Although the Far East nation of India is overwhelmingly Hindu, an ancient Christian church community has existed since Apostolic times along the country’s Malabar Coast. A very strong tradition maintains that Christianity was brought to India in A.D. 52, when St. Thomas the Apostle reached the Indian state known today as Kerala. These Saint Thomas Christians are now known as “Nasrani,” a Syriac term meaning “Follower of the Nazarene.” About the fourth century, this Christian community in India came under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Persia. They consequently inherited the East Syriac liturgy and the rituals and traditions of Persian Christianity. This apostolic community was practicing the authentic Catholic faith in the East Syriac tradition long before Portuguese missionaries introduced the Latin rite to various Indian colonies.
Today, this early Christian community is still found in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, an Oriental Church in communion with the Pope, a true Roman Catholic Church, following East Syriac traditions. According to Syrian Christian belief, the apostle Thomas was allegedly martyred at Chennai, India, on July 3, 72 A.D. His body was then interred in Mylapore. However the deacon, St. Ephrem the Syrian, states that while the apostle was killed in India, his relics were taken to Edessa in Greece. His is the earliest known record of the apostle’s death. Nonetheless, records from the early 16th century reveal that St. Thomas’ tomb was maintained by a Muslim in India who kept a lamp burning there. St. Thomas Basilica today, which enshrines the Indian tomb, was first built in the 16th century by the Portuguese and then rebuilt in the 19th century.
Although Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke all record St. Thomas’ name within their lists of the Twelve Apostles, it is St. John’s account that reveals the words and thoughts of this missionary apostle. At the Last Supper, St. Thomas questions Jesus (Jn.14:5) on the Savior’s reference to himself as “the way.” Thomas reacts with the question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” To which Jesus famously replies, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The “way” is not a path to salvation eventually leading to Jesus; the true “way” is Jesus himself. Whoever embraces Christ directly through faith has already found the way. There is no going beyond Jesus; there is only a deeper and deeper involvement with him.
It is a skeptical St. Thomas who first hears that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to the other apostles. Thomas says boldly, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” But when Jesus next appears and invites Thomas to touch the open wounds, Thomas expresses his newly found belief with the familiar words, “My Lord and my God.” Thus, doubting Thomas is transformed into the believing Thomas who will spread his gift of faith, even to India.
But besides the questioning Thomas in chapter 14, and the doubting Thomas in chapter 20, there is also the rather neglected, but wholly heroic Thomas of chapter 11, revealed during the narrative of Lazarus’ restoration to life. In John 11:16, when Lazarus has just died, several apostles do not want to go back to Jerusalem where some Jews had attempted to stone Jesus. It is a brave Thomas who speaks up and declares, “Let us also go, and if needs be die with him.”
It is sad that this man of courage is neglected in favor of the man of questions and the man of doubts.
Jesus certainly proved himself, not only through words that were indeed quite eloquent, but even more impressively through deeds that were most compelling. The depth of Christ’s obedience and the extent of his commitment are admirably, yet painfully displayed in his Passion and Death recently celebrated throughout the Universal Church during Holy Week. St. Thomas, too, displays his true mettle through his willingness to step into the fray and involve himself personally, even bodily, in Christ’s personal struggle to preach and to spread the Gospel to men and women everywhere.
The ageing St. John would write in a later letter (1Jn.3:18): “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.” His fellow apostle James had already made the same point (Jm.1:22): “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.” “Actions speak louder than words,” folk-wisdom teaches; the Gospel witness of St. Thomas heartily concurs.