Catholics in southern India have asked a court to intervene in negotiations to reopen a cathedral closed after clashes over the liturgy.
The petitioners argued that the closure of the “mother church of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church” — one of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome — infringed their right to practice their religion as guaranteed by India’s constitution.
The petition explained that the cathedral’s closure was the result of a long-running dispute within the Syro-Malabar Church over the introduction of a uniform liturgy.
The Church’s Synod of Bishops urged Syro-Malabar dioceses in August 2021 to adopt a “uniform mode” of the Eucharistic liturgy, in which priests face the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turn toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and face the people again after Communion.
Thirty-four of the Church’s 35 dioceses have introduced the change, but the vast majority of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese — where St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica is located — reject the new mode, insisting that clergy should be allowed to continue facing the people throughout the liturgy.
They argue that the practice is well-established following its introduction 50 years ago, is more faithful to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and deserves to be recognized as a “liturgical variant.”
Attempts to introduce the uniform mode in the archdiocese have provoked street scuffles, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy.
The cathedral became the focal point for clashes on Nov. 27, when the apostolic administrator Archbishop Andrews Thazhath attempted to enter to celebrate the uniform mode.
Protesters blocked him from going through the cathedral gates. Following confrontations between critics and supporters of the archbishop, police detained seven people who were later released on bail.
Police cleared protesters from the cathedral, and the gates were locked to prevent further disturbances, leaving local Catholics left to pray outside for several days.
When the cathedral reopened, supporters of the liturgy facing the people occupied it, holding continuous prayer services.
On Dec. 24, lay people stormed up the sanctuary steps while priests who supported the liturgy facing the people were praying at the altar. The protesters pushed the portable altar — on which Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Kochi in 1986 — to the side of the sanctuary, knocking objects to the ground.
The priests appeared to be slapped and jostled as they tried to prevent the altar from being moved. Police in khaki-colored uniforms penned in the protesters beside the altar and the cathedral was closed again.
The petition submitted to Kerala’s High Court urged the judge to “intervene in the matter and settle the entire issues through mediation” with all parties involved in the dispute.
UCA News reported that the court issued notices Feb. 1 asking Syro-Malabar Church leader Cardinal George Alencherry, Archbishop Thazhath, and others to respond to the petition and posted the case for hearing Feb. 6.
Indian Catholic legal experts told UCA News that they were concerned by the decision to bring the liturgical dispute before a civil court.
Fr. A. Santhanam, a Jesuit priest and high court lawyer practicing in the state of Tamil Nadu, argued that it was “not a wise move to allow an internal issue specifically concerning the Church to be dragged into a court.”
He said that a pastoral solution should be found to the dispute, taking account of opposition to the uniform liturgy among priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, the largest diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church, with around 500,000 members.