Tuesday, January 23, 2007

H.G. Geevarghese Mar Ivanios: Architect of the Reunion Movement and First Metropolitan Archbishop of the Malankara Syrian Catholic Church

On the Life and Legacy of Mar Ivanios

Malankara Catholic Mission of Chicago

Mar Ivanios Day, July 16, 2006


“It is more important for you to surrender yourself to God than serve Him:” 1 this realization was responsible for changing not only the life of Mar Ivanios, but also the whole course of Malankara history. It is this realization that led to the formation of the Order of the Imitation of Christ. It is this realization that brought peace to Geevarghese Panicker Achen at a time of great unrest in the Malankara Jacobite Church. It is this realization that led Mar Ivanios to seek to the Truth, to find the Truth, and to accept the Truth. It is this realization that set Mar Ivanios on the rocky path that would eventually lead to reunion with the one Church established by Christ. It is this realization that allows us to call ourselves, Syro-Malankara Catholics.

Today we are here to remember the architect of the Reunion Movement, the Newman of the East, the Bishop who endured much suffering and persecution for his people, the Shepherd who risked his own life to lead his flock to green pastures and still waters. We are here to remember His Grace Mar Ivanios, the First Metropolitan Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. Mar Ivanios was a man of great faith and great learning. His entire life was dedicated to seeking God in all that he did. He put his complete trust in the Lord. When there was no hope to be found, he found hope in Christ Jesus; although he was surrounded by fighting and chaos, he found peace in Christ Jesus. He reached out to those who were neglected; he loved those who were unloved; he welcomed those who were cast out by others. He was and remains a saintly role model and the source of inspiration for many. Most importantly, he was a true servant of Christ Jesus.

Today, in addition to speaking about the life of Mar Ivanios, I would like to discuss the legacy of Mar Ivanios. In doing so, I hope also to discuss the character and spirituality of Mar Ivanios, as they had a profound impact on his legacy. Moreover, I hope to provide some insight into why the reunion of Mar Ivanios succeeded when previous attempts had failed.

No one can deny the many contributions made by Mar Ivanios. He stressed the importance of education and the role it plays in the spiritual uplift of the community. His prophetic vision of a Church characterized by unity, renewal, and ecumenism predated the historic Second Vatican Council. His untiring efforts to improve the conditions of the poor strengthened his faith and also provided a valuable example for his successors. However, there remains an even greater contribution: the legacy of Mar Ivanios is the union of the historic Roman Catholic Church which has an undeniable link to Christ with the richness and beauty of our Indian heritage and the Antiochean liturgy. The legacy of Mar Ivanios, therefore, is the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.

Early Life and Reunion

The reunion of Mar Ivanios was a lifelong process that culminated in the actual Reunion of 1930. Mar Ivanios was born on September 21, 1882, to Thoma and Annamma Panicker of the Puthicavu parish in Mavelikkara. He was born on the Feast of the Nativity of Mother Mary according to the Julian calendar, and was baptized a short time later with the name George or Geevarghese. From an early age, Geevarghese Panicker had a strong desire to enter the priesthood; he would often fast and pray for such an opportunity. His mother also prayed for this and prepared the boy to enter the priesthood. It is from his mother that Geevarghese first learned the ways and traditions of the Church. It is also through his mother that Geevarghese developed a deep devotion to Mother Mary, a devotion he would carry into adulthood. When the time came for him to enter the seminary, he went eagerly and worked hard. While studying at the seminary, he showed a great aptitude for learning. He was sent to Madras Christian College where he would receive his Master’s Degree in History and Economics. He was the first among the Jacobite clergy to receive a Master’s degree.

During and after his time at Madras Christian College, Geevarghese Semmashen would prepare sermons on the liturgy and the sacraments and commentaries on scriptural passages. People came from far and near to hear him speak. He spoke with such wisdom and passion that a spiritual renewal took place among the Jacobite Christians. On August 28, 1908, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary according to the Julian calendar, Geevarghese Semmashen was ordained and became Geevarghese Achen. The years immediately following his ordination were years of great unrest and upheaval in the Malankara Jacobite Church. The Church that he loved so much was in turmoil: the people went to church on Sunday, not to partake in the Holy Qurbana, but to discuss the latest news on the court cases. It was during this time that Geevarghese Achen was offered solace at Serampore University in Calcutta.

His seven years2, from 1912 – 1919, as professor at Serampore are among the most important years in the life of Mar Ivanios. He had brought with him a small group of Semmashens, and later a small group of ladies, to continue their education at Serampore. Under his close watch, these two communities would eventually become the Order of the Imitation of Christ and the Sisters of the Imitation of Christ, respectively. It was at Serampore that he realized that it is more important for one to surrender himself to God than serve Him. This realization stirred Geevarghese Achen to grow closer to Christ Jesus. After researching the monastic orders of the West and the Indian ascetic orders, Geevarghese Achen decided to start an Indian monastic order which would live a strict monastic life while incorporating aspects of the Indian heritage. The result was Bethany. In the Gospels, Bethany was the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary; it was a place of peace where Jesus could escape his persecutors. So too, in the strife-torn Jacobite Church, Bethany became a shining symbol of peace and harmony.

For Geevarghese Achen, spirituality had always been connected with learning and intellectualism. Thus, he devoted himself to study and meditation. The result was two-fold. First, Geevarghese Achen was no longer interested in material possessions; he yearned only for spiritual gain. Second, like John Henry Cardinal Newman in England a century earlier, an extensive study of the history and the canons of the Church led Mar Ivanios to discover and accept that the one Church established by Christ was the Catholic Church and the Pope was the true successor of Peter whom the Lord had appointed to lead the Church. This discovery occurred in 1923, and from that moment on, Geevarghese Achen had one goal: reunion with the Catholic Church. Thus, reunion, for Mar Ivanios, was a spiritual fulfillment necessary for complete surrender to God.

Geevarghese Achen preparing himself through study and meditation. On May 1, 1925, Geevarghese Achen was ordained Bishop of Bethany; he took the name Ivanios after the Apostle John, the patron saint of Bethany. In 1926, with the full approval and complete support of the Synod of Bishops, Mar Ivanios began communicating with Rome regarding reunion. Of utmost importance to Mar Ivanios was the preservation of the liturgy and traditions of the Malankara Jacobite Church and autonomy of its bishops. After four painstaking years, Rome was ready for reunion.

However, only Mar Theophilos, his fellow Bethany bishop, was willing to reunite in 1930; the other bishops, for their own reasons, chose not to reunite. This did not shake the determination of Mar Ivanios. He continued with the reunion because as he, himself, described it,

“I am fully confident that in each of my steps I am being guided by the good Lord. I desire earnestly to raise the community in which I was born and brought up, to God, in order to reform it and lead it to prosperity … I believe firmly that the reunion of the Christian communities must be based on the foundation of historical Christianity … such a reunion is not possible without the Roman Catholic Church.” 3

On September 20, 1930, Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilos, together with Fr. John OIC, Bro. Alexander OIC, and Mr. Chacko Kilileth, made their profession of faith before Archbishop Benzinger of Kollam. On September 20, 1930, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church had an Archbishop, a Bishop, a Priest, a Deacon, and a Layperson. The next day, Mar Ivanios celebrated his first Qurbana as a Syro-Malankara Catholic in Malayalam. Later that day, he welcomed to the Catholic faith his parents, the Rembans Pulikkottil and Cheppatt, all of the Bethany Sisters, and a portion of the Bethany Achens. Like the First Christians, the Syro-Malankara Catholics grew in number each day. Also, like the first Christians, the reunited Catholics underwent much persecution, especially Mar Ivanios who suffered much for the young Church. The Malankara Catholics, following the example of their shepherd, put their complete trust in the Lord and were able to persevere and grow. The reunion of Mar Ivanios was successful because it was undertaken for purely spiritual reasons; it was the result of much preparation on the part of Mar Ivanios.

Mar Ivanios did not rest after the Reunion. Immediately he went to Rome to meet with His Holiness Pius XI who gave Mar Ivanios “a big welcome.” In 1932, the Hierarchy of the Malankara Catholic Church was established. Under the leadership and guidance, the young Church grew and flourished. Sadly, on July 15, 1953, the Feast of Our Lady of Carmel, Mar Ivanios was called to Heaven. His successor, His Grace Benedict Mar Gregorios, continued the mission of Mar Ivanios and lead the young Church to great prosperity. Presently, His Beatitude Moran Mor Cyril Baselios Catholicos, leads our Church which now has eight Bishops, five dioceses, and over 500,000 members.


We as Catholics living after the Second Vatican Council often take for granted our liturgy and our rich heritage. We must not forget or diminish the dedication and sacrifice of Mar Ivanios in preserving the Malankara liturgy of the Antiochean tradition and bringing it into the Catholic communion. That we, the Malankara Catholics in diaspora, come together each week to celebrate the Holy Qurbana in our native tongue is a true testament to the genius and vision of Mar Ivanios. The recognition of His Holiness John Paul II of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church as “one of the fastest growing Catholic communities”4 and elevation of the Malankara Church to a Major Archiepiscopal Church and the establishment of the Catholicate is the full realization of the dream of Mar Ivanios.

We are Syro-Malankara Catholics because of the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice of Mar Ivanios. We are inheritors of his legacy. The “one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” taught at the Second Vatican Council that “all members of the Eastern rite should know and be convinced that they can and should always preserve their legitimate liturgical rite and their established way of life;”5 therefore, we as inheritors of this great legacy should know that it is our mission to live, learn, and practice the traditions and heritage that were so painstakingly preserved for us by Mar Ivanios.

I thank Almighty God for giving me this opportunity to speak today about the great life and legacy of our beloved Mar Ivanios.

Notes and Bibliography

1 Abraham, Peter C. In His Master’s Footsteps, Life Story of Archbishop Mar Ivanios. (Kottayam: Bethany Publications, 2001), 109.

2 The tenure of Mar Ivanios at Serampore University was from 1913-1919; however, I have included 1912 because it was a formative year in the life of Mar Ivanios. His Grace spent much time meditating whether it was right for him to leave for Serampore. It was also in 1912, that Ivanios Thirumeni became thoroughly disgusted with the current state of the Malankara (Jacobite) Church, especially with the preeminence of the “all important court case.”

3 Chediath, Rev. Fr. Geevarghese. The Malankara Catholic Church. (Kottayam: Bethany Sisters Publications, 2003), 101.

4 Ad Limina Visit, 2003, Visita "Ad Limina Apostolorum" Dei Presuli Di RitoSiro-Malankarese Dell’India. John Paul II, May 13, 2003. 1. <>

5 Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite, Orientalium Ecclesiarium. Vatican II, November 21, 1964. 6. <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decree_19641121_orientalium-ecclesiarum_en.html>

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