Thursday, April 29, 2010

Diocese of Quilon: The Most Ancient Indian Diocese

The Diocese of Quilon comprises the major part of the civil district of Kollam, the taluk of Karthikapally, portions of the taluks of Mavelikara and Chengannur which lie the south of the river Pamba in the civil district of Alappuzha.

According to tradition, St. Thomas the Apostle established seven churches along the west coast of India, and Quilon is the second in the list of the above seven churches. Quilon was the See of one of the two Bishops consecrated by St. Thomas and soon rose to be a flourishing Christian center. From fourth century, Quilon became a favoured center of settlement by Christians from Persia who migrated to India to set up business as well as to escape the persecution prevalent in Persia . This is substantiated by the writings of the early centuries. ‘Cosmos Indicaplustus' the Byzantine monk who visited Kerala in 520-525 writes of a Christian community and a Persian Bishop in Quilon, in his book Christian Topography .


The glorious epoch of Christianity in Quilon and perhaps of this country was in the first half of the ninth century when the Christians of Quilon enjoyed royal privileges and had the monopoly of trade in “Venad”. The Christian community under the command of ‘Sabarisho' a trader secured patrician privileges from ‘Ayyanadikal Kurakoni' the King (AD 849) of Kollam. The copper plate bestowing trading rights and authorization for rebuilding the city of Kollam as well as restructuring its administration, to the Christian community under “Thareesa Pally” (as the church of Kollam was known), is the most ancient official document of Christianity in India. Earlier in 829, Mar Sapor and Mar Prot, the two bishops from Persia ministered the ‘Christians in Quilon'. John Monte Corvino, a member of the Societas Peregrinantium Pro Christo on his way to China , landed in Quilon in 1291 and ministered the Christian community. The Venetian traveller Marco Polo who visited India in 1292 testified to the presence of a Christian community in Quilon.

Erection of the Ancient Diocese of Quilon and its First Bishop

Since the latter half of the 12 th century, Quilon became the chief centre of missionary expeditions. Franciscan and Dominican Missionaries in the 13 th and 14 th centuries visited Quilon and their letters confirm the existence of a vibrant Christian community in Quilon. In 1329 Pope John XXII (in captivity in Avignon ) erected Quilon as the first Diocese in the whole of Indies as suffragan to the Archdiocese of Sultany in Persia through the decree “Romanus Pontifix” dated 9 th August 1329 . By a separate Bull “Venerabili Fratri Jordano”, the same Pope, on August 21, 1329 appointed the French Dominican friar Jordanus Catalani de Severac as the first Bishop of Quilon. ( Copies of the Orders and the related letters issued by His Holiness Pope John XXII to Bishop Jordanus Catalani and to the diocese of Quilon are documented and preserved in the diocesan archives).

 Jordanus Catalani arrived in Surat in 1320. After his ministry in Gujarat he reached Quilon in 1323. He not only revived Christianity but also brought thousands to the Christian fold. He came again to Quilon as the bishop in 1330. He is believed to have built at Quilon, known as St. George's Church . His book “ Mirabilia Descripta ” is a rare work on plants, animals and the people of India and of other countries in Asia and this is an authoritative work on India dating 800 years back. This book is considered to be a landmark chronicle of its time written around 1324.

The first Bishop of Quilon was received with great jubilation by the faithful of Quilon. He brought a message of good wishes from the Holy Father to the local rulers. As the first bishop in India , he was also entrusted with the duty of spiritual nourishment of the Christian community in Calicut , Mangalore, Thane and ‘Broach' (north of Thane). He was martyred by Muslims in Bombay in 1336. In the year 1348 John De Marignoli, the Papal Legate to China on his way back to Rome sojourned here for 14 months. With the martyrdom of the first Bishop, the See of Quilon remained vacant. There was a ‘historic gap' with regard to ecclesiastical administration in India till the Portuguese landed here.

It follows from the Friar Jordanus tradition that Catholicism – not just Christianity – is deep rooted in Quilon. It is widely believed that the Portuguese brought Catholicism to Kerala. The above facts lead us to believe otherwise. It is now evident that while Bishop Jordanus introduced Catholicism, the Portuguese popularized it. The fact that Quilon is the founding seat of the Catholic Church in India is often found obscured in the mist of history.

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