A decades-long liturgical dispute in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church has reignited after an archbishop said that candidates for the priesthood must make a written promise to celebrate the new “uniform” liturgy.
Apostolic administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath announced in a Nov. 23 letter that deacons in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly “can be permitted to be ordained priests only when they make the undertaking that they will obey the ecclesiastical authorities and celebrate Syro-Malabar Holy Qurbana only licitly as per the Synodal decision on the uniform mode of celebration.”
The Syro-Malabar Church, based in the southern Indian state of Kerala, is the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome.
The synod of bishops — the Church’s authoritative governing body — announced in August 2021 that all Syro-Malabar dioceses would adopt a new form of its Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana, in a move intended to strengthen internal unity and recover aspects of its liturgical history.
All but one of the Church’s 35 dioceses made the change. But the overwhelming majority of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy fiercely resisted the uniform liturgy.
The new liturgy seeks to reconcile the Eastern 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 and the canonical center of the self-governing Church — argued that the Holy Qurbana facing the people should be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant as it was a response to the Second Vatican Council and has been in use for more than 50 years.
The Church’s synod, supported by the Vatican, has discouraged the practice, considering it a Latinization of the ancient Eastern liturgy.
Pope Francis urged the archeparchy’s priests to accept the “difficult and painful step” of embracing the reformed liturgy by Easter Sunday 2022. But the deadline passed without any resolution of the crisis, which has been marked by street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy, as well as clashes inside the archeparchy’s cathedral that led to the building’s closure.
Archbishop Thazhath, who was named the archeparchy’s apostolic administrator in June 2022, wrote in the letter to local bishops, major superiors of religious orders, and deacons that candidates would be required to sign an oath before being admitted to the priesthood.
He attached the wording of the oath, according to which the candidates for both the religious and diocesan priesthood must say: “I will celebrate Holy Qurbana only as per the Synodal decision on the uniform mode of celebration and I will not celebrate illicitly against the Synodal decision.”
“I am aware of the disciplinary sanctions, including suspension/dismissal from priestly ministry in case I disobey the above-mentioned directives of my ecclesiastical authorities.”
The Archdiocese Protection Council, a body that opposes the introduction of the uniform liturgy, denounced the move, calling it the “cheapest style of bargaining.”
“Denying the priesthood for eight deacons who have received priestly training for about 10-11 years in Kerala and outside the state, which they consider a dream, is injustice,” it said, according to a report by the Press Trust of India.
The council added that only four of the archeparchy’s 320 churches were currently celebrating the uniform liturgy.
The latest upsurge in the liturgy dispute follows months of relative calm after a turbulent summer in which a papal delegate delivered an ultimatum to priests opposed to the change.
Addressing clergy in Kerala in August, pontifical delegate Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ asked priests whether they were “with the Holy Father.”
Vasil’, a Slovak Jesuit who previously worked at the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, said: “Do you wish to remain priests and members of the Catholic Church and of your Syro-Malabar Church? Or do you wish to give preference to the voice of troublemakers who lead you towards disobedience to the Holy Father to the legitimate pastors of your Syro-Malabar Church and to the Catholic Church?”
Vasil’, who was given police protection during the visit, later met with Pope Francis in Rome to review the trip.
Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church, announced that after the papal delegate’s visit, the synod of bishops had decided to continue a dialogue with members of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy via a committee of nine bishops.
Members of the committee held talks in September with clergy of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy. But a draft agreement aiming to end the liturgical dispute appeared to fall apart over whether there should be a deadline for the changes.
The archeparchy’s cathedral is still closed and may remain so for a second Christmas.