A priest overseeing the cathedral at the heart of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church’s liturgy dispute has been removed after he defied an ultimatum to introduce a new form of the Eucharistic liturgy.
In a July 4 order, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath told Msgr. Antony Nariculam that he was being relieved with immediate effect from the office of vicar of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, Ernakulam, in India’s Kerala state.
Thazhath, the apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, told Nariculam that he had been “clearly directed” to reopen the basilica — which has been closed since December — for the celebration of the new “uniform mode” of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy, which is known as the Holy Qurbana.
Thazhath had warned Nariculam in a June 22 decree that he would be reassigned if he failed to comply by July 2, the day before the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, who is regarded as the Syro-Malabar Church’s founder.
The archbishop announced that Nariculam would be appointed vicar of St. Mary’s Forane Church, Moozhikulam, and would be succeeded by Fr. Antony Poothavelil, who previously served as the cathedral’s administrator before being transferred to St. Mary’s Forane Church in February following clashes between supporters and opponents of the uniform mode that led to the cathedral’s closure.
Thazhath said that Nariculam had sent him a letter dated July 1 via email, in which the priest underlined his “inability to implement the directives of ecclesiastical authorities especially on the uniform mode of celebration of Holy Qurbana because of some protests and resistance.”
In the four-page letter, Nariculam said that after Thazhath was appointed apostolic administrator in July 2022, he had “repeatedly requested” that the archbishop “begin a process of dialogue in order to establish a rapport of mutual trust with the priests and the people.”
He accused the archbishop of rejecting the proposal and insisting that his only mandate was to introduce the new liturgy.
“Your intransigent attitude did only aggravate the crisis, shutting even the half-open doors of dialogue which I had initiated,” Nariculam wrote. “This has affected also my efforts in the context of cathedral basilica.”
In his June 22 decree, Thazhath said that he would either suspend or dissolve the cathedral’s parish council if it failed to obey his directives.
Nariculam suggested that the decree had prompted parishioners who were previously indifferent to the dispute to “become active supporters of the parish council decisions.”
“Even those parishioners who were agreeable to the opening of the basilica for liturgical and para-liturgical services have now turned hostile after the publication of the decree,” he said.
Opponents of the uniform liturgy burned copies of Thazhath’s decree at protests across the archdiocese June 25.
The Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese — also known as the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy — is the biggest and most prominent diocese in the Syro-Malabar Church, which is the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion in Rome.
The archdiocese is the only one of the Church’s 35 dioceses to see 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.
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.
The Synod of Bishops — the Syro-Malabar Church’s supreme authority — held an emergency meeting in June to discuss the liturgical crisis in the archdiocese.
The gathering followed a May 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.
After the emergency 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 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 letter to Archbishop Thazhath, the ousted cathedral basilica vicar Msgr. Nariculam said that some parishioners had objected to the apostolic administrator’s decision to issue an ultimatum after the request for a papal delegate was made public.
“According to them, it is reported that the full synod held from 12 to 16 June 2023 was not in favor of taking any action for the time being. Therefore, the permanent synod held on 17 June 2023, a day after the full synod, which urgently took the decision to issue the decree with possible actions on the vicar and parish council, is under the shadow of suspicion,” Nariculam wrote.
Concluding his letter, the priest said: “I am of the opinion that the best course of action as of now is to wait for the papal delegate to arrive and make his independent enquiry of all aspects of the issues affecting the archeparchy.”
“From the post-synodal circular of the Major Archbishop, it is clear that the request of the synod to the Holy Father to send a papal delegate is to ‘facilitate further dialogue’ and ‘to continue these discussions more effectively’ in view of a ‘lasting solution.’”
“I hope and pray that this visit also would bring about positive results as it happened during the two visits of the papal commissions in the past.”