Pope Benedict XVI made the statement at the Vatican on September 27, 2006. Addressing the faithful during the Wednesday catechises, he recalled that St. Thomas first evangelized Syria and Persia, and went on to western India from where Christianity reached Southern India. The import of the statement was that St. Thomas never travelled to south India, but rather evangelized the western front, mostly comprising today’s Pakistan.
Knowingly or unknowingly, he had in one stroke challenged the basis of Christianity in India and demolished long-held views of the Church here that St Thomas landed in Kerala, where he spread the gospel among Hindus. The comments were especially a letdown for the Syrian Christians of Kerala, who proudly trace their ancestry to upper-caste Hindus said to have been evangelized by St Thomas upon his arrival in 52 AD.
The comments went unnoticed until Sathya-Deepam, the official mouthpiece of the Syro-Malabar church, picked it up. Writing in it, George Nedungat, a member of the Oriental Pontifical Institute of Rome, conveyed the community’s anguish and claimed that previous popes had recognised St. Thomas’s work in south India.
The Pope’s original statement given out at St. Peter’s, before it was amended on the Vatican website, was factually correct and reflected the geography of the Acts of Thomas, i.e. Syria, Parthia (Persia/Iran) and Gandhara (North-West Pakistan). There is no historical evidence to support the tradition that St. Thomas came to South India, and on 13 November 1952 Vatican officials sent a message to Kerala Christians stating that the landing of St. Thomas at Muziris (Cranganore now Kodungallur) on 21 November 52 AD was “unverified”. When this writer sought confirmation of the 1952 Vatican statement in 1996, the Vatican’s reply was disingenuous and noncommittal. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints said that he needed more information and that the life of St. Thomas was the object of historical research and not within his Congregation’s competence.
Earlier, in 1729, the Bishop of Madras-Mylapore had doubted whether the tomb in San Thome Cathedral was that of St. Thomas and wrote to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Rome for clarification. Rome’s reply was never published and we may assume it was a negative reply. Again, in 1871 the Roman Catholic authorities at Madras were “strong in disparagement of the special sanctity of the localities [viz. San Thome, Little Mount, and Big Mount identified by the Portuguese after 1517] and the whole story connecting St. Thomas with Mailapur.” However, in 1886 Pope Leo XIII stated in an apostolic letter that St. Thomas “travelled to Ethiopia, Persia, Hyrcania and finally to the Peninsula beyond the Indus”, and in 1923 Pope Pius XI quoted Pope Leo’s letter and identified St. Thomas with “India”. These papal statements also reflect the geography of the Acts of Thomas, as does Pope Benedict’s statement, and make no reference to South India. In fact, the India they refer to is now Pakistan.
Pope John Paul II visited India twice in 1986 and 1999 and prayed at the alleged tomb of St. Thomas in San Thome Cathedral, but, like St. Francis Xavier before him, he had nothing to say about St. Thomas’s visit to South India or Mylapore in the first century. This is a curious omission on the Pope’s part in that he was an ardent missionary who openly promoted the evangelizing of India and Asia, and a statement from him confirming a visit by St. Thomas to South India would have certainly supported his agenda and that of his Indian bishops.