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New talks open to end Syro-Malabar liturgy impasse

Representatives of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church’s Synod of Bishops met Thursday with clergy opposed to the introduction of a new liturgy, in a renewed effort to settle a dispute that eluded resolution for decades.

Vicars forane and members of the presbyteral council of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese meet with representatives of the Syro-Malabar Church's Synod of Bishops in Kochi, India, Sept. 7, 2023. Courtesy photo. 

The Sept. 7 meeting in Kochi, southern India, brought together members of a committee appointed by the Synod of Bishops — the Church’s authoritative governing body — and senior priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, who reject the new “uniform mode” of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy.

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The meeting addressed differences over the uniform liturgy, which the Synod of Bishops endorsed in 1999 as a compromise between the Syro-Malabar Church’s ancient liturgy, in which the priest faced east, and post-Vatican II celebrations in which the priest faces toward the people. 

In the new mode, the priest faces the people at the beginning and end of the celebration, but faces east during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Tensions have surged since 2021, when the Synod of Bishops called for the new liturgy’s adoption by all the Syro-Malabar Church’s 35 dioceses worldwide. 

The Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese — the largest and most prominent of the 35 — was the only diocese where the majority of priests and lay people rejected the change, insisting that after more than 50 years of use, the liturgy facing the people was an established practice that should be recognized as a legitimate variant.

But supporters of the new liturgy argue that its universal adoption would enhance the unity of the Syro-Malabar Church, the second-largest of the 23 Eastern Catholic Churches in full communion with Rome after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Resistance to the new liturgy in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese has taken the form of hunger strikes, street protests, and the burning of cardinals in effigy, and spilled over into mass brawls and clashes in the sanctuary of the archdiocese’s cathedral basilica.

Pope Francis sought to kickstart the introduction of the new liturgy in the archdiocese — which has around 500,000 members — through the appointment of an apostolic administrator in 2022 and a papal delegate, Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, in July this year.

Vasil’, a Slovak Jesuit who previously served at the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, made a stormy visit to the archdiocese Aug. 4-22, during which he issued an ultimatum to opponents of the new liturgy, which they defied

Although Vasil’ threatened both local clergy and laity with canonical sanctions, and cast their resistance to liturgical reforms as a refusal of submission to the pope’s authority and to the Holy Spirit, the renewal of talks between the Church’s bishops and rebel clergy suggests the papal representative may have now backed away from his previously strident statements.

Although the archbishop said last month that there would be no compromise with the protestors, after an initial round of disciplinary transfers against four priests, Vasil’ returned to Rome without taking further action.


The Sept. 7 gathering of bishops and priests was the latest and reportedly biggest in a series of meetings between synod representatives and the archdiocese’s clergy.

In Aug. 26 letter, Cardinal George Alencherry — the major archbishop, or head, of the Syro-Malabar Church — explained that following the papal delegate’s visit, the Synod of Bishops had decided to continue engaging in dialogue with members of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

“A committee consisting of nine bishops is appointed to continue the dialogue,” he explained. “The committee has already begun its work. The proposals that would emerge from the dialogue will be forwarded through the Pontifical Delegate to the Holy Father and they would be implemented as per the direction given by the Apostolic See on the proposals.” 

Members of the Synod of Bishops issued an appeal Aug. 24 to the clergy of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, urging them to make concessions that could help to resolve the dispute. 

The appeal included a list of seven steps that the bishops encouraged the priests to take. They included introducing the new liturgy in cathedral basilicas, training centers, monastic houses, and pilgrimage centers, as well as ensuring that the pope, the major archbishop, and the apostolic administrator are commemorated at liturgies.

Four of the nine members of the Synod of Bishops’ committee were present at the Sept. 7 meeting with vicars forane and members of the presbyteral council of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

A statement issued after the meeting by a spokesman for the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese’s priests referred to a document known as the “Mutual Understanding” that it said was agreed Aug. 25 between committee members and clergy. 

The terms of the “Mutual Understanding” have not been made public. But sources in the archdiocese say that the vast majority of priests in the archdiocese remain committed to celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy facing the people throughout. 

“The priests shared the hope that the current atmosphere of peace in the parishes will continue during this period of ongoing discussions to resolve the issue,” the statement said.

Vasil’ met with Pope Francis in Rome Aug. 23 to update him on his trip. According to Cardinal Alencherry’s letter, the papal delegate would be expected to convey the terms of an agreement to the pope for consideration.

Fr. Joyce Kaithakottil, one of 12 priests elected to an ad hoc committee to represent clergy of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese in talks with synod representatives, confirmed that an agreement had been reached.

He told The Pillar Sept. 7 that the synod had accepted the terms.

“We are told that they were sent to Rome by the approval of the synod,” he said.

He said that the provisions of the agreement, which remains under wraps, included that “on Sundays, one Mass will be celebrated in the uniform mode in the cathedral basilica,” which was closed in December following clashes.

He said: “Today, the synodal commission called the members of the ad hoc committee and they also invited the members of the presbyteral council of the archdiocese and the forane vicars of the archdiocese. This has been never done by the synod. We are told that all the points are not acceptable to Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ and he demands further points to be included.”

Kaithakottil argued that decisions taken by the synod were marred by “procedural flaws” and failed to take into account what it he said was an emphasis on legitimate diversity in the documents of Vatican II and the Magisterium of Pope Francis.

Editor’s note: This report was updated Sept. 8, 2023, to include comments by Fr. Joyce Kaithakottil of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.

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