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Much preparation occurs when a group of American Rotarians are about to meet the supreme head of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kottayam.

Just before 9:30 a.m., our group was guided to an upstairs parlor where we were instructed to remove our shoes and find a seat on one of the couches.

"We kiss his ring when he comes in, that's what we do," a man told me, as I prepared to interview His Holiness, Baselios Marthoma Paulose II, 62, the leader of the most ancient Christian church in India.

He reigns over 30 dioceses, 33 bishops, and about 200 other monasteries, seminaries, convents, orphanages, hospitals, and higher education facilities.

In a word, he's important.

I'm not usually rattled before interviews, but there were about a dozen church representatives staring at me in silence, expecting my behavior and interview questions to be reverent, thoughtful and precise.

He doesn't give interviews, and the only reason I was granted access to him is because one of our Rotarian coordinators has generations old familial ties to the church.

When His Holiness walked in, wearing a black and red gown, bejeweled with gold and precious stones, I was prompted once again to remember that I was essentially interviewing the pope of the Indian Orthodox Church. I turned to greet His Highness, and considered if perhaps I was in over my head.

He gathered among us and stretched out a gold cross and everyone stepped forward to kiss the sacred crucifix.

I, too, stepped forward to kiss the cross.

I sat next to him in his chair and we all chatted lightly and made initial introductions over tea and biscuits. And then I peppered him with a few questions.

I was interested to know about the antiquity of the church because every Orthodox Christian in Kerala is proud to explain to me that their church is a direct establishment of St. Thomas when he traveled to India in 52 A.D. 

His Holiness explained that until the 16th century, when the Portuguese came in and forcibly converted everyone to Catholicism in southern India, all Christians were Orthodox.

"When colonization occurred, some divisions happened. Roman Catholics came, and other denominations came," he said. "With the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500s, slowly our freedoms were lost."

The Orthodox church has remained fixed in Kerala, however, and the traditions are as ancient as the church itself.

But belief in God and church attendance is slipping worldwide, and I was curious to know why he believed that was happening.

"As far as our church is concerned, we are not interested in evangelizing," he said. "We keep a traditional faith as it is. We are in communion with other churches. We are one group. Same church, same faith."

When asked what information I should bring home with me to share with south Texas, he said, "Keep fear of God and church observances," he said. "Every church follows its traditions but every church is one in the same. The boundaries are made by human beings."

This was the most humble response I think any church leader has ever uttered to me.

Until tomorrow, Victoria.
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