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Christians in the Muslim World

Why study Syriac in Kottayam, India

A testimonial by Jacob Thekeparampil

"My eyes were opened at the British Museum in London. When I saw all those volumes in Syriac with so many unpublished books I realised that there was still a treasure to discover," said Fr Jakob Thekeparampil. Sporting a trimmed white beard framing his brown face, so typical of Kerala Indians, the clergyman sat in a wicker chair in the patio of the Saint Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute (SEERI) in Kottayam, to talk about the Syriac language research institute he founded in 1985, and which today is the only institution in India to teach a university-level Syriac language and literature programme.

 

"Seven Churches tied to the Syriac tradition evolved in India, but by the end of the 1960s not one of them had a priest who could read and translate a Syriac text. Translations into the local language, Malayalam, of some basic texts were used in the liturgy and the Sacraments. The Gospel was read in Syriac but during the homily the priest would give the congregation a quick translation; this way, the liturgy was partly in Syriac and partly Malayalam. This was going on even before the Second Vatican Council since Syriac Churches were already free to use the local language. Since then the clergy has become more or less unable to understand Syriac so that today the liturgy is essentially in the local language."

 

Until the 1960s Syriac was taught in public schools with teachers provided by the Churches; at least as long as they could find trained educators. Slowly though competent teachers became fewer and fewer until the subject was removed from the school curriculum.

 

 

Priests were trained according to the model of the Latin Church with theological and ecclesiological texts based on the Latin tradition, said Father Jacob. "For example, I studied in a Syro-Malabar seminary even though I belong to the Syro-Malankar Church. I went to Rome for further training but the languages of teaching there were Italian, English and Latin; not a word of Syriac. The whole training was based on the Latin model. I studied Saint Augustine, Tertullian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, etc, but there was nothing about the Syriac tradition and its Fathers, including giants like Saint Ephrem and James of Sarugh. Their writings are in Syriac, but neither teachers nor students in India's seminaries can read their texts." And the problem was not limited to the Catholic Syro-Malabar and Catholic Syro-Malankar Churches but also affects the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Protestant Churches.

 

 

As Father Jacob came to realise, "we had to find ways to develop sound theological thinking based on direct access to the sources of our own traditions, which meant finding our own Syriac experts." In turn this was in line with the goals of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to use ancient sources to develop new theological and liturgical models.

 

"My Syriac teacher in Paris sent me to London, forcing me to actually study the language in order to get my Ph.D. This way not only did I learn the grammar and vocabulary, but I also leart to sing the Syriac liturgy and read original manuscripts."

 

 

Afer he moved to London to complete his doctorate by studying certain manuscripts, Father Jacob ended up discovering hidden away a real treasure trove of liturgical prayers, monastic texts, biblical commentaries, and books of philosophy. As he noted, "they were there, waiting only for modern scholars to read them and make the most of them for the good of today's Church."

 

The idea of setting up an institutte of Syriac Studies came at the Symposium Syriacum held in 1980. On that occason some Kerala bishops asked the international scientific community for help. Next, Father Jacob crisscrossed Europe to collects books for the library of his nascent institute. The net result was that "when I landed at Kochin Airport with a container full of books, I don't think there was ever a student from Kerala with so much material at any one time," he said.

 

 

Founded in 1985 the Saint Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute (SEERI) began collaborating with Kottayam's Mahatma Gandhi University in 1994. Now seminarians from around the state must go there to take Syriac courses. Indeed it is there that they have access to thousands of ancient manuscripts for their Master degrees or Ph.D. in Syriac language and literature.

 

Every four years the institute organises an international conference, and twice a year it publishes The Harp, a international English-language journal whose name comes from Saint Ephrem's traditional nickname: the Harp of God.

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