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Protests erupted in the southern Indian state of Kerala at the weekend following the announcement that Syro-Malabar Catholics must accept a new liturgy or face possible excommunication.

Opponents of the Syro-Malabar Church’s uniform liturgy release paper boats made from the June 9 joint circular letter at Vembanad Lake in India’s Kerala state. Courtesy photo.

The ultimatum was delivered in a June 9 circular letter written jointly by Major Archbishop Raphael Thattil,  the new head of the Syro-Malabar Church, and Bishop Bosco Puthur, the apostolic administrator of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly.

They said that if the archeparchy’s priests failed to celebrate the new “uniform” Eucharistic liturgy by July 3, they “will be considered to have left the communion of the Catholic Church.” 

The two Church leaders asked the archeparchy’s parishes to read out the letter at liturgies on Sunday, June 16. But just seven out of 328 complied, according to UCA News.

Opponents of the uniform liturgy burned copies of the letter across the archeparchy, in an expression of defiance seen frequently in recent years.

But in a novel act, a group of nine laymen turned copies of the letter into paper boats and released them on Vembanad Lake, India’s longest lake.

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Supporters and opponents of the new liturgy clashed outside of St. George Church, Edappally. Video footage showed police keeping the two jostling groups apart.

The majority of clergy in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy are expected to defy the July 3 deadline, which falls on the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, who is considered the Syro-Malabar Church’s founder. 

When the deadline passes, the priests could be deemed to be in schism, which carries a penalty of excommunication, and formally barred from priestly ministry.

Meanwhile, an online meeting of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops — the Eastern Church’s supreme authority — ended inconclusively June 14. The meeting, called to address the liturgy dispute, will resume June 19.

An unnamed prelate told UCA News that the bishops wanted to “settle the issue amicably” and did not want to see members of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy break away from the Syro-Malabar Church.

“Some of the bishops in the synod wanted the synod to take a middle path accommodating the priests and faithful in the archdiocese,” the bishop said. 

He added: “Some even suggested the synod to give the archdiocese more time to adopt the synod Mass rather than creating more trouble based on an avoidable dispute on the rubric.” 

An opponent of the Syro-Malabar Church’s uniform liturgy burns a copy of the June 9 joint circular letter. Courtesy photo.

The Syro-Malabar Church is the largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with the pope after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and has a growing presence outside of India, in countries including Australia, the U.K., and the U.S.

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In August 2021, the Synod of Bishops asked all of the Syro-Malabar Church’s 35 eparchies (dioceses) to accept the introduction of the new Eucharistic liturgy.

The uniform mode blends together two different ways of celebrating the Eucharist in the Syro-Malabar Church: the older one in which the priest faces East throughout (ad orientem) and a newer one in which the priest faces the people throughout (versus populum).

A priest celebrating according to the uniform mode — also known as the “50:50 formula” — 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.

The new liturgy was adopted with sporadic resistance in 34 out of the 35 Syro-Malabar eparchies but has faced fierce opposition in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly,  the Syro-Malabar Church’s most populous and prominent diocese.

The majority of the archeparchy’s 655,000 members want their preferred version of the Eucharistic liturgy, in which the priest faces toward the people throughout, to be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant. 

Opponents of the Syro-Malabar Church’s uniform liturgy burn copies of the June 9 joint circular letter. Courtesy photo.

The liturgy dispute has been marked in the archeparchy by boycotts, hunger strikes, street brawls, and the burning of cardinals in effigy. Clashes between supporters and opponents of the uniform liturgy in December 2022 led to the shutdown of the archeparchy’s cathedral, which remained closed until March this year. 

Pope Francis has been drawn into the conflict, issuing letters in July 2021 and March 2022, and a video message in December 2023 urging all Syro-Malabar Catholics to accept the uniform liturgy.

With the archeparchy’s lay people and priests on a state of high alert, documents, photographs, and videos relating to the liturgy crisis are being shared feverishly on messaging apps.

The Syro-Malabar Media Commission, the synod of bishops’ official media channel, took the unusual step of issuing a communiqué June 12 saying that a letter attributed to Major Archbishop Thattil circulating on social media was a counterfeit. 

“This is part of an effort by someone to mislead the faithful of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy,” the commission said, adding that those responsible could face legal action.

Adding to the tensions was the leak of a purported memo to Pope Francis written by Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy from July 2022 to December 2023.

The document, which The Pillar has been unable to verify, was dated Oct. 9, 2023, and contained proposals for ending the liturgy dispute. It called on the Apostolic See to issue a “definite decision” to end the impasse, saying that “those who do not obey shall be ipso facto considered as having cut off themselves from Catholic Communion and necessary action shall be followed.”

Less than two months after the memo was allegedly written, Pope Francis launched a major overhaul of the Syro-Malabar Church, when he accepted the resignation of Cardinal George Alencherry, who had led the Eastern Church since 2011, as well as Thazhath’s resignation as apostolic administrator.

Alencherry is 79 years old, but said he was nevertheless surprised by the speed with which his resignation was accepted. He was succeeded in January this year by Major Archbishop Thattil as head of Syro-Malabar Church. 

Bishop Puthur, a retired bishop who previously served in Australia, was named as Thazhath’s successor as apostolic administrator in December.

Pope Francis received Thattil and other senior Syro-Malabar figures at the Vatican May 13.

In an address, he said that “showing a grave lack of respect for the Blessed Sacrament — the Sacrament of charity and unity — by arguing about the details of how to celebrate the Eucharist, the pinnacle of his presence among us, is incompatible with the Christian faith.” 

In a potentially significant development for India’s more than 20 million Catholics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with Pope Francis June 14, fresh from his narrow victory in the country’s general election. 

Modi said that he renewed an invitation to the pope to visit India, which he first extended during a 2021 visit to the Vatican.

The last papal trip to India took place 25 years ago, when Pope John Paul II visited New Delhi in 1999.

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