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Indian archbishop blocked from entering cathedral amid liturgy dispute

Protestors in India stopped their archbishop from entering the cathedral Sunday morning, as a liturgy dispute roils the Syro-Malabar Church.

A Catholic receives the Eucharist Nov. 27 through the locked gates of St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica, Ernakulam. Credit: Mathrubhumi News/YouTube.

Indian Catholics prevented an archbishop from entering a cathedral on Sunday to celebrate the “uniform mode” of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy in the latest flare-up in a ferocious decades-long liturgical dispute.

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly, attempted to enter St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, Kerala state, at around 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 27 to celebrate the liturgy on the First Sunday of Advent, the start of a new liturgical year.

Thazhath had intended to celebrate the 6 a.m. Holy Qurbana — as the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy is known — according to the “50:50 formula,” in which the celebrant faces the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word and then turns east, toward the altar, for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

After years of controversy over liturgical postures in the Holy Qurbana, the  “50:50 formula,” has been adopted by all other Syro-Malabar dioceses and is supported by Pope Francis.

But the majority of the roughly half a million clergy and lay people in Ernakulum-Angamaly archdiocese oppose the change, arguing that priests should be allowed to continue facing people as they offer Holy Qurbana.  

Opposition leaders argue that they have followed the “versus populum” approach for more than 50 years and believe it is in line with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The Syro-Malabar Church, which traces its origins to St. Thomas the Apostle, is the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome, after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

According to Indian media, protesters filled the cathedral and locked the gates before the arrival of a car containing Archbishop Thazhath, who has led the nearby Archdiocese of Trichur since 2007 and was elected president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) earlier this month.

Police accompanying the archbishop reportedly advised him not to leave the vehicle. The car waited outside the gates, then left when it became clear that the archbishop could not enter the cathedral.

Supporters of the uniform mode are said to have then broken into the nearby Archbishop’s House, which had been blockaded by defenders of the liturgy facing the people.

The Indian news website Matters India reported that the intruders vandalized a television set, chairs, and a photograph of Archbishop Antony Kariyil, who was ousted as apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese in July after issuing a dispensation allowing priests to continue celebrating the liturgy facing the people.

Police officers removed the uniform-mode supporters from Archbishop’s House.

They also cleared protesters from the cathedral and locked the gates to prevent further disturbances, leaving the cathedral closed to worshippers.

The New Indian Express quoted a local official as saying: “The [cathedral] key will be returned when the matter is resolved at a meeting to be conducted by the district administration. It has to be ensured that no such violence takes place in future.”

A video posted on Monday showed a priest giving Holy Communion through the cathedral’s gates to a kneeling Syro-Malabar Catholic.

The latest confrontation in the long-running liturgical dispute came days after an apparent breakthrough for opponents of the “50:50 formula,” in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

The governing permanent synod of the Syro-Malabar Church agreed to form a three-member committee of bishops to discuss the standoff with clergy and lay representatives in the archdiocese.

Archbishop Mathew Moolakkatt of Kottayam, Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry, and Bishop Jose Chittooparambil of Rajkot held a “cordial” three-hour meeting with the priests and laity on Nov. 25.

The Times of India said that the liturgical dispute was likely to be discussed at a meeting of the Syro-Malabar bishops in January.

Archbishop Thazhath has faced considerable local opposition since he was named apostolic administrator on July 30, succeeding Archbishop Kariyil.

He left a meeting of the presbyteral council in Ernakulam on Sept. 29 with a police escort. A day later, he issued a circular letter asking parishes to implement a decision taken in August 2021 by the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church to adopt the uniform liturgy.

On Oct. 1, lay people publicly burned copies of Archbishop Thazhath’s letter, expressing not only their opposition to the uniform mode but also their anger at the removal of Archbishop Kariyil and the appointment of a new apostolic administrator, whom they accuse of being unsympathetic to their cause.

Thazhath greeted Pope Francis after his general audience at the Vatican on Oct. 12. He released an eight-minute video reflecting on his Vatican visit, in which he said the pope had told him that the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese should obey the synod’s decision.

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