Syro-Malabar divisions over liturgy are work of the devil, pope says

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Pope Francis shakes hands with Indian Archbishop Raphael Thattil, the major archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, during a meeting with bishops, priests and faithful from the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church at the Vatican May 13, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The divisions within the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in India are the work of the devil, who has convinced some people, including priests, that their way is the only way to celebrate the Eucharist, Pope Francis said.

“This is where the devil — the devil exists — the divider, creeps in thwarting the most heartfelt desire the Lord expressed before he sacrificed himself that we, his disciples, would be one, without divisions, without breaking communion,” the pope said May 13 in an audience with Syro-Malabar Archbishop Raphael Thattil, the major archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, and pilgrims from the Eastern Catholic church.

Pope Francis on Church unity

“Safeguarding unity is not a pious exhortation but a duty, and it is especially so when it comes to priests who have promised obedience and from whom the believing people expect the example of charity and meekness,” Pope Francis said.

Syro-Malabar Catholics in India, especially in the church’s primary Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, have been embroiled in a controversy for more than two decades over the celebration of the eucharistic liturgy, which they call the Holy Qurbana.

After years of debate about tradition, Latinization and modernization, in 1999 the synod of bishops of the Syro-Malabar church issued uniform rubrics for the celebration to end a situation in which some priests faced the altar during the entire liturgy, while others faced the congregation throughout the liturgy. The bishops’ decision was to have the priest face the altar during the eucharistic prayer but face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word and again after Communion.

Priests in most Syro-Malabar dioceses complied, but dispensations were issued for the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly and a few other territories, allowing priests to continue celebrating the whole liturgy facing the people. The bishops decided to end the dispensations in November 2021 but a group of priests, religious and laity in the archdiocese, claimng to have the support of the majority of the faithful, still celebrates the entire liturgy with the priest facing the congregation as had been the practice since 1970.

Efforts to resolve impasse

In August, Pope Francis sent an envoy to India to try to resolve the impasse. And, in early December he sent a video message telling the priests and faithful to obey the bishops’ synod or face excommunication.

Meeting Archbishop Thattil and other Syro-Malabar priests and faithful, including members of the church living in Rome, the pope encouraged them to pray for those still dissenting who, he said, are “tempted by worldliness that leads to rigidity and division.”

“Like the father in regard to the prodigal son, let us leave our doors open and our hearts open so that once they have repented, they will not find it difficult” to return home, he said.

Discussions and debate are fine, the pope said, but “pride, recriminations and envy do not come from the Lord and never lead to concord and peace.”

Disputes over Eucharist undermine the witness of faith

Fighting over the Eucharist, “the sacrament of charity and unity,” he said, is “incompatible with the Christian faith.”

The faithful, the pope said, should cultivate their sense of belonging to the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church “so that its great liturgical, theological, spiritual and cultural heritage may shine forth even more.”

Pope Francis also announced that he wanted to support the Syro-Malabar church and Archbishop Thattil by extending the church’s jurisdiction to the thousands of Syro-Malabar Catholic migrants living and working in the Middle East. Currently, while many have access to their liturgy and to the sacraments in the Syro-Malabar rite in the United Arab Emirates and other countries, they are part of the local Latin-rite dioceses or jurisdictions.

The pope told the bishops, “I wish to help you, but without replacing you,” and he asked the faithful to follow the guidance of their bishops because “this is what the church wants; without Peter, without the major archbishop, it is not church.”

Cindy Wooden

Cindy Wooden is a journalist with Catholic News Service.