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Syro-Malabar Catholic priests could face ecclesiastical sanctions if they don’t begin observing approved liturgical norms on Sunday, according to an Aug. 17 letter from the archbishop appointed to resolve a tense liturgical crisis in India.

But one priest in the Syro-Malabar Church has said that a liturgical decision from the church’s synod is “non-ethical,” and that priests have appealed to the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.

Protestors burn copies of letter from Archbishop Cyril Vasil Aug. 17, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ernakulam. Courtesy photo.

“With authority delegated to [him] by Holy Father Pope Francis,” Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ directed priests in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly that they must “implement the synodal decision on the mode of celebration of the Holy Qurbana with effect from 20 August 2023.”

“Any disobedience to this order will be considered voluntary, personal, and culpable disobedience to the Holy Father. Therefore, it is is hereby intimated to each of you personally that noncompliance with this direction with inevitably invite further disciplinary actions,” the archbishop wrote.

The letter is the latest step in a years-long liturgical conflict in the Eastern Catholic Syro-Malabar Catholic Church,  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 emergence of a post-Vatican II practice in some churches, where the priest faced the people throughout the liturgy (versus populum). 

In the new mode — developed as a compromise by the leadership synod of the Syro-Malabar Church — the priest faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and turns back toward the people after Communion. 

Despite a direct appeal from Pope Francis to adopt the uniform mode, a large contingent of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy reject the change, and want to see their preference for the liturgy facing the people 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.

After an escalation of the disagreement in recent months — which saw riots in the street, a cardinal burned in effigy, and the archeparchy’s cathedral locked by police after violence there — Pope Francis this month dispatched the Slovakian Archbishop Vasil’ to address the situation.

Protestors burn copies of an Aug. 17 letter from Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ernakulam. Courtesy photo.

Soon after his Aug. 4 arrival, Vasil’ faced protestors demanding he leaving India, but was adamant that the eparchy accept the Church’s authority over the liturgy. 

In a letter he wrote Aug. 5, the archbishop urged priests and laity to pray before the Eucharist and with the rosary, and to fast, for a resolution of the conflict.

But most parishes in the Ernakulam-Angamaly refused to read the letter from their pulpits, as directed by Vasil’.

In his Aug. 17 letter, Vasil’ told clerics they are obliged this Sunday to read from the pulpit a March letter from Pope Francis on the subject, and to affirm to diocesan officials they had done so.

The archbishop also suggested that some Ernakulam-Angamaly priests might have been omitting prayers for Pope Francis, the Syro-Malabar church’s major archbishop, or the local apostolic administrator from the Holy Qurbana liturgy — which could be taken as an act of schism. The archbishop warned that if the practice continued, priests could face the penalty of excommunication.

“I remind you, brother priests, to pray ardently and think seriously over your pledge of obedience taken at the time of your sacred ordination,” Vasil’ wrote.

“I invite you to obey the legitimate authority, set a good example before the faithful, and lead a life worth of the Sacred Order received as a total gift from God through the Church, administered by ecclesiastical authorities,” he added.

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In the Ernakulam-Angamaly, some protestors have opposed the letter since its Thursday publication, with photos circulating online of protesters burning the archbishop’s missive.

One priest of the archeparchy, Fr. Joice Kaithakottil, wrote a response to Vasil’, which has circulated among priests and laity in the Syro-Malabar Church.

The priest made clear that he is not likley to observe a directive from Vasil’

Instead, he argued that Pope Francis has not formally required priests to follow the decision of the Syro-Malabar Church’s synod, a deliberative body of bishops within the Church, and questioned Vasil’’s authority over the situation.

Kaithakottil said that “priests, laity, and religious” in the archeparchy “have already communicated to the Holy Father the difficulty in accepting the non-ethical decision of the synod and also to the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches many a times and after your arrival here in India, we made an appeal to the Secretary of State and we are waiting for the reply.”

Kaithakottil said the issue should be resolved within the Syro-Malabar Church, without intervention from Rome.

“Our Church is a sui iuris Church and we have requested many a times to the Synod to reconsider the decision and continue the dialogue and reach an amicable solution acceptable to all of us. There is no room for Archbishop Vasil’ to give an order to the priests of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly. You have said in your first circular that Pope Francis has personally appointed you to be the Pontifical Delegate. Whatever be the damage it may cause to us as you say, we demand you to publish the letter of the Holy Father appointing you as the Pontifical Delegate,” he wrote.

“Please make it clear before the Archdiocesan faithful the authority delegated to you by the pope,” the priest added.

“What is your capacity to order as long as you have not publicly mentioned your administrative power? Even if you are given administrative power, we are not ready to accept a foreigner as our immediate authority in the Archdiocese. [The] Major archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church has already spoken enough regarding the celebration of the Mass and we have politely told him that it is not possible to follow the illegal decision of the Synod and we do not consider you above the Head of the Church.”

“How dare you order us not to conduct any public celebration of the Holy Mass. Our Church has been built by our forefathers for our worship and what right have you to order us to close down the church which is the result of our hard work,” he added.

“We have already communicated to Pope Francis that our conscientious decision is not to follow the Synodal decision that is taken violating all the procedure and neglecting the spirit of the Synodal way.”

The Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly is the largest eparchy of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Churh, with around half a million members, and also most prominent, as it is the see of the Syro-Malabar Church’s major archbishop, or head.

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