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Indian Catholics block cathedral Mass over liturgy dispute

Cathedral administrator Fr. Antony Puthuvelil was seeking to introduce the new ‘uniform mode’ of the Syro-Malabar Church's Eucharistic liturgy.

The interior of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, southern India. Augustus Binu via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

A newly appointed Indian Catholic cathedral administrator was prevented from celebrating the Eucharist on Tuesday in the latest flareup in a fiery liturgical dispute in the Syro-Malabar Church.

Fr. Antony Puthuvelil attempted to celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy on Dec. 20 at St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, southern India, days after he was named cathedral administrator with a mandate to introduce a new form of the Syro-Malabar liturgy known as the “uniform mode.”

But according to Fr. Puthuvelil, lay demonstrators inside the cathedral blocked him from celebrating the uniform mode liturgy. After he left the building, priests of the local Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly celebrated an older form of Eucharistic liturgy, in which the priest faces the congregation throughout the celebration.

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

The vast majority of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese — the largest in the Syro-Malabar Church — oppose the introduction of the “uniform mode,” where the celebrant faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word and then turns east for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

They argue that their current practice, with the priest continually facing the people, is more faithful to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and should be officially recognized as a “liturgical variant.”

But the new formula has been backed by the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops, adopted by all other Syro-Malabar dioceses, and endorsed by Pope Francis, who appointed a new apostolic administrator to oversee the agitated archdiocese in July.

The decades-long liturgical quarrel — marked in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese by street scuffles, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy — has intensified since the pope selected Archbishop Andrews Thazhath to succeed Archbishop Antony Kariyil as apostolic administrator.

Archbishop Kariyil claimed that he was forced to resign after dispensing priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese from adopting the new liturgical form.

Archbishop Thazhath issued a circular letter on Sept. 30 asking parishes to adopt the uniform liturgy as soon as possible. Protesters responded by publicly burning copies of the letter.

Violence flared when the archbishop attempted to enter Ernakulam’s St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica on Nov. 27 to celebrate the liturgy according to the new formula on the First Sunday of Advent, the start of a new liturgical year.

Protesters blocked the apostolic administrator from entering the cathedral gates. Following confrontations between critics and supporters of the archbishop, police detained seven people who were later released on bail.

Police cleared protesters from the cathedral and the gates were locked to prevent further disturbances. The cathedral remained closed to visitors after Nov. 27, with local Catholics left to pray outside the gates.

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath. Jude Didimus via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

On Dec. 5, a high court judge approved Archbishop Thazhath’s request for a police escort “for the smooth ingress and egress to the Major Archbishop’s House,” another flashpoint in Ernakulam.

The Times of India reported that local police gave the cathedral’s keys to Fr. Puthuvelil late on Monday night and he attempted to celebrate the uniform mode liturgy early the following morning.

The newspaper quoted the priest as saying: “I was directed to conduct Mass in the unified format. However, priests and parish council members blocked me in the morning. Priests then conducted the Mass without my assent.”

He reportedly added that he would be considering legal avenues to resolve the matter.

Fr. Jose Vailikodath, a spokesman for Ernakulam-Angamaly priests opposed to the uniform liturgy, claimed that Archbishop Thazhath had revoked the powers of cathedral rector Mgsr. Anthony Narikulam “without valid reasons.”

“He then appointed his person Fr Puthuvelil as the administrator and gave him the powers of the rector too,” Fr. Vailikodath said, according to the New Indian Express.

“As soon as the parishioners heard the news, the parish council met and passed a resolution proclaiming that they won’t accept the new administrator. They decided to prevent him from offering the unified Holy Mass.”

Priests opposed to the change are reportedly preparing to engage in continuous adoration at the cathedral until plans to introduce the new liturgical form are withdrawn.

The Permanent Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church recently agreed to create a three-member committee of bishops to discuss the standoff with clergy and lay representatives in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

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

The Syro-Malabar bishops are expected to discuss the liturgical dispute at a synod meeting in January.

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