An agreement seeking to end a bitter dispute over the introduction of a new liturgy in the Syro-Malabar Church could falter over the question of whether there should be a deadline for the changes.
Sources in the Eastern Catholic Church based in India told The Pillar that an accord reached last month was in doubt because of a disagreement over whether a new uniform mode of the Eucharistic liturgy should be introduced throughout an archdiocese that is resisting the move by Dec. 31 or only when pastoral circumstances permit.
The papal delegate Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, S.J., is said to be adamant that priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese accept the introduction of the uniform liturgy by the end of the year. But the priests’ representatives are not ready to set a time frame for the transition.
A tentative agreement was reached last month by an ad hoc committee of 12 priests and nine representatives of Synod of Bishops, an authoritative body composed of all the bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church worldwide.
The text, which has not been made public, was reportedly endorsed by the synod and sent for approval to Rome.
Vasil’, a former official at the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, has not made any public comment on the agreement.
During a turbulent visit to the archdiocese in August, he told priests that they would face canonical sanctions if they continued to oppose the introduction of the new liturgy.
The vast majority of the faithful in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese — the largest in the Syro-Malabar Church — want to continue using their current liturgy, in which the priest faces the people throughout.
The new uniform liturgy seeks to reconcile the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient custom, in which the priest celebrated ad orientem (facing east), and the post-Vatican II practice where 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.
A previous attempt to impose a deadline for the introduction of the new liturgy in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese failed.
The Synod of Bishops agreed in August 2021 that all the Syro-Malabar Church’s 35 dioceses should begin using the uniform mode from Nov. 28 that year or by Easter 2022 if they needed to prepare for the move with catechesis.
The Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, which is the demographic and canonical center of the Church sui iuris, is the only diocese to see mass resistance to the change, marked by street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy.
The archdiocese is nominally led by Cardinal George Alencherry, the Syro-Malabar Church’s Major Archbishop, but he has previously stepped back from day-to-day governance issues following legal challenges to the sale of archdiocesan land. Since then a succession of apostolic administrators have assumed practical governance of the archdiocese.
The removal of one apostolic administrator, who was sympathetic to the protesters, and the appointment of another, who supported the new liturgy, did little to quell the turmoil in the archdiocese, prompting the Synod of Bishops to ask Pope Francis to appoint a delegate.
While the accord remains under wraps, the priests’ committee and synod representatives are said to have agreed that a March 2022 letter from Pope Francis would be read out in parishes where it hasn’t been read previously.
One liturgy would be celebrated in the uniform mode on Sundays in the archdiocese’s St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, which was closed in December following skirmishes in the sanctuary prompted by the liturgy dispute.
The new liturgy would also be introduced in the minor seminary and it would be possible to use it in religious houses and at a pilgrim center.
The handful of priests currently celebrating the uniform mode in parishes in the archdiocese would not be impeded.
Bishop visiting from outside the archdiocese would be free to celebrate the new liturgy, while an archbishop appointed specifically for the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese would have the option of celebrating the liturgy facing the people during parish visits.
Priests in the archdiocese would continue to celebrate the liturgy facing the people until the pastoral situation permitted them to implement the new liturgy.
Vasil’ met with Pope Francis in Rome Aug. 23, following his trip to India.
In Aug. 26 letter, Cardinal Alencherry explained that after the papal delegate’s visit, the Synod of Bishops had decided to continue engaging in dialogue with members of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.
“A committee consisting of nine bishops is appointed to continue the dialogue,” he said. “The committee has already begun its work. The proposals that would emerge from the dialogue will be forwarded through the Pontifical Delegate to the Holy Father and they would be implemented as per the direction given by the Apostolic See on the proposals.”
Synod representatives held talks Sept. 7 with a wider group of clergy of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese. Priests were reportedly told that not all the aspects of the agreement were acceptable to Vasil’, who also asked for other points to be included.