India’s Syro-Malabar Church on verge of split over liturgy dispute

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India Syro-Malabar Church
Seminarians pray at St. Joseph Pontifical Seminary of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India's Kerala state. (CNS photo/Msgr. John E. Kozar, courtesy of CNEWA)

(OSV News) — The Eastern-rite Syro-Malabar Church appears on the brink of a split with dissident Catholics in a southern Indian archdiocese refusing to celebrate a synod-approved Mass Aug. 20 in open defiance of a pontifical delegate.

A Vatican delegate appointed to settle the decades-old liturgy dispute has returned to Rome amid his disciplinary actions worsening the situation.

“Archbishop Cyril Vasil, the pontifical delegate for the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, returned to Rome after completing his first round of mission,” said an official statement from the Syro-Malabar Church Aug. 23.

The Slovakian Jesuit, a former secretary of the Dicastery for Eastern Churches, “will apprise the pope and the prefect of the oriental congregations of his assessments about the difficulties in implementing the Syro-Malabar Synod-approved uniform mode of Mass in the archdiocese,” it said.

Archbishop Vasil of Košice will continue “as pontifical delegate” of the archdiocese and will come again as part of his mission,” it said. “Appropriate mechanisms have been put in place in the archdiocese to carry out further action,” it added.

Recent events 

On Aug. 17, the Vatican delegate ordered all the priests in the archdiocese to offer the synod-approved Mass as of Aug. 20.

The prelate also sought the closure of parish churches if they faced protests against his order.

However, only six of the 328 parishes in the archdiocese celebrated Mass in the synod-approved form. In seven parishes, people stopped the priests from complying with the order from the pontifical delegate.

An overwhelming majority of priests and parishes stuck to their traditional Mass, in which celebrants faced the congregation.

The crux of the protracted controversy is their refusal to accept the synod-approved liturgy in which priests face the altar just during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass.

“I think now we are on a path of never going back. The feeling is to become an independent Catholic Church under the pope. We will be happy to be independent of an oppressive system,” said a senior priest of the archdiocese.

“Now it is clear that the people and the priests in the archdiocese do not want the uniform mode of Mass the Syro-Malabar synod wants to force upon us,” said Riju Kanjookaran, spokesperson of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency, a forum of priests, religious and laity that is spearheading the protest.

Ultimatum issued

Kanjookaran told UCA News Aug. 20 that Archbishop Vasil had arbitrarily issued the ultimatum to the priests without even discussing the basic issues that stop them from adopting the uniform mode of Mass.

“It was like applying salt on the already bleeding wounds and pushing the archdiocese on the verge of a possible split,” he said.

The dissident group has called for the priests who celebrated the uniform mode for Mass, facing the congregation, in place of the traditional Mass, to vacate their churches immediately.

The Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, the seat of power of Cardinal George Alancherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, has half a million followers of the church’s 5 million Catholics worldwide. It is the second largest in the church in terms of the number of Catholics.

The Syro-Malabar Church, one of Eastern Catholic churches, is in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Criticism of the papal delegate

A special synod of the Syro-Malabar Church was convened June 12-16 with the exclusive purpose of finding a solution to the liturgy dispute. It failed to reach a consensus and instead recommended a papal delegate hold a dialogue with all concerned and find a lasting solution.

However, the dissidents accused the papal delegate of not following his original mandate.

“He played the role of a tool in the hands of Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the apostolic administrator of the archdiocese, and tried to implement his (Thazhath’s) whims and fancies creating more trouble for the Catholic Church,” Kanjookaran alleged.

The dissidents say that Thazhath is the “main villain,” who aggravated the crisis in the archdiocese since his appointment as apostolic administrator July 30, 2022. They had sought his removal in the past and even boycotted him.

The dissidents also questioned the authenticity of Archbishop Vasil’s appointment because both the Vatican and the apostolic nunciature in India failed to release his appointment letter stating his mandate. Instead, they issued a note informing them about his appointment as a pontifical delegate.

Archbishop Vasil invited further trouble for himself with an official note he issued to Catholics in the archdiocese Aug. 5 confirming that his mission was to implement the uniform mode of Mass instead of taking on the role of a negotiator.

Disobeying Rome

Father Antony Vadakkekara, spokesman of the Syro-Malabar Church, when asked whether priests who defied Archbishop Vasil’s order would be excommunicated, said, “It is for the Vatican to decide.”

“The order came from the pontifical delegate, i.e. from the pope himself,” he clarified.

The Vincentian priest termed the defiant actions by the diocesan priests as repeated disobedience against the pope and the vow they had taken at the time of their priestly ordination.

Father Vadakkekara told UCA News that “the papal delegate will inform the Vatican about the development and take an appropriate decision accordingly.”

On Aug. 22, Archbishop Thazhath removed four junior priests in the archdiocesan seminary for not offering the synod-approved Mass.

They were not given any new appointments and were asked to move to a facility for retired priests.

The step boomeranged when Catholics supported the priests in an unprecedented move by asking the seminary rector, who supported the synod-approved Mass, to leave the seminary.

Meanwhile, the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese’s 54 active and retired bishops are gathering for their synod from Aug. 21-26 at Mount St. Thomas, the archdiocesan headquarters.

The synod will discuss the current development in the church but the spokesperson ruled out any role for it in making a decision on the current crisis.

“It is possible that the pope might ask suggestions from the Syro-Malabar church synod, but the power to act against defiant priests lies with the Vatican,” Father Vadakkekara said.

The dissident group claimed it has the support of 450 of the 470 priests and an overwhelming majority of Catholics in the archdiocese.

Legal challenges, hunger strikes and riots

Meanwhile, Catholics associated with the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency on Aug. 19 challenged the legality of the pontifical delegate’s order directing priests to adopt the uniform mode of Mass in a local court.

Informed sources told UCA News that the court has sent notices to Archbishop Vasil and Archbishop Thazhath seeking their replies and listed the matter for hearing Aug. 24.

The liturgy dispute began in the church a decade after the Second Vatican Council with attempts by one group to revive the liturgy in line with ancient traditions, while another wanted to modernize it.

Traditionalists wanted priests to face the altar throughout the Eucharistic celebration, while the modernists wanted them to face the congregation.

The local church’s synod in 1999 devised a uniform Mass, which required priests to face the altar during the Eucharistic prayer and face the people at other times. It was seen as a compromise formula, but could not be implemented following opposition from the traditionalists.

The synod in August 2021, without any prior demand, revived the controversial Mass and ordered all 35 dioceses to implement it, effective as of November of that year.

All except the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese have implemented the synod-approved Mass.

The uncompromising stand by Catholics in the archdiocese has led to protests, hunger strikes and street fights. Violent clashes inside St. Mary’s Cathedral led to its closure nearly eight months ago and as of Aug. 24, it remained closed.

UCA News is an independent Catholic news service covering East, South and Southeast Asia.

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