SERVANT OF GOD ARCHBISHOP MAR IVANIOS (1882-1953)
Archbishop Mar Ivanios, a luminous figure of the 20th century, was a tireless apostle for unity. A man endowed with rare and sterling qualities, both of mind and heart, the Archbishop was at home in the halls of learning as well as in the courts of princes. Above all he was a lover of truth. This is perhaps the reason why he chose Veritas vos liberabit ‘Truth shall liberate you’ as the motto of Mar Ivanios College, the prestigious educational institution in Kerala, which he founded in 1949.
He was an educationist who made a significant contribution to our nation. He considered education as the best means for uplifting the social condition of the people. He brought the blessings of “higher education to all within the reach of it, without distinction of caste or creed” (Margaret Gibbons).
His life as an educationist started with his appointment as the principal of M. D. Seminary High School, Kottayam (1908 – 1913). It was his dream to upgrade this school into a junior college. But unfortunately he could not realise this dream because in 1913 he had to leave for Serampore, Calcutta. Serampore College is considered as the first Christian University in India which was run by the Danish Missionaries. The principal of Serampore College, Dr. Howells, who was impressed by the personality of Mar Ivanios especially by his proficiency in English language, invited him to join Serampore College as a member of the staff. Thus in 1913 he left M. D. Seminary High School.
Later that became a blessing in disguise. In 1913 the Serampore College paid him approximately Rs. 1500 as salary. Those days this was a huge amount and he thought of doing something good with this money. He spent all this money for the education of the young people of his Church. He thought that if there were enough well educated people, especially a group of well-educated clergy in the church, they could change the fate of the Church. In order to achieve this goal, he brought many young people to Calcutta. Gradually the number of these young people increased and some of them were sent to Allahabad and Madras Universities. He also sent some girls to Barisole for higher education and the first members of Bethany Convent were from this group. When he came back to Kerala and later became the Arch Bishop of Trivandrum, educational field was one of his priorities. Mar Ivanios College itself is the best testimony for it.
Panickerveettil was a traditional Christian family in Mavelikara, Alappuzha Distict, Kerala. A male child was born in this family on September 21, 1882 to Thomas Panicker and Annamma Panicker, through the intercession of Blessed Virgin Mary whose feast falls on Kanni eighth (Malayalam era) ie. September 21. He was baptized by his uncle Skariah Panicker Kathanar on October 4, 1882 and was named Geevarghese. It was from Skaria Panicker Kathanar that he imbibed Christian zeal and fervour. His mother Annamma Panicker infused in him the devotion of Blessed Virgin Mary the Mother of God, which influenced him very much throughout his life.
The Panicker family was a family of priestly succession. Every day when the family gathered together for prayer, Geevarghese being the eldest son, had to read the holy Bible, as was the practice among the Orthodox family in Kerala. As part of the Sunday school classes the children of the Orthodox Church had to learn certain verses of the Bible every day and when the child finishes the catechetical learning, he would have memorized the whole Bible or at least a selected portion of it. Young Geevarghese had made use of this practice to memorise the Word of God. This is evident in the later writings and homilies of Mar Ivanios.During his childhood he has shown an extraordinary inclination for a fervent spiritual life. On his way to and back from the school he used to pay a visit to the Puthenkavu Church (Mavelikara).
Geevarghese had his early education in protestant and government schools, where he was described as an extra ordinarily “intelligent, observant and considerate boy.” During this time there happened a significant ordinary event that marked a turning point in the life of young Geevarghese. On one fine evening Pulikkottil Mar Dionysius arrived at Puthiyakavu Church, the native place of Geevarghese. The metropolitan happened to learn about the courageous nature of young Geevarghese, which enabled him to take any risk for the cause of the church. The Metropolitan was happy to take him to Kottayam for high school education. Thus from 1897 he started his high school education in M.D Seminary High School, Kottayam. From then onwards his inclination to priestly life gained strength. In 1899 he completed his matriculation education before which he had received minor orders on September 20, 1898.
Seeing his spiritual zeal and fervor for the Church, Pulikkottil Mar Dionysius decided to ordain him a deacon. He was ordained a Deacon on January 9, 1900. Geevarghese Semmasan joined CMS College Kottayam and completed intermediate education. He continued his studies in Madras Christian College and took bachelor degree in Economics and Indian History. In1907 he took M A degree with distinction from the same college. Dn. Geevarghese prepared a thesis for his post graduation. He established in his thesis titled “Were Syrian Christians Nestorians?”, that the Syrian Christians in Malankara were not Nestorians.On his return from Madras he was appointed principal of his Alma Mater, M.D Seminary High School. During this time he took initiative in various schemes for the renewal of the Malankara Church. He organized basic church communities, Bible conventions and instilled in the minds of the People of God fervour for sacramental life. Because of this he was popularly entitled “Koodasa Semmasan” (Deacon of Sacraments)
On September 15th 1908 Geevarghese Semmasen was ordained priest by Vattasseril Mar Dionysius. He was a priest with a vision and mission. Fr P T Geevarghese was popularly known M A Achan, as he was the first priest to take M A degree, from Malankara Church. Because of his contribution to the field of education he proved himself an exceptionally capable educationalist. By this time he became a prominent leader in the socio-cultural and religious realms. He became a famous orator. The religious context in the Malankara Church at this time was that of spiritual deterioration and degeneration. The lust for power was creeping into the Church from every corner. Fr. Geevarghese was deeply grieved at this pathetic situation, and it aroused in him a strong quest for the renewal of the Malankara Church. At the same time he took initiative to empower the Malankara Church with hierarchical autonomy. To establish autonomy and peace in the Malankara Church Fr. Geevarghese thought of erecting a Catholicate in Malankara. To realize this purpose, with the permission of the Metropolitan, he invited, the unjustly dethroned Patriarch Abded M’seeho to Malankara. On September 5, 1912 the Malankara Catholicate was established.
Professorship in Serampore
In 1912 Vattasseril Mar Dionysius received an invitation to attend a conference at Calcutta. The conference was for the Christian students of India. Mar Dionysius selected Fr. Geevarghese to accompany him to Culcutta to attend the conference. At the conference every one was highly impressed by the scholarly eloquence of M A Achan. Dr. Howels, the Principal of Serampore College requested the Metropolitan the service of Fr. P T Geevarghese as the Professor of the College. Though it was painful for him to leave his church, the Spirit of the Lord led him to take up the professorship in Serampore College. Resigning from the M.D Seminary High School he joined Serampore College. He made use of this opportunity to empower the Malankara Church. And he took initiative to organize and educate committed young men and women for the renewal of the church.
Serampore: A Turning Point
At Serampore he spent days and nights in contemplation. It was a time of preparation to fulfil his ardent desire “to raise himself to the stature of a saint in the religious life of a monastery”. There he came across the writings of St. Basil on monasticism. Basilian monastic vision had great influence on him. Besides, the visits to the Sabermathi Ashram of Gandhiji and Santhinikethan of Rabindranatha Tagore, gave him a new vision of Indian Sanyasa. These experiences made him to reflect upon starting an order of Missionaries to carry out the task of evangelization in India. This thought haunted him day and night and he cherished it as an experience of great enlightenment. He reflected on his own pastoral and ecclesial experience and turned to be a “yogi.” He came to the realization that possessing God is more sublime than serving him. Fr. Geevrghese was also thinking of the empowerment of the Syrian Christian women through education. To realize this ideal he took initiative to give education and training to a selected group of young Syrian Christian girls with the help of the Epiphany Sisters of England in Serampore.Slowly the residence of Fr. Geevarghese and his followers at Serampore turned to be an Ashram, and they began to live a sort of religious life according to the monastic rules of St. Basil, adapting them to Indian culture. As he accepted this as his way of life, he resigned from the Serampore College.
Foundation of the Bethany Ashram and Madhom
While he was in Culcutta, he was looking for a proper place to realize his long cherished dream of founding an Ashram. He desired to establish an Ashram in a solitary serene atmosphere away from the noisy world. With the help of his friends, he managed to buy hundred acres of land at Mundanmala, Ranni-Perunadu, Pathanamthitta, Kerala. It was the meeting place of rivers Pamba and Kakkat. It was thick with thorny bushes and herbs. They built a small thatched hut made out of the branches of trees and bamboo. This turned to be the first ashram in Malankara which was founded on August 15, 1919. Prayerfully he searched for a name for the ashram and opening the Bible Dictionary the word ”Bethany” struck him. He meditated upon it and came to the conclusion that it is an apt name for a religious order which upholds both contemplation and action. The life of the monks of the Bethany Ashram attracted the common people who were deprived of spiritual nourishment, to Mundanmala. Eventually the Bethany ashram became a place of pilgrimage and spiritual experience. Fr. Geevargese envisioned the ashram as a shelter, also for the poor and the marginalized. Along with the ashram he started a house for the orphans. Bethany ashram turned to be a source of spiritual inspiration and renewal. Spiritual retreats and discourses were given by Abo Geevrghese especially during the Passion Week. This enriched the Malankara Church which was badly in need of spiritual nourishment. Later in 1925, he founded the Bethany Madhom (convent) for the women religious. The sisters of this order enlive the monastic vision and mission of the Founder.
A Monastic Bishop
It was decided by the Malankara Orthodox Church to ordain Fr. Geevarghese as the Bishop of Bethany. It was a custom in the Jacobite Church, to renounce the Council of Chalcedon and Pope Leo at the time of Episcopal Ordination. But Remban Geevarghese disagreed to do so and had made it clear that if he had to renounce the Council and the Pope, he would better not to receive the Episcopal Ordination. However the Bishops decided to ordain him without the said renunciation.
Abo Geevarghese was consecrated Bishop on May 1, 1925 by Kandanatt Mar Ivanios, Vakathanam Mar Philoxinos and Kundara Mar Gregorios at Niranam near Tiruvalla. He became the Bishop of Bethany in the Orthdox Church with the title Geevarghese Mar Ivanios. Mar Ivanios’ episcopate had a great impact on Bethany Monasticism.
After the Episcopal ordination there was a meeting to felicitate Mar Ivanios and he made an extra ordinarily lengthy speech in which he referred to his childhood dream of a monastic life to attain spiritual perfection. He referred to the role he played for the establishment of the catholicate in the Malankara. He expressed his desire that the church might become one flock under one shepherd.
The Historic Event of Catholic Communion
The Episcopal Synod of Malankara Church held at Parumala near Tiruvalla, Kerela in 1926, authorized Mar Ivanios to open negotiations with Rome, for communion with the Catholic Church in order to establish peace in the Malankara. In the mean time, the civil court’s decision on the litigation for a large some of money – vattipanam– was declared in favour of the Malankara Orthodox Church. This event led the Malankara Orthodox Church except Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilos, the Suffragan Bishop of Bethany, to step out from the endeavour of communion with Rome. But Mar Ivanios continued the efforts of communion, on his on accord. Finally the dream of communion with the Catholic Church came true. On September 20, 1930 Mar Ivanios made the catholic profession before Bishop Aloysious Maria Benziger OCD, the Bishop of Kollam, delegated by Pope Pius XI, along with Mar Theophilos, Fr. John Kuzhinapurath OIC, Deacon Alexander Attupurath OIC and Mr. Chacko Kiliyileth. Thus the Syro-Malankara Church entered into catholic communion. Almost all the members of the Bethany Congregations followed Mar Ivanios to the catholic fold. Bishop Joseph Mar Severios and Thomas Mar Dioscoros and a good number of priests of the Orthodox Church also reunited to the Catholic Church following the footsteps of Mar Ivanios and they became the first zealous missionaries.
In 1932, Mar Ivanios made a historic pilgrimage to Rome and he met Pope Pius XI, who received him by uttering the famous words “Welcome a big welcome”. Mar Ivanios received the Sacred Palium from the Pope. He also participated in the thirty-second Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin, Ireland. There he met Mr. G.K Chesterton, a well known English writer who called Mar Ivanios the Newman of the East.
The Establishment of the Syro – Malankara Catholic Hierarchy
On his return from Rome, Mar Ivnios made strenuous efforts towards the building up of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church and equipping the church towards evangelization. Pope Pius XI established the Syro-Malankara Catholic Hierarchy for the reunited community on June 11, 1932 through the Apostolic Constitution Cristo Pastorum Principi.
The Ecumenical Endeavours and Cultural Development of the Syro-Malankra Catholic Community
The chief motive of Mar Ivanios in his efforts for communion with the Catholic Church was to form a single fold of Christ. His motto was “that all may be one” (Jn 17/21). He took great efforts to establish Christian unity among the Malankara Communites. He sent missionaries to different parts of Travancore to preach the good news of the Catholic Communion. Besides the reunited bishops and priests of the Malankara denominations, he welcomed missionaries from the Syro-Malabar Church. Fr. Joseph Kuzhinjalil, the founder of the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary (1938) was a prominent missionary, appointed by Mar Ivanios to work in the southern parts of Travancore. Thus Mar Ivanios co-ordinated the apostolate of reunion and that of evangelization simultaneously. He was very keen and considerate to enquire about the missionary endeavours in the different parts of the Archdiocese. He used to pray in the late hours of the night striking on his chest, for the pastoral needs of the parishes and mission stations and for self purification. Under his leadership about 75 priests were reunited from different denominations of Malankara Church and about hundred and fifty parishes including mission stations were founded in Kerela. His relationship with the civil authorities was also highly commendable.
He aimed at the all-round upliftment of the society through education. In view of this he established about 50 schools and an A grade college named after him – Mar Ivanios College.
In 1950, the jubilee of the Episcopal ordination of Mar Ivanios was celebrated. On this occasion the Holy father Pius XI wrote to His Grace “Venerable brother, health and apostolic benediction. We have learned with singular pleasure that you are about to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of your Episcopal Consecration. We always cherished the memory of that event when you, Mar Ivanios and Mar Theophilos, Syro Malankara Bishops of the Antiochene Rite, together with many priests and faithful…, by divine grace happily entered into the bosom of the Holy Mother, the Catholic Church. We do know what great difficulties you had to pass through, what hardships you had to put up with, before and after your reconciliation…We congratulate you venerable brother on your pastoral office which you have so long and so usefully held.” Again His Eminence Cardinal Tiserant wrote to Mar Ivanios “your fidelity to the Holy Father, your zeal, your spirit of sacrifice, your fortitude in difficulties and your apostolic activities nourished by an intense faith and piety have enabled solid organization of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church which by its catholic activities has become a beacon light of attraction and has added further lusture to the church”
The Eve of the Earthly Life
Due to the heavy schedule of his life the Archbishop became sick in 1952. He realized that his earthly days are numbered. He has already started the construction of St Mary’s Cthedral, Pattom, Trivandrum by then. He used to visit the place where his tomb was to be erected and would utter “this is my last earthly abode…”. He had found a suitable successor for the Malankara Church in Fr. Benedict OIC, the then Principal of Mar Ivanios College. Fr. Benedict was ordained an Auxiliary Bishop on January 29, 1953 as Benedict Mar Gregorios.
The last prayer which Mar Ivanios composed was to Our Lady of Sorrows. Archbishop composed the following prayer in Syriac.
O cloud that rained forth the dew of life
Maid through whose face the Sun shines,
Who stands out among the generations of the earth
And prevents darkness encompassing it
Central diamond set in the crown of the Lord of Heaven
Who transmits the light of her son to the four corners of the Universe,
Door unbuilt by hands uncut by tools, closed for ever
Through whom the king of Glory entered once,…..
Mother in whose lap the sad find comfort, the sinners hope, and the saints ecstasy-pray for us.”
His Grace was nearing his last hours. Eminent personalities from within and out side India visited the Archbishop on his sick bed. On July 15, Tuesday 1953 around midnight the Archbishop offered his soul to the Heavenly Father. Early in the morning of July 16, all the bells of the churches in the city tolled the sad news. With heavy hearts men, women and children began to flock to the pro-cathedral where the body was placed. All that day and all through the following night crowds of people belonging to every religion and community came there to pay their homage to His Grace who was loved by one and all, irrespective of caste, creed, and religion.
On July 17, morning Holy Qurbono was celebrated in the presence of a good many bishops priests, nuns and thousands of faithful. The funeral procession started at 9 am from the pro-cathedral at Palayam to the cathedral at Pattom where his body was to be interred. The Maharaja of Travancore wrote to Benedict Mar Gregorios “it is not only a loss to the Archdiocese…but it is also a loss –and a personal loss to the members of my family and to myself. During the many years past I have come to know him intimately. He has been a close friend of ours. So, I request you to accept our condolence on this occasion of deep sorrow.”
The body was interred into the tomb in the crypt beneath the sanctuary according to the Antiochene Rite, in the seated posture. Finally the tomb was closed with a white marble with the epitome “That all may be one. Here rests the mortal remains of Archbishop Geevarghese Mar Ivanios, the prophet of ecclesial communion.” The inscription on the tomb reads as follows “He looked for a city that has foundation, whose builder and maker is God.”(Heb.11/10)
Fragrance of a Saintly Life
The life of Mar Ivanios inspired thousands and thousands of people. He was the Moses of the Malankara Catholic Church. His life was a testimony of divine choice guided by the providence of God. He was a mystic in God experience and was convinced that the realization of God is nobler than the service of God. This conviction made him a yogi-mystic. He shared this charism by founding religious communities for men and women and it led him to begin with the reunion movement which laid the foundation of the Syro Malankara Catholic Church. The growth of the Syro Malankara Catholic Church is a sign and miracle that the Lord gives to his people through the saintly life of Mar Ivanios.