His Beatitude the Metropolitan: Post V - Travels Amongst the Saint Thomas Christians of India


His Beatitude Doctor Mar Aprem

I have dealt at length with the Metropolitical Palace and the other residents of it but not with the occupant from whom it takes it’s name. His Beatitude Mar Aprem (also regularly called His Grace Doctor Mar Aprem) is the Head of the Church of the East in India and Apostolic Delegate of the Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinka IV. Mar is the title for a bishop used by Assyrian and Syrian churches.

Mar Aprem was born 1940 and raised in Trichur. He holds several degrees (BD, MTh, STM, DTh and PhD) and has studied in India, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He was ordained a Deacon in 1961, Priest 1965 and Bishop in 1968. Eight days after his consecration as Bishop he was made Metropolitan by the Catholicos-Patriarch in Bagdad. He has been the Metropolitan of All India for forty four years and is the longest serving Bishop in India.

He is the author of 71 books on ecclesiastical history, theology, travel, and seven of these are books of humour! He received the ‘Men of Achievement” award from the International Biographical Centre in Cambridge England in 1984.

This is the formal introduction that he usually gets. Below is the formal photograph you will usually see. Here he is dressed in the unmistakable, hat and long coat of an Assyrian Orthodox bishop.

Mar Aprem

To be honest I was rather expecting another self absorbed bishop fuelled by his own enlarged ego and whose mind occupied just the small world of his own ecclesiastical jurisdiction (reading this sentence makes me realise that I have been dealing with church politics for far too long!). I doubly feared in His Beatitude’s case as Bishops of the East have a reputation for being a bit self conscious and more than a bit ‘pontifical’ and serious. They also have an ancient, and well deserved reputation for being over-sensitive to slights and thus easily offended (did I hear someone whisper schism?). I did not know what to expect from a Bishop of the Assyrian Church of the East, let alone an Indian one. The only thing I had to go on was the fact that of all the photographs of the Catholicos-Patriarch I have seen I had never once seen one of him smiling (I goggled Mar Dinka IV + Smiling after writing this and did find two lovely photographs of him doing just that – mind you it was only two).

The Mar Aprem I have encountered is simply charming. He is friendly, gregarious, funny,  informal and laughs out loud regularly, especially over the absurdity of so much of what takes place in the church.  In a word he is - charismatic. He is kind of man who seems so comfortable with himself that he makes the pompous uncomfortable and even more self conscious.

Unfortunately he is also a bit of a powerhouse and never seems to stop. He is like the energizer rabbit and goes from 5am until 10pm every day with just a one hour nap. He wore me out the very first day, and he is 73 with severe diabetes (3 insulin shots a day). For example on Sunday he returned at 8pm from a day that started at 5am and included: preaching a singing a two and a half hour Querbana (you stand during the whole service) that began at 7am; presiding over a two hour Parish Anniversary day in a rural area outside the city; laying the cornerstone for a new parish building project; and attending two evening meetings at two different parishes.

Still, he is a bishop and so has a somewhat narrow focus on his own role within his own church. This is to be expected (the curse of the purple spectacles). However, unlike many Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox ecclesiastics he has a truly ecumenical spirit and is both knowledgeable and interested in other traditions.

He is also loquacious (like I would ever have hear that word applied to me). He will talk at length about a huge variety of things from history, his extensive travels (he has published 24 travelogues) to articles in the morning papers or e-mails he has just received. Interestingly though, he seems somewhat evasive when asked theological questions or in depth ecclesiastical history ones. I know that it is not because he lacks the knowledge to answer but perhaps he has been over it too many times and has therefore lost all interest.

Mar Aprem at Celebration

While writing this His Beatitude has wandered in waiting for another meeting to start. These next two photographs I just took and I think they capture his personality much better than the official ones do. 

Mar Aprem Laughing  Mar Aprem Chatting

He is a very easy man to be around, or at least if you have just met him and never heard any of his jokes before! I felt comfortable immediately.

Best thus far, however, for getting a sense of the man behind the title is this short video in which he describes to me how the notes of the sitar work. The only thing missing is that he doesn’t laugh as much as usual.