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Pope Francis accepts Syro-Malabar head’s resignation, seeks end to ‘liturgy war’

Pope Francis sought to end a decades-long “liturgy war” Thursday as he accepted the resignation of the head of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church.

Pope Francis speaks in a video message to Catholics in the Syro-Malabar Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly in Kerala, India. Screenshot from @VaticanNewsIT YouTube channel

The pope’s appeal came amid a flurry of Vatican announcements Dec. 7 that signaled a major overhaul of the second-largest Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with Rome after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

Francis issued a letter, dated Nov. 29, in which accepted the resignation of the 78-year-old Cardinal George Alencherry as the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly and ex officio head of the Syro-Malabar Church.

He also accepted the resignation of Archbishop Andrews Thazhath as apostolic administrator of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly in Kerala, southern India.

In a third significant move, the pope sent a hard-hitting video message to clergy and laity in the archeparchy who have fiercely resisted a new uniform liturgy, urging them to accept the change by Christmas or face canonical penalties. 


The three developments came days before Syro-Malabar Catholics are due to mark the centenary of the establishment of their hierarchy in 1923 and the designation of the Ernakulam vicariate as a metropolitan archdiocese and center of the Syro-Malabar Church. 

Cardinal George Alencherry, Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church from 2011 to 2023. Rahul Payyappilly via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Cardinal Alencherry has led the self-governing Church with more than 4 million members worldwide since his appointment as Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly in 2011. 

After a protest by clergy against land deals by the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy, Pope Francis named an apostolic administrator in 2018 to oversee the archeparchy’s day-to-day governance. 

Alencherry, who remained the Major Archbishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly and head of the Syro-Malabar Church, denied any wrongdoing but faced an ongoing battle over the deals in India’s civil courts.

Bishop Sebastian Vaniyapurackal, the Curial Bishop of Ernakulam-Angamaly, will serve as the administrator of the Syro-Malabar Church until the election of a new major archbishop.

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath was appointed as the third successive apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy in July 2022, with the task of ensuring that priests and lay people accepted the new form of the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy. But he encountered immediate resistance and ultimately faced a boycott by clergy.

Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam–Angamaly archdiocese. Screenshot from Goodness Tv YouTube channel.

The Vatican gave no reason for the resignation of the 71-year-old archbishop, who is also the Archbishop of Trichur and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI).

The pope appointed the retired Bishop Bosco Puthur as Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy’s apostolic administrator sede vacante et ad nutum Sanctae Sedis (“the see being vacant and at the disposition of the Holy See”). 

Puthur, 77, led the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Melbourne, Australia, from 2014 until his retirement earlier this year. He is the convenor of a nine-member committee appointed by the synod of bishops to engage in dialogue over the new liturgy with members of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy.

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The archeparchy, which has more than 500,000 members, became the front line of the liturgy war following the announcement in August 2021 that the new form of the Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgy, which is known as the Holy Qurbana, would be introduced in all the Church’s 35 dioceses.

The decision was taken by the synod of bishops — the Church’s authoritative governing body — but clergy and laity in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy erupted in protest. 

The new liturgy seeks to reconcile the Eastern Church’s ancient custom, in which the priest celebrated ad orientem (facing east), and the widespread post-Vatican II Latin Church practice in which the celebrant stands versus populum (facing the people). 

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

But clergy and laity in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy — the largest Syro-Malabar diocese and the Church’s canonical center — argue that the Holy Qurbana facing the people throughout the liturgy should be recognized as a legitimate liturgical variant as it reflects the Second Vatican Council’s precepts and has been in use for more than 50 years.

In a March 2022 letter, Pope Francis urged the archeparchy’s priests to accept the “difficult and painful step” of embracing the reformed liturgy by Easter Sunday that year. 

But the deadline passed without any resolution of the crisis, which has been marked by street brawls, hunger strikes, and the burning of cardinals in effigy, as well as clashes inside the archeparchy’s cathedral that led to the building’s closure in December 2022.


In addition to appointing Thazhath as apostolic administrator, Francis named the Slovak Jesuit Archbishop Cyril Vasil’ to serve as a papal delegate to the archeparchy in July this year. Vasil’, a former official at the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, made a stormy visit to Kerala in August but appeared to make little progress in resolving the dispute.

The pope renewed his appeal for acceptance of the new liturgy Dec. 7, in a 7-minute video message to the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy. He acknowledged that it was a “somewhat unusual way” to communicate with priests and lay people, but said he hoped it would remove “doubts about what the pope thinks.”

He said: “I know that for years some people, who should be examples and true teachers of communion, especially presbyters, have been urging you to disobey and oppose the decisions of the synod. Brothers and sisters, do not follow them!”

“Discussion, when it is not peaceful, breeds violence. And among you there has been and is violence, especially against those among you who want to remain in communion and celebrate as your Church has established.”

Francis continued: “I too have urged you several times to be docile to your Church. How can it be Eucharist if you break communion, if you disrespect the Blessed Sacrament, amid struggles and brawls?”

“I know there are reasons for opposition that have nothing to do with the celebration of the Eucharist or even the Liturgy. They are worldly reasons. They do not come from the Holy Spirit. If they don't come from the Holy Spirit, they come from elsewhere.”

The pope added: “See to it that by Christmas 2023 your archdiocese humbly and faithfully agrees to catch up with the rest of your Church, respecting all the directions of your Synod.”

“Please be vigilant! Be careful that the Devil does not cause you to turn into a sect. You are churches, do not become a sect. Do not force the competent Church authority to take note that you have left the Church, because you are no longer in communion with your pastors and with the Successor of the Apostle Peter, who is called to confirm all brothers and sisters in the faith and to preserve them in the unity of the Church.”  

“With great sorrow, then, the corresponding sanctions will have to be taken. I do not want to come to that.”

Also on Dec. 7, a letter was shared among Syro-Malabar Catholics which appeared to be from Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, to Bishop Puthur, the new apostolic administrator of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy.

The letter, which The Pillar has not been able to verify, said that Pope Francis had “decided to make a final appeal to the conscience of the clergy and lay faithful of the archeparchy.” 

“As indicated by the Holy Father, this dicastery instructs that the Holy Qurbana in the synodal form be implemented in all parishes and other centers in the archeparchy no later than Dec. 25, 2023,” the letter said. 

“Given the great scandal around Christmas 2022 caused by the abusive Eucharistic celebration and subsequent conflict in the cathedral, His Holiness has established Christmas 2023 as a symbolic definitive date.”

It added: “The Holy Father has also directed that his delegate, Archbishop Vasil’, who maintains all of his canonical prerogatives and faculties concerning the Sacred Liturgy, accompany and authenticate the necessary preparations.”

Priests of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archeparchy are due to mark the centenary of the Ernakulam vicarate’s elevation to an archdiocese Dec. 10. But Archbishop Thazhath has said that the celebration should be held Dec. 21, the day on which the 100th anniversary falls.

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