A man vandalized the altar of a church during a Eucharistic liturgy in southern India Sunday.
The incident took place May 21 at St. Mary’s Forane Church, Moozhikulam, in the Major Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, which is at the center of a vehement liturgical dispute in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
Video footage broadcast by the television channel Asianet News showed the man, dressed in a purple robe, striding up the sanctuary steps to the altar, where he appeared to pick up a crucifix and fling it down with all his force on the altar cloth, knocking sacred vessels to the ground.
The man was confronted by four bystanders, who led him down the steps and to the side of the church, where he seemed to be escorted out of a door.
Local media said that church authorities registered a complaint with police against the man, who was identified only as Martin, a native of Moozhikulam, a village in Ernakulam district.
Police in the town of Chengamanad said that they had registered a case of trespassing and property damage.
The man’s motive is unclear, though some reports said he was inebriated.
Vandalism of the church’s altar comes at a sensitive time, as Syro-Malabar bishops seek to end the decades-long liturgical controversy with the Vatican’s help.
Syro-Malabar leaders met with top Vatican officials May 4 to discuss the dispute over efforts to introduce a uniform liturgy within the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome.
After years of debate over variations in the way that the Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgy was celebrated, the majority of bishops endorsed a formula known as the “uniform mode,” in which 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.
Advocates presented the new mode — also known as the “50:50 formula” — as a compromise between the Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest was positioned ad orientem (toward the east), and the post-Vatican II practice where the priest faced the people throughout the liturgy.
Most of the Church’s roughly 4 million members accepted the change to the Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgy, which is known as the Holy Qurbana. After the Synod of Bishops — the Church’s supreme body — appealed in 2021 for the universal adoption of the uniform mode, 34 out of 35 dioceses heeded the request, with sporadic opposition.
But in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, the vast majority of priests and lay people rejected the uniform mode, demanding that their preference for the Holy Qurbana facing the people be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant.
They noted that the variant has been used in the archdiocese for more than 50 years and argued that it embodied Vatican II’s liturgical priorities more faithfully than the uniform mode.
Their resistance, involving street protests and mass rallies, thwarted attempts to introduce the change, despite a direct appeal by Pope Francis to adopt the uniform mode.
Almaya Munnettam, a lay organization in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy that opposes the uniform liturgy, accused Church officials of fomenting trouble at St. Mary’s Forane Church with the aim of closing it down. Ecclesiastical authorities have consistently denied accusations that they are seeking to inflame the dispute.
The lay group noted that Fr. Antony Poothavelil, the priest in charge of St. Mary’s Forane Church, Moozhikulam, was previously the administrator of St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica in Ernakulam, which has remained closed since clashes during a Eucharistic liturgy in December.
A report concerning the pre-Christmas disturbance has been sent to the Vatican, which is said to be taking the incident very seriously.
When Fr. Poothavelil was transferred to St. Mary’s Forane Church in March, a group of parishioners reportedly prevented him from taking charge. Video footage appeared to show his entourage standing outside the church’s gates while parishioners stood inside the church compound shouting slogans against his appointment.
In a May 8 letter, Syro-Malabar Church leader Cardinal George Alencherry described discussions with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Dicastery for the Eastern Churches prefect Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti as “very detailed.”
“We presented to them the situation in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly,” he noted. “They listened to us and have made an assessment of the situation. The results of the meeting will come in due course of time.”
According to a May 9 UCAN News report, Syro-Malabar Church spokesman Fr. Antony Vadakkekara said that “more reconciliatory measures would be adopted to settle the dispute rather than further aggravate or deepen wounds.”
The Vatican’s recommendations are expected to be made public after a meeting of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Synod of Bishops.