Priests across the Indian Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly have defied an ultimatum from Pope Francis’ special delegate, and refused to adopt a new uniform form of the liturgy for the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.
Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, SJ, the pope’s special envoy to the Syro-Malabar sui iuris Church, set a deadline last week of Aug. 20 for priests and laity to drop their opposition to the uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana, the sacred Eucharistic liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Church, or face ecclesiastical sanctions.
Vasil’ told dissenting priests and laity that they risked canonical penalties, including excommunication, if they continued to defy the authority of the Syro-Malabar synod — the authoritative governing body for the Eastern Church — and of Pope Francis.
But on Sunday, hundreds of protestors blocked the celebration of Holy Qurbana at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Ernakulam.
Across the diocese, protests prevented the uniform mode from being offered in the handful of churches with priests willing to toe the Vatican line, including St. Joseph's Church in Chunangamvely, St. Thomas’ Church in Malayattoor; and Holy Cross Church in Manjapra.
So far, only six of the archeparchy’s more than 320 parishes have been willing to adopt the uniform mode.
Despite the uncompromising stance taken by Archbishop Vasil’ last week, local Catholic groups opposed to the uniform mode boast the support of the vast majority of the archeparchy’s half a million laity and nearly all of the local clergy.
Vasil’ said last week that lay protestors are being “used and abused” by their priests who, he claimed, treated them like “unwitting and often unwilling hostages in their sacreligious rebellion.”
The papal delegate has said continued resistance to the liturgical reform was a matter of Church unity, telling local faithful that they are either “with the pope or against him,” and saying further resistance would be an act of schism.
The Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly is the largest eparchy of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and is the see of the Syro-Malabar Church’s major archbishop, or head. The Syro-Malabar Church is the second largest of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
The uniform mode, adopted by the Church’s synod in 2021, is a compromise between the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient tradition, in which the priest looked east (ad orientem), and the emergence of a post-Vatican II Latin-influenced practice in some churches, where the priest faced the people throughout the liturgy (versus populum).
“Do you wish to remain priests of the Catholic Church — the Church led by the divine master Jesus Christ who entrusted to St. Peter and his successors the right to untie and to bind, to encourage the brethren in the faith, to teach and to govern?” Vasil’ asked the archeparchy’s priests last week.
“There can never be God’s blessing on disobedience to His will, no matter how much you try to cover it up with pious phrases and even prayers. There will never be God’s blessing on illegal protest and rebellion,” the papal delegate said.
Despite Vasil’’s warnings and the deadline of Aug. 20, local clergy have continued to speak out against the uniform mode and the papal delegate, including from within Vasil’’s own Society of Jesus.
Fr. George Pattery, former president of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, told local media on Saturday that Vasil’ “seems to weaponize the Eucharist with his latest warning on the Syro-Malabar liturgy under the guise of obedience,” and called for a more authentic process of engagement with local Catholics.
Father Stanislaus Alla, SJ, professor of Moral Theology Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi, also told Matters India that Vasil’’s conduct since arriving in India earlier this month “explicitly reveals, the use of ‘authority’ in the Church has become central.”
“I expected that Archbishop Vasil’ will come to listen, reverently and respectfully, to various constituents, make a report, a truly grounded one in the spirit of synodality, and submit it to the Holy Father. I hardly see any of them take place,” Alla said.
In response to Vasil’’s deadline and warnings of schism last week, one priest of the archeparchy, Fr. Joice Kaithakottil, wrote an open letter circulated among priests and laity in the Syro-Malabar Church.
Kaithakottil said that “priests, laity, and religious” in the archeparchy “have already communicated to the Holy Father the difficulty in accepting the non-ethical decision of the synod and also to the Dicastery for the Oriental Churches many a times and after your arrival here in India, we made an appeal to the Secretary of State and we are waiting for the reply.”
“Our Church is a sui iuris Church and we have requested many a times to the [Syro-Malabar] Synod to reconsider the decision and continue the dialogue and reach an amicable solution acceptable to all of us,” Kaithakottil said. “There is no room for Archbishop Vasil’ to give an order to the priests of the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly.”
Archbishop Vasil’ said last week that “Honestly, I am telling you, 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.”
Since Vasil’’s arrival in the archeparchy on Aug. 4., crowds have gathered outside churches where he has appeared, chanting “Vasil’ go home” and continuing to try to disrupt access to churches for the celebration of the uniform mode.
Prior to his papal appointment, 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.
A Slovak, the archbishop previously served as the rector of Rome’s Pontifical Oriental Institute, currently leads the Slovak Greek Catholic Church’s Eparchy of Košice.
At the time of his appointment, he was immediately criticized by lay groups opposed to the uniform mode, including concern that Vasil’ reportedly studied in Rome alongside Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, the apostolic administrator of Ernakulam-Angamaly.
Pope Francis 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 failed to make headway due to strong resistance from priests and lay people committed to the liturgy facing the people.
The lay group Almaya Munnettam said that Vasil’’s appointment “shows that neither the Vatican nor the Syro-Malabar Synod wants to make an honest and impartial solution to the problem.”