The apostolic administrator of an archdiocese at the center of the Syro-Malabar Church’s liturgical dispute has issued an ultimatum to Catholics who oppose the celebration of a new liturgy at the local cathedral.
In a decree dated June 22, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath said he would remove the vicar of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, southern India, and dissolve the parish council if they continued to block the celebration of the “uniform mode” of the Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgy, which is known as the Holy Qurbana.
The decree was issued after a deal to reopen the cathedral basilica, which has been closed since December, fell through. The agreement was forged during an emergency meeting of the bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church, the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome.
In the seven-page letter addressed to the cathedral vicar, Msgr. Antony Nariculam, and parish council members, Thazhath recounted the events that led to the building’s closure.
Incidents included a clash between supporters and opponents of the new liturgy during which the altar was pushed across the sanctuary, sending sacred vessels crashing to the ground. Protestors have met regularly outside the closed basilica to pray and protest, sometimes in the driving rain.
“The closure of the basilica of Ernakulam, which is the cathedral of the Major Archbishop [the leader of the Syro-Malabar Church], for more than six months, is a matter of great pain and shame for our Church,” Thazhath wrote.
The archbishop said that Nariculam had entered into an agreement June 14 regarding the conditions for reopening the cathedral. The deal was approved a day later at the emergency meeting of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops. The synod said that only the new form of the Eucharistic liturgy could be celebrated at the cathedral. Until that was possible, the basilica would only be open for prayers and other sacraments.
But in a June 16 statement, cathedral officials announced that they were withdrawing from the agreement after the parish council objected to its terms.
Thazhath lamented that “the matter was widely published in the media, causing great harm to the unity of the Church and scandal to the people.”
He added: “The decision of the priests and parish council members to disobey the decisions of the synod, local hierarch, and the Apostolic See, especially on liturgical matters, are violations of the laws in the Church and are liable for canonical disciplinary actions.”
The Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese is the focal point of resistance against efforts to introduce the unified version of the Eucharistic liturgy. The dispute has been punctuated by street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy.
The uniform mode is a compromise between the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest faced east (ad orientem), and the post-Vatican II practice where the priest is positioned toward the people throughout the liturgy (versus populum).
In the unified mode, the priest faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and then faces the people again after Communion.
Despite a direct appeal from Pope Francis to adopt the new mode, the vast majority of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese reject the change and want their preference for the liturgy facing the people to be recognized as a legitimate variant.
The June 12-16 emergency meeting of the Synod of Bishops was called to discuss the liturgical crisis in the archdiocese. It followed a May 4 meeting in Rome between senior Syro-Malabar bishops and the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Dicastery for the Eastern Churches prefect Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, who were both sent copies of Thazhath’s new decree.
Following the Vatican meeting, Syro-Malabar leader Cardinal George Alencherry noted that the Church’s other 34 dioceses, or eparchies, had embraced the change.
“This decision has led all other eparchies towards greater unity and to alter it would lead to anarchy in the Church,” he wrote in a June 16 circular letter.
He added that Pope Francis had agreed to consider a request from the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops to appoint a papal delegate for the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, “to facilitate further dialogue and to rectify the anti-ecclesial dispositions, while convincing them the importance of ‘walking together’ (synodality).”
In his June 22 decree, Archbishop Thazhath set out the consequences if cathedral officials and parish council members continued to resist the introduction of the uniform liturgy.
He said that the cathedral vicar Msgr. Antony Nariculam should ensure that the basilica reopened by July 2, the day before the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, who is regarded as the Syro-Malabar Church’s founder.
“Holy Qurbana in the basilica can be celebrated only as per the synodal decision of uniform mode. Until that is possible, Holy Qurbana shall not be celebrated there. You and [the basilica’s administrator] shall make sure that Holy Qurbana in the uniform mode is started in the basilica at the earliest,” Thazhath told Nariculam.
He continued: “You shall inform the parish council members of their violations of the laws of the Church and that if the members do not obey within 10 days, the parish council will either be freezed/suspended or dissolved without further notice.”
“In case you are not implementing the synodal decision and the directives of the apostolic administrator you will be relieved of your office of the vicar and transferred to another place without further notice.”
Thazhath requested a reply to his letter before July 2.
He concluded: “Let us pray that Holy Spirit guide us so that the problems in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly and specifically in the cathedral basilica parish are resolved at the earliest and communion and peace is achieved.”