Ancient liturgy, Bollywood rhythms and stadium-filling enthusiasm: Syro-Malabar Catholics are reinvigorating the Church in the North West
This summer the weather in Liverpool has been more Madras than Merseyside. So it was an appropriate time to visit Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church, the new home for the city’s Syro-Malabar Catholics.
The Syro-Malabar Church is one of the 23 Eastern Churches that are in full communion with Rome while preserving their distinctive liturgy and identity. Its name refers both to its origins in the southern Indian state of Kerala, historically known as the Malabar Coast, and use of the ancient Syriac rite.
The Church traces its origins back to St Thomas, who is honoured by Indian Christians as the Apostle who brought Christianity to the subcontinent. The statue of St Thomas at Our Lady, Queen of Peace emphasises not his “doubting” but rather his dramatic declaration of faith: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
One of the peculiar legacies of Vatican II is that, while the liturgy in the West was dramatically recast with little regard for tradition, the Eastern Churches were exhorted to cherish their historic traditions. This is certainly the case with the Syro-Malabar Church, which has put a lot of effort into preserving its identity within a widely spread diaspora community. There are about 38,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics in Britain, many of whom work in the NHS. With 84 priests, they collectively form an eparchy, a kind of diocese covering the whole of Britain, and they have their own bishop, Mar Joseph Srampickal. (“Mar” is a title of respect in Syriac.)
Prior to 2015 the Syro-Malabar community was dependent on the kindness of parish priests who made their churches available for Syro-Malabar services. But they had no place that was specifically their own. That year Bishop Michael Campbell of Lancaster gave the Syro-Malabar eparchy its first Church in Britain, St Alphonsa in Preston, which now has the status of a cathedral. At the inauguration of the cathedral and episcopal ordination of Mar Joseph Srampickal, so many people came that the service that had to be moved to Preston North End football ground. It was said to be the biggest and best-behaved crowd the stadium had had all season.
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