church soonora
Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
PARTRIARCH OF ANTIOCH & ALL THE EAST MORAN MOR IGNATIUS APREM II.

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Catholicos

            
 
HG Aboon Mor Baselios Thomas I Catholicos  
 


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 ‘Catholicos’.

 

‘Maphryono’ (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 ‘Maphryono’ (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.