Indian Catholic Heritage Day is an annual tradition at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church on Welsh Road in Northeast Philadelphia. It is a celebration for all Catholics from India, whether they are Syro-Malabar, Syro-Malankara, Knanaya or Roman Catholic, and it traces back to the foundation of the Indian American Catholic Association 40 years ago.
What made the celebration on Saturday, Sept. 15 extra special this year was the presence of Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the papal nuncio to the United States, who was the principal celebrant of the Mass. It was the first time ever, according to the organizers, that a papal nuncio has visited an Indian Catholic Church in Philadelphia.
The archbishop was joined on the altar by Archbishop Matthew Mar Moolakkatt of Kottayma, India, Bishop Jacob Mar Angadiath of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Chicago, Bishop Philipose Mar Stephanos of the Syro Malankara Diocese of the USA and Canada, Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre of the Philadelphia Archdiocese and clergy from half a dozen or so Indian Catholic churches.
Although most Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches are in full communion with the Holy See, that is only so in recent centuries. They trace their Christian lineage by tradition to visits to India by the Apostles St. Thomas and St. Bartholomew. Others were of the Knanaya community, a Northern India subgroup, also Catholic.
St. Thomas Church itself is unassuming on the exterior but quite beautifully decorated inside. Perhaps one difference from a Roman Catholic church is that while there is a large crucifix to the side of the altar, there is none on or behind it. Pride of place on the wall of the apse is given to a large image of the Risen Christ.
As is the custom, the service was preceded by a grand procession with men and boys in Western Sunday best, but ladies and girls in beautiful multicolored saris, with ceremonial umbrellas as an accent.
A traditional procession to St. Thomas Church before the Mass included all the faithful. (Courtesy: Sarah Webb, CatholicPhilly.com)
During his homily, Archbishop Pierre told his congregation, “You are united here in America. Great sacrifices were made; you make them out of love for your family. That sacrifice is the way of love. If we do not have love for our neighbor, what kind of sacrifice is that?
“Today the world needs witnesses. The church is counting on your faithful witness and your generous love. True discipleship involves attentiveness to our neighbor.”
Among the congregation were some of the founding members of the Indian Catholic Heritage Association, among them Dr. James Kurichi.
“It is important to bring the people together from all over, that is why we started (the association), as a way to celebrate our Indian heritage,” he said.
Molly Rajan didn’t have to travel far for the celebration. “This is my parish,” she said. “There are so many diverse people, but we are all one.”
Father Johnykutty Puleessery, the chancellor of the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Chicago, said, “This shows the unity of the Catholic Church; we celebrate our differences but we all believe the same.”
Bishop McIntyre, representing the Philadelphia Archdiocese, said, “It’s wonderful to see how this community has grown and to have this right here in Philadelphia.”
Also representing the archdiocese was Matt Davis, director of the Office for Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees. It was his fourth or fifth time to attend the event, and he called it “one of my favorite celebrations in my job. I love the Mass, the talks, the food. It is all very wonderful,” Davis said.
As a further inter-ethnic and ecumenical note, the choir for the Mass had a decided diversity with the addition of choir members from Assumption B.V.M. Parish, Feasterville, and their selections included a Latin favorite, “Ave Maria.” You don’t have to be Roman Catholic to love it.