysore, Pune, Quilon, Tiruchirapalli
and Visakhapatnam. It also allowed Patna to continue as a separate Vicariate.
For the Syro-Malabar Catholics in Kerala, the pope created two Vicariates Apostolic--Trichur and Kottayam--in 1887. In
1896, this was reorganized into three Vicariates Apostolic--Trichur, Ernakulam and Changanacherry.
The Syro-Malankara rite came into existence in 1930. Pope Pius XI established the Malankara hierarchy in 1932 with Trivandrum
archdiocese and Tiruvalla diocese.
The Indian Catholic Church, a union of these three rites, has 149 diocese and some 16 million Catholics, spread into the
remotest villages of India.
The Syro-Malabar Hierarchy
The Syro-Malabar Church, one of the three rites within the Indian Catholic Church, is a branch of an ancient Christian
community founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle.
The St. Thomas Christians, based in Kerala, had their own bishops from the Middle East until 1597 when the last Syrian
Bishop Mar Abraham died. Since then until 1887, the Syrian Catholics were under Latin bishops of various religious congregations.
In 1887, Pope Leo XII created the vicariates of Kottayam and Trichur for the Church, recognizing its independent culture
and liturgical traditions. But the Vicar Apostolics appointed were of Latin rite.
In 1896 the vicariates were re-organized into Changanacherry, Ernakulam and Trichur and the Church received Vicar Apostolic
of its own rite and culture.
In 1911 Kottayam vicariate was created exclusively for the endogamous "Suddists (purists)," who claim to be the descendants
of Thomas of Cana.
Pope Pius XI in 1923 elevated the Vicariate of Ernakulam an archdiocese with the diocese of Trichur, Changanacherry and
Kottayam as its suffragans. In the strict sense this marked the establishment of Syro-Malabar hierarchy.
From 1950 the Church began to grow out of its base in central Kerala and dioceses were extended to the state's southern
and northern parts. From 1962 the Church began set up mission centers in northern India, which later became dioceses.
The first diocese outside Kerala was Chanda, in central India, in 1977.
The Syro-Malabar Church now has 26 dioceses with 10 dioceses outside Kerala but within India. One diocese, Chicago, covers
Catholics in the United States and Canada. The SMC dioceses outside Kerala are suffragans of Latin archdiocese in each area.
The SMC has an estimated following of 3.5 million people.
A dispute over liturgical renewal disturbed the SMC for more than a decade. One faction wants liturgical renewal to revive
the Church's Eastern Apostolic patrimony, while the other wants revision on modern lines.
In an attempt to find solutions, the pope intervened and sanctioned in 1992 SMC's long standing demand to become a "sui
juris" (self governing) status. The same year, the pontiff made the SMC a Major Archiepiscopal Church and appointed Cardinal
Antony Padiyara its Major Archbishop with Ernakulam-Angamaly as his base. Metropolitan provinces of Ernakulam and Changanacherry
came under his jurisdiction. He was installed May 20, 1993.
The pope also appointed Archbishop Abraham Kattumana as the Pontifical Delegate for the SMC to set up and head a synod
of SMC bishops to finalize the administrative laws and liturgical guidelines. However, the Vatican reserved the right to decide
on liturgy and appoint bishops.
Archbishop Abraham Kattumana died of cardiac arrest in Rome in 1995 while reporting to the pope. In 1996 the pope accepted
the resignation of Cardinal Padiyara, which he had submitted it a year ago on health reasons. He then appointed Redemptorist
Father Varkey Vithayathil as the apostolic administrator in 1996. He was installed on Jan. 18, 1997.
In 1999, the pope made him the Major Archbishop of Syro-Malabar Church. He was made a cardinal in 2001. Cardinal Vithayathil
now heads the SMC Synod as the Church's head.
The SMC synod now has full powers, including the authority to decide on liturgy and appoint bishops. The bishops elected
by the synod, however, need the ratification from the Vatican, according to the decree announced in January 2004.
Catholic Bishop's Conference of India
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) is the permanent association of the Catholic bishops of all the
three rites in India. It was constituted at the Metropolitans' Conference held at Madras in September 1944.
The CBCI is the apex body of 149 dioceses, three rites and some 16 million Catholics in India.
The conference aims to facilitate common action of the hierarchy in matters that affect the common interest of the Catholic
Church in India.
The apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II of May 20, 1987 to the bishops of India suggested three episcopal bodies for
India. The three individual Churches (rites) in India now have separate conferences to address theological and administrative
issues concerning each rite.
The CBCI however continues to function "for questions of common concern and of national and supra ritual character" as
mandated in the papal letter. Its head office is based in New Delhi.