His Grace the Most Rev. Dr. Juhanon Mar Thoma Metropolitan
The Church saw remarkable growth during the long Episcopal Ministry of Metropolitans Titus II and Abraham Mar Thoma. Many new church buildings came up in different places. Parishes became well organized. The whole region in Kerala was divided into administrative divisions under the charge of Divisional Secretaries. The need for consecrating more Bishops was keenly felt and Rev. C.M John and Rev. C.T Mathew were selected. They were consecrated Bishops of the Church in 1937 with names Juhanon Mar Timotheos and Mathews Mar Athanasius. This was the first time in the Mar Thoma Church when two Bishops were consecrated together. They were given charge of two dioceses. On the expiry of Abraham Mar Thoma Metropolitan in 1947, Juhanon Mar Timotheos was installed as Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church, with the title Juhanon Mar Thoma Metropolitan.
Juhanon Mar Thoma had his theological education at the United Theological College, Bangalore, and the Union Theological Seminary, New York. He taught in the Mar Thoma Theological Seminary, Kottayam before he was consecrated as Bishop. He was reputed for his deep concern for social justice derived from the study of the message of the prophets and of the message of the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus. During the days of revival in the Church, emphasis was primarily on individual relationship to God and personal holiness. With the new understanding of the message of the Kingdom of God, there came an awareness of the wider implications of the Gospel, and a deep social consciousness. The gospel of liberation proclaimed in the Nazareth manifesto made its impact on the life of the Church.
The national struggle under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi for freedom from English rule was at its peak. Juhanon Mar Thoma made no secret of his identification with the national aspirations and he encouraged those who took part in the political and social struggles.
While being deeply committed to the principle of reformation, his friendship and affection crossed all denominational barriers. Ecumenism was a reality with him and he appreciated the good points in other Churches and also in other religions. Therefore, he was looked up to with respect and admiration by Christians belonging to other denominations and people of other faiths. His advice was sought in social and political concerns as well as in spiritual matters. He actively participated in the ecumenical movement from its very inception in the first Assembly of World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in 1948. In the second Assembly at Evanson in 1954, he was elected as one of the Presidents of the World Council of Churches and was in the presidium when the Third Assembly met at New Delhi in 1961. Thus he rose to great eminence in ecclesiastical and national spheres. It was during his regime that full communion relationship was established with C.S.I and C.N.I.
He had strong convictions and he was fearless. When national emergency was clamped on the country, the Metropolitan saw that the country was in danger of losing its hard-won freedom. He was the only Church leader in India who took courage to write a personal letter to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asking to lift the Emergency in the interest of Indian democracy. Thus, he faced the risk of being placed under arrest. Before long, emergency was lifted and nobody is sure as to how much his letter weighed with the authorities in deciding the issue.
He made his mark as an educationist too. Four institutions of higher education in the Mar Thoma Church – The Mar Thoma College, Tiruvalla, St. Thomas College, Kozhenchery, Christian College, Chengannur, and Titus II College Tiruvalla, were started under his leadership. They have grown in a marvelous way and have become first grade Colleges. Even when facing tremendous strain to raise funds for development of the institutions, he adhered to the principle that no money should be collected as donation or capitation fee for appointing teachers or giving admission to students. Technical institutions also were started to give job-oriented training to young people to help them find employment.
His concern for the poor and the needy in the society found expression in action. He started the project to provide land for the landless and home for the homeless, even before Vinoba Bhave undertook it on a national scale. He appealed to the people and many came forward in response to the call. When a new house (Bishop’s residence) was constructed for him and also to provide accommodation for guests, he wanted to build a house for a poor man preferably any one from other faiths before he started living in the new house. This was done and the key of the house was handed over to a Hindu friend simultaneously with the dedication of the house for the Metropolitan. The project of the Church for providing at least 100 houses per year to the poor irrespective of their religion and caste was started on that occasion. It has been achieving more than its aim in the past 18 years. The Government of Kerala followed this example and started a scheme to build one lakh houses with Government resources. Thus Juhanon Mar Thoma was a pioneer in this social programme. Individual Parishes and members of the Church also have followed this good example and many thousands of houses have been constructed for the poor. Considering the housing situation of Kerala, this is just a beginning and there are many more lakhs of people in need of shelters.
The Metropolitan also appealed for funds to help people in distress owing to accidents and natural calamities. This fund was called the Relief Fund, which is to be raised by practicing abstinence by skipping a meal a day to feel the suffering of others. Many responded to this appeal following his personal example, and have contributed to the fund, which has helped thousands. Another appeal was to contribute money to help in the marriage of poor girls. This contribution is usually given by people on the wedding of their children as an offering to God for providing for their needs. He also requested people to curtail their personal expenses as much as possible and to lead a simple lifestyle, contributing liberally towards the upliftment of the poor. He himself led a very simple life almost ascetic in nature, and was an idealist of high thinking and simple living. It can be truly beheld that he raised the prophetic voice in his generation.
He provided the Church with an emblem with the motto: “Lighted to Lighten”. This has been appreciated by many as showing both our privilege as lighted and our responsibility to lighten.