Priests in the tinderbox Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly have been asked to read out a letter from the Syro-Malabar Church’s synod of bishops in their parishes Sunday calling for the acceptance of a new uniform liturgy.
The Jan. 13 appeal by the Church’s synod of bishops’ was signed by 49 bishops, including the Syro-Malabar Church’s new leader, Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil, who was listed as the first signatory.
The appeal caused consternation in the archeparchy in the southern Indian state of Kerala, where the vast majority of priests and lay people reject the new liturgy. Members of the archeparchy have previously burned bishops’ letters asking them to accept the liturgical change.
It is unclear whether the synod’s letter will face the same fate or will be read out in the archeparchy’s parishes Jan. 21, as requested. It is likely to be the first big test for Thattil, whose formal title is Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, as the archeparchy is the see of the head of the Syro-Malabar Church.
The initial reaction within the archeparchy to Thattil’s Jan. 9 election by the synod of bishops was largely positive. But the letter appears to have dented the early goodwill.
Riju Kanjookaran, a spokesman for the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency, which is opposed to the new liturgy, told UCA News Jan. 15: “We had great hope from the new Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil who had promised to listen to us and find an amicable solution, but the synod under him has now taken a different stand.”
The synod’s letter was shared with priests and laity of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly via a circular issued by the archeparchy’s apostolic administrator Bishop Bosco Puthur.
Puthur wrote that the synod of bishops — the Syro-Malabar Church’s authoritative governing body — decided on the last day of its Jan. 8-13 meeting at Mount St. Thomas, Kakkanad, to ask all the archeparchy’s priests, religious, and lay people “in writing to implement the uniform way of offering the Holy Eucharist of our Church.”
“The synod’s request and this circular are to be read next Sunday (21-01-2024) during Holy Mass in all parishes and institutions of the archeparchy and made available to all the people of God in the archeparchy,” Puthur wrote.
“I remind each of you once again to forget differences of orientation for the sake of the greater good, and to bear witness to the unity of the Church by practicing the uniform way of offering the Eucharist.”
The synod’s letter follows sweeping changes last month in the Syro-Malabar Church, the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
On Dec. 7, Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the 78-year-old Cardinal George Alencherry, who had served as the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly and ex officio head of the Syro-Malabar Church since 2011.
The pope also accepted the resignation of Archbishop Andrews Thazhath as the apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly. During a turbulent 16 months in the role, Thazhath sought to introduce the uniform liturgy into the archeparchy, but encountered staunch resistance.
According to local reports, 290 out of the archeparchy’s 328 churches hosted a celebration of the new liturgy at Christmas. Yet all but five parishes are understood to have reverted since Christmas to the form of the Eucharistic liturgy that has been celebrated in the archeparchy for more than 50 years.
The new uniform liturgy seeks to reconcile the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient custom, in which the priest celebrated ad orientem (facing east), and the post-Vatican II Latin Church practice in which the celebrant stands versus populum (facing the people).
In the new mode, the priest faces the people at the beginning and end of the celebration, but turns east for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Clergy and laity in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, the largest Syro-Malabar diocese, insist that the liturgy facing the people throughout should be recognized as a legitimate variant, arguing that it is a time-honored expression of the liturgical vision of Vatican II.
The new uniform liturgy was authorized by the synod of bishops and introduced, with Pope Francis’ support, in the 34 other Syro-Malabar dioceses worldwide with sporadic protests.
In their Jan. 13 message to members of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, the 49 bishops wrote: “We, the synod fathers of the Syro-Malabar Church, wish to address you with one mind.”
“The Holy Father Pope Francis has once again called through a video message to implement the unified method of the Holy Mass of our Church in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly from Dec. 25, 2023.”
“We are lovingly requesting that all of you, as Catholic believers, accept this call given by our Holy Father with inherited love and implement it as an example.”
The bishops added: “We have a duty to obey the Holy Father, as the head of the Holy Church, so we hope that you will forget the differences of opinion and offer a testimony to the unity of the Catholic Church.”
Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil’s installation ceremony took place at Mount St. Thomas, Kakkanad, Jan. 10, the day after his election. The Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy’s cathedral is currently closed. St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam was shut in December 2022, following an incident connected to the liturgy dispute in which an altar was dragged across the sanctuary by protesters, sending sacred vessels crashing to the ground.
In a Jan. 11 interview with Shalom World News, Thattil was asked how he would seek to heal the wounds of division in the Syro-Malabar Church.
He said: “While I was the manager of St. Thomas College, the one who taught economics told me that the most uneconomic parable of the Bible is the lost sheep. And I said: ‘That is the economics of the mystery of salvation.’ Nobody shall be lost. Everyone should be brought back.”
“So, I may not be able to give so much for the people who stand with me, because they are already with us. But at the same time, those who are not with us — not only with the liturgical issue, but there are a lot of people who have a lot of grievance against the policies of the Church, or the ministries rendered by the Church — here I would like to tell you my policy will be to go behind the lost sheep.”