The recently appointed apostolic administrator of an Indian Syro-Malabar archdiocese is facing a priests’ boycott, in the latest twist of a decades-long liturgical dispute in an Eastern Catholic Church.
Archbishop Andrews Thazhath was declared “unfit” for the position by around 250 clergy of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly at a meeting on Oct. 18.
Pope Francis named Archbishop Thazhath as the archeparchy’s apostolic administrator on July 30, after accepting the resignation of Archbishop Antony Kariyil as archiepiscopal vicar of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
The Vatican pressed Archbishop Kariyil to step down after he dispensed clergy from adopting a new uniform mode of celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church, the second-largest of the 23 self-governing Eastern Catholic Churches.
According to local media, priests are demanding a permanent dispensation from the liturgical change, the restitution of financial losses caused by controversial land deals, and permission for Archbishop Kariyil to live in the archdiocese, located in southern India.
The clergy said that parishes would not make payments to the archdiocese or invite the apostolic administrator to events until their demands were met.
The priests also criticized the presence of law enforcement officers at Bishop’s House in Ernakulam, accusing Archbishop Thazhath of turning the archdiocese, which serves around half a million Catholics, into a “police raj.”
Syro-Malabar Catholics follow the ancient East Syriac Rite. Their Eucharistic liturgy is known as the Holy Qurbana (“offering” or “gift”). From the Church’s earliest days, Syro-Malabar priests celebrated the Eucharistic liturgy facing east (ad orientem), and with the congregation behind them.
But after Vatican II, the movement to celebrate the liturgy facing the people (versus populum) reached India, and in some places Syro-Malabar priests adopted the practice.
The uniform mode was introduced in 1999 as a compromise between those who favored the liturgy celebrated ad orientem and those who preferred it versus populum. Under the “50:50 formula,” priests face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Word but turn east for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Pope Francis has endorsed the formula and all other Syro-Malabar dioceses have adopted it, but the majority of clergy in Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese want to continue facing the people throughout the Eucharistic liturgy, a practice they have followed for the past 50 years.
Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese occupies a unique position in the Syro-Malabar world. When the Syro-Malabar Church was granted major archiepiscopal status in 1992, the archdiocese was recognized as the see of its major archbishop.
The archdiocese has been at the center of a complex, long-running controversy known as the “land deal scam,” relating to real estate transactions that lost the archdiocese a reputed $10 million and led to legal proceedings. The scandal sparked what became known as the “Ernakulam priests’ revolt,” in which clergy demanded the removal of the major archbishop, Cardinal George Alencherry.
The cardinal has always maintained his innocence and the Kerala state government said in July that it agreed with that assessment.
In June 2018, the Vatican appointed a temporary apostolic administrator who oversaw the archdiocese for a year. In August 2019, Pope Francis confirmed the appointment of Archbishop Kariyil as the archiepiscopal vicar, responsible for day-to-day administration until he was asked to resign earlier this year.
Protests against the uniform liturgy in the archdiocese have included hunger strikes and the burning of cardinals’ effigies, and have descended into street brawls.
The appointment of a new apostolic administrator in July has heightened tensions.
Archbishop Thazhath left a meeting of the presbyteral council in Ernakulam on Sept. 29 with a police escort.
On Sept. 30, he issued a circular letter asking parishes in Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese to implement a decision taken in 2021 by the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church to adopt the uniform liturgy throughout the Church.
On Oct. 1, lay people publicly burned his letter.
Archbishop Thazhath greeted Pope Francis after his general audience at the Vatican on Oct. 12. He released a video reflecting on his Vatican visit, in which he said the pope had told him that Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese should obey the synod’s decision.
UCA News reported that members of the laity launched a vigil on Oct. 16 aimed at preventing the archbishop from entering Bishop’s House. Archbishop Thazhath is the Archbishop of Trichur and resides outside Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.
The news agency also reported that Archbishop Thazhat entered Bishops’ House with police assistance on the evening of Oct. 17. Local clergy rushed to the site and said they would not leave until the officers were asked to leave. The police ultimately withdrew.
UCA News said that 377 priests out of 460 in the archdiocese had signed a resolution cutting ties with the apostolic administrator. It added that all but 10 of the remaining clergy had signaled their support but were unable to sign the document in person.