Pope Francis’ personal delegate to the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly has issued a stark warning to Catholics protesting liturgical reforms to the Syro-Malabar liturgy, telling priests and laity that they are either “with the pope, or against him.”
Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, SJ, was appointed by Pope Francis July 31 with “the explicit mandate to bring back to obedience those priests and bishops who remain dissident,” the archbishop said Aug. 15, during a liturgy to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption in Kochi, southern India.
Addressing the widespread protests which have engulfed the Syro-Malabar Church, Vasil’ warned that continued refusal by some Syro-Malabar clergy and laity to conform to revised liturgical norms is “leading towards a de facto separation from the Catholic Church” through a refusal of papal authority and therefore “God’s will.”
Speaking during the Tuesday liturgy, the archbishop expressed the hope of Pope Francis that “looking into each other's eyes will finally achieve a result” in the protracted standoff which ensued over the implementation of a new uniform mode of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana.
The uniform mode is a compromise between the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest looked east (ad orientem), and the post-Vatican II practice where the priest faced the people throughout the liturgy (versus populum). In the new mode, the priest faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and turns back to the people after Communion.
Despite a direct appeal from Pope Francis to adopt the uniform 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 in use for more than 50 years.
The archeparchy is the only one of the Church’s 35 dioceses to witness mass resistance to the implementation of the new liturgy, which has taken the form of street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy.
While he spoke, the archbishop offered a gesture of reconciliation to the protestors, dropping to his knees and saying “I personally ask forgiveness for anything on the part of anyone who may have given any reason for any real or supposed justification for this rebellion.”
“Likewise, on my knees, I also ask you to no longer participate in this sin against our Lord and the Catholic Church,” Vasil’ said.
But while the Vatican said last month that the archbishop was being sent “to study the current situation and to propose the ways to end the crisis,” Vasil’ made it clear he was not entering into negotiations with the protestors, and instead offered them a stark ultimatum.
Saying he wished “to ask each of you a simple question,” the archbishop framed the matter explicitly in terms of obedience to the pope and threatened protestors with excommunication.
“Are you with the Holy Father? Do you wish to remain priests and members of the Catholic Church and of your Syro-Malabar Church,” Vasil’ said. “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?”
Describing the celebration of the Qurbana with the priest facing the people as “illegal,” Vasil’ asked Syro-Malabar Catholics if they “prefer to listen to your pope, or do you prefer to listen, in the name of false solidarity or because you have been intimidated, to some priests who are leading towards a de facto separation from the Catholic Church?”
“Are you with the pope or are you against him?” Vasil’ bluntly asked protesting priests.
“Therefore I ask you again… do you wish to remain priests of the Catholic Church — the Church led by the divine master Jesus Christ who entrusted to St. Peter and his successors the right to untie and to bind, to encourage the brethren in the faith, to teach and to govern?”
“Do you wish to follow Christ and his vicar on earth, the Roman Pontiff, or do you wish to follow other teachers who are leading you away from the path of your priestly promise?”
The archbishop also directly addressed protesting laity to ask them the same question.
“And to you lay faithful of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly… Are you ready to follow the Holy Father and the Catholic Church, or do you prefer to put your trust in some of your priests who want to cover their personal disobedience to the Holy Father under your name?”
Vasil’ described lay protestors as being “used and abused” by their priests who, he claimed, treated them like “unwitting and often unwilling hostages in their sacreligious rebellion.”
The archbishop said Tuesday that while he is “sure that many priests and laity have perhaps made their protests in good faith” and believed that “they are only exercising their right to dialogue and discussion, believing that insistence will eventually bear fruit,” there would be no compromise with the protestors.
“Honestly, I am telling you, the only fruit of continued protest and rejection will be great harm to the Church, great scandal before those who observe us, and the spiritual damage that is the fruit of disobedience to God’s will.”
“Do you really want to be responsible for the grave sin of such disobedience?” Vasil’ asked.
“There can never be God’s blessing on disobedience to His will, no matter how much you try to cover it up with pious phrases and even prayers. There will never be God’s blessing on illegal protest and rebellion.”
Vasil’’s emphatic warning that liturgical protests are an act of de facto schism, and his implicit threat that dissenting clergy could face ecclesiastical penalties comes after his arrival in the archeparchy on Aug. 4.
Since his arrival, crowds have gathered outside churches where the archbishop has appeared, chanting “Vasil’ go home” and continuing to try to disrupt access to churches for the celebration of the uniform mode.
Protestors outside St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam. Courtesy photo.
Prior to his papal appointment, Vasil’ gained in-depth knowledge of the liturgy dispute that has shaken the world’s second-largest Eastern Catholic Church during his service as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches from 2009 to 2020.
A Slovak, the archbishop previously served as the rector of Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, currently leads the Slovak Greek Catholic Church’s Eparchy of Košice.
At the time of his appointment, he was immediately criticized by a lay group opposed to the uniform mode.
The website Matters India reported that the group Almaya Munnettam accused the archbishop of “whitewashing” the alleged role of Syro-Malabar Church leader Cardinal George Alencherry in controversial land sales, which is the subject of ongoing legal action.
The group also expressed concern at reports that Vasil’ had studied in Rome alongside Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
The group claimed that “the appointment shows that neither the Vatican nor the Syro-Malabar Synod wants to make an honest and impartial solution to the problem.”
The pope appointed Archbishop Thazhath as apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly in July 2022, with the task of introducing the liturgical change in the archdiocese, but Thazhath failed to make headway due to strong resistance from priests and lay people committed to the liturgy facing the people.
Clashes between supporters and opponents of the new liturgy prompted the closure of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam shortly before Christmas. It remains closed.
Earlier this month, Thazhath informed Msgr. Antony Nariculam, the priest overseeing the basilica, that he would be relieved of his post after he failed to ensure that the uniform mode could be celebrated at the cathedral.
Nariculam has reportedly appealed to Rome to overturn the decision.
Thazhath continues to serve as apostolic administrator while Archbishop Vasil’ is pontifical delegate.