On Sunday, Catholics of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, both clergy and laity alike, continued their open rejection of the “uniform mode” of celebration for the Syro-Malabar liturgy of Holy Qurbana.
By all accounts, the majority of priests and laity of the archeparchy — the center of the Syro-Malabar Church — remain defiant, despite Pope Francis’ personal delegate, Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, SJ, recasting the liturgical dispute as a question of papal authority, and threatening a breach of communion.
Archbishop Vasil’’s deadline for protests to cease, and for local clergy to begin celebrating liturgies according to the approved mode, has now come and gone, though he has yet to announce any canonical consequences for the continued resistance.
Is schism now unthinkable, impossible, or inevitable? And what might Archbishop Vasil’ try next to avoid a breach, either within the Syro-Malabar Church itself, or between Rome and the second-largest Eastern Catholic Church in the world?
It is stating the obvious to say that the impasse in Ernakulam-Angamaly, the demographic and canonical center of the Syro-Malabar Church, cannot continue indefinitely. Indeed it has already dragged on longer than many would have thought possible.
St. Mary’s Basilica, the patriarchal cathedral of the Syro-Malabar Church, remains closed by police order, because of the mass demonstrations that erupt whenever an attempt is made to celebrate Holy Qurbana. According to local media reports, only a handful of the archeparchy’s parishes and priests are willing to implement the liturgical norms promulgated by the Church’s governing synod of bishops in 2021.
Local priests and Catholics have long resisted a process of reform which aimed to recover the ancient roots of the Holy Qurbana and strip away generations of Western and Latin influences on the liturgy.
At issue, at least superficially, is the orientation of the priest during the Eucharistic celebration.
The synod, which is the authoritative governing body of the Syro-Malabar Church, comprised of all its bishops worldwide, had initially been pushing for the priest to face ad orientem throughout the liturgy, but faced strong resistance from clerics and laity deeply attached to the priest facing the people, a Western influence which came into Syro-Malabar practice after changes to the Latin Catholic liturgy following Vatican Council II.
In an effort to compromise, a new “uniform mode” of the liturgy was approved by the synod in 2021, allowing for a 50:50 formula, in which the priest would face the assembly for much of the liturgy, and only turn to the East for what were deemed the essential moments of the celebration — but this has been deemed unacceptable by the protestors.
On the surface, the standoff can seem like the product of liturgical radicalism by one side, intractably attached to what is, historically, a modern Latin influence on an ancient Eastern tradition.
But alongside broad disagreements over theological vision, there are underlying the liturgical dispute different, overlapping divisions and conflicts over the governance of the archeparchy, whose interim leaders have had to resign from office after proving unequal to the task of bringing order.
But if the politics of the archeparchy are intertwined with the liturgical dispute, the archeparchy’s status within the global Syro-Malabar Church makes its problems global.
In addition to being a major demographic center of the Syro-Malabar Church (it numbers some 4.25 million people worldwide) the archeparchy is also its governing center — the major archbishop, Cardinal Alencherry, serves as ex officio president of the Church’s synod and it’s kind of stable executive committee (called the permanent synod).
Were the same protests taking place in a different diocese, the issues might be the same, but the stakes would be lower, legally and ecclesiologically, and perhaps leave more options for resolution on the table, too.
Another diocese could, perhaps, be dealt with more harshly to bring it in line, or even, if necessary, suppressed entirely and reformed or divided into more governable forms.
While such drastic action has been mooted for Ernakulam-Angamaly, in reality it is almost surely unworkable given that it would likely require changes to the entire central governing structure of the Syro-Malabar Church.
Exacerbating the crisis is the effective sidelining of Cardinal Alencherry, the head of the eparchy and of the Syro-Malabar Church, who is the subject of ongoing legal action over controversial land sales and has stepped back from the day-to-day running of the diocese.
With a large majority of his own clergy in open rebellion, joined by a sizable portion of the laity, Alencherry’s diocese has become effectively ungovernable and he is in no position to do anything about it.
Meanwhile, his diocese’s unique position within the Syro-Malabar Church makes it almost impossible for the Church’s synod to take drastic action to address the situation.
Given all this, it’s perhaps understandable why an appeal was made to Rome to help settle the situation. But the results may have only served to make the situation worse.
At the time of his appointment as special papal delegate last month, Archbishop Vasil’ set out to strike a conciliatory note on his arrival, but it didn’t last long.
Within two week he issued a stark warning that clergy and laity were either “with the pope, or against him,” and that “the only fruit of continued protest and rejection will be great harm to the Church, great scandal before those who observe us, and the spiritual damage that is the fruit of disobedience to God’s will.”
Casting the dispute in terms of communion with the Bishop of Rome was, for many observers, a high-stakes gamble by Vasil’.
While the archbishop may have hoped his message would act as a sobering agent, leaving the protestors in no doubt about the seriousness of their actions and hopefully scaring them back into line, the gambit does not seem to have worked. His deadline for clergy and protestors to cease their opposition and accept the uniform mode of the liturgy came and went on Sunday without any noticeable impact.
Now, the papal delegate faces an unpleasant choice. Either he can back away from his blunt warnings about “de facto separation from the Catholic Church, and in doing so signal to protestors that his tough talk was a bluff they have successfully called, or he can declare the de iure consequences of that de facto separation and begin declaring excommunications for the crime of schism.
Neither option looks likely to bring about a resolution to the current conflict within the Syro-Malabar Church. Perhaps worse, Vasil’’s framing of the issue as a matter of papal obedience has now put Rome in the middle of what had been an internal dispute within an Eastern Church. Reports are now emerging that some clergy of the archeparchy have started dropping Pope Francis’ name from Eucahristic prayers, an act of schism.
Protesting clergy and laity, having previously denounced their own governing synod and appealed to Rome, are now turning on Rome and demanding respect for the sui iuris nature of the Syro-Malabar Church.
But what can Vasil’ do?
If this were any Latin diocese, or any other Syro-Malabar diocese, he might simply declare an interdict — suspending the sacraments and ordering the parishes to close until local Catholics returned to obedience — or reorganize, or even suppress the diocese into a more governable form.
But attempting to pursue any of these options with the archeparchy could trigger a crisis within the global Syro-Malabar Church, either by turning its central territory and portion of the faithful into an ecclesiological blackhole, or by so involving itself in the Church’s internal affairs that it drives a wedge between Rome and the whole Syro-Malabar Church.
The archbishop has, perhaps, three options at this point.
The first option would be to take incremental, targeted action against specific local clerics — suspending and adding increasingly penalties to the more vocal and visible leaders of the protest pour encourager les autres.
That would likely appeal as the most low-level intervention to begin with, and it would seem in line with Vasil’’s own assertion that many of the lay protestors are “unwitting and often unwilling hostages” to rebel priests.
But while such targeted action might serve to bring others back into conformity, looking at how previous attempts to impose discipline in the archeparchy have been greeted, it seems at least as likely to achieve the opposite end, inflaming resistance and encouraging protestors to rally around their leaders.
The second option would be for Vasil’ to issue a blanket sanction or sanctions against all of the rebel priests — estimated at the vast majority of the clergy of the archeparchy. This too could provoke an even more furious reaction.
What it would surely do is paralyze the sacramental and ministerial life of the archeparchy, certainly creating a pastoral emergency for more than half a million Catholics, probably making Cardinal Alencherry’s position untenable, and likely triggering an ecclesiological crisis for the wider Syro-Malabar Church.
The third possible option would be for Archbishop Vasil’ to attempt to put the genie of Ernakulam-Angamaly back in the bottle, perhaps by deciding that the Syro-Malabar synod needs to resume direct responsibility for what was (until Vasil’’s escalation) an internal crisis for the Eastern Church.
At the same time, he might recommend or even declare the whole Syro-Malabar Church to be in a kind of “suspended communion” with Rome and the rest of the Catholic Churches until it gets its own house in order, hopefully creating pressure from the rest of the Church community on the archeparchy.
The problem with that plan is it doesn’t actually hold out any reasonable expectation for a resolution to the crisis — the whole matter ended up in Rome in the first place because the Syro-Malabar Church was unable to resolve the matter for itself.
On top of that, Vasil’ would be widely portrayed by the protestors as having been beaten and run off back to Rome, hardening protestors’ resolve.
It could even present the Syro-Malabar Church and synod with the choice of remaining in communion with Rome, or with itself — in which case Vasil’ would be blamed for provoking a full blown schism between Churches, instead of resolving a divide within one.
With no good options seemingly on the table to resolve the Syro-Malabar crisis, what might offer the best chance of a resolution could be a change of personnel.
All sides appear backed into opposing corners, intractably ranged against one another. What seems to be needed is something which can reset the relationships on all sides, and serve as a kind of clean breaking point for everything that has come before.
Further personal engagement by or on behalf of Pope Francis would seem to be more dangerous than beneficial at this point, and the current archeparchial and wider Syro-Malabar leadership have found themselves unequal to the task.
Clearly lacking, as it has been since the beginning of this crisis, is a strong point of leadership within the Syro-Malabar Church and over the archeparchy. That, of all the problems facing the Church, could actually be solved in a relatively clean way while also providing the opportunity for a kind of reset for all sides.
Cardinal Alencherry is 78. His retirement would probably be a complicating factor for the civil land disputes also at issue in Ernakulam-Angamaly, but it would also clear the way for a new leader for the Syro-Malabar Church, a new head of the archeparchy, and even open the door to a new round of liturgical discussions — if that is what is needed to save the Church’s communion.
Any candidate for a new major archbishop would likely face opposition from some, if not all sides. And he would face a nearly impossible task in bringing the archeparchy’s liturgical rebels back into line — but without Cardinal Alencherry’s extra legal baggage, he could at least offer a clean start and the kind of personal public engagement the cardinal cannot.
If that doesn’t sound too promising, it may also be the best chance there is to ending the Syro-Malabar crisis without a schism.