Pope Francis has named a Jesuit archbishop as the pontifical delegate to an archdiocese on the front line of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church’s “liturgy war.”
Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ gained in-depth knowledge of the liturgy dispute that has shaken the world’s second-largest Eastern Catholic Church during his service as secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Eastern Churches from 2009 to 2020.
The Slovak archbishop, who also previously served as the rector of Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, currently leads the Slovak Greek Catholic Church’s Eparchy of Košice.
The 58-year-old will serve as the papal delegate to the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese — also known as the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy — the biggest and most prominent diocese in the Syro-Malabar Church, which traces its origins to St. Thomas the Apostle.
The archdiocese 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.
A July 31 press release from the Syro-Malabar Major Archiepiscopal Curia said that the pope had appointed Vasil’ “to study the current situation and to propose the ways to end the crisis” in the archdiocese 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 post-Vatican II practice where the priest faced the people throughout the liturgy (versus populum).
In the new mode, the priest faces the people during the Liturgy of the Word, turns toward the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and turns back to the people after Communion.
Despite a direct appeal from Pope Francis to adopt the uniform mode, the vast majority of priests and lay people in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese reject the change and want their preference for the liturgy facing the people to be recognized as a legitimate variant in use for more than 50 years.
The appointment of Vasil’ was immediately criticized by a lay group opposed to the uniform mode.
The website Matters India reported that the group, Almaya Munnettam, accused the archbishop of “whitewashing” the alleged role of Syro-Malabar Church leader Cardinal George Alencherry in controversial land sales, which is the subject of ongoing legal action.
The group also expressed concern at reports that Vasil’ had studied in Rome alongside Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
It claimed that “the appointment shows that neither the Vatican nor the Syro-Malabar Synod wants to make an honest and impartial solution to the problem.”
The July 31 press release, signed by chancellor Fr. Abraham Kavilpurayidathil, explained that “the proposal for a pontifical delegate for the archeparchy came up first in the meeting of the Permanent Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church in the Vatican with His Eminence Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State, and Cardinal-designate Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches at the Vatican on May 4, 2023.”
“Subsequently it was communicated that the Holy Father would consider the proposal with paternal benevolence,” he wrote. “In this context, the Synod of the Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church convened urgently in June 2023 held extensive discussion regarding the proposal for the appointment of a pontifical delegate for the archeparchy, and having decided favorably in the Synod on the matter, it was communicated to the Apostolic See. Now the pontifical delegate is appointed by the Holy Father.”
“The pontifical delegate will arrive on Aug. 4, 2023. He will be accompanied by Fr. Sunny Kokkaravalayil, S.J., who is currently professor of canon law at Pontifical Oriental Institute, Rome.”
The press release did not say how long the pontifical delegate’s service was expected to last.
The pope appointed Archbishop Thazhath as apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly in July 2022, with the task of introducing the liturgical change in the archdiocese.
But Thazhath has failed to make headway due to strong resistance from priests and lay people committed to the liturgy facing the people.
Clashes between supporters and opponents of the new liturgy prompted the closure of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam shortly before Christmas. It remains closed.
Earlier this month, Thazhath informed Msgr. Antony Nariculam, the priest overseeing the basilica, that he would be relieved of his post after he failed to ensure that the uniform mode could be celebrated at the cathedral.
Nariculam has reportedly appealed to Rome to overturn the decision.
Thazhath will continue to serve as apostolic administrator while Archbishop Vasil’ is pontifical delegate.
The July 31 press release underlined the delegate’s previous experiences of the Syro-Malabar Church.
“It was Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ who represented the Holy Father in the funeral service of late Major Archbishop His Beatitude Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil in 2011,” it said.
“In January 2018, he addressed the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church and participated in the assumption of office of the Bishop of Shamshabad [Bishop Raphael Thattil].”