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An agreement over the reopening of an Indian cathedral at the center of a ferocious liturgical dispute appears to have broken down on the day it was announced.

Syro-Malabar Catholics hold a protest calling for the reopening of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, India, on June 12, 2023. Courtesy photo.

The media commission of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church said June 16 that St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, South India, could reopen following its closure in December after clashes between supporters and opponents of a new “uniform mode” of the Church’s Eucharistic liturgy, which is known as the Holy Qurbana. 

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In a press release, the commission said that an agreement was reached June 14 following talks between a group of bishops representing the Synod of Bishops — the Church’s supreme authority — and representatives of the cathedral basilica of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

The statement underlined that only the uniform mode, which has been approved by both the synod and the Holy See, would be permitted in the cathedral basilica, which has been closed for more than six months, attracting regular protests from parishioners dismayed by its closure.

The statement said that the reopening agreement was approved by the Synod of Bishops June 15, during its five-day meeting at Mount St. Thomas in Kakkanad, a region in the city of Kochi.

It added that if priests, religious, or lay people violated the agreement’s conditions, the synod would expect the apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese to “take action against them according to canon law.”

It also said that the cathedral basilica’s vicar, Msgr. Antony Narikulam, could convene the parish council, but that the body’s approval was not necessary to implement the agreement.

The statement explained that Narikulam would be given the keys to the basilica, but the basilica’s administrator, Fr. Antony Poothavelil, would remain in post until further notice since legal proceedings were continuing.

Yet officials at the cathedral basilica said that the parish council insisted at a June 15 meeting that if the church were reopened, it would only be possible to celebrate the Eucharist using the established local form of the Eucharistic liturgy in which the priest faces the congregation throughout.

In a June 16 statement, the officials said that, given the parish council’s previous decision that only the liturgy facing the people should be celebrated at the cathedral basilica, they would have to withdraw from the June 14 agreement.

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“We have signed this memorandum of understanding with the belief that it is only a proposal to present before the parish council to resolve the issue and that this memorandum of understanding will not be used for court proceedings or other matters,” they wrote.

Almaya Munnettam, a lay organization, described the synod meeting as the “biggest failure of the century” as it did not consult priests and laity  in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese who are opposed to the uniform mode.

The June 12-16 emergency meeting of the Synod of Bishops was called to discuss the liturgical crisis in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, the Syro-Malabar Church’s largest and most prominent see. 

It followed a May 4 meeting in Rome between Syro-Malabar bishops and the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Dicastery for the Eastern Churches prefect Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti. 

The Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, which is the seat of the Major Archbishop, or head, of the Syro-Malabar Church, is the center of resistance against efforts to introduce the unified version of the Eucharistic liturgy. The dispute has been punctuated by street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy, as well as clashes inside the cathedral basilica.

The uniform mode, also known as the “50:50 formula,” is a compromise between the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest faced east (ad orientem), and the post-Vatican II practice where the priest is positioned toward the people throughout the liturgy (versus populum). 

In the unified mode, the priest faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and then faces the people again after Communion. 

Despite a direct appeal from Pope Francis to adopt the new mode, the vast majority of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese reject the change and want their preference for the Holy Qurbana facing the people to be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant.

In his opening address at the emergency meeting, Syro-Malabar leader Cardinal George Alencherry deplored the civil authorities’ response to a wave of violence against Christians in India’s far northeastern Manipur state.

A circular letter issued by Alencherry at the end of the emergency meeting stressed that “the uniform mode of the celebration of the Holy Qurbana decided by the Syro-Malabar Synod, approved by the Apostolic See and exhorted by the Holy Father Pope Francis will continue without any change in our Church.”

The cardinal added: “The difficulty faced by any eparchy in implementing this in no way destabilizes or nullify the decision of the synod. This decision has led all other eparchies towards greater unity and to alter it would lead to anarchy in the Church. Realizing this truth, the synod repeatedly urges those who have difference of opinion to embrace the path of communion.”

He denied rumors that the synod intended to divide the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese or redraw its geographical boundaries. But he noted that the synod considered it “burdensome” for the Major Archbishop to oversee the archdiocese’s administration and as well as the wider Syro-Malabar Church.

He said: “The synod has recommended a papal delegate for the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly in order to facilitate further dialogue and to rectify the anti-ecclesial dispositions, while convincing them the importance of ‘walking together’ (synodality).”

“Holy Father has agreed to consider this recommendation of the Synod with benevolent attention. We hope that all the issues related to the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly shall find an amicable solution with the help of the new system in place in due course.”

This report was updated June 23 with further information from Cardinal Alencherry’s June 16 circular letter.

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