More than 50,000 Indian Syro-Malabar Catholics attended a protest in the southwestern city of Kochi on Sunday, demonstrating against changes that would have priests face east during parts of local Syro-Malabar Eucharistic liturgies, and opposing the recent resignation of Archbishop Antony Kariyil.
The nearly two-hour protest at the Kaloor Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium drew priests and laity from across the Ernakulam-Angamaly Syro-Malabar archdiocese, according to local media reports. Organizers said more than 320 parishes were represented, along with other nearby dioceses.
Some protesters held signs in Italian, in a possible attempt to attract Vatican attention.
A priest at the demonstration told The Pillar that the event was called the “Great gathering for the protection of Faith.”
Demonstrators have four demands, he said:
They want to keep the liturgy in the diocese versus populum - with the priest facing the people, rather than facing liturgical east.
They are also calling for financial restitution following a controversial sale of archdiocesan land.
They want their Church’s senior officials to listen to the opinions of the laity on controversial matters.
And they are calling for justice for Archbishop Antony Kariyil, who says he was forced by the Vatican to resign, without any reason given.
The protest comes amid a fierce ongoing debate over whether to implement a uniform mode of celebrating the Syro-Malabar Church’s Eucharistic liturgy, known as the Holy Qurbana.
The Syro-Malabar Church is the second-largest of the 23 self-governing Eastern Catholic Churches, after the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
A decision to implement a uniform liturgy was made in 1999 by the Synod of Bishops of the Syro-Malabar Church after a complex, decades-long dispute focused on whether clergy should face the people or liturgical east while celebrating the liturgy.
The Synod of Bishops backed a compromise, known as the “50:50 formula,” in which priests face the people during the Liturgy of the Word but turn east for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
But while other dioceses have adopted the formula, the push for a uniform liturgy has met strong resistance in Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, with protesters burning cardinals’ effigies, holding a hunger strike, and clashing with opponents in the streets.
Archbishop Kariyil had served as archiepiscopal vicar of Ernakulam-Angamaly since 2019. In November 2021, he dispensed priests in the archdiocese from celebrating the uniform mode of the liturgy.
On July 27, The Pillar reported that Kariyil had resigned, one day after meeting with the Apostolic Nuncio to India. The resignation was officially announced by the Vatican on July 30, and no reason was given for Kariyil’s resignation three years before the typical retirement age.
In an open letter, released to local media August 4, Archbishop Kariyil said that the nuncio told him Pope Francis insisted that he resign, but that no reason was given for the demand. The archbishop said he was ordered to leave the Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly and take up residence in a house of the Carmelites of Mary Immaculate.
Kariyil said he asked for a week’s time to respond, but the nuncio declined to grant the request, instead telling the archbishop that he would be removed if he did not resign.
Pope Francis has supported the drive for a uniform liturgy. He wrote to Syro-Malabar Catholics in July 2021, asking them “to proceed to a prompt implementation of the uniform mode of celebrating the Holy Qurbana, for the greater good and unity of your Church.”
On March 25 this year, the pope wrote to clergy of Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, asking them to take the “difficult and painful step” of adopting the uniform liturgy.
Demonstrators on Sunday also held signs calling for financial restitution following a series of controversial real estate transactions that lost the archdiocese a reported $10 million and led to legal proceedings involving Cardinal George Alencherry, the head of the Syro-Malabar Church and major archbishop of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese.
In 2018, the Vatican appointed a temporary apostolic administrator to lead the archdiocese amid claims of irregularities in local land deals. Archbishop Kariyil was named archiepiscopal vicar in August 2019, at the end of the apostolic administrator’s tenure.
Cardinal Alencherry, who has rejected allegations of malpractice, resumed his duties a year after the apostolic administrator’s appointment. Kerala’s state government filed an affidavit in India’s Supreme Court earlier this month clearing the 77-year-old cardinal of any wrongdoing.