The history of the Catholic Church in India is very extensive. It traces its origin in the preaching of the Apostle St. Thomas, who, according to tradition, came to India in 52 A.D. Indian Christians commonly trace their origins to the Apostle Thomas, who is said to have built seven churches in southern India, and was martyred in a place called Mylapore near the present town of Chennai (Madras), where his tomb is found, in 72 AD.

From various records of travelers we know the existence of isolated Christian communities in India already in the year 345 (Travancore). Waves of European missionaries, beginning under Portuguese rule in the 16th century, shaped the dynamics of Indian Catholicism today. Portuguese Catholicism particularly shaped Catholic life in Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and parts of Karnataka. 

The Indian Church is a communion of three individual Churches: LatinSyro-Malabar, and Syro-Malankara.

The 24 million Christians in India total just 2.3% of the population, and are primarily concentrated in the south, notably in states like Goa, which is 26% Christian; Kerala, which is 18.6% Christian; and Tamil Nadu, which is 6% Christian. In Southern India, the Christian population is stable since the 1960s, with relatively few conversions. In the Northeast tribal areas and states, there are also significant numbers of Christians, and the numbers there are growing. The vast majority of the populations of the Northeast states of Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland are Christian. Today about half of Indian Christians live outside the historic southern Indian centers of Christianity. “Catholics form the largest Christian group in India, nearly half the Christian population. Another 40 percent are Protestants, while 7 percent are Orthodox Christians and 6 percent belong to Indigenous sects.”

Though Catholicism is very much a minority religion, it is quite visible in many cities. Catholic schools, hospitals, and colleges are widely revered in India, sought after by Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike. “Christian communities run 20 percent of the private educational institutions and more than 30 percent of the private medical services in the country.” A visitor driving around parts of Bengaluru, on seeing so many signs for Catholic schools and institutions, might mistakenly conclude that the city had a large Catholic population. Indian Catholicism is highly clericalized, with a large and influential population of priests, sisters and brothers who run these Catholic institutions. Sisters are almost always seen in habit, though priests may or may not be seen in clerics or soutine.

Indian Catholics belong to three churches within the Catholic Church. Latin rite Catholics (so named because they use the Roman rite and governance, not for any use of Latin today) trace their origins to the missionary work of St. Francis Xavier from 1542-45. Two “oriental” Catholic churches — the Syro-Malabar and the Syro-Malankara — trace their origins to the travels of the Apostle Thomas. Each of these churches has its own hierarchy, in overlapping jurisdictions, under the authority of the pope. Catholics in any of these rites may receive communion in each other’s liturgies, though people tend to stay in the rite they were born into.

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