Catholicate History

'CATHOLICOS OF THE EAST' was originally the title conferred to the ecclesiastical head of the Christian congregation in the erstwhile Persian Empire that extended from Mesopotamia in the west, to the boundaries of the present day Afghanistan and Northern India in the east. In the beginning the bishop who assumed this title was known as MAJOR METROPOLITAN / CATHOLICOS OF SELEUCIA; Seleucia being the capital city of Persian Empire. This institution was initially set up to serve as a link between the Patriarch of Antioch, and the Syrian Christian Community in Persia who found the journey to the Patriarchate at Antioch, hazardous because of the bitter political rivalry between the Roman and Persian empires.

The Church in Persia was known in different names: Persian Church, Babylonian Church, East Syrian Church, Church of East, Chaldean Church etc. Though the jurisdiction of the Seleucian Catholicate was initially within the Persian Empire only, it later extended to few other regions outside the empire in Asia in the further East, through missionary activities.

Catholicos / Maphriyono (Maphrian)
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 'Catholicose'.

'Maphriyono' (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 'Maphriyono' (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".)

In the early centuries the Christians in the Persian and the Roman Empires were subject to religious persecutions, so the Church spread its wings without the help of any of the imperial authorities. After the Roman Emperor accepted Christianity in 315, the church in Rome was spared from atrocities, but from then onwards the Persian rulers adopted a much more hostile attitude towards those Christians in Persia as they were considered as agents of the former. It was during this period that the office of the Great Metropolitan, which later came to be known as the Catholicate of East, was established in Persia. As the enmity between the empires increased, the leaders of the Church in Persia found it nearly impossible to continue ecclesiastical commune with the universal Church. Meanwhile some in the Catholicate of Persia found it more convenient to adopt the Nestorian Christology which was earlier officially rejected by the universal Christian councils for its remarks on the Mother of God; thus they tried to convince the Persian rulers that they distance themselves from the mother Church and the Roman (Byzantine) Empire. By this act, the Christians in Persia who accepted Nestorian Christology could easily win the favour of the Persian rulers while those of non-Nestorian faith suffered severe persecution. As the office of the Catholicate fell into heresy, the Orthodox faithful were wandering in wilderness. The Catholicos of Seleucia meanwhile took over the title 'Patriarch', thus trying to be equal in status with the Patriarch of Antioch.

Even though the Church in Persia had officially accepted Nestorius as a Church father, a substantial group of Christians in Mosul, Niniveh and Tigris (Tagrit) continued to keep their loyalty to the old faith. A few decades later the Orthodox wing of the Church in Persia that continued to be under the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch & all the East, got reorganized under St. Ya`qub Burdono and installed St. Ahudemmeh as 'The Great Metropolitan of the East', but he too found it difficult to discharge his ecclesiastical duties smoothly. However by the 7th century the situation changed for better which finally led to the formation of an office of the 'Maphrianate of the East' at Tigrit (Tagrit).

In AD 629, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East elevated St. Marutha (Marooso) as the first MAPHRIYONO OF THE EAST for the rejuvenated Syrian Orthodox (Jacobite) Church in Persia. Later the centre of the Maphrianate was shifted to St. Mathew's Dayro in the city of Mosul in Iraq and continued there till the middle of the 19th century.

Catholicate in 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 Maphrianate/Catholicate of the Syrian Orthodox Church is at Puthencuriz, Cochin, with Catholicose Aboon Mor Baselios Thomas I as the Chief of the Church in India.

The Maphriyono's /Catholicos's from the Middle East who came to India
1. St. Baselios Yeldo (d. 1685), entombed at the Marthoma Church, Kothamangalam
2. Mor Baselios Sakralla III (d. 1764), entombed at the Marth Mariam Church, Kandanad

The Catholicos's of the Indian Church
1. Mor Baselios Augen I (1964-1975)
2. Mor Baselios Paulose II (1975-1996)
3. Mor Baselios Thomas I (2002- )