A Christmas Day deadline set by Pope Francis for the adoption of a new Eucharistic liturgy passed relatively quietly in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church’s Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
The pope had urged priests of the archeparchy in the southern Indian state of Kerala to embrace the new “uniform” liturgy by Dec. 25 or face possible excommunication.
Athiroopatha Samrakshana Samithi (the Archdiocese Protection Council), a group representing the archeparchy’s priests, said that 290 out of 328 churches — 88% — hosted a celebration of the new liturgy.
Police were called to remove protesters at a Dec. 24 liturgy at St. Thomas’ Church, Chittoor, and there were three arrests after a Dec. 27 scuffle at St. Joseph’s Church in Thannipuzha. But the clashes were on a smaller scale than previously seen in the archeparchy.
However, despite the widespread compliance with the new liturgical norms over Christmas, the lay group Almaya Munnettam said that from Dec. 27 onward, all but five parishes would revert to celebrating a form of the liturgy that has been celebrated in the archeparchy for more than 50 years — suggesting that the liturgy dispute remains unresolved despite the deadline’s passage.
The Syro-Malabar Church is the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome, after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
The new Syro-Malabar liturgy seeks to reconcile the 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, or facing the people.
In the Syro-Malabar’s 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 Church’s canonical center — insist that the liturgy facing the people should be recognized as a legitimate variant, arguing that it is a better expression of the Vatican II’s liturgical vision.
The new uniform liturgy was authorized by the synod of bishops — the Church’s authoritative governing body — and introduced with sporadic protests in the 34 other Syro-Malabar dioceses worldwide.
Only the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy has seen widespread resistance to the change, 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 in December 2022.
St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam remained closed for a second Christmas in 2023. But according to local reports, the cathedral’s vicar celebrated the new uniform liturgy behind closed doors on Christmas Day.
The lay group Almaya Munnettam complained that the alleged celebration violated a call to maintain the status quo issued by Bishop Bosco Puthur, who was named apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy Dec. 7.
Pope Francis accepted the resignations Dec. 7 of Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, who had served as apostolic administrator since July 2022, and Cardinal George Alencherry, the 78-year-old Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly and ex officio head of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, who was named as the pope’s delegate to the archeparchy in June 2023, visited India shortly before the Christmas deadline expired. The Jesuit archbishop, who previously served at the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, held in-depth discussions with the archeparchy’s priests.
Indian media said that the Vatican asked Bishop Puthur to submit a report on parishes’ compliance with the Christmas Day deadline by Dec. 28.
The Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops is expected to discuss the report at a Jan. 8 meeting. The synod is also due to elect a successor to Cardinal Alencherry, whose appointment would then require the assent of Pope Francis.
In a video message to the archeparchy released last month, the pope said that clergy who failed to meet the Christmas deadline would face serious consequences.
“Do not force the competent ecclesiastic authority to acknowledge you as having left the Church because you are no longer in communion with your pastors and with the Successor of the Apostle Peter, called to confirm all brothers and sisters in the faith and to preserve them in the unity of the Church,” he said.
“With great sorrow, sanctions would be incurred. I do not want to reach that stage.”