Husband & Wife Articles


Catholic East and West

Discover the diversity of the Church to ‘breathe with both lungs’

By Jilu Jacob

Growing up, I didn’t understand why I had to cover my head in church, the meanings of bells and incense, and why Mass was in a different language than my own. While it is normal for children to have questions about “church stuff,” my questions were unique because I was raised as a Syro Malankara Catholic.

What is that?

Jacob Family

A beautiful and relatively unknown fact about the Catholic Church is that it is home to more than 20 different churches or rites. What most people think of as the “Catholic Church” is actually just one of its two lungs. Though smaller in number than their Western counterpart, the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches share the same faith but express it through unique liturgical celebrations (rites), spiritualities, and even governance, with a separate Code of Canon Law. These differences find their roots in the mission and evangelization of the Apostles. As they set out to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Good News, they brought the Gospel to different cultural centers, which developed their own liturgies and traditions. With the Eastern Schism, many of these churches broke from Rome, though a number have been reunited with the pope over the centuries, including the Syro Malankara in India.

During my childhood in New Jersey, our family would drive nearly an hour every Sunday to attend Qurbono (Divine Liturgy or Mass) at our Syro Malankara mission. Many times, I wondered why we didn’t just attend the Roman Catholic Church in town. It was only after attending the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, that I began to have a personal interest in understanding my liturgical traditions. As I looked around at all the young people at WYD, I saw different languages, cultures and ethnicities coming together to celebrate the same Catholic faith. As a teenager, it was my first experience of the universality of the Church. I returned home with a desire to know how I as an Indian American fit into this one body of many parts.

Fast forward a decade, and I found myself marrying a Syro Malabar Catholic. Although both Syro Malabar Catholics and Syro Malankara Catholics consider themselves St. Thomas Christians – after the Apostle who brought the Gospel to India – and both originated in the small state of Kerala, there are probably more differences than similarities in their liturgies and expressions of faith. Born in New Delhi, India, Roger was Syro Malabar by birth, but had grown up in the Roman Catholic Church, as there were no local Syro Malabar communities. As we prepared for marriage, we found ourselves in similar positions. Roger and I knew that by birth and marriage, respectively, we had a responsibility to be Syro Malabar Catholics. However, responsibility doesn’t automatically translate to love and spiritual fulfillment. We realized that we would have to take extra steps to live out our Syro Malabar faith tradition joyfully. We started with reading through and understanding the marriage liturgy in the Syro Malabar rite and choosing to have it in English, rather than the traditional Malayalam language, to be able to participate more fully. Now, two years later, we are still continuing on our journey of understanding and loving the Syro Malabar church. 

While my experience is somewhat unique, it is relevant to all Catholics. St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, said that the “Church must breathe with her two lungs,” providing a particularly beautiful and vivid image of the Church needing both the East and the West. In Orientale Lumen, he encouraged the Eastern churches to embrace the originality of their heritage and traditions but also instructed the Western church to share in that beauty. John Paul told us that by learning about the various expressions of our Catholic faith, by experiencing such traditions, and by meeting and working with each other, we can share in “a passionate longing that the full manifestation of the Church's catholicity be restored to the Church and to the world, expressed not by a single tradition … that we too may be granted a full taste of the divinely revealed and undivided heritage of the universal Church.”

So next time you have a free Sunday, try to attend Mass with an Eastern Catholic community! Together, as brothers and sisters of East and West, we have much to learn and share in our walks of faith.

Jilu Jacob is a wife, mother and nurse living in Massachusetts with her husband, Roger, and their daughter, Magdalena. She is a first generation Indian American, a Jesus Youth, and her family observes Syro-Malabar Catholic traditions.