By K.M. Seethi
For the 83-year-old Annamma from Ranni (Kerala, the south Indian state), a Maramon Convention without Valiya Thirumeni is inconceivable. The last time she saw Valiya Thirumeni was in February 2019 and that was after he completed his 100th birthday. Annamma, however, does not remember the number of times she attended the Convention—one of the largest Christian congregations in Asia, held in February every year on the shores of the Pampa River. But she remembers the warmth of Valiya Thirumeni’s presence and the wit and wisdom he unfurled for over 90 years.
Annamma was talking about His Grace Philipose Mar Chrysostom Metropolitan Emeritus of the Mar Thoma Syrian Church—the longest-serving bishop in India—who breathed his last in the early hours of Wednesday at the age of 103. Malankara Mar Thoma Syrian Church (Mar Thoma Church) in Kerala is one of the ancient Churches in the world with more than 1.1 million followers.
Mar Chrysostom has been an inspiriting spiritual doyen with a rich repertoire of wits and wisdom. Valiya Thirumeni—as he has been fondly called by everyone, irrespective of rich or poor, religion or caste—remained a symbol of communal harmony, and a great visionary.
According to A.M. Thomas, who served as Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, Mahatma Gandhi University, Mar Chrysostom “was widely revered by people of all communities. There is a general feeling that dignitaries of the church are distant from the ordinary folk.” He said, “Mar Chrysostom dispelled all such notions. His great sense of humour attracted people to him. I don’t think that there was another bishop invited to the shows of the Malayalam entertainment channels. He made theological ideas more understandable to ordinary people.” Prof Thomas, whose home is close to the Maramon Convention site, said that “at the Maramon Convention he was a crowd puller because he made religion a simpler thing to understand, especially through his anecdotes.”
Mar Chrysostom always upheld values of secularism and communal harmony. Once he wrote: “Secular society is my dream. Secular society is not a society without God. It is a society in which all sections people have their faiths and God, they must respect each other and hence there is no room for differences as human beings.” However, while stressing on the virtues of “unity in cultural diversity,” Mar Chrysostom kept reminding that social differences emerging from inequality and injustice would bring in existential crisis. This has to be tackled at the societal level. He wrote: “Social transformation is inevitable for the transformation of individuals. So, we need to innovate society for the transformation of the world and individuals.”
On the eve of Republic day in 2018, the Government of India conferred one of the highest civilian honours—Padma Bhushan—on Mar Chrysostom for his distinguished services to the society and he received the award from the President of India sitting in a wheel chair. He thus became the first Bishop in India to receive Padma Bhushan.
Mar Chrysostom provided a dynamic leadership to the Mar Thoma Church and the ecumenical movement at different levels. His participation at several national and international assemblies/conferences has been acclaimed—from the Evanston (US 1954) to Uppsala (Sweden 1968) assemblies of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Second Vatican Council as official observer of the Mar Thoma Church (1962-65), the Christian Conference of Asia(CCA) assemblies and its committees held in Bangkok (1967), Singapore (1973), and Penang (1977). He provided leadership as president of various councils and bodies such as of the Kerala Christian Council, Christian Auxiliary for Social Action and the National Council of Churches in India. Mar Chrysostom also served as the President of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and various other Indian ecumenical organisations.
Mathews George Chunakara, General Secretary, Christian Conference of Asia (CCA), Thailand in a message said: “Mar Chrysostom’s passion for building bridges between churches and different faith communities and his keen interest in nurturing relations with the leaders of other faiths have influenced many. A large number of people and communities beyond ecclesial boundaries cherish the love and affection rendered to many as well as the significant leadership this great humanist has offered over the years.”
Born on 27 April 1918 at Eraviperoor, Thiruvalla, which was part of the Travancore Princely State, Mar Chrysostom inherited the missionary zeal from his father, Vicar General Very Rev K E Oommen. After his graduation from the Union Christian College Aluva, Mar Chrysostom took up the work in the Ashram at Ankola (Karnataka) along with Rev. P J Thomas. He had his theological education at UTC Bangalore and St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury. In 1944, Mar Chrysostom became an ordained minister of the Church and was consecrated as Bishop with Alexander Mar Theophilus and Thomas Mar Athanasius in 1953. He headed the Church for nearly 68 years and became its Metropolitan in 1999. Mar Chrysostom voluntarily stepped down in 2007, but he went on taking part in church services in his official attire and became part of major programmes and social activities.
During his service in the episcopacy, which spanned for more than half a century, he administered various dioceses of the Mar Thoma Church in India as well as in other continents (the Diaspora Marthomite communities are also living in Europe, North America, Africa, West Asia, as well as in most Asian countries including Australia and New Zealand).
Metropolitan received his name from Bishop John Chrysostom (‘Chrysostom’ means ‘Golden Tongue’), the church leader of 6th of C.E. Mar Chrysostom’s web page elucidates this further:
The words formed in the crucible of golden thoughts reinstated many people to the abundant life. Words golden wisdom enlightened many beginning many from his house, where he lives; in parishes where he renders his service; in great meetings such as Maramon convention to Meetings of world council of churches. The glittering tongue empowered the community and he used the tongue to argue for the community. Many a times it showed the hypocrisy of the fake leadership and stood as sign and symbol of true avenue to pass through. He is the first person to travel through that path and took the fresh challenges too. His dialogical method of sermons cultivated good crops in the hearers. We cannot draw a differentiating line between words and life of the Metropolitan. His life and message denote many meaning in life, a sacramental life!
Mar Chrysostom always had concerns for the poor, impoverished, and marginalised. This would have led him to launch STARD (South Travancore Agency for Rural Development) through which he sought to help economically backward communities of South Travancore to improve their lot and help them achieve self-reliance.
His experiences and experiments in his early years would have had a lasting impact on him. Once Mar Chrysostom wrote that he would have ended up as a registered porter in a railway station in Tamil Nadu, in south India. He was returning home to take up charge as a priest after his studies in the Bangalore seminary. While waiting for the train at the railway station, he went in for a conversation with them. As the porters challenged him to stay with him to understand their everyday life miseries, Mar Chrysostom accepted it and worked with them as a porter for one month. He writes in his autobiography: After the stay with them, and having found the distress and agonies of porters, I wanted to become a registered porter. But I had to secure the permission of metropolitan. The metropolitan saluted Chrysostom’s intention, but he reminded that he wanted a clergyman for the parishes. Mar Chrysostom then had to give up the idea of becoming a porter.
On the occasion of his 90th birthday, the Mar Thoma Church decided to build houses (Navathy Home Project) for 1,500 homeless people by imbibing his vision. During his 100th birthday, the Church again decided to construct 100 homes for the homeless and also implemented a project for the transgender community, to uphold and respect their identity. This was seen as a unique endeavour by any Christian Churches in Kerala.
Mar Chrysostom always respected diversity of opinion, but he never compromised on ethical principles. He won the hearts of all communities with a smiling face, humility and eloquent speeches. There are several instances when Mar Chrysostom put his own clergymen in trouble by asking uncomfortable questions. Once he was invited to speak on the necessity of prohibition in a convention. But, to the surprise of all, he spoke with an anecdote and a poser. Mar Chrysostom said, he went to meet E.M.S. Namboodiripad (Kerala’s first communist chief minister in 1957) with a petition. As he went on complaining about the mounting alcoholism among Keralites, EMS stepped in and gave him a tip. EMS told him that “once all Christians stop drinking alcohol in Kerala, then he would think about introducing prohibition.” Chrysostom’s story sent shock waves at the convention. Then he posed a question with a smile, “Are we ready?”
Chrysostom’s strategy is to generate questions for introspection and soul-searching. This he repeated in all his speeches at the Maramon Convention. Some would think that his humour is for all time pass. In early Christianity and in many early classical thinking, humour was not greatly appreciated. It was even derided in some instances. It took, perhaps, centuries for the world to recognise the philosophy of humour in speeches and writings. Way back in October 1907, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychology said that the largest function of humour “is to detach us from our world of good and evil, of loss and gain, and to enable us to see it in proper perspective. It frees us from vanity, on the one hand, and from pessimism, on the other, by keeping us larger than what we do, and greater than what can happen to us.”
Mar Chrysostom used his wit and wisdom for a noble cause which he kept close to his heart. He sought to remain ‘powerless’ for a world of happiness and to make sure that the real happiness comes only when we make the poor and deprived happy and satisfied.
*The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He frequently writes for Global South Colloquy. He can be contacted at [email protected]