Dr. Albert Rossi: So, today, for this podcast, which many of you—I know that many of you listeners are Orthodox, and non-Orthodox, and some non-Christians—so today I would like to deal with the topic of the Indian Orthodox Church. I’m sitting here with [an] Indian Orthodox student, Malankara student, here at St. Vladimir’s, on Education Day, where the topic is fascinatingly “East Meets East.” I was just talking with Shawn a bit about the Indian Orthodox Church, and it’s very enlightening. So, Shawn, let’s pick up our conversation, backtracking a bit.
Mr. Shawn Thomas: Okay.
Dr. Rossi: Say a word, please, about St. Thomas and the origins of the Indian Orthodox Church.
Mr. Thomas: Well, the Church in India is as old as the Church itself. As I was saying, many people, especially in the West, can see India as a place where Christianity is just starting to blossom, and in some ways that’s true, as the numbers continue to grow. Hindus and Muslims are definitely the majority in India, but the Church in India is as old as the Church itself. St. Thomas came on the shores of India in A.D. 52, before St. Paul would get martyred in Rome; the Church is already being established in India. Many of us, even some of the students here today at seminary, we can trace our lineage to some of the converts that St. Thomas converted from Hinduism to Christianity. Our families have been Orthodox, have been part of the Church of Jesus Christ, for two thousand years. It’s an ancient Church, just as ancient as any other church.
Dr. Rossi: How beautiful. And I’ve been here at St. Vladimir’s many years. We’ve had Indian Orthodox students throughout. It always amazed me how many have as a first name or last name, the name Thomas.
Mr. Thomas: Yep.
Dr. Rossi: As you do!
Mr. Thomas: I do, yeah. We’re very proud of our founding apostle and our father.
Dr. Rossi: So beautiful. Here is some of the singing from the chapel today, done by the Indian Orthodox priests and parishioners.
[Indian Orthodox chant and responses in two languages]
Dr. Rossi: We were also talking about St. Cyril. Would you say a word about St. Cyril?
Mr. Thomas: As with the issue today, the theme being “East Meets East,” and we’re looking into the relationship between the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox, St. Cyril is the one Father that really connects us, especially being the last very prominent Father before, sadly, what would be known as the split between the two churches, what happened at the Council of Chalcedon. Because of that, there’s so much respect for Cyril in both churches, and he says so much about who Jesus Christ is that both churches agree with him. Because of that same reason is why some people can get very confused about: “Why are these churches not in communion?” Because we both agree to what St. Cyril says about Jesus Christ. Yet, sadly, because of various reasons, which people can write books about, or not… Regardless, I think we should all look to St. Cyril as kind of a model for: what do we believe about Jesus Christ, how does that affect us as Christians, and hopefully work toward a goal of communion one day, hopefully in the near future.
Dr. Rossi: Hopefully in the near future. St. Cyril was from Alexandria, that is, Egyptian; we would say Coptic.
Mr. Thomas: Yes.
Dr. Rossi: I was saying to you earlier my opinion that the Indian Orthodox and the Coptic Church is very close.
Mr. Thomas: Very close. The Indian Church… The current form of the Indian Church has Syrian roots because the Syrian Orthodox Church came to India in the 15th century. Because of those roots, the Indian Church became what we now know as Oriental Orthodox, and the communion between these churches are so strong. Alexandria, even as it was in the past, has always been kind of a pillar of the Church, and one of the greatest cities of Christianity. Among the Oriental Orthodox communion, we look to Alexandria even to today for guidance as well as a sister city in Christ, where leadership happens. That communion has been strong since… as long as the Church has been around. Anyone who’s read Church history knows the power and the influence Alexandria’s had on theology as well as Christian thought in general. Thankfully, that communion still continues to today, and we’re so glad, especially here at St. Vladimir’s, to have Coptic students that we can call our brothers.
Dr. Rossi: And so many Indian Orthodox students! How many do we have right now?
Mr. Thomas: We have six students, I believe, right now.
Dr. Rossi: Half-dozen. And through the years we’ve had women. Last year we had Lijin; we’ve had Ceena. So there’s a real growth of the Indian Orthodox—youngsters, from my point of view—young seminarians who want to come here, get educated, and then blossom. Indian Orthodox Church: I’ve given parish retreats. I’ve given the retreat to Indian Orthodox priests over on Long Island; I’ve given youth retreats, as you know. It’s such fun. It’s so… enlightened, so reverent, so intense.
Mr. Thomas: I think there’s been a revival in the last 15 to 20 years of what we would maybe say Orthodoxy in America, especially within the Indian Church. What, the Indian Church in America is about maybe 40, 50 years old now, because immigrants only started coming in the ‘60s or ‘70s. So our parents’ generation, their job was to get the Church planted here. Now it’s our job to make the Church grow. Our generation is translating things from Syriac into English, from Malayalam into English. We’re teaching our young people about what is Orthodoxy and what does it mean to be an Orthodox Christian. I think that fervor just kind of naturally grows. I think that people are drawn to St. Vladimir’s because, first of all, it means they don’t have to go to India to go through seminary, even though a lot of our seminarians do spend a little bit of time in India afterwards.
Dr. Rossi: That always amazes me. We’re sitting in my office, right across the hall from the Indian Orthodox chapel, and I have been in your chapel for services, and, to be blunt, it always amazes me to walk by and see so many youngsters having your own—right now you have a priest, but for years just having your own service, in the morning and in the evening. So dedicated, so fervent, so faith-filled. It’s beautiful.
Mr. Thomas: We really thank God for his grace and the strength that he gives all of us. As a lot of us are trying to be formed to be priests, that chapel is a place where we’re able to learn our prayers and learn the songs which, especially in our tradition, while we have the choir, the choir always follows the lead of the priest, so the priests are very much…
Dr. Rossi: Up front in the lead.
Mr. Thomas: Yeah, up front, and have to learn the songs, very long. Where else better to learn than seminary?
Dr. Rossi: Yeah. Shawn, you were just telling me a little story about a venerable scholar-priest in India, that we can all use. We were agreeing that the Lord chooses the weak—me and you—to do his bidding, beginning with fishermen. Tell that little story if you would.
Mr. Thomas: There’s this very—now very old priest, about 103 years old, maybe 104 years old, and he’s a scholar of the Church. One of the mottoes which you see when you walk into his house—the phrase is in Malayalam, but in English it basically translates to: “The Lord has need of this donkey”—referring to the Palm Sunday gospel where the apostles go and find a donkey for the Lord. And in this case, the priest is this donkey, and saying, “The Lord has need of me.”
Dr. Rossi: Shawn, are you his donkey?
Mr. Thomas: I hope to be!
Dr. Rossi: I hope to be!
Mr. Thomas: I hope they choose me to be the donkey.
Dr. Rossi: Yep. To be the donkey. Thank you, Shawn. Say a word, please, for our listeners, about the geography. Malankara is in south India. Describe that a little bit, please.
Mr. Thomas: Malankara just refers to the group of people from what we now know as the state of Kerala, off the Malabar coast, which is where St. Thomas arrived. Kerala itself is where about… Most of the Christians in India live in Kerala. While they’re still not the majority, I think it’s about 20-25%, since it’s still a very large group and a very prominent group. A lot of the leaders within government and stuff tend to be Christians, and those leaders help to put the Church out there. The Church is so big and vibrant in India, where you can’t walk more than a mile without seeing a church. It’s just very evident. It’s evidence of how… the effect that St. Thomas has had on us as well as the Orthodox faith has had on all of us there.
Dr. Rossi: So beautiful. Say a word, please, about Chalcedon, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox. What’s the cutting edge? The similarities are just so huge and immense, but there is this difference. Would you tell our listeners that difference?
Mr. Thomas: Well, a little bit depends on whom you ask. The issue became to how do we describe Christ’s humanity and his divinity. All Christians would agree to the fact that Christ was both man and he was divine, and equally so. But how do we explain that? What would become the Chalcedonian definition would be that Christ has two natures, two distinct natures: his human nature and his divine nature. We consider ourselves as Miaphysites, which comes from the Greek word miaphysis, which is something that St. Cyril himself used that word. We would say that, of course, Christ is human and divine, and fully so, but we would say there is one incarnate nature of God the Word, which is, again, a term that St. Cyril himself used. It was an issue of how do we describe Christ, and, obviously, a task that’s very hard to explain. How do you describe a God-man, something that we’ve never seen [before] and something that we’ll never see again on earth: somebody who was man and God?
But I think what’s important to realize… And so this obviously blew up at the Council of Chalcedon. There were people from both sides saying one thing and the other. Most people today would say they were both saying the same thing, but the way they said it would lead to issues that led to a split or a schism within the Church, sadly. But I think the important thing is: Do we acknowledge that Christ is fully man and he’s fully God? And both churches do.
Dr. Rossi: Both churches do. Is Christ God? Fully, fully, fully. And human? Fully, fully, fully. Yes, yes.
Mr. Thomas: Absolutely.
Dr. Rossi: And that’s as foundational and fundamental as one can get.
Mr. Thomas: Yeah, and there’s nobody in either church who would say otherwise. I think that’s something that sometimes we lose in this arguing or theological discussion. “Do you believe Christ is man? Do you believe he is God?” And both churches say, “Absolutely.”
Dr. Rossi: Absolutely, yes. One of my own thoughts is unity. How will unity occur? And, obviously, it’s happening at many levels. My own view is, to use the Latin phrase, vox populi, vox Dei—the voice of the people is the voice of God. That’s the way the Roman Catholics canonize saints. They wait until the people have such a groundswell of opinion they bring it to the Vatican, the pope, and then he just ratifies it. It’s not top-down. And I’m convinced that a great deal of unity between these churches is going to occur that way as well. That is to say, this conversation, eating in the refectory…
Mr. Thomas: Oh, yeah.
Dr. Rossi: All of the union of real people is going to begin this groundswell of unity.
Mr. Thomas: I think that’s one of the visions of St. Vladimir’s, even just having talked to administration here and various professors. Professors are much more intelligent than I am, and they’ve said, even just the grassroots movements here at St. Vladimir’s, the fact that, at my table, when I sit down to eat lunch, I have both Oriental and Eastern Orthodox students with me. I worship with Eastern Orthodox and Oriental students. We both live on the same floor. The constant interaction with each other and seeing that, hey, we believe the exact same thing.
Dr. Rossi: I’m in your face!
Mr. Thomas: Yeah, we’re always seeing each other, and there’s nothing we say or believe that’s contradictory to each other. Especially years down the line, I see some of these older priests who graduated before, and the relationship they have with their brothers and sisters who were there with them—they can go to that church and they’re not going to feel like an outsider because the priest at either parish, either Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox, welcomed them as their own, because they have a friendship that could only be given through God, a brotherhood and a sisterhood that can only be given through the love of Jesus Christ.
Dr. Rossi: Brotherhood and sisterhood. I think we’ll close with that, Shawn. That’s what I wanted our listeners to hear. You were eloquent and clear about what’s happening.
Mr. Thomas: Thank you.
Dr. Rossi: Jesus Christ is divine. He’s God. And he’s fully human. You believe that; I believe that. Well… Let’s have lunch! [Laughter] Thanks, Shawn.
Mr. Thomas: Thank you, Dr. Rossi.
Dr. Rossi: Have a good day. Let’s end by listening to just a little of this beautiful Indian Orthodox liturgical music.
[Indian Orthodox chant in English]